Bread of Life

+ A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on August 1, 2021 +

Text: Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15, John 6:24-35


It goes without saying that the pandemic we are all enduring has changed so many things about our daily lives.
This was especially true way back at the beginning, over a year ago, when we were still learning how to live in this new reality.
There were the obvious changes like workplaces shutting down, events and travel canceled, worship moving to online only.
But even basic things like grocery shopping were suddenly upended.
We had to figure out how to interact with fellow shoppers and those frontline workers.
Some stores designated special hours for at risk populations to shop.
Pickup or delivery options became a good option for many.
And remember when we were all wiping down our groceries with bleach wipes?
But even when you got to the grocery store, or tried to order online, it was so hard to find some things.
There was a sudden scarcity in the supply chain and in a panic, folks started hoarding and stockpiling all sorts of things so they wouldn’t run out.
And I guess, some of those shortages made sense.
Things like masks and disinfectants were suddenly in high demand—especially since we were wiping down our bananas.
Some things frankly didn’t make sense—like how many rolls of toilet paper do you really need??
And some things, well, just surprised me.
Like how difficult it was to find a bag of flour.
Like for months, those shelves were just empty.
Which perhaps points to another change the pandemic ushered in: bread baking.

If my social media feeds were to be believed, the early pandemic times were just a bonanza for bread baking—especially sourdough.
These were those early days of the pandemic, after all, when we all thought we’d be locked down for a few weeks and so many people suddenly had all this time to try something new whether it was writing or games or baking.
And I get why it was an attractive option.
Bread is basic.
It’s made with simple ingredients—usually just flour, salt, water, and yeast…or sourdough starter.
But it takes some time and practice to master—and then there are so many possibilities.
So it was a lot of fun to see so many friends caring for their new starters, baking their beautiful loaves, and showing off their new hobby to the world.
Though I must admit, it was a little funny when they realized how…prolific their sourdough starter was.
More than a few friends posted that they were suddenly making sourdough everything—not just because they loved the taste, but because their starter just kept growing and needing to be used.
That they had started something they didn’t really know how to contain.

Now, I’m guessing that for most people, this bread baking craze was not necessary to put food on the table.
They didn’t need to bake so much sourdough to feed their family.
They could just buy more sourdough, which is what I did.
But I bet that for many, this baking was a way that they could feed something deeper, a way to feed their souls.
To put their energies in learning something new, creating something new, and, even just for a while, forgetting the turmoil that was surrounding them in the world.

The Gathering of the Manna, c. 1460–1470.

Our story from the book of Exodus this morning tells us a different story.
We hear of the Israelites who have suddenly found themselves in an unknown—a completely new world where they had to figure some things out too.
God had just liberated the people from slavery in Egypt and led them into the wilderness to journey toward the promised land.
But it didn’t take long for the people to realize that not only did they not know where they were going, they didn’t have anything to eat.
They looked around at the unfamiliar landscape and started longing for a past that never was. They told themselves how much better they had it back then, in the former times…when they were slaves.
Their memories of the past were so distorted that rather than remembering how scarcity reigned among their people for generations, they fooled themselves into remembering full bellies and having their choice of meat to throw on the BBQ.
But regardless of what was, they were hungry now.
And the God who liberated them from Egypt heard the cries of the people and sent bread from heaven, manna, an abundance of food to feed their bellies.
A gift from God that promised enough for all to share.
Because the manna was also a way to teach the people how to live in community with each other.
God promised that there would be enough food for all, so there was no reason to horde the manna.
In fact, when some of the people tried to take more than their fair share, to stockpile this miraculous gift, the manna spoiled.
It was a lesson that this gift cannot be hoarded by any one individual because it was given for the life and wellbeing of the whole community.
God is teaching the people to put their trust not only in the gift of bread itself, but in the giver of the bread.
To see how God is gathering the people together to live as God intends—in harmony with each other and with God’s good creation so all may experience the abundance God has in store.

