"I am the bread of life"-A Sermon for Proper 13, John 6:24-35
As you might recall last Sunday, I mentioned that one of my summer reads that Ashley and I listened to while on our vacation was Michael Pollan’s “Cooked”, in which, he extols the spiritual and nutritional virtues that come from entering more deeply into the world of home cooking. And using what I learned from the chapter on baking, I sort of steeped us in the whole bread-making world. And, as Jesus says to us today in our Gospel lesson “I am the bread of life”, I want to continue to think about the metaphor of baking bread and, in particular, the wonderfully satisfying, filling and unpredictable world of wild-yeast sourdough bread making.
Now, as I mentioned last week, long before any oven becomes involved in the process, the baker must create a starter dough, which takes time and patience to establish…days if not weeks. Creating the starter dough requires our attention and a daily feeding of flour and water that is then filled with unseen yeast naturally floating through the air that gently lands on the dough and, as we stir this all together…things seen and unseen…it becomes a sort of living thing…a primordial soup, if you will, that once gurgling and bubbling with life…full of a fruity and earthy aromas…the baker uses, just a couple of table spoons at a time, to inoculate a much larger amount of freshly created dough that is then baked into bread…leaving plenty of starter behind for the next mouthwatering loaf.
Now, the specific role the starter dough plays in the baking process is to provide the yeast and other healthy microbes and bacteria that provide flavor and allow a bread to rise when baked…to form what bakers call a good “oven spring”…that is creating the structure for life-giving air to move through the bread as it cooks…making the bread soft, moist and airy on the inside…while wonderfully crusty and browned on the outside. It’s those pockets of air, which the yeast makes possible, that fills our favorite bakery or home kitchens with such a delightful aroma…humble earthen smells that connect us to the dust of the earth of which we ourselves are formed. In fact, we are genetically hard-wired to respond positively to these smells…for bread over many millennia…for almost countless generations of humans…has indeed equaled life. For bread has been the primary food staple…the substance from which most human energy has been derived…since the dawn of civilization. The proliferation of meat as a primary food staple, that is meat with almost every meal, is actually a fairly recent occurrence in human history…a product of our modern food economy. Thus, biologically and historically speaking, the human species, indeed, has much thanks to give to the fermenting and baking of various grass seeds…the baking of bread…for our flourishing. Bread has allowed us, as Genesis reads, to be fruitful and multiply. Indeed, bread equals life…and, once again, Jesus says to us today, “I am the Bread of Life”.
So, turning now to our Gospel lesson, John tells us that Jesus is speaking to a crowd who has chased him all the way across the Sea of Galilee. John tells us that they were among the folk who were fed at the feeding of the 5000. Folk who were the beneficiaries of the miracle of multiplication and transformation…the miracle of Jesus producing an abundance of bread that fed a mass of human beings…such that all present ate to their fill…and all with some left over. And it must have been some seriously delicious bread if they crossed a sea to find Jesus and ask for more. Sort of like the folk who get up early and wait in a very long line at Franklin’s Bar-B-Q to get their hands and mouths on some brisket before the days allotment sells out. The folk who have come to Jesus crave more of that delicious bread and, obviously, will go to great lengths to get it! Now, of course, that is sort of tongue in cheek. Though I have no doubt that Jesus made delicious bread, just like he made delicious wine, according to the steward at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, I imagine it wasn’t just the rich aroma and delightful taste of the bread that Jesus produced in abundance that inaugurated their journey across the sea to seek the Gifted Baker. I don’t think it was really the memory of their full and satisfied stomachs that was leading the way; instead, I think it was full hearts…that is hearts warmed and filled and entirely satisfied with an overflowing abundance of God’s love, that compels them to be in Jesus’ presence once again…drives their journey across the Sea of Galilee.
As Jesus reminds us in another gospel, despite its importance, humans do not live on bread alone. For what I believe we crave most, what gives us purpose and meaning and direction, what is surely needed even more than the simple physical sustenance that comes with the food we eat…is love. In Jesus’ presence, the 5000 or so blessed folk who were present at the miracle of the multiplication of bread and fish feasted on nothing other than love itself. God’s own love…and they can’t get enough of it! A love mediated through the flesh and blood connection that is found in the midst of human community, human friendship, our breaking bread together, sharing our lives together, caring for one another, listening to each other, serving each other…with Jesus the never ending source of love…in our very midst…such that there is always enough to go around…everyone is filled…with some even left over for the very next person who arrives at the table we share. Thus, the bread that Jesus offers…the bread he claims to be and generously gives to us and that we then share with one another…is God’s own love that feeds hungry hearts. As we feast on the love Jesus shares…as the old adage “you are what you eat” goes…we ourselves become, like Jesus, living bread for a hungry world. Jesus the Great Baker…bakes us into the very thing that he is…for we indeed are his body alive and active in the world today. As we feed on God’s love as we receive it, we become living bread…and if we will then share it, share God’s own love baked and rising within us, we can then feed all those who come to us whose hearts are hungry and souls are weary…a love that always satisfies, always delights…often in unexpected ways…and there is always, always enough.
