Sunday, August 08, 2021

Proper 14 for the Cathedral Eucharist 8th August 2021 "I am the bread of life"

 I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”

When I was a student I had a good friend named Jack. He was extremely tall (particularly when standing next to my 5’4”) and carried not an ounce of surplus weight. He was a great cook and a famous host, but the meals I remember him by most clearly were those I never actually got to eat. You see, Jack was generous with his invitations to afternoon tea, and his rooms were only a short walk from one of Cambridge’s better bakers. When he was expecting guests, Jack would set forth to Tyler’s, on a mission to buy bread for the tea-party. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion the smell of the new bread, and its fresh-baked warmth proved too hard to resist, and he would arrive back in his rooms with only the stub end of the loaf, having consumed the rest on the walk between bakery and college. Legend has it that on one occasion at least, he visited the bakery 3 times before actually making it home with an untouched loaf. Bread from Tylers was pretty wonderful, but for someone Jack’s size, one loaf was only a short-term solution.

I often think of Jack as I break the bread at the Eucharist.
Of course, we generally use wafers, and sometimes people complain sadly that they bear no resemblance to real bread at all. Perhaps that’s a good thing. There’s no room for confusion. We’re not eating a “proper meal” together, but taking part in something quite different, whose value lies far beyond any standard nutritional benefit. The fragment of unleavened wafer we receive becomes something much greater than itself, for it is here that we are offered Christ, in all the fullness of his risen life.

In our gospel this morning, John sets out to demonstrate that Jesus is the One for whom Israel was waiting, and to do this he aligns Jesus with Moses...To understand his technique, we need to remember that for the Jews, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) provided a constant frame of reference. The contents of these books were not abstract concepts for the Jew - these were living words, pregnant with layers of meaning, and each new generation of Jews felt themselves living in the story in some way.
And so John has Jesus evoke memories of the defining period in Jewish history, the Exodus from Egypt, and recall God’s provision of manna, “bread from heaven”.
This was the freedom food, which enabled God’s people to travel onwards to the place they had been promised.
The food which sustained them, and made it possible for them to live as a people on the move, following wherever God lead them.
But, though this food seemed miraculous, it had to be consumed on the day it appeared, or it rotted and became worthless.
The Israelites were not allowed to build up supplies in case of crisis. They just had to trust God’s provision, day after day after day.

Now Jesus compares himself with that bread…in terms guaranteed to have any observant Jew sitting bolt upright on the edge of this seat
I am the bread of life.
I AM is the name God gives himself when he meets Moses, at the burning bush
Say I AM has sent you.
And so Jesus identifies himself with God and urges the crowd
Stop looking only to your physical needs!
Your ancestors ate manna but died!
You who ate when I fed the 5000 will die in time!
But belief in me is ‘food’ that leads to eternal life.”

Jesus, the bread which now comes down from heaven sustains those who eat for ever.
This is no less the food of pilgrimage, no less a food provided directly by God,- indeed this food represents God’s very life, available to be absorbed by all God’s people.
Jesus is offering himself to his disciples…whoever eats me…
Imagine the impact of that, with Jesus himself standing beside you, on a hot day in Palestine, as the crowds press around, murmuring in doubt or disapproval.
A living, breathing man inviting you to eat him.
Shocking, unthinkable words.
Frightening, unwelcome words – in the same way as those words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper
“This is my body…this is my blood...”

John wrote several decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as part of a community that would have regularly celebrated the Lord’s supper together. For them, as for us, Jesus’ imagery - eating flesh and drinking blood - had come to life in a new way as the church shared the meal Jesus instituted.
So it is, week by week, when we gather and make Eucharist.
We bring ourselves, just as we are, broken, flawed, hungry for love and reassurance.
We bring the mess and muddle of our lives and lay them with our gifts upon the altar.
And as the bread and wine are consecrated and transformed, as Christ becomes truly present in those ordinary things made holy by the power of the Spirit, so we find ourselves joined with Christ and with one another.

There is a story* told about a Eucharist that took place in prison camp – where rations were low, and morale lower.
Neither bread nor wine was available but the longing for Christ, the prayers of the faithful and the words of the priest together made this a true Communion.
It was Easter in the camp. There was not a single cup.
No bread or wine. The non-Christians said, "We will help you; we will talk quietly so you can meet for worship." Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards' attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. "We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine," the preacher told them, "but we will act as though we had."

"This meal in which we take part," he said, "reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death, and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body that he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings…but in Christ all our hungers are satisfied. The wine, which we don't have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, the hope of the kingdom to come...."

He broke the bread and held out his empty hand to the first person on the right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." All of them raised hands to mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. The communion of empty hand..."

Was Christ present there? Need we really ask that question?

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”
Hear Christ speak these words to you as you make your way to the Communion rail.
In that tiny fragment of bread, we receive Jesus himself, all we will ever need to sustain us on our pilgrimage.
Bread is the traditional staff of life, but the life that this bread represents is everlasting.
It is the life of God himself…and we are invited to share it.

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Lammas Day sermon at Holy Trinity Coventry, Proper 13 B 1st August 2021

It’s always a pleasure to join you here at Holy Trinity – and one of the things that I specially love it to imagine the pews filled with all those who have worshipped here across many years. The thought of the citizens of Coventry gathering before the Reformation, Sunday by Sunday to hear Mass...and to celebrate the many Church festivals and Saints days that gave the year its shape and structure delights me, so it’s a rather wonderful that we are here together on 1st August..

