A sermon given by F. Tim Sean Youmans at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Oklahoma City, from Exodus 16 and John 6.
I Am the Bread.
A number of you may be readers of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” books, a series of eight novels about a female physician who is transported back in time, through an ancient Celtic stone circle to 18th century Scotland smack-dab in the throws of the Jacobite rebellion. The novels are part historical fiction, with a little sci-fi element for the time travel, and a not-so-small dose of romance. I jokingly refer to them as “50 Shades of Tartan.” So if you are interested in reading them, keep that in mind.
One of the things I love about Gabaldon’s writing is the manner in which she weaves together a scientific, rational sensibility with the spiritual and mystical parts of the human experience. Before she wrote the first novel she was a scientist, a Ph.D. who taught research methodology. She is also Roman Catholic. This is very apparent in her writing. It is in great part of why I enjoy reading her books.
In book five of her series, "The Fiery Cross;" The heroine of the story, Claire Fraser, is walking through the mountains, surveying a tract of land that she and her Scottish husband will soon be settling. She writes:
A raven flew silently past, slow and heavy, its feathers burdened by the rain. Ravens were birds of omen; I wondered whether this one meant us good or ill. Rare for any bird to fly in such weather--that must mean it was a special omen. I knocked the heel of my hand against my head, trying to knock the superstition out of it. Live with Highlanders long enough, and soon every rock and tree means something!"
“I am the bread of life.”
To say that Jesus is bread is absurd. But to say that he is not bread, is a different kind of sadness all-together.
Those people in ear-shot of Jesus were furious when he said this. What they were asking for was not unreasonable. Two things:
What do we have to do in order to perform the works of God?
What sign are you going to give us so that we may believe?
They knew Jesus was unique. Unlike other teachers, he spoke with such authority. There were the healings, and now this occurrence with the multiplication of bread and fish for thousands of people. Jesus, they thought, could easily be this promised king who would bring health and well-being back to their culture, they just needed him to confirm it.
Give us sign.
Let’s not be too hard on these folks of the unbelieving generation, shall we. Their cynicism about false Messiah’s and unrealized hope was as real as any of our cynicisms might be. It’s the reason why, in part, Jesus gave them signs. On more than one occasion he said that it was a perverse and wicked generation that asks for a sign. He may have been being more descriptive than evaluative, because more often than not he would then turn around and give them a sign.
In this instance it was something to eat. As far as signs go, giving me something to eat is probably a good place to start.
Most of us love food. Recently there have been a proliferation of food shows that people like to watch. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. And some, like Top Chef and Chopped, are quintessentially American in that they combine our love of food with competition and winning.
One of my favorite conversations starters has always been to ask about someone’s ideal meal. It goes something like this: If you were leaving on a two year stint as a aide worker or in the peace corp to a region with food scarcity, what would you eat the day before you left?
There are a few of you out there who could care less about food, that it is in many ways just a nuisance, but one must eat. Frankly, I don’t understand you people. To me, food is an intersection between body and spirit, the temporal and the ethereal. And chefs are artists who and their medium is the interplay between sweet, sour, savory and salty, between smooth and crunchy. In the past few years somebody started adding sea-salt to cookies and desserts.
Why did it takes us so long to figure that out?
Not too long ago, while visiting downtown Chicago, I saw an art display, not of paintings or sculptures, but of the late Chef Charlie Trotter’s signature dishes. Photographs of the dish are on display, with the little card in the lower corner explaining what it is you are seeing.
The Hebrew tribes, coming out of Israel, were frightened. They had been living in oppression, but even-so, they had a regular source of food and water. After the first few days of their escape they began to run out of food. They turned to Moses and acrimoniously pleaded with him, “Did you bring us out into the desert to die!? At least as slaves we had food and water.”
Throughout that same story God is giving various water wells and places names like “bitter and quarrelsome” because the people, in the midst of very legitimate anxiety, begin to fight with each other, to complain, to get suspicious of one another. When we get hungry for long periods of time, we get scared, and fear can lead to all kinds of toxic thinking. This is true both individually and collectively.
Food anxiety. It means a great many different things in America culture. Some of our neighbors are anxious about getting enough food, and only secondarily anxious about getting the right kinds of food. Some of us, myself included, have anxiety about how NOT to eat too much food, girding ourselves up after a tiring day at work, for that drive home through a gauntlet of cheap, harmful fast food, clamoring at me that if I will eat them, then I will feel loved and safe. They tell me that food will save me.
Something dramatic happens to the human psyche when we live with scarcity, as does living in abundance. Both have great capacity to hurt us.
God tells Moses that he will provide for them, water, meat and bread. Bread in the morning and Quail at twilight. When they woke up, as the shiny dew evaporated, a white fluffy substance remained. The Israelites turned to each other and they asked in Hebrew, “Ma-Na?” What it is it? And that is what they named it. “What is it.” Man-na.
Everything in God’s creation is always more than what it is, always more than just one thing. Metaphor and poetry surround you; in joy, sorrow, fear, in nature, in family (both functional and dysfunctional), in marriage, in divorce. The truths embedded in these things are not always easy or redemptive. Often they hurt us, or wake us up to a truth we could not know any other way.
When Jesus said to them, “I am the bread from heaven.” He wasn’t being oblique. Poetic language isn’t less true, it is intensely true. Jesus is the source of God’s provision. His teaching and his presence are what sustains you and heal you.
I don’t say it every time, but when you come to receive the bread and the wine, there may have been an occasion when you might hear me mutter, under my breath, an almost indecipherable question, “Manna?” “What is it?” It is the bread from heaven, it is Jesus, God among you and within you, loving and rescuing you, and giving you strength to do the same.