Monday, August 10, 2015

The Bread of Life

Sermon notes for Proper 14B (8/9/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Note: The last section, "Edith Stein," was not preached in the homily on August 2. I decided to include some reflections on Edith Stein after reading some of her writings this morning during my devotions. Saint Edith Stein (Saint Benedicta of the Cross) has her feast day on August 9 but I put off reading her until this morning, August 10. I only wish I had remembered last week so that I could have brought forth some of her beautiful poems on the Eucharist`during my homily on the Bread of Life. I hope that you enjoy them now.

There is no food more universal or more essential than bread. Bread, in one form or another, is beyond question the most basic form of food in practically every human society, past or present, so much so that it is often called "The Staff of Life." Humans have been enjoying a form of bread since the Neolithic age when cereals were crushed then mixed with water to form a paste which was then baked on a hot stone. Fossilized cakes of bread have even been found in a number of ancient archaeological sites. A food that has long been a staple in most civilizations, bread has quite significant cultural, social, and religious significance.

In Bible terms, "bread" is sometimes used to refer to food in general and is also often used symbolically. The very first foods mentioned in Genesis were seed-bearing fruits and every plant yielding seed (Genesis 1:29). The very stuff of sustenance, humanity’s basic foodstuff, was bread. When God pronounced the curse on the man in Genesis 3, God said, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground." (Genesis 3:19).

Bread is the very core of life. What does bread mean to you?
  • Is it a dark English brown bread, chewy and sweet. You might still taste the whole oats mixed into the dough. A bit of marmalade spread on top makes it quite pleasant with a cup of English breakfast tea.
  • Perhaps what comes to mind is the Scottish bap, a soft and airy roll. Quite the opposite of its people, both are filled with the goodness of life.
  • Maybe you think of a French baguette, snapped in half and shared with a friend over a bowl of caffe au lait.
  • Or maybe you consider the quintessential Belgian croissant: soft, flaky, and buttery.
  • Possibly, you will consider the heavy and hardy German pumpernickel, slathered in butter and slightly sweet from the whole rye berries inside.
  • Maybe a Yiddish bagel comes to mind. Boiled and baked, dense with flavor, they are especially good with a smear or some lox with cream cheese.
  • Maybe you want an Irish potato bread, which is more potato than grain. Fry it in bacon fat for a great comfort on a rainy Irish day.
  • An Austrian rye bread with sunflower and pumpkin seeds might be your thing, crunchy and delicious with a glass of beer.
  • Maybe, like me, you think of an Italian hard roll. The crust of that bread might break a tooth but once inside…put it this way: When God looked over all that he had made and saw that it was good, God could very well have been noticing the Italian hard roll. That is some goodness.
  • In Florida especially, one might think of a Cuban bread with its bleached white flour and pure, unadulterated lard!! I tell you, though, eat that bread with a cup of dark black, slightly sweetened Cuban coffee, and you have a fine breakfast.
  • Perhaps you recall New England’s Anadama bread, the friendship bread from Ammish country, a southern beaten biscuit, some country cornbread, a muffuletta from New Orelans, a San Francisco sourdough, or Boston’s scali bread.
  • Maybe you recall your mother-in-law’s recipe for rolls in the oven: one part butter to one part everything else. Thanks Molly!

Yes, bread in all its forms is important to our lives and to our living. In Christian terms bread is a vital and important metaphor. Searching for the word "bread" in an online bible yielded me 325 matches (NRSV on Indeed, Jesus’ own ministry was built on the rich foundation of many stories of feeding and being fed.

In today's reading from 1 Kings, Elijah has set out on a journey on which he will be sustained by the gift of the angel of the Lord: bread! Not just once, but twice does the angel feed him, commanding him: “Get up and eat!” The food that Elijah was given was bread, with which he was able to go “in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8)

The book of Exodus reminds us that when the Jews were lost and starving in the desert God fed them with manna, the bread from heaven. For forty years, they could neither plant nor harvest but God "gave them food from heaven in abundance" (Psalm 105:40). That was the wonderful manna, which miraculously “rained down on them,” the “grain of heaven…the bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24-25).