It’s the same lesson that Jesus is teaching on the shores of the Sea of Galilee all those years later.
God had just fed the people again with bread from heaven the day before, but now the people who were fed were clamoring for more food.
Sure, Jesus had fed them, but that was yesterday!
All their stores of bread and fish were gone and they wanted breakfast.
But of course, Jesus knows what’s really going on.
He calls out the mistake the people were making, the mistake that we all so often make.
We assume that the miracle is the message, that God feeding the people is the point.
We put our trust in the gift, the fish and the bread, rather than the giver of the gift, in Jesus.
But like all the miracles in John’s gospel, the point is not the miracle itself, but how these signs that Jesus performs always point to something deeper, they point to abundant life.
A way of life, a reordering of society where there is enough for all to share and we are all filled with the promise of the eternal love of God.

The point of the feeding of the multitudes, then, is not that God will feed the people.
Because that lets us off the hook, right?
If God feeds the people, if God provides for the people, then why are there so many people living with empty bellies?
Why are there so many people without homes or shelter?
Why won’t God come and miraculously feed them too?
But if we look at the sign Jesus did that day and see where it points us, to a new world order rooted in God’s abundant life, we will see how God has already given us all we need and more.
Jesus makes it clear that the manna in the wilderness and the bread on the shore were gifts from God.
That all that we have are gifts from God.
And that’s one thing to say to this group of hungry searchers, who were likely living in poverty and clamoring for more bread.
That’s one thing to say to a group of newly liberated slaves journeying into an uncertain future.
But it’s quite another thing to say to us, right?
Everything we have as individuals, from our bread to our time to our possessions, are gifts from God and frankly belong to God.
Everything we have as a congregation, from our finances to our building to this beautiful piece of land are gifts from God and belong to God.
And God has shown us how to use these gifts, how to use our resources, so we can ensure that no one goes hungry, and everyone has a place to live in peace and harmony with each other.
And because everything we have comes from God, we cannot hoard the gifts, the resources we have for ourselves because God has given them to all people to share, to build up our community so all can experience the abundant eternal life of God.
And once our basic needs are met, and those of our neighbors, once our bellies are filled and we have a safe place to live, we journey forward together.
We can focus on creating a new world as God as designed it for us where all humanity and all creation live in harmony with each other and with their Creator.

Bread of Life, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Our gospel text today concludes with the anchor verse of this whole chapter when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus is bread.
Bread is basic.
It can be made with four simple ingredients: flour, salt, water, and yeast.
But as one commentator pointed out this week, even those simple ingredients hold so much possibility and promise.[1]
That bread itself tells a story of life and death, the transformation into something new.
First you have the wheat, a living plant, which is harvested and dies. It’s ground and sifted until we have a fine flour for baking.
Then there’s the salt—remember that at one point Jesus calls us the salt of the earth—which “brings flavor, vitality, and richness to the bread.
Water, like the waters of baptism, draws all of the ingredients (and all of us) together into one loaf.
Finally, yeast transforms the dough again by bringing new life into death. The dead wheat becomes food for the living yeast, and the whole thing is leavened as the yeast dies in the oven.”
And when the bread is finished baking, something new emerges that looks unlike any of the ingredients that made it.
It is transformed into that basic but essential food that feeds both body and soul.            

Perhaps that is one way how Jesus, is working within us too.
How Christ, the bread of life is filling us with abundance of life.
That in Christ’s coming among us to show us God’s enduring love and faithfulness, we might be guided into something new.
That in Christ, we are transformed from a variety of ingredients that must die to what was so they can come together to make something new, something that brings life and goodness to the world.
And in Christ, in his teachings that show us the abundance of life God has in store for us and our world, we are invited to take stock of what we have.
To see the gifts that we have received from God.
And to see how we can use them, to see how we can unite them, to see how we can transform them so we can bake together with Christ the bread of life here in this place, here in this community, yielding loaves so prolific that they cannot be contained—that grow with God-given abundance until all people may be fed, and all creation may experience God’s abundant life and love.

[1] Currents in Theology and Mission 48:3 (July 2021), John Rohde Schwehn, Preaching Helps for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 1, 2021.

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