Sunday, May 01, 2005

John 6:25-40, Sermon for May 1, 2005

Jeff Garrison
First Presbyterian Church
May 1, 2005
John 6:25-40

Last week, in our tour through the first half of John’s gospel, we considered story of Jesus feeding the multitude. John follows that miracle with another one that I’m going to skip reading, but will tell you about. The disciples are sailing across the lake at night. Since we were told at the end of the feeding account that Jesus went off to be alone, it appears the disciples take it on themselves to go back to their homes across the Sea of Galilee. Normally, we wouldn’t give much thought about this, after all several of them are fishermen. They know how to handle boats. But this night, a violent storm blows in. Their boat takes on water and they fear from their lives. Then, in the midst of the storm, Jesus walks up and leads them to safety on the other side. Word gets around about Jesus feeding the 5,000 and once again he’s pressed by a gathering crowd to perform more miracles. They want bread made of wheat; Jesus offers them the bread of life.

Jesus equates bread with God’s word for which there’s plenty precedence within the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, words echoed by Jesus during his temptation, we are reminded we live not by bread alone, but by the word of God. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs invites all to come and eat of her bread and drink of her wine. The prophet Amos tells about a coming famine, but he’s not talking about a shortage of bread, but of the word of God.[1] Bread is an appropriate symbol of God’s word. Bread made of grain sustains our bodies; bread as the word of God sustains our lives. Bread that is old becomes stale; it needs to be constantly refreshed. So does our faith, which is refreshed as we study God’s word. Read John 6:25-40

Tensions exist between Jesus and those who want bread. It’s similar to the tension between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well back in chapter 4. In both cases, Jesus wants to give so much more than is expected. The Samaritan woman, after a while, got it and became Jesus’ first evangelist. The crowd doesn’t get it and soon turn on Jesus.

Jesus wants to give the crowd so much more than a few crumbs that will soon be consumed or become moldy. But the crowd, many of whom witnessed Jesus’ dramatic feeding of the five thousand the day before, doesn’t get it. They want something to eat. The climax of this passage comes in verses 34 and 35. Then the crowd asks Jesus to give them bread always and Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life.” These guys are talking to Jesus, God incarnate, and all they can think about are their stomachs. They are so focused on themselves that the only value they see in a relationship with Jesus is in what they can immediately get out of him. They’re not committed for the long run.

It’s easy to come down hard on the crowd looking back on them from our comfortable pews. Yes, we know, they’re greedy. But then, are we any different? When I look in a mirror, I wonder. When I consider my prayer life, I know how I’m much more likely I am to pray when I am in need or trouble. Am I any different than the crowd? If I’d been there, would I have focused on a loaf of bread, hot and fresh and with a tad of butter, rather than on words of Jesus that brings eternal life?

Jesus tries to get it through the heads of those listening that what’s important in life isn’t that that can be made out of flour and water. Bread will mold. Remember, Jesus’ advice about not worrying about storing up riches that rust or that which thieves steal.[2] Ultimately, things aren’t important. He’s what’s important, Jesus Christ, God incarnate. He gives and sustains life. But the temptation to think otherwise is overwhelming! When you’re hungry and your stomach is gnawing, a loaf of bread looks pretty good. When you’re feeling blue, the idea of feasting on a rich meal or drowning your sorrows in well-aged bourbon is tempting. When you’re lonely, it is easy to be enticed into thinking that a new outfit of clothes will make the difference. We all suffer from a Spiritual hunger and try to fill this void with things.[3] On TV and the radio we’re told, in not so subtle terms, that new cars and certain beverages will help us to enjoy life to the fullness; but it doesn’t work, we end up even hungrier.

Yes, it’s too easy to come down too hard on the crowd. Sure, they’re greedy. But we are no different! It’s just that our economic values have changed. We no longer crave simple bread; we’d want a croissant or at least raisin bread with a tad of peanut butter. Think about it. Bread is such a basic food; we take it for granted. I’m willing to bet we’d find out most of us, if we took a survey, don’t eat the end pieces of a loaf. At best, we crumble them up and feed them to the birds. At worst, they end up in the landfill feeding the seagulls. And why should we eat the end pieces when we can run to the store and pick up a fresh loaf. Bread’s cheap. Even someone making minimum wage earns enough to buy a loaf in 15 minutes.

Now, I’m neither an economist nor an anthropologist, but I’d venture to guess those in the ancient world labored a lot more than a quarter of an hour for their daily bread. Think of all that is involved—the planting and harvesting of wheat, the grinding of the grain into flour, the mixing and kneading and shaping of the dough, and the proofing and baking. They weren’t able to rush down to Felpausch and buy a loaf using the spare change lying on their dashboard or under the cushions of their couches. Bread had value back then. They’d seen Jesus break a few loaves of bread and fed 5,000 folks. They’d feasted at Jesus’ table and wanted more!

In our Old Testament reading from Psalm 41, the Psalmist’s complains to God that his enemies have eaten his bread and are now raising their heel at him.[4] I assume they are raising their heel to kick him. And that’s what happens to Jesus! He feeds the crowd when they’re hungry and there’s no place to get food. Now they’re back at their home villages, they still want bread. Not getting what they want, they soon turn on Jesus as we see later in this chapter.

