A few years ago I took a trip to Ottawa to visit friends there. On the first day of the visit we had lunch in an outdoor cafe next to one of Ottawa's famous canals. We ordered sandwiches. In addition, the waitress brought us a basket of bread. God had truly given us more than our daily bread on that day. 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 of bread 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, grabbing the bread before the duck could get to it. Throughout the meal my friend and I tossed pieces of bread into the canal, attempting to throw the bread so that it was equally distributed to the duck and the carp. Word must have spread that bread was available. At the end of the meal and after we had tossed the last piece of complimentary bread to our unofficial lunch companions, a seagull landed on a nearby post and stared at us expectantly, obviously hoping for a handout. Reflecting theologically on this experience two thoughts came to mind: 1) Sharing bread makes you popular. 2) All of God’s creatures are hungry.
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 your 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 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.”
And in the passage immediately preceding this one Jesus has fed a multitude of people with what started out as five loaves of bread and two fish. Commentators suggest different explanations for this. Perhaps Jesus has supernaturally generated so much food that it feeds this multitude with leftovers to spare. Or perhaps the miracle is that this multitude has been so transformed by their experience of Jesus' loving presence that they opened their packs and bags and generously shared what they had with one another. Certainly we know that Jesus’ presence changes people’s lives. And however this miracle happened, it is a reminder that Jesus is concerned that people have physical bread too.
There is a lot of really good bread in the Bible. 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 the passage just before today’s Lectionary reading Jesus has shown the people that God cares that they have nourishing physical bread. Now those same people have followed Jesus to Capernaum, where they are searching for something more….the “bread that gives life to the world.” So when Jesus teaches them, “I am the Bread of Life,” he is asserting that in him we find spiritual food. In Jesus we find the love of God that is necessary to live our lives fully and faithfully.
In Jesus we see the love of God up close and personal. The late Marcus Borg wrote, “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!
The Christian theologian Augustine asserted that God has created every person with a “God-shaped vacuum,” a place within us that yearns for deep and intimate connection with God. He wrote, “Our hearts are restless, oh God, until we find our rest in Thee.” Like the duck, the carp, and the seagull we human beings are hungry people. We long not only for physical food that feeds our bodily hunger, but also for the spiritual bread that can fill those empty spaces and deep spiritual longings in our lives. We need good bread!
Recently I celebrated my 2 year anniversary as an owner of a smartphone. I was one of the holdouts who believed that those flip-up phones were adequate for all I needed to do. My bad. I have come to really enjoy all the things I can do with my Samsung Galaxy smartphone, like send text messages, take pictures, play games, and access the Internet. One of my favorite things to do is to explore and download interesting apps onto my smartphone. And one of the first apps I downloaded was the Bible app. It gives me immediate access to over 20 translations of the Bible as well as a daily Bible verse. Occasionally my smartphone will scan my apps to make sure that they are working correctly. Recently I had a message from my smartphone that said this: "The Bible scanned; no threats found."
What an interesting juxtaposition. "The Bible scanned; no threats found." If there is a threat in today's Scripture passage it may be this: Be careful what you eat. There is bad bread in the world. There is bread that ultimately does not feed us. There is bread that does not nourish us, comfort us, and heal us. There is bread which damages our souls. There is bread that leaves us empty, discouraged, disillusioned, depressed and afraid….disconnected from ourselves, each other, and God.
Unfortunately, even Christian leaders and organizations are guilty of offering unhealthy bread, of giving bread that does not fulfill our deepest spiritual longing.
For instance, there are preachers who proclaim that if you are faithful to God, God will reward you with "health and wealth." The implication is that if you are not healthy and wealthy there is something defective about you and your faith.
There are religious groups that assert that their way is the only spiritual path to God and that if you are not following that way you are not being faithful to God and will not go to heaven.
There are religious organizations that by word or deed teach that God's love is not for all people. I have heard stories of people who have been asked to leave congregations because they dressed too casually, they had not been baptized correctly, they have fallen in love with the wrong person, their faith was not strong enough, they had too many religious doubts, or there was something unorthodox about their theology. Bread that does not reflect the great faithfulness of God and the inclusivity of God’s love is not good bread. And bad bread can make us sick.