Lammas Day - the day of the “Loaf Mass”. What? You may cry. Has Kathryn finally lost the plot? What IS she talking about? Isn’t Lammas inherently pagan? No – not a bit of it. Actually, Lammas tide has impeccable Christian credentials. It is the festival of thanksgiving to God for the start of the harvest, where corn and bread are offered as symbols of gratitude. It’s name comes from the Old English word for ‘loaf’, hlaf, which is followed by ‘mass’, the Eucharist, at which bread is broken and shared before we are sent out, strengthened for service in God’s world. After a year that has featured periodic shortages of particular foods, exacerbated by the panic buying that seems irresistible to some, we are perhaps more aware that we have been for a while about the sources of our food, and our dependence on those who produce it. Food is not an optional extra, but something we all need to sustain our life – and to pause and give thanks should surely be part of our daily practice even though we may not bring that gratitude into our worship as often as we should.

The writer David Adam invites us to

Be gentle when you touch bread. Let it not lie uncared for—unwanted
So often bread is taken for granted. There is so much beauty in bread
Beauty of sun and soil, beauty of honest toil
Winds and rain have caressed it, Christ often blessed it
Be gentle when you touch bread.

So – bread is a gift in itself, but also a symbol of so much more and it’s rather wonderful that our readings today are part of those summer weeks in which the Lectionary invites us to think repeatedly about bread..

Today we focus first on God’s daily provision for God’s people on their wilderness journey, the solid, physical evidence that God remained absolutely invested in their wellbeing “ the morning you shall have your fill of bread, then you shall know that I am the Lord your God”. When you’ve embarked on a journey into the unknown in obedience to God’s call, it’s more than reassuring to have reminders that God really IS part of this. We, who have so much, are far less able to spot the blessings poured upon us. Our eyes are blinded by the surfeit of good things we can enjoy, and so we lack the readiness to give thanks that we recognise in the Israelites in the desert (even if that gratitude turns out to be short-lived) and in those who surelye filled this church in centuries past to celebrate the Loaf Mass on Lammas day. But, you know, being attentive to God’s gifts is a skill worth cultivating. That may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning - but you might be surprised at how easy it is to slip into complacency and the kind of pernicious egotism that assumes that everything we have is “Because I’m worth it”. Note that the manna fell from heaven not because of who the wandering Israelites were, but because of who GOD is...a God of generosity, who, then as now, delights to bless, to overwhelm us with God’s grace, the undeserved free gifts that are quite simply part of God’s nature.

So – be alert. And be thankful.

But there is more. Our gospel, too, reminds us of how God’s gift of bread is a sign of God’s commitment to humanity...but now we are in a different world, the bread no longer simply a matter of milled flour to sustain us day by day. Jesus is beginning to explain to the crowds that they need other gifts – other nourishment – in order to really live. It sounds like a simple journey. Forget about your material needs...focus on the food that will last for recognising the truth that stands before you in the person of Jesus, Son of Man and Gift of God. But the crowds need something concrete to focus on. They are drawn back into their history – into the recognition of God’s goodness played out in the lives of their ancestors in the wilderness – and they want more of the same. If we’re supposed to believe in you – how can we know that your claims are true. What do you bring to the table as evidence that you come from God. And the answer comes, loud and clear – It’s not about what I am doing. It’s about who I AM.

That moment which makes clear how Jesus emerges from and perfects God’s covenant with Moses. Not simply “I AM has sent me...” but now, explicitly, “I AM”.

Astounding. Earth shaking. An itinerant rabbi proclaiming himself the great I AM...the one who’s name is so holy it cannot be pronounced. A human being announcing that he, HE, is the one who has come from heaven to give life to the world. Next week we will hear Jesus expanding on that theme, to the amazement and disquiet of his hearers. Next week, I’m confident that my preaching will dive deeper into the mystery of God’s life offered to us here at the altar week by week in a fragment of bread…for truly, as we break and share the bread of Eucharist – thanksgiving – we encounter the reality of God’s presence transforming us from the inside out, and experience the reality that is our life in God.

But today, Lammas day, I want to return once more to the role of ordinary, daily bread as a powerful sacramental sign of God’s care for our bodies as well as for our souls. Let me end with a pair of stories...which entwine together around this theme. Are you sitting comfortably?

I used to go on retreat to Llan, a wonderful place in the Shropshire hills, miles from anywhere. The set up there was geared around an individual retreatant, cooking for themselves from supplies bought in by the hosts.
One year when I arrived, there was a lovely loaf of new bread from the local bakery waiting wrapped in the bread bin, and a slice of that with some local honey made a blissful breakfast. It was just as good with "Gold and herbs" cheese and salad at lunch time, but though I was making inroads on the loaf there was still plenty left the following morning, when A. announced that G was baking, and there would be home-made bread in time for lunch. I protested that I really didn't need it. The shop loaf was very tasty, and I had quite enough for the whole of my stay.
My host
smiled but said nothing, and just before lunchtime, as I sat on the terrace in the sunshine he appeared bearing half a loaf of steaming white bread, straight from the oven.
It was, of course, delicious and I appreciated it hugely for itself, but also for the reminder of God's joy in giving more than we can either desire or deserve...a reminder that I, who sometimes hesitate to ask, absolutely needed to hear. That week I was gently practising Ignatian spirituality, encouraged by an American book called, intriguingly, Sleeping with Bread.
The story behind the title is a joy. Listen.

During the bombing raids of WWII, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, "Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow."

As the orphans found tangible comfort and reassurance through holding the bread, so the process of looking back each day and noticing the times of consolation and desolation, the moments for which I'm most grateful or most regretful, makes it easier to attend to God's presence and work in my life. That might be so for you as well. For me, at Llan that week, bread was very much part of the story. Ordinary, every day but infused with a generosity that far outstripped my needs or my desires.

Why not use it, this Lammas tide, to help you focus your own gratitude for God’s gifts lavished upon you, grace on grace, to the glory of his name.