What is your daily bread? What nourishes you? Before we roll into this sermon, know that I wish these lessons did not come up during summer. I’d rather we read all this about bread from John during the majority of the year when we serve a big breakfast on Sunday morning. September can’t come quickly enough. We’d be better able to hear this Gospel on a full stomach. This week I was talking with Ellis about the Gospel, and he summarized it this way: “Jesus said, O ye of grumbling bellies.” The heart of this lesson is hunger, but not physical hunger. What nourishes you? What is your daily bread?
Jesus moves quickly beyond the literal hunger of the people. The Gospel of John leads me to believe Jesus wasn’t a literalist about very much. “You’re here because you’re looking for the loaves,” says Jesus. But the Good News is bigger than food. The Good News is deeper than what you see and touch. God’s bread is what gives life to the world. Jesus wants people to move beyond thinking with their stomachs. Jesus could be singing that old song by the band Cheap Trick, “I want you to want me.” Jesus wants the people to long for God, not for bread. So again, I ask, What nourishes you? What feeds your soul? What gives you life? What is your daily bread?
I want to touch on three streams of soul-nourishment, that I believe are critical in the way of Jesus. These three sources of spiritual food will be no surprise to those of you who grew up going to church, but I ask for you to consider them with me again this morning, in light of the Gospel. Ask yourself whether your belly is grumbling. The three I want to touch on this morning are Prayer, Community, and Worship.
First, prayer. We often practice prayer as a series of petitions and thanksgiving to God. Asking is a form of prayer, indeed. But the Christian tradition of prayer has more to offer than a litany of requests and blessings. Jesus actually doesn’t say much about prayer in The Gospels. The disciples memorably asked Jesus how to pray, and he gives them the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” And in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus complains about the long public prayers of the Pharisees. He exhorts his followers to go into their closet, and to pray in secret.
That advice about praying is secret thickens when we consider Jesus’ own practice of prayer. He may not speak much about prayer, but he teaches by example. We see Jesus draw away for solitude a great deal. He often pulls away to a garden, or the desert, or a mountaintop to pray. Jesus sought peace and stillness. Arguably, such peace did not come easily. We’ve just ridden in boats with a crowd of thousands chasing Jesus as he tries to escape across the sea of Galilee. He was in demand as a healer, a preacher, and a generator of bread. Yet, though he was popular, we often find Jesus seeking a place apart.
Thomas Merton once said, “Prayer is wasting time, conscientiously with God.” Prayer is a return, a relaxing, a slowing down. Many traditions teach that the first step in contemplation is to consider our breath. How often do we need to catch our breath these days?
Prayer understood through the example of Jesus is looking for a time to return to ourselves. Prayer is looking for space between the busy-ness of our life to remember that we are not finally human-doings but human beings. We need time just to be. In that space, God will meet you.
I say these words partly because I need to hear them. Over the years I have had fits and starts at the practice of centering prayer, a Christian practice taught by the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating. The goal of Centering Prayer is to quiet all of the busy-ness of our day, to quiet the busy-ness of our minds. The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian.
What practices help quiet your mind and bring you the nourishment of prayer? How do you find the stillness that all of us need? How do you snatch enough quiet to survive the business and busy-ness of our everyday world? Prayer is an important, central stream of nourishment that we need to find that life Jesus talks about. How does your life of prayer feed you, keep you fully alive?
The next stream I want to discuss I have called community. I have to confess, I’m not entirely satisfied with that term. Community seems too easy. We throw the word “community” around in our language, to the point that it can mean very little. Is “community” a geographical region: the “community” of University City? Is “community” a type of education: Community College? For followers of Jesus, “community” describes something more integral.
What is the ecosystem of relationships that feeds you? Just like prayer, I think we have much to gain from being conscious and conscientious about how our relationships are feeding us. Who are the people with whom you break bread regularly? Who informs your worldview? Who is there for you when you are hurting? When you need to celebrate?
