Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
We are knee-deep in the “summer of bread,” when we find ourselves yet again in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. You are not hearing things or experiencing déjà vu, and I am not reusing my sermons while Pastor Egan is gone. Every three years we are guided through five weeks exploring Jesus’ “I am the bread of life” speeches. As a brand-new pastor, this doesn’t seem so daunting, but ask me again in three years when I have to “bake something fresh.”
Did you know that the variety of food we experience at the grocery store is an anomaly as far as human history goes? What we think of as fancy and expensive artesian bread used to be it. You or your mom, sister, or wife would get up early in the morning and bake the bread for the day, probably from wheat that your family had harvested yourself or purchased directly the farmer, and then ground into flour with your own tools. “Whole grain” bread was more accident than luxury. The fancy bread that we see now, like on the front cover of your bulletin, used to be the cheap everyday stuff - what we might consider plain white Wonder bread today. When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” our twenty-first century minds we should be picturing the basic white bread that our moms used to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us when we were kids. Nothing fancy. Nothing terribly special. Just the old familiar stand-by you could find in any store on the street, something you eat without really thinking about it.
But what if your ordinary peanut-butter and jelly sandwich suddenly showed up on the menu of that fine Italian restaurant down the street, listed between the calamari and the escargot?
Looking at Jesus, you would not see anything special: a thirty-something Jewish peasant bachelor with coarse carpenter hands and a kind face, along with twelve of his friends who were weather-worn and a little rough looking. When Jesus is talking the crowd here, the same crowd from last week, he is near the town of Capernaum, close to where he grew up. People in the crowd knew Jesus’ background and upbringing - they knew his parents and what they did for a living, back when sons normally took over the family business. “What a social-climbing upstart,” critics must have thought of this preacher man who should have stuck to carpentry. Just who does he think he is?
By now in John’s Gospel, Jesus had performed a number of signs, not least among them was turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana and the feeding five thousand people from three weeks ago. And some people still did not want to listen to what Jesus had to say. Many still refused to believe that Jesus was the one sent by God. I don’t know about you, but after all that, I would be pretty frustrated at their lack of faith.
This is a common theme, found in nearly every superhero movie in the last few years: the hero is chosen for some great task, does some good at the outset, but experiences some setbacks. Superman experienced Kryptonite. Thor was banished to Earth. Batman took the blame for someone else’s crime. But you know this happens to us “regular folks” too. We begin a new job or tackle a new project – we are excited and full of energy. But then we experience setback after setback, and pretty soon, our resolve weakens and our energy dwindles. We get discouraged and want to give up. Like Elijah, we want to sit under the nearest broom tree and declare: “I can’t do it any better than the next person. I give up.”
In Elijah’s case, he was discouraged enough to want to die. Elijah was a great prophet in the Old Testament, God’s only follower left in once-God-fearing land, which had fallen under the influence of an idol-worshipping queen. Even though Elijah had just scored a huge victory in a showdown against queen’s pagan prophets, he still had to flee for his life or face her wrath. See, sometimes the stories in the Bible are as good as or better than movies.
But even the great Elijah wanted to give up. He had done his very best and it still wasn’t enough. God’s great prophet did his own version of wanting to “crawl into a hole and die”: he took a nap under a tree in the middle of the desert.
But then came a tap, tap, tap on his shoulder. “Wake up, Elijah,” said a heavenly messenger, “I made you some lunch.” And later: “Wake up, Elijah. Eat this, or you won’t make it to your next destination.”
God can use the ordinary to do great things. God can use ordinary bread and water to revive the flagging spirits of a depressed prophet and give him enough strength for a forty-day journey. God can make bread rain from the blue sky we all know and use one loaf to feed too many people. And God decided to reveal himself to us twenty centuries ago in a second-class citizen from the sticks– in a man who gave himself away so that all people could have life, and have it abundantly.
But bread by itself can’t do it all. Those people who ate the manna in the wilderness, they eventually died. Those five thousand people whom Jesus fed, they all died too. Ordinary bread can only fill us up for a time, and then we will be hungry again, just the same now as it was back then. And eventually our bodies will betray us in one way or another too. This is the ordinary, regular, normal way of things, and there seems to be no escaping it.
But you see, we don’t have to live in the realm of the ordinary any longer. Because YOU yourself are not ordinary. Jesus’ body was broken FOR YOU and Jesus’ blood was poured out FOR YOU and Jesus rose from the grave FOR YOU – so that you could live as God’s beloved children. And what is the first thing a child often wants to be when they grow up? Just like their parents.
Paul writes to his congregation in Ephesus – imitate God by imitating Jesus. Be a copy-cat. Be a mirror so that people can see Jesus in your reflection as you copy him by giving yourself away.
There is a new summer program happening right now with the Lutheran churches in the city of Trenton. Ten young adults ranging in age from 18 to 25 have agreed to take on a tough job – to minister to and serve that community. Some weeks they helped with VBS, other times they painted or cleaned. But these young people are tackling the fear of Trenton head-on and finding that Jesus is popping up all over the place. When they came here to St. Paul last week to take a tour and see what we do to help our community, they had the opportunity to be served. During the hot morning they had been moving bricks at another church, and probably were looking forward to being inside for the afternoon. I took them down to see RISE in Hightstown, to their ordinary-looking second story office where they run their many programs for the area.
Leslie the director rolled out the red carpet for us. As we sat on chairs and on the floor in her air-conditioned office, she gave us cold water, Girl Scout cookies, and those fancy little Ferrero Rocher chocolates. She offered us the very best they had, and it gave us the energy to walk over to see one of their programs, the Greater Goods Thrift Store down the street. As these kids were giving themselves away for the summer, possibly turning down more lucrative summer jobs, they are able to see how others give themselves away for the community of Hightstown. And this is just one example of “imitators of Jesus” in our midst, who are doing ordinary things and creating extraordinary results.
Even on the verge of being betrayed and murdered, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. He forever made holy a plain meal of bread and wine, a meal that we that we share with one another every single Sunday. It is a time and place to come to be revived, in order to continue our journey of life renewed and refreshed. Every week that we eat and drink, we get a taste of the very goodness of God. God uses bread and wine and you. So come to the table, or your journey will be too much for you. Come to the table to be made new. AMEN.