Monday, August 06, 2012

"Divine Bread," Pentecost 10B (August 5, 2012)

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by God’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Then God said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.
Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before God, who has heard your grumbling.’”
While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of God appearing in the cloud.
God said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Holy One. ‘”
That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.  When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.
Moses said to them, “It is the bread God has given you to eat.

John 6:24-35
Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Human One will give you. For on him God the Creator has placed the seal of approval.”
Then they asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one God has sent.”
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is the Creator who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
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Will you pray with me? God, you are the source of all good things—our strength, our wisdom, our hope. Give us the grace to recognise your presence in the everyday things, and the wisdom to be your presence in the world. In all your names, amen.

Manna from heaven. Unexpected, undeserved, showering down on a hungry people.  Even though the Israelites grumble and complain, God gives them the good things they crave, pouring down from heaven.  They have enough to eat—just enough, as it turns out. They find in the next chapter that anything extra, not eaten, spoils. God feeds them out of the divine bounty and compassion, but doesn’t allow them to gorge or waste those gifts. They’ve been wandering in the desert since they left Egyptian captivity, and they want food, real food. Moses kept telling them God had something better for them, and they want to see it. They get it—and just enough. They realise God’s care for them, and are content.

Fast forward several centuries to the first century of the Common Era. Rome is ruling Palestine, Israel is occupied and part of the Roman Empire. The Israelites, in the centuries after the exodus, have become farmers and herdsmen. They have settled down and no longer wander the desert with their flocks. They have orchards and vineyards and fields of grain. They make bread—a lot of bread.

Short history lesson—In Jesus’ time, under the Roman Empire, the main food was bread. It was relatively cheap and easy to make, and it was filling. It was dipped in olive oil or a chick-pea mash like hummus for flavouring, but otherwise, bread and bread alone was the main entrée of a meal. There might be some cheese or fruit in season, but rarely meat, such as chicken or even more rarely, mutton—sheep—beef or goat. Everyone ate it, in one form or another—finely ground flour made a finer, easier to digest loaf, and was more expensive—and so was only eaten by the wealthy. Brown bread, more coarsely ground, was the usual bread of most people—farmers, artisans, and so on. But whatever form it took, bread was the main thing on every table at every meal.

In the same way, wine was the mainstay drink of the day. Water was not always available in quantity and was needed for irrigation and for the animals—and it was often not safe to drink, although of course the people of the time didn’t know about germs, they just knew that sometimes when people drank water, they got sick and died—so they avoided it, or drank as little as possible. Milk was needed to make cheese, so few people drank it—and it could not be kept, either, in the days before mechanical, reliable refrigeration. Other kinds of alcohol—spirits such as whiskey or vodka, and beer—were more complicated to make, and while people knew about them, they were rarely made. Wine making was simple—tread out the grape juice, put it in containers, maybe add some honey and or yeast, let it sit awhile, and there you are! It was usually mixed with a little water, because it was pretty strong and might be a bit rough.  Of course, wealthy people could afford better wines that did not need to be mixed with water.

So—bread and wine, the main food of everyone.

The people asking Jesus for this bread and wine are thinking literally—sort of a lifetime supply of groceries, as if they won a contest at Sobey’s. But Jesus is not. For him, these are metaphors—symbols of the rich and abundant life available with God, with the Creator. Jesus had a special relationship with God—very close and intimate, yet worshipful at the same time. And so he wanted his followers to experience this same loving and tender and nourishing relationship. The best way he could find, in our limited human speech, to describe this relationship with the Divine was through the metaphor of being fed, of heavenly food, always present, not something rare or unheard of, but something very everyday that had been imbued with a special grace and presence. Something that is always present, even taken for granted, and yet has such power and blessing and grace within that having once tasted it, we don’t need or want any other food.

This, my sisters and brothers, is the foundation of our life as a church community—not only in this local congregation, but as the Christian church. We gather and share a meal of grain and grape, remembering Jesus and his love, poured out for us. This is what gives us the basis, the underpinning, to be and share Christ in the world.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently with people who are not Christian, not religious at all, who do not go to any church, temple, synagogue or mosque, and not because they are actively uncomfortable with it, in most cases. For some, they have drifted away, no longer finding that it feels like a fit, or that it has any meaning for them. Others have in fact been hurt and damaged by organised religion, by the oppression of women in many traditions, or the marginalisation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, or the protection of people—clergy and non-clergy—in positions of  power who abused that power financially or sexually or politically. And there are some people who have never really had an interest in organised religion, who feel they get what they need spiritually in other ways—from a spiritual practice such as meditation or reading sacred texts.