Years later, when God became man in Jesus the Christ, born of Mary, the Jews challenged Jesus to give them a sign, such as Moses had given when he called for God to send the manna (John 6:30). Note the astounding response given them by the Lord Jesus:
‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ (John 6:32-33).

Then the people clamored for the bread to which Jesus responds,
‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ (John 6:35, 47-51).

As with Elijah in the first reading and like Israel in he desert, God realizes that the journey would be too much for us if we were not nourished. But for us, in the final culmination of divine revelation in Jesus, God does more than send an angel with a hearth cake and jug of water. God even does more than rain manna down from heaven. Now, God’s own son Jesus gives himself as our food and drink so that we can be strengthened for the journey of each day toward the mountain of God, not Horeb but the celestial Jerusalem.

The Lord in the Eucharist makes it possible for us to see divine goodness and to taste it in the supreme gift. In the New Testament Jesus uses bread as the ultimate sacrament, his body blessed and broken and shared. After more than two millennia this is still a reality – a memoria practiced in Holy Eucharist each Sunday. Today as we prepare to receive this greatest of gifts, the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus the Christ, may it be for us a strength to remain faithful to the journey, courageous to the end.

Christ gives his flesh for the life of the world, eternal life that not even the gates of hell can prevail against. And we thank God for allowing us to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. This is the “living bread” come down from heaven so that we may eat of it and not die.

August 9 marks the anniversary of the death of Saint Edith Stein, also called by her Carmelite name 
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. In one of her poems, entitled “I Will Remain With You,” she pondered the great goodness of God incarnate that she could taste and see. She wrote how she drew her very life, each and every day, from the sacrifice of Jesus, every day. Pondering the heart of Jesus’ love in the Holy Eucharist, she wrote:
This Heart, it beats for us in a small tabernacle
Where it remains mysteriously hidden
In that still, white host.
That is your royal throne on earth, O Lord,
Which visibly you have erected for us,
And you are pleased when I approach it.
Full of love, you sink your gaze into mine
And bend your ear to my quiet words
And deeply fill my heart with peace.
Yet your love is not satisfied
With this exchange that could still lead to separation:
Your heart requires more.
You come to me as early morning’s meal each daybreak.
Your flesh and blood become food and drink for me
And something wonderful happens.
Your body mysteriously permeates mine
And your soul unites with mine:
I am no longer what once I was.
You come and go, but the seed
That you sowed for future glory, remains behind
Buried in this body of dust.
A luster of heaven remains in the soul,
A deep glow remains in the eyes,
A soaring in the tone of voice.
There remains the bond that binds heart to heart,
The stream of life that springs from yours
And animates each limb.
How wonderful are your gracious wonders!
All we can do is be amazed and stammer and fall silent
Because intellect and words fail.”
In her eassy, “Before the Face of God,” she writes eloquently about the communion that is created when we partake of the Eucharistic feast.

We are made members of the Body of Christ by virtue of the sacrament in which Christ himself is present. When we partake of the sacrifice and receive Holy Communion and are nourished by the flesh and blood of Jesus, we ourselves become his flesh and his blood. And only if and insofar as we are members of his Body, can his Spirit quicken and govern us…We become members of the Body of Christ not only through love…but in all reality, through becoming one with his flesh: for this is effected through the food that he has given us in order to show us his longing for us.”
The Holy Spirit wants to enliven us but in order for that to happen we must remain in communion with Christ in his body. The letter to the Ephesians describes some of the ways we cut ourselves off from communion: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice…” (Ephesians 4:31). And then there is the description of how the Holy Spirit seeks to quicken us: “ kind to one another, tender-hearted, 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” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2). The Holy Spirit seeks to help us to imitate God in the way we treat each other, living in love and sacrificing ourselves in love of God and others as a fragrant offering to God.

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