“The Smell of Fresh Bread”

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, 18th Ordinary, Lectionary Year B, Aug. 5, 2012, John 6:24-35

Lev 19:9-18

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  

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You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

John 6:24-35

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 his seal.”  Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

The Smell of Fresh Bread

I once saw a news item from Japan about a homeless person who sat, panhandling on a busy street, in Tokyo.  He died there.  Nobody even noticed for several days.  I thought to myself, “Could that happen in our country?”

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The Facts

This is homelessness awareness Sunday.  Homelessness is a huge problem in America.  How bad?  Here are a few of the facts:

“750,000 to 1 million people sleep on the streets every night.”

Who are these people: merely drunks, addicts and psycho’s?

“Many of these people are veterans, families with children, and youth and young adults. Record numbers of veterans of our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking housing assistance within months of leaving the military.

“In 2002, families comprised 41% of urban homelessness, and in rural areas, families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless.

“Nationally, approximately 39% of persons experiencing homelessness are children.

“Youth are particularly vulnerable, with over 1 million experiencing homelessness each year. Many homeless youth have been kicked out or escaped their “homes” because of domestic violence, their sexual or gender identities, and mental illness.” (source: Justice Unbound)

Feeling Bad, but… what to do?

I know we all feel badly about this.  We don’t want to be the kind of people like the  ones in Tokyo who walk away, step over or simply ignore the homeless.

But we feel helpless in the face of such a large, complex problem.  And, to be honest, we feel a bit disgusted.  Homeless people don’t smell good.  They aren’t clean.  Often they look dangerous.

The sight of them apparently doesn’t help promote tourism; in Gulf Shores, it’s illegal to “sleep rough” – as the expression goes.  Is there not more of a compassionate response that a predominantly Christian community could offer?

The Breakfast Trip

What can we do?  Several of us went down to the Government St. Presbyterian Church to help serve a breakfast to the homeless people

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of Mobile which they do every morning, Monday through Friday, all year.

We were there once – just to see and learn something.  It was disturbing.  Their fellowship hall was filled with men and women, young and old, able and disabled, black and white.  They all received a hot meal, and coffee.  The church also provides bible study to those who are interested, and many of them regularly attend.

It’s All Over the Bible

It is remarkable to me how often the need for homes and meals comes up in the Bible.  Think of how much of the Old Testament is given to the time the Israelites were a homeless people in the wilderness, or homeless exiles in Babylon.

Think of Ruth and Naomi who became economic migrants; or Naboth who lost his ancestral inheritance to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

Think of Jesus ministering to the man who lived homeless among the tombs.  For that matter, think of the way Jesus’ life on earth began with a birth, not in a home, but in a stable.

And think of all the attention the bible gives to stories concerning food.  The wandering Israelites are fed daily with manna from heaven.  Elijah is fed by the ravens.  The widow’s supply of grain and oil are kept from running out.  The prophets picture the great banquet table, set for all people with rich food, and plenty for everyone.

In the New Testament, Jesus feeds 5,000 and then again 4,000.  He is often seen at a supper table – sometimes in the home of a Pharisee, sometimes in a home with “tax collectors and sinners.”   Most of of the precious last few hours of his life before his arrest, he spent with his disciples in the upper room, gathered around a supper table, in a home.

The Quintessential Meal

It was there that he took bread, after supper, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them.  In those days, they made bread for the day,

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every day.  “Give us this day our daily bread” says the prayer Jesus taught us.  So, it was fresh bread that Jesus broke.  I wonder if it was still warm from the oven?  I wonder if it released some steam and that wonderful smell of freshly baked bread as he broke it for them?

He told us, “do this, remembering me.”  Think of it: the action that best captures the essence of our life together as a community of people of faith, the Lord’s Supper, began that night in the upper room as meal, shared around a supper table in a home.

The Bread of Life

In the gospel text we read today, the topic of discussion begins about physical bread.  A loaf of bread was the essence of a meal for the peasants of that time.  People on the margins are very conscious of their food-insecurity issues. They apparently hold out hope that Jesus might be like Moses, providing daily bread for the Israelites in the wilderness.  They said to Jesus:

“Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

The next thing that happens is so important.  Jesus does not spring into action with daily bread production.  That would have lasted as long as he was there to do it.  But no matter how long he lived, the bread supply would stop when his life on earth was over.