Jesus describes his vision of community a bit. He talks about welcoming children and centers the least of these as the gatekeepers to the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ practice again blows these teachings wide open. Jesus’ followers are known as an eclectic bunch. He eats with tax-collectors and sinners. He shares a table with women and outcasts. Notice too, the Pharisees and the Romans are at his table as well. They wouldn’t be complaining that Jesus invited the “wrong people” if the powerful weren’t also gathered. Jesus welcomed everybody.
It’s not that to Jesus those differences didn’t matter. It’s not that Jesus was color-blind, or wealth-blind, or gender-blind. No. Jesus saw diversity. Jesus wanted a diverse community around his table because his table was God’s table. All of these crazy diverse people are God’s people, he says. To God their stories matter. To God their lives matter.
“Black Lives Matter.” That slogan has become forever linked to the movement that began here in the community of St. Louis just short of a year ago. I confess I find the media’s sense of controversy around those words amusing. I’m still waiting for some absent-minded reporter to simply ask one of these absent minded presidential candidates, “Do you think that Black lives Matter?” What are they going to say, “no?”
The talking point for many of the talking heads has been to turn the slogan around. They say, “All Lives Matter.” This is true, but it is a subtle “no” to the movement. The young people, the activists, are asking us to remember that our system has not valued ALL lives. Historically, black lives were sold in this country, in this very state. Still today, Black lives are lost at a disproportionately high rate to violence in our city streets. Still today, in 2015, black lives are ended at a disproportionately high rate by our law enforcement, and by our legal system. Saying “Black Lives Matter” causes us to question whether All Lives REALLY do matter to our community. “Black Lives Matter” confronts the injustice. The words matter.
Yes, all of us have work to do when it comes to integrating our communities. People of every race can work to build a network of relationships that reflects God’s diversity. We can all work to build new friendships. Our souls will all be better fed if we encounter people who look different, think differently, speak differently, vote differently. But we also have to face the systemic nature of exclusion and racism. The power to make a change in our systems rests overwhelmingly with those empowered by those systems. Until we learn to systemically value black lives, we will continue to cut our society off from the potential God has for us. We will continue to waste the gifts God has for us that come from the talented women and men that our society excludes based on race, whose lives end at an alarming rate.
In the midst of all the brokenness in our society, I ask you to consider: what community feeds you? Where do you draw on the multifaceted wisdom and love of God to be found in a diverse community? Where do you find nourishment from people who work to love you fully, and who you work to love fully? Who else could be part of your community?
The final stream of nourishment I want to talk about is worship. Worship is what brings us together this morning. We are part of a tradition that values gathering the community for prayer. See how I just tied the other two streams together? The architects of our tradition were sage when they called the book we share “The Book of Common Prayer.” They acknowledged that something special happens when God’s people hold prayer in common, when we waste time together conscientiously with God.
I admit, coming to worship is not always the easiest thing for me to do. Even though I’m up here in fancy robes, still there are Sunday mornings when I leave my coffee and New York Times behind at my house a bit reluctantly. Yet, almost unfailingly, something about what we do here draws me back. Somehow the fragments of bread and sips of wine become more for me than meets the eyes. Somehow the food that we share, the stories that we tell, the songs that we sing, they become more than the sum of the parts.
When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are fed by God. That’s the faith of the church, and I’ve found it to be true for me. Worship nourishes me, even when I come reluctantly, even when I come tired, and frustrated. Especially when I have come in grief or with anxiety, I have found nourishment in the time we spend together.
When we share Holy Communion, as we are about to do, we encounter Jesus’ invitation to be fed deeply. We are invited to take God into our bodies, into our souls, into our lives more fully. We come to this table to be fed, that through us God might continue to give life to the world.
Where do you draw nourishment? Through Prayer, and Community, and Worship, how does Christ feed you? How could God be your daily bread? Questions to consider for a people with grumbling bellies.