Last Monday I was driving to work and I was channel surfing on the radio. I accidentally landed on a Christian radio station and began listening to a radio preacher who asserted that Christians need to accept the sovereign will of God in all things. He stated that we should not question or doubt God when bad things happen to good people. He said that when babies or children die we need to understand and accept that that was God’s sovereign will.
The radio preacher then quoted another theologian who said that when children die, God is “peopling heaven,” and why would God want only old people in heaven? I had a negative and visceral reaction to this statement and turned off the radio immediately. I thought I might get sick. That kind of bread gives people the impression that God is unkind and cruel. It gives people the notion that God intentionally causes people to suffer. That does not sound like the compassionate and faithful God that we see in Jesus who suffers with those who suffer and rejoices with those who rejoice. That kind of theology gives God a bad name and does not reflect the God we see revealed in the life of Jesus. That’s bad theology. This is bad bread. And bad bread can make us sick.
The psychologist Calvin Trillin has written that some of our emotional distress we experience as human beings is a case of "mistaken identity." In other words, some of the anxiety and depression that we experience is due to having been fed distorted views about God and ourselves. Being told that we are bad, undesirable, unwanted, inadequate, and unforgiveable creates a mistaken identity. Being told that "there is no room for us at the inn," or at the communion table or that God could never accept and love us can result in severe mental health issues. Being told that God is unkind, unforgiving, and hurtful gives us a false view of God and can cause us to turn away from God, who already loves us more than we can ever imagine. That’s bad theology and it's bad bread. And bad bread can make us sick.
So how do we know whether bread is good or bad? I think we find our answers in the Scriptures.
Good bread helps us to grow in our love for God, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Good bread helps us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
Good bread makes us more compassionate and more loving. Good bread makes us passionate about sharing the Good News of Jesus.
Good bread nurtures the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).
Good bread makes us more fully alive and more fully human. This is the "bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (John 6:33)."
We are hungry people. We seek what will fill up the “God-shaped vacuum” inside and make us whole. In our loneliness, desperation, grief, sadness, emptiness, and disappointment we sometimes fill our lives with those things that do not ultimately satisfy our deepest needs and spiritual hungers. But we also believe that God is still speaking. We also believe that God is still providing good bread.
When we have made the mistake of consuming the "food which perishes," rest reassured: God’s Good Bread is still there.
When we have eaten that which provided a temporary "high" or momentary relief to our suffering, but does not ultimately fill us, know this: God’s Good Bread is still there.
When we have "sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," be assured: God’s Good Bread is still there.
Jesus is God’s 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.
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.
This is the bread we long for, search for, yearn for, hunger for. This is the “bread of God which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world (John 6:33)." “Lord, give us this bread always.”
In Jesus we see “what a life full of God looks like.” I would also like to suggest that we can be God’s good bread to one another. When God’s love lives in us and we share that love with one another, we can be bread for one another.
I want to share a story that I shared here at Old South last year, but it is so good that it bears repeating. A few years around Christmastime ago an 8-year old girl, named Tiger Curran, wrote this letter to God: "Dear God, I would like to know what you look like. I put a piece of paper in the envelope. Will you draw a picture of yourself? Please write back. Your friend, Tiger."
Tiger put the letter into a stamped envelope addressed to God. Somehow the letter ended up in a post office in Fargo, North Dakota. The post master forwarded the letter to the Rev. Dwight Meier, the United Methodist minister in town. Rev. Meier wrote this letter back to the inquisitive girl.
“Dear Tiger, Thanks for your letter. God turned your letter over to me to answer. It was a nice letter you wrote.
“You asked what God looks like. One reason God does not have a picture is that God looks like all the people that God has made. Sometimes God looks brown, sometimes white, sometimes black. In fact, God looks like the color of every person God has ever made. Sometimes God looks like a girl and sometimes like a boy.
“Look into the face of a person and if you see love and kindness in that person, that is what God looks like. When you are kind, helpful, and loving, look in a mirror and see what God looks like.
“God turns over a lot of God’s work to people. I think God will ask you to do things God wants done too. Thank you for writing and I hope that you have a great Christmas. Sincerely, Dwight Meier, one of God’s Helpers.
Now that’s good bread! God’s good bread surrounds us. We may find it in the Scriptures, in worship, in our music, in our prayers, in community, in working for justice, in our serving, in our relationships, in our caring for one another.
“Give us this bread always,” plead the hungry people of God. “Give us this bread always.” And God always says “Yes.” Thanks be to God.