God gives us Bread – and Everything Else We Need – Proper 14(B) – 2015

1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

God gave Elijah and Israel bread, and Jesus gave the crowds on those mountainsides bread, and God gives us bread – God gives us all we need for life – so that we may be drawn beyond all of these and see more than we would see otherwise, so that we might understand that we do not live by bread alone.

To read the sermon, click here.

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Written by The Rev. James Liggett recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

God gives us bread – and everything else that we need, 11 Pentecost, Proper 14 (B) – Aug. 12, 2012

1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Let’s begin today with a familiar verse from Deuteronomy; it’s not in today’s lectionary readings, but it lies behind this whole series we’ve been hearing from John’s gospel. It also shows up in the temptations stories in Matthew and Luke, and is tied to the reading from First Kings. Moses is giving the Law to Israel, and Moses says to the people that God “humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” We know this verse, especially the punch line, very well. But the more we consider the logic of these words, the more interesting it becomes.

How would you do it? How would you teach someone that we do not live by bread alone? What would you give someone to make them understand this? Our first thought would probably be to give them a sermon, or a lecture, or to try to arrange a spiritual experience. Or maybe to offer a really spiffy adult education class, with professional videos and worksheets and breaking into small groups to go over some discussion questions – maybe that would do it. How about it? What would you give someone so they could understand that we do not live by bread alone?

What God gave Elijah and the people in the wilderness, and what Jesus gave the crowd in John’s gospel, was bread. Manna was bread, or enough like bread to make no real difference. Elijah got ordinary bread. They ate it and it kept them alive. They couldn’t live without it. But isn’t that peculiar? Why give bread to make people understand that they do not live by bread alone? Of all the things to give, why give the one thing that seems to prove that you can live by bread alone: namely, bread?

And yet, this may have been the most important part of the whole business of Israel’s being in the wilderness, of their being formed as the people of God. Jesus may have seen this as vitally important to his mission.

Because if the folks couldn’t get this – if they couldn’t figure out what was going on with the manna, or with the miraculous feeding, if they couldn’t understand about the loaves – well, then, it was all pretty much hopeless.

The key to all of this is that God gave Israel and Elijah – and Jesus gave that crowd – bread in such a way that it was obvious that the bread was pure gift. They didn’t make it, they didn’t work for it, they couldn’t pay for it – it was just there. So they had the chance to look at bread, at the stuff of life, with clarity; and to see beyond that thing, and to see that this vital stuff was also and centrally a gift from God and so a sign of God’s love and of God’s call to relationship with them. Since it was so clearly a gift, they were able to see that the thing, the bread, meant more than what it was all by itself. All real gifts do.

But if the manna, if the bread on the hillside, if the stuff that God give us so that we can live, if this is given to us, not just to keep us alive, but also to draw us to God and to life with God, then we do not, and we cannot, live by bread alone. So, oddly, the only gift that can really show us that we do not live by bread alone is free bread. Anything less vital, anything less essential, would allow us to cling to life for its own sake, and so make all questions of meaning secondary and avoidable. This is still going on, and even now God gives us life, and the stuff of life, not because life is the most important thing in the world for us, but just exactly because it is not. We are given these as gifts, to help us realize that God, and life with God, are most important.

We see this with special clarity at the altar, where the bread we receive is clearly not about itself alone; but is hooked to something much greater. So we can look with awe and reverence upon something as simple as this thin, tasteless wafer, because we know it to be sign, symbol and presence of something much greater than flour and water.

But the deepest sign, symbol and presence of something much greater is not just this bread; it is everything we have.

Part of the point of this bread, the bread of the Eucharist, is to teach us that we do not live by bread alone. This bread is special so that we can understand that all bread, all that we have, all that is necessary for life, that this, too, is special. It’s all given to us as a sign, symbol and occasion of God’s love. It’s here to draw us past itself and past ourselves, so that we, seeing both the gift and the giver, will respond to the giver in love and in service. Creation, all of creation, is sacramental in this sense.

So it all gets jumbled up. The bread we eat every day, and Israel’s manna in the wilderness, and Jesus being the bread of life, and our weekly Eucharist – they all run together.

Here is one way into this. There’s an old rabbinic admonition that insists, of anything and everything, “If you don’t give thanks for it, it’s bad for you.” The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the air you breathe, the people and the things of your life, if you don’t give thanks for it, it’s bad for you.

So, if you have enough to eat, and the strength to go on for another day, and people who care about you, if you have all of that and you don’t give thanks for it, then it’s bad for you – all of it.

It’s poisoning your soul, and shrinking your life. Really.