As some of you know, I use to work in a wholesale bakery. It all started as a summer job between my first and second year in college and I ended up staying on working second shift throughout college and while working a variety of shifts, for two years after I graduated. That first day I entered the plant, I was overcome with the aroma. The smell of yeast bread baking seemed heavenly, but it didn’t last. Pretty soon, I didn’t notice the smells anymore and the excitement of watching the loaves rise and bake waned. It became a job; I took it all for granted, kind of like the crowd who takes Jesus’ miracles for granted.

I quickly worked up the ranks and spent the last couple years in supervision. With seven employees and a lot of modern technology, I oversaw the production of 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of bread an hour. That’s a lot of dough! If you figure a ½ pound of bread a person, per meal, technology has caught up with one of Jesus’ great miracles. Jesus and the disciples feed 5,000 people—we could have done the same in about twenty minutes. Of course, we needed a few ingredients like flour and yeast and lots of electricity and natural gas. In Jesus’ day, it would have taken quite a production to produce that much bread which makes his miracle even greater!

One of my claims to fame as a baker was throwing away more bread in one afternoon than anyone else in the history of the plant. In one hot summer afternoon, we threw away 24,000 loaves of pound and half bread—that’s 36,000 pounds or 18 tons. That much bread creates a disposal problem. The first of the bad bread got shipped to a seafood processing plant where they made stuff crabs—which will give you something to think about the next time you order a stuff crab. This company had a standing order for a few thousand pounds of bread whenever we had some that wasn’t quite right. They really liked bread that was over-baked. It didn’t matter what the bread looked like, they just crumbled it in with the crab meat and used it to stuff the shells. The rest of the bread went to hog farmers all over southeastern North Carolina. Normally, we’d sell the farmers crippled bread stuffed in old molasses or pan oil drums. On this day, we put out a plea and asked them to bring their trucks and to take whatever they could use, for we had to get it out of the plant. That much bad bread, especially when it’s hot, creates problems. If it started to mold, it would have been a disaster.

The bread that day rose nicely in the proof box. But when it came onto the conveyor between the proofer and oven, it dropped flat as a pancake. By the time we realized we had a problem and checked everything, we had all the loaves in the system. The only thing to do was to bake the bread and then dump the loaves out of the pans, by hand, for they were too small to be picked up by the depanner. As the loaves accumulated on the floor, a forklift equipped with a scoop, picked it up and took it the loading dock where the farmers shoveled it into the beds of their trucks. It was humbling to watch that much bread go to waste, especially since I, the guy in charge, had no idea what the problem might be. After changing our ingredients, going to all new batches, the bread returned to normal and I breathe a sigh of relief. It took a few days, but after having a lab test our bread and the ingredients we were using, the mystery was solved. The enrichment, those vitamins and stuff you add to flour to replace that which is lost in the milling and bleaching process, had three times the amount iron as it was suppose to have. The extra iron was the problem. As the boss, my neck was saved and our ingredient supplier had to reimburse us for the cost of the wasted bread—I suppose you could say he brought dinner for thousands of hogs in eastern North Carolina.

Bread, for us, is not as special as it was for our ancestors. They couldn’t image throwing away that much bread! To the ancient ones, bread was considered a gift from God. It was to be used and not wasted. There is still a Jewish custom that one is not to waste even a bit of bread, a custom that has it roots in the wilderness experience where they had to depend daily upon God’s manna from heaven. In our modern world, we need to consider the work that goes into making bread and cherish it as a gift. Like water, in chapter four, Jesus takes a common item and makes it holy. Our God can be encounter through the ordinary!

Kathleen Norris has a little book titled The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.” Quotidian is just a sixty-four dollar word that means ordinary. In this book she brings out how the divine can be encountered through ordinary events of the day. Quoting another author as she recalls an “Ah-ha” moment, she writes: “I had never thought about the obvious fact that preparing a meal can be a sign of caring and loving communication because food just has never been an avenue of communication for me.”[5] Jesus uses the bread to communicate a more sustaining truth about who he is! Norris goes on to suggest that our daily ordinary tasks, if approached reverently, can save us from the trap that religion is merely an intellectual exercise of “right belief.”[6] Our God is Lord of all and therefore concerned with all aspects of our lives.

Even though bread is so common for us that we take it for granted, we should not lose sight that it’s not that way for many people in the world. Bread, in the form of tortillas, is still the basic food of survival in many countries to the south of us. Watching the women make tortillas in Honduras, a daily task, reminds us that we’re to pray for our daily bread. Although bread represents only a fraction of our budgets, we need to consider its value and treat it with respect. In doing so, maybe we can make that link between the bread that sustains our bodies and the bread that sustains our lives. One loaf nourishes our body and the other our souls. Both are ultimately from God. Together they make us whole and for both we should give thanks.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we thought of Jesus throughout the day, whenever we came in contact with bread? At breakfast as we butter toast, we should give thanks. At lunch, as we slather peanut butter and jelly between two slices of bread, we should give thanks. At dinner, as we chew on freshly baked biscuits or yeasted rolls, we should give thanks. If we could just pause a moment before consuming another slice of bread, and think about Jesus, we’d begin to appreciate bread and all the hands that go into making it; we’d also begin to sense just how important Jesus is to our lives… Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 8:3; Proverbs 9:5-6; Amos 8:11ff.
[2] Matthew 6:19-20.
[3] Craig Barnes addresses this spiritual hunger in many of his books. See especially Yearnings: Living Between How it is and How It Ought to Be (Dowers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991) and Sacred Thirst (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).
[4] Psalm 41:9.
[5] Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.”(New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 73.
[6] Norris, 77.