The Bread Also Rises
A Sermon For The Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh, Clergy
August 5, 2012
We are going to be reading John’s Gospel: the story of a time when the people followed Jesus, asking him to whip up more miracles for them. He has already turned the loaves and fishes into a feast for 5,000, and they want him to do it again. But he says, watch yourselves; be careful; keep track of your hungers and see them for what they are.
I have a story for you, told to me by a member of our church in Ipswich this week. It seems that a lady had a parakeet, and it died. She took it to the vet, and the vet, without needing much analysis, told her that the parakeet was indeed dead, and she should bury it. But she said, “No, it’s been my pet for a long time. I really like it. Can’t you do anything?” And the vet said, “No, not now; it’s dead.” But the lady begged him for more work to be done on the parakeet. So the vet finally agreed. He opened the door to the back room, and a technician came out, with a silver tabby cat on a leash. The cat walked up to the parakeet, sniffed it, pushed it to the other end of the desk, and then walked away. Then, out of the same back room door, another technician came out, with a Labrador retriever on a leash. The Labrador bounded up to the parakeet, sniffed its feet, sniffed its head, and then lay down and panted. The vet turned back to the lady. “Sorry lady. Your bird is dead.” “Ok,” she said. “How much do I owe you?” “Five hundred dollars.” “Five hundred dollars to tell me that my bird is dead?” “Well,” said the vet, “It was going to be fifty for the office visit. But with the cat scan and the lab report, it’s five hundred.”
Sometimes we start with a simple problem, and we make it really complicated. Like the lady with the dead bird, sometimes we do not need a lot of help to understand a situation, but we want it to stay complicated, so we go looking in strange places. This is a similar situation to what Jesus is talking about in John’s Gospel. Sometimes we get all mixed up, he says. Sometimes we feel sad, but we think we are hungry. Sometimes we feel lonely, but we think we are thirsty. It gets all jumbled in our brains, and we go out looking for the wrong cures, when the answer is straightforward. What we really want is comfort, and love, and food in our body just when it’s hungry.
Sermon for All Ages:
John 6: 25 ff
The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberius came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set the seal.
This is a sermon about hope. I would like to thank your minister Arlene for inviting me to fill in for her while she is away. It is an honor to be here.
The Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516) has a painting hanging in the Prado in Madrid called “seven deadly sins” and he depicts a man, sitting in a tidy room, on a chair with a pillow in his painting segment called “sloth”. He has a fire in the fireplace, a dog at his feet, music playing outside his window, even a nun, coming to his doorstep to pray the Rosary with him. But he sleeps. He has 100 beautiful things waiting. But he sleeps and waits. Alas, he is sleeping still, 500 years later.
Sometimes I think we get stuck waiting for happiness, or fullness, and we do not realize the joy that is around us. We can get so distracted that we miss our chance to be free.
In a similar way, in Dante’s Inferno, the people who suffer from spiritual hunger are depicted by Dante as stuck under the surface of a large stinking swamp. They explain, “We were sad in the sweet air which the sun made cheerful, for within us was morose smoke.”1
Jesus says, as John’s Gospel remembers it, “Don’t do that. Don’t get stuck in appetites or moods or resentments. Don’t look in all the wrong places for joy. Rather, look right where you are. You don’t need new possessions, new purchases, and new foods. All you need, to borrow Dante’s words, is the sweet air, which the sun made cheerful.
The context of this verse is this: Jesus has fed the 5,000, and the people are looking for more. They realize that he is a man of miracles, and they follow him tenaciously. Jesus, then, as John presents him, draws a line for them. Be careful, John describes Jesus saying. Don’t mix up your belly and your brain. Don’t mix up your short-term longing with your long-term trust.
John’s Gospel is rich with these distinctions between the material body and the spiritual plane. John presents Jesus as the holy golden man, never hungry after the resurrection as he is in Luke’s Gospel, never crying in fear or pain on the cross as he is in Matthew’s Gospel, but rather so pure and powerful that he needs nothing, transcends everything, and perfectly manages his life. John even quotes Jesus from the cross as saying, ‘It is accomplished’, his salvation is worked out, rather than the “why have you forsaken me” that we hear from the other Gospel writers.
I have been working with a manuscript from Krister Stendahl, who was the Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm in the 1980’s and spent every summer right across the bay here on Nantucket, who talks about the Jesus of John’s Gospel. According to John, Jesus is powerful beyond measure. He’s not afraid of anything. He’s never tempted. He never asks for help. He never blows up or knocks over a table. The Jesus of John’s Gospel, in other words, is far away from the human man that we find in the other gospels. He’s powerful and strong and shielded, by his holiness, from the mutability of human emotion.
And so it is no wonder that John describes Jesus here, reminding the people to turn away from the perishable thoughts and hungers, and towards the imperishable. The Jesus of John’s Gospel is great at that model of aiming for perfection, without coddling the human frailty. He wants us to be great at turning toward the joy.
In this perfection that John’s Gospel points us to try for, Jesus says there are really two kinds of food: the kind that perishes, that is the sort that nourishes our bodies. And there is the kind that doesn’t perish. That is the sort that nourishes our souls. He says sometimes, we go looking for the perishable foods, even when it’s our souls that are hungry. Be careful about that, he says. Keep a good boundary. Know when your body is hungry, and know what the other signals come from, and mean.
Sometimes we get mixed up, we feel hungry when we are really sad; we feel thirsty when we are tired. And we make bad decisions.
I titled this sermon, “The Bread Also Rises”, thinking of Ernest Hemmingway’s novel, “The Sun Also Rises”; a good Paris novel to consider while your minister is away in Paris. Hemmingway writes his novel beginning in the gay city of France, and then moving to the bull fights in Spain. The characters are unhappy. Jake Barnes longs for love, and can’t have it. His body is injured in the war, and though he can do sports and many things, he cannot physically love another person. Brett Ashley, on the other hand, has so much physical love that she is cynical from it, and also unhappy. The two of them long for each other, but live isolated. Hemmingway borrows a passage from Ecclesiastes to title his book: “The earth abiedeth forever; the sun also ariseth, and goeth down, and hasteneth to the place where he arose”. Hemmingway told his publisher that he intended the novel to be about the earth abiding forever. The characters are lonely, but not lost. They are hungry, but they yet have a chance at fullness.
It is like the figures from Dante’s inferno: the sweet air is just above them, and they can’t quite smell it, because of the filmy swamp surface that they are just beneath. But they remember the sweet air. They long to have just one day again, up there breathing in the sunlight.
It is like the man in the Bosch painting: he is sound asleep, even though there are many happy things waiting to cheer him if he would just wake up: a fire, a dog, music, even a friend with whom to pray.
In other words, you may not need a cat scan, a lab report, but a simple turning toward joy. In that sense we may find that the bread, though it falls some of the time, also rises up to cheer us. And that rising bread takes forms ordinary and extraordinary; forms we might never expect.
In conclusion, I would like to sing a song that our youth group at home is fond of. Sometimes they sing it for the church. It is called, “Now I walk in Beauty”, and it is a song from the Native American community.
Now I walk in Beauty.
Beauty is before me.
Beauty is behind me, above, and below me.
Thanks be to God.