That’s because giving thanks for something puts it in its proper place, it places the thing as part of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. That’s where things, all things, properly belong. Anything, especially bread, is understood properly only when it is understood in relationship to God.

On the other hand, if we do give thanks for it, then it can be good for us. If we give thanks for it, then every part of our lives can draw us toward the only source of meaning and hope that makes any sense.

It’s very easy to forget this. It’s very easy to value the things of creation and of our lives for themselves, to take them outside the context of a relationship with God. When we do this, when we see only what is right in front of us and no more, then we are impoverished, we are barely living on the surface of our lives and of our world.

That’s what it means to live by bread alone. To live by bread alone means to see no farther than the things themselves, and so to miss the presence and the love and the call of God that are really a part of every piece of bread we have. It’s to miss the gift, and the love behind the gift.

So God gave Elijah and Israel bread, and Jesus gave the crowds on those mountainsides bread, and God gives us bread – God gives us all we need for life – so that we may be drawn beyond all of these and see more than we would see otherwise, so that we might understand that we do not live by bread alone.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

Paul invites us to live an authentic life, Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 14 (B) – August 9, 2009

(RCL) 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 and Psalm 130 (Track 2: 1 Kings 19:4-8 and Psalm 34:1-8); Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

What is it about youth-group songs that make them stick in your head?

I am the resurrection [clap].
And the life [clap, clap, clap, clap].
Those who believe in me will live a new life.
I am the resurrection [clap].
And the life [clap, clap, clap, clap].
Those who believe in me will never die.

Who remembers that one? There’s a story about a teen, taking her first tentative steps on her Christian journey who turned up at a youth group. She hears the group sing that song, but it puzzles her. There has to be more. Maybe they clapped because it was a fill-in-the-blank song? She didn’t know.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians could have perhaps helped out that teen. While scripture makes it clear that it is through “grace that we are saved – through faith, not by works,” when we decide to follow Christ, old life is shed and new life is embraced. Kind of like when a child outgrows a winter coat and the loving parent gives the child a new coat of the right size. We don’t earn the new coat – it is given in love.

However, we are to respond to the new life given with Christian action. Paul’s letter provides us with a set of refreshingly clear instructions that guide us as we take off the old “coat” of secular living, of old life, and put on the new coat of Christian life. It’s a list of some of the instructions to guide the actions necessary for Christian living, as applicable today as they were nearly 2,000 years ago when they were first written.

Let’s look closely at a few of Paul’s instructions.

First, Paul instructs his reader to “put away all falsehood.” We, as followers of Christ, are to lose all dishonesty, lies, deceit, and tendency toward fabrication. Paul invites us to live an authentic life marked by truth and honesty.

In an era of Bernie Madoff, one doesn’t need to look far to find poignant examples of people whose entire existence is based on lies and falsehood. And there are less extravagant examples all around us. During these tough economic times, the excess and lies of the last decade are becoming apparent. Looking at the number of foreclosures, the staggering amount of credit-card debt, and other signs, it is clear that many Americans have been on a spending binge, spending well above and beyond their means. Isn’t spending what one doesn’t have, and pretending to have more than one does, qualify as deceit and fabrication?

Some churches are like this too – dipping deep, or even exhausting their endowments if they are fortunate enough to have them, and spending more than their finances allow.

William Barclay, in his commentary on “The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians” addresses why truth is such a core component of Christian life:

“We are all members of the same body. We can live in safety only if the senses and nerves pass true messages to the brain. If they took to passing false messages, if for instance, they told the brain that something was cool and touchable when in fact it was hot and burning, life would very soon come to an end. A body can function healthily only when each part of it passes true messages to the brain. If then we are all bound into one body, that body can function properly only when we speak the truth.”

As members of the body of Christ, we must live an authentic life marked by truth and honesty.

Paul also addresses the role of anger in Christian life. In verse 26, Paul advises us to “be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

Recently a priest was picking up his clerical shirts from the local dry cleaners. Short on time and with a to-do list a mile long, he ran in for the shirts, expecting the stop to only last a minute or two. As he asked the young woman behind the counter the superficial question, “How are you?” tears filled her eyes. She said, “Father, I have a hate-filled heart, and I don’t know what to do.” Clearly, this was not going to be a quick stop.

The priest listened – holy listening, on God’s schedule, not ours, as is often the case – and the young woman explained that she had lived with her boyfriend, a drug addict, for the past two years. He had been in and out of rehab, and he had now relapsed once again. The night before he had brought home a man that the police were after and let him stay on their sofa. She had spent the night in fear for her own life.

The young woman explained that she knows it is the “Christian thing to do to forgive,” but that she just couldn’t do it any more.