But here’s the thing…as much as I would like to stop here...leave us reflecting warmly on a meditation of feasting on and sharing together God’s always satisfying, always filling love…like a delicious, aromatic, soft and crusty bread that satisfies, fills us and warms us from the very center of our bodies…our own tummies…I feel like there is more to say…that perhaps there is something more that is required of us if we are to become like Jesus, living bread…if we are really to help satisfy such a hungry and weary world. So, I want to return now to my sourdough bread making metaphor and that starter dough, in particular, the place the whole bread making process begins. So, again, it begins with flour and water, that we must intentionally and patiently feed to the starter each day. Then nature takes over, unseen yeasts, floating in the air begin to land on the bread…and, over time, and as we stir the seen and unseen together…and care for our newly created dough…it starts to come alive…gurgling and bubbling…and then is ready to inoculate its first of hopefully many, many loaves of bread.
However, there is a part of this starter making process that I am yet to explain…and that is what the yeast actually does to the flour and water that we intentionally and with great care feed to the starter dough each day. Well, as many of you likely know, the yeast literally sours the starter dough…a process we call fermentation. The yeast begins to kill off certain microbes and bacteria…in particular ones that are unhealthy to humans…pathogens that at their worst could be life-threatening. The yeast also begins to break down the glucose in the grass seeds into sugars that our body can more easily digest and provide us energy to live and move and have our being. In a sense the yeast is an agent of death…destroying and breaking down the flour…into something unrecognizable from the living grass seed that was plucked from a stalk in some wheat field and milled into the flower with which we began. For when we ferment grapes into wine or flour into bread or cucumbers into pickles…it is the very same process that the human body goes through when, after death, it is placed into the ground. Fermentation is decomposition. And I really think this is the very thing that makes bread a perfect symbol for Jesus…the very reason he called himself the Bread of Life. For in Jesus, death becomes the means for new life...that which is decomposed is recomposed into something entirely new and eternal…healthy and energized. Fermentation becomes a process of transformation rather than mortification…the great move from the cross to the empty tomb. Yeast indeed breaks down and destroys…it’s a killer of sorts…but the result is entirely life-giving…a healthier and more energetic food…that, as I said in the beginning, has led to the literal flourishing of humankind.
So now to us…if we are to become what we eat…at least at this table…at this altar we share…if we are to allow Jesus to bake us into living bread, just like himself, that has the potential to feed a world full of hungry hearts…we must make time and space, courageously and vulnerably, to allow God’s Spirit, like unseen yeast, to do some fermenting work in our lives. If we want to be transformed into something truly rich and delicious, something rare and complex, something that entirely satisfies the world’s great hunger…the Spirit has some work to do in us…got to break a few things down and perhaps even destroy a few others. At another time, Jesus called this fermenting process bearing our own cross…for at the culmination of the gospel…death proceeds life…the cross proceeds the resurrection.
So what might this look like for you…what needs to be broken down or destroyed…perhaps some great fear that leads to inaction…a prejudice that leads to judgment and disconnection...an addiction that dominates your resources and head space…an insecurity that says you can’t succeed and won’t be appreciated…a grief that will not allow you to move on…the inability to forgive when wronged…shame that whispers in your ear that you are not good enough or smart enough…pride that won’t allow you ask for help or bring necessary partners along for the journey. Again, what might it be for you.
And remember, as you enter the spiritual process of fermentation, the starter dough takes time to get going…it takes time and patience to come alive. Likewise, the Spirit requires us to set the time required aside…time for prayer and discernment…if we are to ever really discover what needs to be broken down or even destroyed…and then even more time for this spiritual work of death and resurrection to be done…time for old things…old and unhealthy habits and dispositions to be broken down and destroyed…such that a resurrection within us can happen…new life…new habits…new dispositions can be brought to life in place of the old..
For this deep spiritual fermentation like work is indeed life-giving. Even as things are broken down and destroyed new life emerges…life is not eradicated…it is transformed. Energy is released…pathogens are destroyed…the bubbling and gurgling begins…and a starter is formed. A starter from which The Great Baker begins his holy work…baking us, like him, into a living bread…the only thing that can really satisfy a world full of hungry hearts…beginning with each other…a picnic of epic proportions…where there is always enough…where all eat and are satisfied…with some always left over for the person, friend or stranger, that next finds their way to God’s table that we all share. Amen.