I have two bread stories to share with you from a recent trip to Canada to visit friends. On the first day of the visit we had lunch in an outdoor café next to one of Ottawa’s famous canals. We ordered sandwiches. In addition, the waitress brought us a basket of bread. God had given us this day more than our daily bread. As we ate our meals a duck slowly paddled its way along the edge of the canal, presumably angling for a handout. I tossed a small piece to her and she quickly gobbled it up. When I launched a second piece toward the duck there was a sudden swoosh in the water and a large-mouthed carp surfaced, racing the duck to get to the bread first. Reflecting on the prophet Micah’s exhortation that God wants us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,” I attempted to toss the bread so that the duck would get a piece half the time and the carp would get a piece half the time. And then, after tossing the last piece of complimentary bread, a seagull landed on a nearby post, obviously hoping for a handout. Reflecting theologically on this experience two thoughts came to mind: 1) Having bread makes you popular! 2) All God’s creatures are hungry.
A second bread story: During my visit we enjoyed eating baguettes covered with various kinds of cheeses. Near the end of my stay in Ottawa I purchased a large whole-wheat baguette. However, we ended up not eating this bread so my friends recommended I take it back to the United States with me. As I approached the Customs Point on my return to the US I wondered what the Customs agent would say when I told him that the only item I was bringing back to the United States was a baguette. The Customs Officer asked the usual questions:
“Where do you live?” (Hopkinton, New Hampshire)
“How long have you been in Canada?” (Four days)
“What was the purpose of your trip?” (To visit friends)
“Did anyone give you anything to bring back to the US?” (No)
“Did you purchase anything in Canada that you are bringing back to the US?” (Yes, a baguette)
“Just one baguette?” (Yes.)
“Have a nice day.”
I had anticipated that the Customs Agent might ask me, “You’ve been in Canada for four days and all you are bringing back to the United States is a baguette?” Had he asked this I was prepared to tell him, “You have to understand. This is really good bread!”
Well there is a lot of bread in the Bible.
Genesis 3:19: After Adam has eaten the forbidden fruit, God tells him, “in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, until you return unto the ground.”
Exodus 12:15: God instructs the Israelites to eat unleavened bread.
Exodus 16:1-11: The Israelites who are wandering in the wilderness are complaining about the conditions they are living in, even wishing that they had died in the land of Egypt, where they had plenty of bread. And God, in order to test them and to bless them, decides to “rain bread from heaven” on them, despite their crankiness.
Matthew 4:3-4: When Jesus is being tested in the desert the tempter urges him to turn stones into bread. And Jesus tells him, “Human beings shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Matthew 6:11: In the Lord’s prayer Jesus prays, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Matthew 7:9: In teaching about God’s ability to give us good gifts, Jesus asks rhetorically, “What man is there of you whom if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”
Matthew 14:19: Jesus multiplies five loaves of bread and two fish to feed thousands of people.
Matthew 26:26: Jesus used bread to symbolize his body at the last supper. “And as they were eating Jesus took bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to the disciples and said take, eat, this is my body.”
There is a lot of really good bread in the Bible. To understand the meanings of today’s Scripture passages it is important to understand that bread was the most important food in the Middle East at the times of these stories. Bread was served and eaten at every meal. It was a staple food, a food that was necessary for survival and sustenance.
In today’s world we may be careful about how much bread we eat. We know it is filled with carbohydrates and when consumed these carbs immediately transform into sugars, which are stored as fat. Bread is part of the recommended foods on today’s Food Pyramid, but it is not the most essential food.
But bread was essential to the lives of the people that we read about in today’s Scriptures. So when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is asserting that in him we find the love of God that is necessary to live our lives fully. In Jesus we see the love of God up close and personal. Marcus Borg, a progressive Christian thinker, writes, “In Jesus we see what a life full of God looks like.” Through Jesus we come into contact with the loving God who is the source and transformer of our lives. That’s really good bread!
In Jesus we see God’s compassion for those who suffer physically, mentally and spiritually. In Jesus we witness God’s concern and love for those who are outcast, oppressed, and rejected. In Jesus we see God’s capacity to forgive us when we make mistakes and fall short of God’s hopes for us. In Jesus we see God’s hope for justice, that all people would be treated equally and fairly, where there would be really good bread for all. In Jesus, we see the challenge to love God with our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In Jesus we see God’s dream for a world of peace where we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. In Jesus we find the bread for the journey that will ultimately change our lives.
Certainly we need physical food in order to survive. And in the passage just before this one Jesus has miraculously multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish into a feast that fed thousands of men, women, and children. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God will give us this day our daily bread, we are surely praying for the physical food that our bodies need to survive and live in the world. But, I would propose, when we pray that God will give us this day our daily bread, we are also praying for the spiritual food that sustains and energizes our lives. We are praying for the abundant, life-giving, sustaining, empowering, healing, freeing love of God.