The priest thought long and hard, and he explained that her anger was certainly justifiable. Anger is an emotion, and we can’t help but feel angry. He also explained that forgiveness does not mean that people who sin against us are not responsible for the consequences of their behavior. Radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlesinger once had a phone call from a woman expressing a similar sentiment and Dr. Laura responded by saying, “Being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make you a wimp!”

Forgiving her boyfriend for his relapse is one thing, but allowing him back into her life is far different. To allow the boyfriend to return time and time again had allowed the anger to fester, and the “hate-filled heart” she described was the result – the “making room for the devil” to which Paul refers.

While we all feel anger, as Christians we must seek to resolve our anger. And as Christians, we must use our words to build up the body of Christ. In verse 29, Paul writes that we must not let “evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.”

It’s a funny thing about human nature. It seems that we have a tendency to try and make ourselves seem better off by talking badly about others. While people of all ages can be guilty of this practice, at no other time in life is it more true than in middle school.

There’s a story about a 13-year-old girl, active in her local Episcopal youth group, whose Christian faith ran deep. Most evenings at about bedtime she could be found on her window seat, quietly praying, wholly on her own accord. One Sunday after youth group, when this passage from Ephesians was explored, she came to her mom, looking downright scared. She asked, “Is that really true? Do you think it is a sin to talk bad about someone? Should we really only say things that build up other people – no matter where we are?”

Her mom could only imagine her 13-year-old’s thought process. After a long discussion – and without a lecture or mandate from her mother – the girl decided that for the entire season of Lent she would only say things that would build others up.

There were challenges; at school, with her siblings, and even once at church. But by Easter she was able to explain to her mom that that she realized that putting other people down really didn’t make her feel any better about herself. In fact, it made her feel worse when she thought about it. Taking the time to be intentional about her speech allowed her to break a bad habit.

If a middle school student is able to live by Paul’s words, we as adults certainly should be able to as well. As Christians, we must use our words to build up the body of Christ.

Paul’s instructions conclude with the summary of that point:

“Put away from us all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

It is noteworthy that Paul adds the importance of forgiveness – forgiveness of self and others, as God has forgiven us.

In reality, very few of us can always live by the guidelines for Christian living that Paul lays out for us. Maybe today your heart is heavy because you aren’t living a completely authentic life – maybe the world and even your church family see an inauthentic you. Paul’s words suggest it is time to start living in truth.

Or maybe today you are harboring a festering anger – an anger that may well have been justified. Paul’s words suggest that it is time to let it go. God has more for your heart and soul to do than nurse a previous hurt.

Or maybe today you’re thinking that your words aren’t always used to build up others. Paul closes with forgiveness.

So today as our worship continues and we pray together, pay particular attention to the Lord’s Prayer – to forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Recalling the youth group song, it is through the gift of God’s forgiveness that we “can live a new life and never die.”

 

— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small-church ministries. Prior to her current position, she served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

So should it be with our life of faith: delicious, satisfying, 10 Pentecost, Proper 14 (B) – 2006

August 13, 2006

(RCL) 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51 

Café Beaujolais, a wonderful bakery on the northern California coast, makes a rich, dense bread they call Austrian Sunflower Bread, boasting different seeds and grains and yielding a golden loaf of complex texture and rich flavor. This is how it’s described in their materials: “Austrian Sunflower Bread, our healthiest loaf, is hearty and moist, keeps well despite a lack of any oil or butter. Made with white flour, sunflower seeds, cracked wheat, oats, barley, polenta, millet, buckwheat, flax seed, soy grits, sesame seeds, water, malt, sea salt, and yeast.” This is the sort of bread invoked by Jesus’ claim: “I am the bread of life.” Certainly the follow-on claim: “Those who come to me shall not hunger,” has much texture to it when such a bread is considered.

What is your usual bread of choice? Even in the absence of a market survey, it’s reasonable to imagine that the most popular and most often eaten bread in America is sliced white bread – that stuff of many air holes, squishy texture, consistent predictable color, and a flavor so bland it is hard to describe.

We love it. It’s the perfect platform for peanut butter and jelly, and toasted, makes a good bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. One of the reasons we like it is precisely because it contributes so little to our experience of food. Tasteless, it doesn’t compete with other flavors. Of little texture, it is easy on the palate; we don’t have to work much to eat it. Predictable in its shape and color and size, sliced white bread is portion-controlled. Lacking in its own nutrients, vitamins are added for our good health. Mass produced and prominent in our grocery stores, it is the best price we can get. To top it all off, it has preservatives so that freshness is not so much a concern.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. Is Jesus akin to sliced white bread? What kind of bread comes to mind when we hear “I am the bread of life”? Perhaps some will think of pita bread, or brown bread, what we have come in contemporary times to associate with the Last Supper. Yet even that is not what we use in most churches for communion bread, probably because of “convenience,” which some of us have named “tradition.” In the Protestant churches that commemorate the Lord’s Supper, the bread of choice is the conventional white bread. In churches of the Anglican, Lutheran, and Catholic traditions, we often use communion wafers. Is this the “bread of life” to which Jesus likened himself? Many a seminary professor has observed that it is easier to imagine the communion wafer as Christ than to imagine the wafer as bread. The same has been said of our favorite American white bread.

