April 12, 2011

A Sermon in Lent

Wonder. Bread!
Exodus 16:1-15
John 6: 24-35

Those of you in the Howdy Doody generation – you know who you are – will remember the commercials for Wonder Bread: You know: “builds strong bodies 12 ways.” It was enriched with vitamins and it was soft and white, fluffy almost – in our house the complete opposite of the substantial biscuits and cornbread that were the usual fare. In fact, in my part of the South, white slices from a bag are still called light bread.

But whether our daily bread is soft and white, or biscuits, pita, or pumpernickel – we still call it the staff of life. Even the cruelest diet contains bread and water. And despite all our sophistication and abundance, the prediction of a big snow storm still sends hundreds of people out to stand in line to buy milk and….bread.

If you doubt the wonder of bread, think for a moment about the feeling you have when you smell a freshly baked loaf of bread. If you think bread has become unnecessary, try to imagine all your Sunday dinners with no fresh rolls, Mexican food without tortillas, March 17 without soda bread. If you think bread is not important, consider this Table without it. Bread is essential for life – the life of the body and the life of the soul.

It has been this way for thousands of years, all the way back to the wilderness and even before that. Bread is strength for the journey. So it is not surprising that when the children of Israel found themselves out in the middle of nowhere without any bread, they were anxious, upset, and angry. They were hungry. And they complained about it. In Egypt, they were slaves and they were forced into backbreaking labor, but at least they had known what to expect. At least, they had something to eat. Not like this.

In Egypt, the people were dependent on Pharaoh for bread. In the wilderness, they had to become dependent on God. It was a hard transition.

But just as God had noticed their slavery, so God noticed their hunger and sent manna. It was strange stuff, like nothing they had ever seen before. "When [they] saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?"" (Exodus 16:15a). "What is it," which in Hebrew is man hu. And so this bread from heaven was called manna. It covered the earth like dew in the morning. Moses told them what it was, bread from God, and they ate it.

Think about the courage to do that, the act of faith it took to eat this stuff that they had never seen before, this stuff they could not even name.

But they had no choice, really. They were hungry, they were in the wilderness, they ate, and it satisfied their hunger. It was sufficient. It was enough for the day.

But it was not to be hoarded. When they tried to save it up, stockpile against the future, it bred worms and was spoiled. This wonderful manna was food for the present. And if it required an act of faith to taste it for the first time, it also required an act of faith to believe that there would be enough for tomorrow without hoarding what was offered today. After all, they needed this bread to live. And it was hard to leave it there, hard to be confident that there would more in the future.

There in the wilderness, they had to accept what God would offer, on God’s terms. They had to trust that what God offered was life itself.

To be given bread when you are really hungry is to be given all you need. As Mother Teresa once said: "We give dying people bread because they hunger and perish not just for bread but also for love. When we hand them bread, we are also giving them love." ." (Sunday Dinner, Willimon, p 65) That is what God did with those hungry, complaining people in the wilderness. God gave them food – and love.

And Jesus did the same thing, multiplying the loaves, feeding those who had followed him into the desert. They thought they understood the power he had. He had them eating out of his hands, after all. They thought he was a second Moses, sent from God to give them bread. But they were wrong. They misunderstood his power. His power had little to do with their stomachs and everything to do with their souls.

The bread that mattered was not the bread from his hands but another kind of bread, something new and wholly different. It was the bread of life. It was his own life.

Remember: To be given bread when you are hungry to the point of perishing is to be given love. It was true for those in the wilderness, it was true for those with Jesus in Capernaum, and it is true for us, too.

We, too, may know something about the wilderness. It is a place where the fear of scarcity can easily turn to complaining. It is a place of hunger and emptiness, sometimes of anger. The wilderness is a time of being pushed out of all that is familiar, of being uprooted, of having nowhere to turn -- except to God. The wilderness is that experience of learning to depend on God because you can no longer depend on anything else. The wilderness is the place where you live from day to day, and there is enough, just for today. In the wilderness, you have to trust and obey God.

And whether we know it or not, we are praying a wilderness prayer every time we say: “Give us this day our daily bread.” What we are asking is this: God, give us enough for one day. Give us what we need for the present moment. Keep us from hoarding your gifts. Teach us to trust that you will provide.

This is not easy. We live in a world where every message is about being self-sufficient, taking control, maintaining independence. It is a hard transition to move from the message of the world to the message of the Word. It is a hard transition to give up our reliance on ourselves and what we have stored up, and learn instead to rely on God. It goes against so much of what we have been taught: don't be a burden, pay your own way, save for retirement, be responsible. Those actions are worthwhile, of course, until and unless they get in the way of God. We can become so focused on looking after ourselves that we forget to look for God. We can become so intent on saving ourselves that we miss out on life.

Life comes from one source: Jesus, sent by God to satisfy the deepest hungers of the world, for those in the wilderness, for the starving, for those who are afraid and angry with God; Jesus, offering his life to us and for us, and showing us the way to receive the gift. Not by hoarding what we have as a hedge against the future, not by longing for the old days of Pharaoh’s plenty, not by becoming paralyzed with the fear of not having enough. We receive the gift of life by reaching out in faith and obedience, seeing that God in Christ is giving us what we need, but also recognizing that it may not look like anything we have ever seen before.

It may raise more questions than it answers. It may make us wonder. Like those in the wilderness and those around Jesus, when we are confronted with God's strange provision, it will require an act of faith to take it in.

The bread we share here comes from the hand of God – God who gives us all we need for life, God who gives us Jesus Christ. This bread builds a strong body, the body of Christ, in more ways than we can even imagine. And that is cause for thanksgiving, for trust and gratitude, for awe and for wonder.

And Jesus still says to us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”

And may it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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