“Bread for the Journey”
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
November 17, 2019
What is the best meal you have ever had? Think about it. What meal comes to mind? One of mine was in Berea, Kentucky. I was eating at the hotel run by Berea College and each dish was tastier than the next but when they brought the spoonbread out, that was it. Buttery, warm and hearty, that spoonbread was like nothing else I’d ever had. It was special. What meal was it for you? I bet you can name the food, the place, even the year. You remember that meal, of course, because it was amazing. And you also remember it because there haven’t been many meals that could compete.
Those few and far between meals are to our stomachs like mountaintop experiences are to our souls. They are these set apart moments we never forget and they have a powerful impact on us. As the meal is to our stomach and the mountain to our soul, so the Lord’s table is to our faith. We don’t receive from this table every day or even every week but, when we do, it is a set-apart and powerful feeding. Here at this table we have a means of divine grace.
That is the very definition of sacrament: a means of divine grace—an experience that gives grace. And that is what communion is for us. It is a route God uses to meet us. The Lord’s table is Berea spoon bread for our faith. It is the mountaintop experience of our lives.
What a gift! And yet, we do not live our lives on mountaintops. Our lives look a lot more like those wilderness passages of Exodus—wandering about confused and not fully feeling at home no matter what we do and with a fair amount of grumbling thrown in for good measure—we live much of our lives off of the mountain and down in the wilderness.
This is where Jesus’ crowd is living. John writes this passage so we will clearly see the parallels with the Exodus story. The crowd is hungry for bread and so they have come to Jesus. They are also hungry for divine signs and so they grumble. “Even our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness,” they say to Jesus, “so what will you give to us?” There hasn’t been a mountaintop in a while. They are living their everyday lives in the wilderness.
And that is the problem, isn’t it? When life is amazing, well, then, it is amazing and we see God’s hand in all the beautiful things that are happening. And even it’s opposite—when life is its worst—often in that darkness is when we come to realize that God is truly present with us in our weakness. It’s not the best days or the worst days that can starve our faith. It’s the everydays that can do us in.
As Rod Dreher writes in our church’s book club book, “This is my problem. Everydayness is my problem. It’s easy to think about what you would do in wartime, or if a hurricane blows through,…or if you won the lottery or bought that thing you really wanted. It’s a lot more difficult to figure out how you’re going to get through today without despair.” Then he quotes Wallace Stevens: “The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.”
Everydayness is the problem for our faith and for our level of faithfulness. The Israelites wandered for 40 years and we can sympathize with their effort. It wears us out to wander for so long.
What a beautiful thing, then, that Jesus makes his first clear “I AM” statement, not on any mountain but down in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that he tells the crowd, “I AM the bread of life.” “I AM the bread of life,” he says to them. And then he continues, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus offers this nourishment, not on the mountain and not at the table and not in the midst of a meal you’ll never forget. He offers it in the everyday and he offers it because the crowd is hungry. Holy Communion is a sacrament—one of only two that we celebrate. This table offers a means of God’s amazing grace.
But Jesus is not the special meal spoonbread alone. He is also the everyday slice sandwich bread. For the other definition of sacrament is this: a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality. A sign or symbol that points to a spiritual reality. That part of sacrament, that kind of feeding, doesn’t have to wait for a special occasion.
Have you ever thought about how ordinary the stuff of the sacraments is? It is water and it is bread. You don’t get much more basic than that. Jesus chose the most ordinary things he could so that we would encounter them over and over; so we would encounter them everyday.
Now I’m not saying that your Sara Lee Whole Wheat slice will usher you into the presence of God but I am saying that, because you have been so often fed at this table, you have been given the eyes to see your Sara Lee Wheat sandwich slice as a pointer toward God’s presence in communion. Your dinner roll can serve as a reminder for you of the ways the Lord nourishes you.
This is what the psalms do over and over again. Whenever the poet is struggling, he inserts a reminder. “Wait! I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord,” he sings. “You are the God who works wonders and with your strong arm you redeem your people” (Psalm 75). With song, he is reminding himself of what God has already done in his life; when God showed up; when God saved him before. He does that so he will not give up on his journey. He does that so that he can make it through the everyday. What he does with song, we can do with bread. Indeed, your morning toast can bring to mind the promises of God!
When I asked you to call to mind the best meal you ever had, you could remember one almost immediately; remember the taste, the moment, the experience. But do you remember what you had for dinner 2 Thursdays ago? Probably not. It was probably like 99% of your meals: forgettable. But if you missed several of those forgettable meals, you would begin to starve.
Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” When he says that he sets us into motion for what he is saying there is whoever comes to me over and over again; whoever continually comes to me—that is who will not be hungry. We come to our Lord here at this table—4 times a year? 8? 15? And that is good and it is holy. And we must continue to come for that is the spoonbread of our lives; a sacrament—God’s means of delivering his grace and presence to us.
And, every day, every single day we can open ourselves to ordinary moments for they can point us toward him again. We can come to him over and over in the Sara Lee sandwich slice or in the dinner roll—a small sacrament in the moment—a small taste of what God has done for us and nourishment for the journey.
“The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.” So come to Jesus often, over and over—in bread, and in water—even when we are imprisoned by our everyday we get these most basic things. So notice them. Use them. They are not the sacrament but they will make your life sacramental. For Jesus is the bread of life: on mountaintops, in the wilderness, and in the everyday. He is bread for your journey. Amen.