Today’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus’ proclamation: “I am the bread of life.” Earlier we read the story that has come to be known as the feeding of the five thousand, wherein many hungry people are fed on very little bread. The focus of this feeding story has traditionally been the miracle of the free meal, with little attention given to the bread itself and what it might signify. In the same way that the focus of the mass feeding has been on the miracle and not the food itself, so, too, with today’s proclamation that Jesus is the “bread of life,” we usually focus our attention on Jesus rather than on the bread. But how can we begin to understand what he was saying about himself until we look more closely at the bread?

This passage from John’s Gospel is a lesson about abundance. It is difficult to associate plain white bread, the mass-produced kind, with abundance. It makes a good carrier for other flavors, but by itself, doesn’t have much “tooth.” Consider a sampling of breads from smaller bakeries, and the sorts of breads many of us make at home:

Banana nut bread
Chocolate cherry bread
Ten-grain bread
Rye with caraway
Cheddar cheese and jalapeno bread
Blue corn tortillas
Italian loaf
French baguette
Ricotta cheese and roasted garlic bread
Rosemary olive oil bread
Sourdough bread

Our lives – our families and friends – are enriched with fruits and nuts. Why not our bread? And to turn that around: When Jesus spoke of himself as bread, as the Bread of Life, is it possible that he was speaking of richness, of texture, of boldness and flavor? That he was inviting us to a greater feast in our life of faith?

Jesus’ ministry was built on the rich foundation of many stories of feeding and being fed. We have one example in today’s reading from the Old Testament. In the reading from 1 Kings, Elijah sets out on a long journey sustained by the gift of the angel of the Lord: food! Not just once does the angel feed him, but twice. The angel commands him: “Get up and eat!” This wasn’t just any food, but bread. Elijah “got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”

Jesus was well-acquainted with the Exodus story, and would have known the tradition that the Lord God sustained the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years with manna – bread – from heaven. It is in the wilderness of the desert as in the wilderness of our souls that we hunger. The Exodus theme permeates John’s Gospel, setting up a tension between the manna given from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread that feeds us in the wilderness of our souls. Somewhere in the midst of that tension we find the bread of life: not manna from God, not the flesh of Christ, but the Bread of Life, the Bread that brings life.

If this vision of bread given us in John’s Gospel teaches us something about Jesus, perhaps the first lesson to keep in mind is that Jesus is not simple, not plain, not undemanding. Our Lord is many-textured, multifaceted, and complex in flavor. He calls us to love, to forgive, to encourage, and to get involved. He showed us how to welcome, to persist, and to stand firm. Our Lord was tender, he enjoyed meals with strangers and disciples, he rebuked the careless. Jesus taught in the temple, raised the dead to life, challenged the complacent to care, wept over the death of a friend, and told stories. He drank wine at a wedding. He washed filthy feet. He prayed.

When we hear Jesus proclaim, “I am the Bread of Life,” let us hear all of these things and many more. And as we live our lives and live our faith, let us be rich in texture, of bold flavor, and nourishing to the world. No more white bread in our love of God, but abundant life, abundant living, abundant faith.

While searching for the ingredients of Austrian Sunflower Bread, a website turned up this journal entry, contributed by an American living in Austria:

“I’m partial to the sonnenblumenbrot, the sunflower seed bread, a dense whole-wheat loaf with a variety of whole grains mixed in. … When you eat bread here in Austria, you understand why it’s so hard to find something that even comes close to good enough. Bread in Austria is Food, with a capital F. It’s not some spongy filler or a vehicle for a spread; it’s a Food with its own merits. … The other day we were at the Merkur, a new chain supermarket that recently opened in Liezen. They have a bakery and they had just packed up a fresh batch of sonnenblumenbrot. When I picked it up, it was still warm. It held the warmth until we got it home and when I sliced the end off, sunflower seeds scattered across the bread board. I ate my fresh slice with a slab of butter. It was delicious and satisfying.”

So it is with our Lord, the Bread of Life. So should it be with our life of faith: delicious, satisfying.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religion and philosophy at Park University near Kansas City, following twelve years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys growing roses, raising children, and making chocolate desserts.