In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The One God.
During my junior year in College I studied in Beirut, Lebanon, at the Near East School of Theology and at the American University. I have lots of memories of that year, but no memory is clearer in my mind than the day when William L. Holliday, my Old Testament Professor, brought into class something that looked like a large piece of white nougat. Professor Holliday cut the “white nougat” into small pieces and he gave each of us a bite to eat.
It was not until we were eating “the nougat” that he told us that we were eating manna from tamarisk trees in the Sinai Desert. It was not until we had finished eating our “nougat” that Bill told us that manna is made from “the crystallized honeydew of certain scale insects” and insect dung that when it evaporates becomes a sticky solid. I think most of all I wondered how ancient Israel could have survived very long on the scales and dung of insects, but I also have to confess it was tasty.
“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.”
The last few Sundays as we have been thinking about the “bread of life,” we have been reflecting on many different aspects of what that bread means. We have been thinking about our need for spiritual bread and how so many of us are spiritually hungry for the bread of life. We are also tremendously aware of the hunger that millions of people feel every day and the 16,000 children, according to Bread for the World, who die each day because of physical hunger.
Both of those hungers are real and are hungers that we must confront in our daily lives. More about that later.
Today I would like us to think about a God who is so intimately involved that God is even concerned about the bread that people eat as well as the bread for one’s spiritual existence. Usually the church reflects on this on Trinity Sunday when we think about God’s nature in the Holy Trinity, but as we have been reflecting these last four weeks on the sixth chapter of John, it seems to me that Jesus presents to us God’s nature in the most concrete form, that of bread.
When Jesus said to his disciples: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” there were antagonists. There were those who opposed Jesus—after all, God had never been understood to be intimately involved in the life of the people. How could this upstart from Nazareth, “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” ever give us, the ecclesiastical authorities, any insight into the nature of God? How can the son of Joseph ever say, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry or thirsty.” What audacity!
What Jesus is doing here is revealing God’s nature to those who follow him. For me, the most incredible part of the life of Jesus is that Jesus shows to us God’s nature—who God is. God becomes personal. God actually taking on human flesh. Unheard of in the first century. In first-century Judaism a man holding God’s nature was certainly a heresy and is still today a stumbling block for many. But for those of us who follow the Christian tradition, this is the most pivotal point in our belief. God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. It is through Jesus that we know the intimate nature of God.
It is in the Gospel for today that we are challenged because we are called to action, not only in our personal lives, but also as we reach out to the global community in which we live. Because we know that by eating the bread that comes down from heaven, we will not die, how does Jesus challenge us as “the life of the world in my flesh”?
Let me share with you an experience my wife, Kirsten, and I had last month when we joined Bishop and Mrs. Chane and Fr. Rich Kukowski, chair of the diocese’s South Africa Partnership Committee, on a visit to South Africa and Swaziland. The Diocese of Washington has a partnership with the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, and the bishop wanted to visit places and projects that the diocese supports.
One morning we went to a settlement near Johannesburg. The settlement is called Dukathole. I had been there three years ago, and three years ago I did not think it could get worse. But guess what? It was. We arrived just before 12 noon and we were invited to go with the social workers who were bringing food to the sick: mostly women, most of them AIDS victims. We divided up and each of us went to 20 one-room tin shacks, delivering food.
Each person received exactly the same: a half gallon of homemade nutritious soup, three slices of wheat bread, and one beautiful orange. This would most likely be the only food they would eat for the next three days when people from the church once again return with another half gallon of soup, three more slices of bread, and an orange. One of the concerns we all had is that “friends” would go into the house after they saw us leave and eat up the food we had left, instead of helping the sick person eat. Many who received the food were so weak that they were unable to lift their head off of the pillow or mat to eat.
There was no question in any of our minds as we helped to deliver the food that the caregivers, those who were delivering the food twice a week under the most appalling conditions, were doing the work of Jesus; the caregivers were the hands of Jesus in Dukathole. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry or thirsty.”
While we might not experience the physical hunger as our sisters and brothers experience daily in Dukathole, I doubt if there is anyone in this Cathedral today who is not experiencing some degree of spiritual malnourishment.
Some of us have lost our jobs and are unemployed with no future paycheck in sight. Many of us are feeling an economic insecurity that we have never experienced before in our lives. Some of us are feeling an emptiness in our being because of the death of a loved one or a friend. Maybe the person sitting next to you just found out this last week that she has breast cancer or that he has prostate cancer. Indeed there is a spiritual malnourishment that most of us are experiencing today.
Last Sunday this Cathedral hosted a funeral service for two brothers who in their early 20s had been tragically killed in a traffic accident the week before.
I did not know the two brothers who were the innocent victims in this tragic accident, but I went into the Cathedral at the time of the funeral “just to be present.” As the 1,300-plus people started to enter the Cathedral, I have never seen so many young men and women dressed in black. That sight in itself brought tears to my eyes. 1,300 people were gathering, who, because of two deaths, knew that they needed the bread of life, knew that they could not make sense out of the two tragic deaths by themselves. At the end of the service the mother and father each took an urn containing the ashes of their only two children and carried the urn out of the Cathedral. Everyone knew in some way or another that the only way sense could be made out of what had happened is that God weeps with us in our tragedies and pain, as well as our belief that Jesus was embracing everyone in that tragic moment. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
Dukathole. The National Cathedral. There could not be two more different places in the world. One place is made up of corrugated, one-room tin shacks; the other, one of the great majestic cathedrals in the world. But no one can deny that both places yearn for the bread of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Feed us, Lord Jesus, feed us.
In the Name of God. Amen.