Sermon at Irving Memorial Church, Robertsport, Liberia
We have been abundantly well fed on this visit â yesterday, I think we were fed six different times â and each time was a sign of hospitality and abundance, and the love of God shared with brothers and sisters.
This morning we hear about manna in the wilderness and bread from heaven. Are you hungry yet? Iâm having a hard time remembering what itâs like to be hungry. What do you look for when youâre hungry?
The staple foods here are cassava, rice, eddoes, and maybe plantains and sweet potatoes. Iâve always wondered how the church came to insist on wheat bread and wine as the only elements used at eucharist, rather than using the local foods, the kind of daily bread we pray for in the Lordâs Prayer. Wouldnât a sign of abundant life here make more sense as rice and ginger beer or cassava and palm wine?
Itâs abundantly clear that the early sacred meals among Jesusâ followers used other foods like fish and barley bread â thatâs certainly what is fed to the 5000 men, besides women and children. Some early eucharistic liturgies include blessings for milk and honey, particularly for the newly baptized at the Easter Vigil, and one Eucharistic prayer includes a blessing for cheese and olives. The early meals of Christians were probably a mixture: eucharist and community meal. Eating together, both at this table and at the table weâll share afterward, has always been central to Christian fellowship.
Whatâs the most important kind of sustenance you know; whatâs your image of the heavenly banquet? Iâd probably start with fish, and a good, dense, multigrain loaf of bread. None of that all-white air bread! Some wag years ago said it was one thing to believe that the eucharistic bread was the body of Christ, but it was a much harder thing to believe that those little white wafers were really bread. They are pretty puny signs of abundant life.
So what is it we say about living bread, the bread of life that offers its eaters abundant life? The people in communities around the early church sometimes thought Christians were cannibals, with all their talk about eating flesh and drinking blood. We do miss the point sometimes when weâre too insistently literal! What is that living bread?
We say that we eat this meal to become what we eat â the body of Christ, partakers in the life abundant thatâs meant for all Godâs children. The bread of life feeds us so that we might become the bread of life for others, willing to offer our own lives for the life of the world.
What is it that most of us value above all else, and work hardest to protect? For most human beings it is life itself. Like most of Godâs other creatures, we are created with strong impulses toward self-preservation, and that may be the most central part of what we call âoriginal sin.â Original sin isnât about sex, itâs about life and our attachment to it â often to the exclusion of othersâ lives. That is certainly what Liberia is struggling to heal â the attitudes of wartime when some insisted that the only important lives were their own. Americans are struggling with a variation on that, as we try to discover or remember that feeding the hungry and healing the sick are necessary to the health of the whole nation.
Unenlightened human beings (and we are all unenlightened, to some degree or other) will do almost anything to protect their lives. And yet, Jesusâ witness is that it is only in letting go of that stranglehold on our own self-protection that we can begin to discover what our lives are really for. Theyâre for giving away. Even unto death, and death on a cross. There is no greater love than to lay down oneâs life for a friend. And who does Jesus call friend but each and every one?
The bread of the world, that living bread, gives life to others â freely offers self for others. That discovery and the labor and decisions that follow are what weâre all about. We never do that work of giving ourselves away perfectly, and so we come together over and over and over again to eat bread, seek sustenance and drink the stuff of life so that we can try yet again to become what we eat.
Itâs actually our task to eat of the same loaf and cup and then, each in our own way, become that sustenance for others in ways that address their hungers. We become cassava and ginger beer for those who are hungry for home and a sense of belonging here in Liberia. Some become milk and honey for different hungers. Each one of us, in ways shaped by the gifts given in our own creation, each of us can become bread and life for some part of the worldâs hunger.
Now thereâs something of a different take on this living bread in the first reading we heard, where it says, âGod humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with mannaâ¦ in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.â Weâre meant to be fed by the Word, Jesus, come among us, whom we receive in bread and wine, and weâre meant to be fed by the Word of God we know in scripture. Not one or the other, but both, which is why this liturgy is shaped the way it is â both word and meal, each informing the other. Itâs one of the ways in which Episcopalians are a bit different from some other Christians, who focus primarily in scripture and donât put as much attention on the meal we share. Some have said that we eat at two tables â the table of the word and the table of Christâs meal.
We can discover things about God by eating at this table that we canât always hear through the word of scripture. And the surprising thing is that sometimes we discover different things in different places and at different times. The Episcopal Church began to discover more than 30 years ago that it needed to include children at this meal table, as soon as they were baptized. That part of the church discovered or remembered that the early church often baptized whole families at the same time, adults, children, and infants, and that everybody needed feeding from this table. So we began to invite very young children to take communion, maybe just a drop of wine for the youngest, or a bit of bread for the toddler. Along the way some adults were bold enough to admit that they didnât really understand everything about what God is doing in sharing this meal with us, but that they might learn something from their juniors. Maybe a child could lead them, once in a while. A friend of mine tells about a little boy who came back from communion when theyâd had real bread â you know, a great big fragrant loaf â and said in a very loud whisper, âmommy, thatâs the best body of Christ I ever had!â
The bread of God is meant to become new life in us, to become abundant life in us, so that we become abundant, fragrant bread for the world. Letâs eat â letâs eat and see if we canât be the best body of Christ somebody ever had.