The Rev. Randy Knutson
Sunday, August 2, 2015
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13
Listen to this…Sermon 2015 08 02 Pentecost X RAK
Panis Angelicus. (one verse; sung)
(Translation: O Bread of heaven to mortals given,
Heavenly bread of angels held in early fare.)
It was some 40 years when as a high school singer, I had to work to prepare that solo by Cesar Franck for my first solo competition. I was new to being in chorus and new to this whole ‘singing thing’. I had to learn the notes, how the melody went. Then I had to memorize the words, these Latin words that I did not understand. I understood if I kept singing in choirs there would be other times I might be singing in Latin, so this was a good time to work on it individually. I even took Spanish that year (the closest thing the Mid-High had to a Latin class), so I could get used to pronouncing all those open vowel sounds. Then, ideally, next I could learn ‘what’ the words mean, so what when I would sing them, I could express the meaning of what ‘heavenly manna’ was. Of course I knew the story of the manna in the wilderness; I had gone to Sunday School at First Baptist Church a lot, heard and maybe even read the story in the Bible. But I could not truly understand why bread, just bread, could hold so much meaning for some. I had not yet formed what I later learned would be called a sacramental theology.
Fast forward a few years and, after my dad had died, I’m now in college at Pacific Lutheran University. My focus is really on music, choral music and singing in Latin has become something I can do quite well and it is enriching. So also is the early Sunday morning service at PLU, the only one I can attend while directing the choir at Westminster Presbyterian Church. After being away from going to church for several years, I was finding myself drawn to this simple service centered around singing, scripture, sermon, and the Eucharist; Bread and Wine. Through the teaching and preaching of the two campus pastors and my going to chapel services on week days at PLU I was developing a theology around this sacrament of bread and wine and beginning to understand why it can be at the heart of our worship. I began to learn why bread could be such an important part of spiritual life, of worship life, together, as a community.
So in these two texts today, tied together so well, are these two ideas: of Holy Manna, given to the people of Exodus who left their comfortable life in Egypt to follow God’s promise to a new home. And people of Jesus time, who have already seen him multiple bread to fill their stomachs and they still want more. More of the bread and more signs from Jesus, to convince them that, perhaps he was a prophet of God.
It is hard for us, in our world of almost overabundance of food, at least in many of the circles we travel in, to imagine a world where people could cry out to God for food. Certainly we do know many of the places where people, lacking food, cry out to God. But back then, imagine their situation, wandering out into a place where every turn is something new, yet seems to contain no promise but less and less to eat; to know less and less what is next. No wonder they cry out in their doubt, remembering the assurance of the food they had back in Egypt, even if they did not have their freedom. To us, they might sound like whiners; complainers. But remember every step, every part of the journey was an unknown, and instead of getting better, things were getting worse. They were becoming more and more dependent on what could be found for food each day as it unfolded. No more reserves, just trusting in God to give them more the next day; a phrase we might know as “our daily bread.” So they implore Moses to ask God to help them, he does and what they get is unexpected. Quail who flock at night, an easy source of the meat they had been craving and then this mystery food that is like a powder or meal, laying on the plants and ground, that would, yes, provide them with something to miraculously make bread with. Hence the idea of bread come down from heaven, bread from heaven itself, from the angels. But what do you think ‘manna’ means? Subsistence? Basic food? No, it means “what is it?” You can almost hear the first group of people picking this stuff off the ground and saying, “What is it?” Having no better name, they keep it. And so, Heavenly Manna could almost be translated: “What a Gift; I’m so thankful….but what is it?”
So what can be learned from this event? God did respond to this need; he did not lead the people into the wilderness and let them die there, but instead did provide for them. It was not what they expected, it was something new and different, but God did provide bread in an unexpected way. And their corporate memory of this still echoes through in Jesus time.
How about the people in today’s Gospel? After being part of the five thousand fed from last weeks reading in John 6, now the same crowd has followed Jesus, seeking more food and additional signs to prove to them that he is sent from God. He had healed the sick and outside of their knowledge, changed water into wine. What additional signs did they need? The answer in hindsight is plenty: even the raising of the dead. But instead, Jesus draws their attention to himself as the bread of life: the very basic thing needed to live and survive.
Many biblical scholars still debate if this passage has eucharistic overtones. That is, is it talking about the eucharist, Holy Communion, or not? I think for most of us who find great meaning in the sacrament of Holy Communion, there is no doubt this at least points to it and especially to the place gathering and breaking bread had for the early church and for us now. It is a question of how the experience of coming together for this meal of bread and wine, this fellowship together and with God, has touched out lives. Also as I think about it, the idea of Jesus as the bread of life and our encounter with bread around this table and outside of church has characteristics that are similar.
We need bread, we need food everyday to survive, or we won’t continue to thrive, to live. So this is an immediate need, but also a long term need, something that has longevity and must be experienced over a span of time. I know for myself, as I said at the beginning, I had knowledge, head knowledge of the story of Holy Manna from the story in the Bible. But for myself, I had no long term encounter with the idea that bread from Holy Communion could nourish and grow my faith. That the consistency of gathering with others around this table of promise could sustain and shape my life over the course of a month, a year, many years. I could only gain that knowledge and know it by trust and coming to God’s table over the course of time. Then I could understand, through that experience, how my encounter with Christ, with others, around this table, could nourish and sustain me in ways that would allow me to compare it to bread sent from heaven. Like bread sent as a literal Godsend to people long ago and bread multiplied for a people looking for God to act and speak in new and different ways. Of course Jesus meant that this bread would also be every word that comes from God; we were meant to live by more than bread alone. But for those of us who find great meaning in this sacrament of bread and wine, at the table, the connection will also always include that part of our encounter with each other and God.
So you see, this is the joy, that is at the heart of what we do here and who we are. Through the Word, the scripture, the spoken Gospel, captured in sacred writing and spoken now, we come to know and understand God and each other. We also see and encounter God working through others,in community; another Living Word. At the same time, we have this tangible, experienced encounter with God at the table, at the font, in physical ways that touch our senses and come back to us over and over again. And both Word and Meal sustain and move us forward in our lives in immediate and long term ways that enrich who we are and who we are with each other. And both keep us grounded in Christ, grounded in who we are and who we know we can be. And both are truly the bread of life. Taste and see that God is good.