All of God’s creatures are hungry. The French theologian Blaise Pascal proposed that God has created human beings with an innate hunger and need for God. He wrote that within all persons there is a God-shaped vacuum that can only authentically and adequately be filled by the love of God. This is that big, empty hole that we feel when we are aware that something is missing … when we are conscious that our lives are out of joint … when we know that current way of living is somehow not fulfilling.
Augustine asserted that we are created to be in relationship with God and that our fulfillment as human beings comes from that relationship. He wrote, “Our hearts are restless, oh God, until we find our rest in thee.” We may not identify our longings and hungers as having spiritual meaning and we may attempt to satisfy these spiritual longings with substances and behaviors that are not at last fulfilling. But ultimately we need the “Bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33) to fulfill the spiritual hunger that exists within each one of us.
I’ve been drawn lately to the poetry of Meister Eckhart, a German theologian and mystic born in the 13th Century. A Dominican monk and Catholic scholar, Eckhart wrote sermons and poems that reveal his faith in a compassionate and life-transforming God. One of my favorite poems is this one, called “Love Does That.” It goes like this:
“Love Does That”
“All day long a little burro labors, sometimes
With heavy loads on her back and sometimes just with worries
About things that bother only burros.
And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting
Than physical labor.
Once in a while a kind monk comes
To her stable and brings
A pear, but more
He looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears
And for a few seconds the burro is free
And even seems to laugh,
Because love does that.
Love is the really good bread that changes our lives. Experiences that reveal to us the compassion and care of God, that draw us more deeply into the mystery of life and into the presence of God’s eternal, indefatigable love change us. Because love does that. Love frees.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book called, “How God Changes Your Brain.” Written by Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, and Mark Waldman, a psychotherapist, the central thesis of the book is this: spiritual experiences or encounters with a loving God change our brains and our behavior. Scientific studies using brain scans have shown that when people regularly engage in experiences that connect them to a loving God—experiences such as prayer, meditation, contemplation, spiritual reading, and worship and I would bet social action—these experiences enlarge a structure in the brain called the anterior cingulate. And when this occurs marvelous things happen:
We become more compassionate toward others and ourselves.
We become more sensitive to the feelings of others.
We become more accepting of people who are different from us.
We experience a stronger desire to help others.
The authors write, “Contemplative practices stimulate activity in the anterior cingulate, thus helping a person to become more sensitive to the feelings of others. Indeed, meditation on any form of love, including God’s love, appears to strengthen the same neural circuits that allow us to feel compassion toward others.”
The authors go on to say that, “In contrast, religious activities that focus on fear may damage the anterior cingulate, and when this happens, a person will often lose interest in other people’s concerns or act aggressively against them.”
Before this service a friend asked me if I were going to preach a “hellfire and damnation” sermon. I realize that this is not a good day for a hellfire and damnation sermon for two reasons. First, it’s hot enough in this sanctuary already. Second, hellfire and damnation sermons damage our souls. Sermons that depict God as authoritarian, punitive, violent, and threatening make us more fearful and angry cause us to be less compassionate and accepting, and make us less likely to help others. That’s bad bread.
As the Wedding Outreach Minister I officiate at 15-20 weddings yearly at Old South Church. My favorite part of the wedding ceremony is the ring exchange. As I hold the rings I tell the couple and their guests something like this: “These rings have two deeply important symbolic meanings. These rings, which are circular and never-ending, remind us of the eternal love and commitment that you two have for one another. They also remind us of the never-ending love and commitment that God has for you. So when you wear these rings, whether you are together or separated by many miles, you can be reminded of this: you are loved by a wonderful partner and you are loved by a wonderful God. That’s really good bread.
If it is true that connection to the loving God we see in Jesus really changes us—and I believe that it is—then you and I are being transformed right now. Since 1669 the Old South Church has been a provider of bread, a place where hungry, lonely, lost, fearful, confused, lonely, and starving people like us, have come to be fed, to find here the God revealed by the life of Jesus Christ, and to be transformed. The really good bread here comes in many forms.
It may be that this church’s magnificent architecture and the images in these gorgeous stained glass windows draw you closer to God and deeper into your faith.
It may be that the beautiful music of the preludes, hymns, songs, and special music feeds your soul.
It may be that passing the peace, hugging one another, and looking into the kind eyes of people who care about you connect you to the love of God.
It may be that the stories from the Bible and words in sermons bring you closer to God.
It may be that sitting in silence, praying and meditating puts you in touch with the living God.
It may be that participating in this congregation’s outreach and mission programs connects you to the loving God we see in Jesus.
There is a lot of bread here. It is all around us in abundance, like the manna God rained on the wandering, complaining Israelites. We pray, give us this day our daily bread … and God gives it in abundance.
So the Good News is really simple:
There is really good bread here. This really good bread is for all. This really good bread takes many forms. Come and eat. And invite others to come and eat too. Allow this really good bread to change you … so that together, we can do the work that God calls us to do, build the community God calls us to build, and be the people God wants us to be. Amen.