Below is my sermon for August 12, 2018. This marks the halfway point of our five weeks of readings from John 6! Jesus is once again discussing what it means that he is the bread of life. This sermon is heavy on theology, which isn’t something I do too often, so I hope I’ll be excused. But it seemed like a good time to take a look, not just at bread, but at what we believe about sacraments in general.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was receiving my first communion instruction, which we did in fifth grade at my church, one of the elements of the program, and one that I’ve started here at St. Paul’s, was that the first communion class would bake the bread that would be used.
I honestly can’t remember why, but my year we were doing this at my house instead of at the church. So, all the fifth graders from Advent Lutheran Church and our pastor were gathered in my too-small-for-this kitchen, reading a recipe and measuring ingredients. It was chaotic. Our pastor was terrified of my black lab, who was energetic but would only want to lick you to death. And while the girl measuring the oil held the bottle over the dry ingredients, that energetic dog jumped up, knocked the girl sideways and managed to dump an extra cup or so of oil into the recipe. We baked it anyway. “The bread was very…interesting,” the congregants told us afterwards.
I was much more successful at my second attempt at baking communion bread, in seminary. Someone had to bake the bread every week, and one day I came back to my dorm to find the breadmaking kit outside my door, with a note from the sacristan—a senior in charge of the chapel. “We need four loaves of bread for tomorrow. Follow the instructions and have it at the chapel by 11:00.” I made that bread begrudgingly. I wondered that they couldn’t find anyone else, and so resorted to this sneak attack. The sacristan confirmed for me the next day that she couldn’t find anyone else, and she was tired of begging people to help in chapel. It’s a wonder they couldn’t taste either of our frustrations and resentment baked into the bread.
Here at St. Paul’s we’ve begun baking bread with our first communion class, too. Except this time, I’m the pastor, surrounded by second graders. No dogs allowed, thankfully. But I can’t always watch everything that’s happening at once. And when that bread manages to take the form of loaves—mostly round—and not fall apart in the oven, I always consider it a miracle.
This is where the bread comes from, for our sacred meal. From fifth graders who are jumpy around jumpy dogs. From frustrated and tired seminarians. From second graders eager to help even if they can’t always remember how many tablespoons of honey they’ve used already.
When I hold the bread aloft at the altar after blessing and breaking it, sometimes I say: the gifts of God. Holy things for holy people. Holy things. And yet scandalously ordinary. When Jesus proclaims himself to be the bread sent from heaven, the people are scandalized.
Jesus? Claiming to be from heaven? We know him, they think. He’s an ordinary person, like us. We know his parents, his siblings. We’ve watched him grow up. He’s just like us. And he claims to be sent from heaven? The truly scandalous thing is, they’re right. Jesus is ordinary. He came into the world the same way we all did: born of Mary. He was a boy, he learned and grew. He’s just as poor, just as insignificant, just as ordinary as the rest of them.
Jesus is ordinary. And Jesus is God’s living bread from heaven. Jesus is an ordinary person and at the same time he is so much more: he is the living presence of God.
We have been living with this doctrine for 2,000 years, and we forget just how scandalous it is to say. It is why the Judeans, Jesus’ neighbors and those who have been following him, are incredulous. To claim that someone so ordinary could be sent from heaven is a bold thing to do.
And it’s a boldness that still shocks people. Sometimes people will ask me where we get our baptismal water from. The answer always surprises the asker: from the tap back there in the sacristy. It’s not special water. And our communion bread, when it’s not being made by our second-graders, comes from Linda Burns’ kitchen. The hosts we use on most Sundays are packaged in a big plastic tub. And the wine is from the liquor store.
And yet these ordinary things are holy. We use them in the sacraments of the church. The word sacrament literally means “to make holy.” This ordinary water, bread, and wine are made holy by God to do holy work. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther asks the question, “how can water do such great things” such as forgive sins, redeem from death, and give eternal life? He answers: “Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God. For without the word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the word of God it is a baptism, a grace-filled water of life.”
God is able to use the ordinary stuff of life to do holy and miraculous things. Bread, wine, and water: staple foods, necessities for life, nothing fancy. And yet they form our most holy acts as a church together because they contain for us God’s living bread from heaven.
Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author and blogger, wrote about how the sacraments train us to see the holy in the world. That if we can appreciate the holy in these ordinary things, we will learn to appreciate the holy in other things, too. She writes:
“This is the purpose of the sacraments, of the church—to help us see, to point to the bread and wine, the orchids and the food pantries, the post-funeral potlucks and the post communion dance parties, and say: pay attention, this stuff matters; these things are holy.”
As a church we believe that the sacraments are where we experience this presence of God most clearly. This is where God has promised to be present for us, and so we can trust that God is here in baptism and communion, in the water and the bread and wine, giving life and forgiveness and new beginnings. We find God’s promise to take hold of us and make us God’s own, to remain with us and to never let us go.
While we believe that the sacraments are the clearest places to see this, we do not believe that the sacraments are the only places where we experience the presence of God. Pastor and theologian David Lose wrote about his experience in his blog recently, saying, “I’ve wondered whether, after praying with someone in the hospital, if they were disappointed when I gave God thanks for the machines and instruments to which they or their loved one is attached, for the pharmaceutical companies which make the drugs and for the trucks which deliver them, for the people who keep the hospital clean as well as for the nurses and doctors who attend them. I wonder if they would rather have me simply pray for healing, or for a miracle, or for something more dramatic.”
And yet, he goes on to say, it is dramatic, surprising, and encouraging that God would work through such ordinary things like technology, like imperfect human beings, doctors and nurses with short tempers and poor bed-side manners. Flawed pastors, jaded teachers, worn-out administrators, exhausted parents.
This is the promise we find in the sacraments. For just as surely as God uses ordinary bread and wine to bring us God’s saving word, so too does God use ordinary you and me to accomplish God’s will and work in this world. The sacraments are ordinary things for ordinary people. Holy things for holy people. May they help us to see the God who is present for us everywhere. Amen.