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.

1 comment:

Mary Beth said...

What I needed to hear today, thanks Kathryn.