For all these people, I wonder if we, the church, have not failed. Failed to show them the spiritual riches of a deep relationship with the Divine, with the God of Jesus Christ, the One who gives us the very basics we need to sustain life, bread and wine, through the presence of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I wonder if we, the church—I am not so much talking about this congregation, although it certainly bears thinking about—I wonder if we, not as individuals but in groups, focus more on programs and activities and what we are doing in the world than we do on creating and sustaining that relationship with God, with the source of all that is good and sustaining and nourishing, in our hearts and in our souls.

Are we maintaining the very foundation of what we do or are we busily holding programs in a building that is about to fall down from neglect of the foundations? Those foundations—the love between us and God, the relationship each of us has with the Divine, with Jesus Christ, is what gives shape to our worship and to what we do in the name of God in the world. If we do not have those basic foundations firmly set, we cannot be the presence of Christ that we are meant to be. It takes a special, firm, and intimate relationship to be able to speak for and represent another. Sometimes partners will speak for each other and make promises on behalf of the other, but not often—only in the strongest of relationships. A celebrity’s publicist, the person who speaks for him or her, must be as close as a friend, in order to accurately represent that person to the larger world. A company or organisation’s spokesperson who is not intimately familiar with all that the organisation is doing and planning is worse than useless. We who would represent Christ to the world must have that same relationship—that intimacy to know and be able to show Christ to the world with confidence.

But like any relationship, whether it be of partners, parents and child, or friends, it needs support and encouragement to remain strong and healthy. Unlike any of those relationships, it will not, cannot, end. There is nothing we can do to drive Christ away, who does and always will love us. We may turn away in shame or grief or anger, but God is always with us. Even though it cannot end, our relationship with the One who sustains us requires nourishment—and that is the very bread of life and cup of love we share in communion.

This isn’t just a gesture, a weekly reminder of Christ’s resurrection—although it is that too. Most especially, this meal is our means of reminding ourselves of the goodness of God, the means of our very life, now and hereafter. In taking the bread and cup, we taste God’s presence with us, we are fed with the love of the Divine—so much more than we know we need, and enough for all our wants.

In Communion, in this gathering every week—we renew our sense of Christ’s presence with us. In our daily prayers and reading and quiet time with God, we remember Christ’s never-ending love for us. Without these foundations, the building that is the church will surely fall.

This weekly meal with Christ and each other gives us a starting point for creating, renewing, or strengthening that relationship with the Divine—wherever each of us might be in that process of relationship building. Have you ever been in a long-distance relationship? If you have, then you know that such a relationship requires regular, frequent, open, honest communication.  There has to be trust between the partners, and boundaries set and respected. What those boundaries are will be different for every relationship, but they must be identified and recognised and set.

Our relationship with Christ is much like a long-distance relationship, isn’t it? We have, or should have, brief contacts every day—like the texts or emails of a relationship, we may have a prayer time set aside to communicate with Christ, or we may simply recognise the Divine presence in various ways as we go through our day—a kindness done, the beauty of a tree, the full table we share at dinner. Our weekly Communion meal is like that regular Skype or video call we may schedule once or twice a week—a chance to see and talk and share more intimately, with the one we love—our partner or Christ. In a long-distance relationship, there are times when you and your partner are able to be in the same place physically—vacations together, or visits by one to the other. We might think this doesn’t, can’t, happen in our relationship with Christ; that we will not touch him or see him face to face until our eternal life begins. But it does happen—rarely, but it does. Many of us have had the experience of meeting someone—perhaps only for a few moments—in whom we saw Christ. Many of us have had mystical experiences of the Divine presence in ways we cannot explain or even describe, a time out of time, when we knew God’s presence in new ways that cannot be described in human words. 

My sisters and brothers, find ways, even in your busy and crowded life, to renew, sustain, deepen your relationship with your Divine Friend. Whether it is two minutes in the shower as you express appreciation for all you have, or 30 minutes spent reading and meditating before work, or time spent in the evening with your loved ones reflecting on your day and the many ways God has been present in your lives that day---whatever it is that strengthens and builds up your relationship with Christ, I encourage you to do that. Whatever it is, may it deepen your relationship with the Divine and with other people, create a bond of love and contribute to the healing of the world, the building of God’s realm on earth.

In all God’s many names, amen.

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