Jesus came to do something far greater than immediate bread production.  Here is his reply:

“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Believe, Trust, Rely: Act

As you know by now, the phrase “believes in me” literally means, “trusts me; has confidence in me; relies on me.”

Jesus was tipping his hand, showing his cards; this is his strategy.  Instead of going into bread production, Jesus was in the disciple-production business.   He knew that if he could teach people to believe him, to adopt the Jesus-perspective, the daily bread problem would take care of itself.

If Jesus could enable people to embrace his vision of the Kingdom of God, nobody would be sleeping on the streets and nobody would be without a supper table with fresh bread awaiting.

Disciples, people who embrace the Jesus-way, don’t need to live lives of anxiety-based nervous acquisition and self-preservationism.

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They are free.  They trust that their Father in heaven loves them and provides for them, so they open their hearts to the poor, the hungry.

They believe that each person alive is precious to God, and  so they consider it a scandal and a crisis that any of them would need to sleep on a park bench or under a bridge.  Their response, when seeing the homeless, instead of disgust or fear, is to immediately search for effective, compassionate solutions.

They find solutions to the immediate crisis: a bed for the night and food for the morning.  But they are never content with band-aid responses that merely kick the can of addressing the causes of homelessness down the road one more.    So they look at all the related issues.  Since homelessness is inextricably linked to poverty, they address all of the parts: employment, affordable housing, health care, education, day care, mentoring and tutoring, substance abuse, mental health care – the whole package.

How it Works

I wish the way it worked was that you could just pray hard about a problem and God would fix it; pray hard for the homeless, and: problem solved.  But for whatever reasons, known only to him, God has not set it up to work that way.

He has rather put us here as his agents.  He has given us everything we need in order to be his agents.  He has redeemed us from our sinful selfishness and pride through Jesus.  He has taught us – his words are there for us to read and study in the scriptures, so we know all about his agenda of love, mercy and redemption directed towards every example of suffering caused by evil.

He has empowered us with this Holy Spirit who lives in us and gives us gifts to enable our ministries.  He has given us each other in the church to help us organize for effective ministry and to encourage each other so that we can stay in it for the long haul.

And he has filled our hearts with compassion and empathy for all of the human beings on this planet.  We know that God is our common creator.  We know that we share a common humanity.  We understand our own suffering and therefore we are able to imagine the suffering of others.  We know how much “home” and “family” means to us, and we wish that same security and care for everyone.

Fearing Token Gestures

I have a great fear today, that we fall prey to the delusion that being rhetorically engaged in an issue like homelessness completes our

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response, as if having the correct opinion does something all by itself.  Of course opinions don’t get people off the streets; only concrete action does.

I also have the fear that the good and helpful gestures we make give us the impression that we have adequately dealt with the problem.  Like baskets of food at Thanksgiving and Christmas, small gestures are real and do good – I have nothing against them at all.  The danger lies in allowing the small gesture to stand in as substitute for the large concerted action that is required to address a problem.  Christmas baskets don’t end hunger; but they may end our urge to respond to hunger.

I believe in emergency aid to people in crisis.  We have to.  The man lying beside the Jericho road presents us with ethical and moral obligations – the obligations avoided by the priest and the Levite, but fulfilled by the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable.

Soup kitchens and homeless shelters, run by churches and non-profits, are responses to crises.  Like an emergency room in a hospital, these are necessary and important.  But they do not solve anything at all.

We are the Solution

Jesus came to raise up people who would believe in him; rely on him, trust him.  He is the “bread of life” that sustains us every day.  He is the one whose vision we embrace.  He is the one whose strength we draw upon.  He is the one whose love and compassion fills our

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hearts and compels us to imitate his life of direct action.

We cannot start a soup kitchen of our own much less a homeless shelter.  But inspired by the vision of a realm in which God’s “will is done on earth as it is in heaven” and energized by the nutrients of  “bread of life” we can be advocates of every single issue that contributes to the scandal of homelessness in our land.

We will not follow the crowd on the streets that steps over the bodies of the homeless or turns to look away.  We are God’s agents here; this is our watch.  We will speak up, we will vote, we will write, we will organize, and we will do some real practical good.  “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Isaiah summed it up, long ago:

“Is not this the fast that I choose… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?”  (Is. 58:6-7)

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