The Bread of Life

John 6:24-36

Hungry and desperate,
the people press in on Jesus from all sides.

I have a bread, Jesus tells them,
that will always fill you up and satisfy you.

Their mind hovers
on these words:
I have a bread that will fill you up.

After all,
this is a people,
who know what it is to be empty,
to be awake at night with worry,
to ache with loneliness in the day,
to stir for any sort of connection
that will remind them
that they matter.

“There is a bread,”
Jesus says,
“that will fill you.”

Their bellies rumbled as they asked:
“How do we get this bread?
What must we do?”

Really they are asking:
“What must we do to fill this hole in our lives?
How can we prove ourselves
or perform
or perfect or please?
What must we do
to be loved and accepted?”

Perhaps they experience regret as
their question slips out.
After all,
we are not supposed to let people
know how desperate we are.
We are supposed to be strong
and together and with it.
What would happen if we needed too much?

Then we would be needy.

What if we are all needy?

Still, the desire presses on the hearts of the people
and the question hangs in the air:
What must we do?

Jesus looks fondly at the people before him:
he has only known them for day,
but he has already grown to love them.
That’s Jesus for you.
No matter who Jesus meets
or how messed up their lives are,
Jesus always seems to have a soft spot for them,
always seems to see
their bravery,
their persistence
their achingly beautiful heart.
Jesus, the Big Softie,
beholds the people before him
and notices the familiar faces.

After all, just yesterday,
they had spent the entire day together.
The people gathered by the seaside
and Jesus taught them.
All day.
All day Jesus told them stories, about a God
who was in love with them,
again and again,
until the people were mesmerized
and the rosy colors of dusk painted the horizon.
Then, and last, the people’s bellies had rumbled
and the spell as broken.
Their neediness came back to them,
full force,
and they began to wonder:
What’s for dinner?
What are we going to eat?

Jesus heard their questions, and growling stomachs,
and took five loaves and two fishes
from a local boy and blessed them, and broke them,
and shared them with all who congregated
And, somehow,
this blessed bread and fish
fed all who had gathered.

The people were amazed.

Then, during the night,
Jesus and the disciples
had crossed to the other side of the sea.
Yet, still hungry,
the people awoke the next morning and
persisted in following them.
They came asking for:
more amazing gestures,
more bread,
more entertainment,
more of anything
to fill them up.

They wanted to know:
What must we do to get more?

Jesus, I imagine,
pauses at this question.
After all,
Jesus doesn’t want anything from them,
Jesus only wants for them.
Nothing is required,
Jesus tells them.
This life-giving bread is yours for the taking,
you just need to believe,
which is to say trust,
which is to say
give your heart to the One whom God has sent
out of wild love for you.
Believe which is to say lean in,
lean into that Big Soft Love
which will lead you to a place
of compassion and adventure,
to a place of rest, delight and connection,
Lean into the Gracious One
who will take you places
beyond your most creative imagining.

We think we need so many things.
We wonder what we must do to get more.
Yet, Jesus is always telling us,
we really only need one thing.
I am here, Jesus,
offering you unconditional love,
radical grace, and deep relationship.
Free of charge.
Free for all.

I am, Jesus says, the Bread of Life.

I was reminded of that truth last week.
Thanks to the generosity of the First Baptist Church in Essex,
I was away for continuing education,
at a monastery workshop
that focused on contemplative practices.
Contemplative practices are ways
to contemplate, or to meditate on God..
The Center Prayer that we do each Saturday
is a contemplative practice;
Each Saturday, as we gather for twenty minutes,
and learn to rest in God’s love.
JOY_2962At the workshop I attended,
one of the practices I learned
was icon writing.
(You write an icon rather than paint an icon
because it represents the Word of God).
Icons harken from the medieval days
when people could not read
and the learned the Scriptures
by looking at paintings.
Icons invite us into
a direct experience of the living God.

I assumed it would be an easy, wonderful
and restful experience.

In reality, I struggled.

At the start,
our teacher invited us each
to share about our icon –writing experiences
and expectations.

As a newby to the practice,
I listened as
the other students shared
how they had written multiple icons.
One student casually dropped in
that she loved art, excelled at drawing
and now was trying her hand at painting
because, why not?

Then it was my turn.
I wanted to duck my head and say
I do not belong.
But I simply said,
I have never done this before but
I am curious about painting as prayer;
I want to learn about ways to access God
that don’t always involve words.

Then, like that, we began.

I will confess —
it was super difficult.
We used a kind of paint called egg tempura
and you can’t go back over it …
you get one stroke, that’s it.
If it is too light or looks wrong, too bad.
You have to wait until it dries to fix it.
If you try to fix it while wet,
all the paint comes off and it looks way worse.

Our board developed bit by by,
as we added layers of paint
to create Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
The experienced iconographers,
flicked on the paint with ease.
My board remained a streaky mess.

I kept wondering, what must I do:
To measure up?
To experience the holy?
To have a good enough icon?

Nothing is required, Jesus tells us.
Lean in. Give your heart
to the One whom God has sent
out of wild love for you.

Our teacher told us:
in the Eastern Orthodox tradition,
they display icons in church,
ones drawn both poorly and well,
because all icons transmit the glory of God.

Our teacher told us:
before you begin, forgive your enemies and
ask for forgiveness for yourself.
Ask God to guide your soul, heart and spirit;
keep the silence, avoid all useless words,
work with great diligence.
and do not be jealous of your neighbor’s icon,
but be happy for them.

So each time as I tried again,
I would take deep breath and pray,
I would forgive myself and my enemies;
I would give thanks for
my neighbor’s totally better icon,
and ask for help on my own streaky one,
and pray that like, the 23rd psalm,
all our souls might be restored.

My teacher added:
You too, are icon,
because you too convey the image of God.

She was telling us,
I suddenly realized,
no matter the amount of flaws,
the glory of God shines through.

Her words softened our class.
People began walking around,
admiring each other’s paintings in progress.
Oh, they might say,
I like the eyes, or the sheep, or the way
you painted the light reflecting off Jesus’ robes.
It’s so beautiful they might add.
They would come up to me and say those same things.
They saw the beauty in my icon
before I did.
But by the end,
we could all see the loveliness around us.
Our maybe it was our loveliness
we learned to see?

As we sealed the pictures with oil
and blessed them in the name of the trinity,
a experienced student thanked the teacher,
saying,
I focus so much on perfectionism but you taught me
to focus on something better, something more satisfying.

What must we do?
I had spent the workshop wondering.

I was reminded:
We think we need so many things,
but, really, we only need one thing.

Jesus says to us, come, receive the Bread of Life.

I experienced that in person,
on the Sunday that
I prepared to leave.
At worship,
I got to hear a sermon by Brother John,
who had lived in South Africa for 18 years.
He preached on the story
of Jesus feeding the fish and loaves
to the huge crowd.
He pointed out how the disciples
had thought that such a feeding was not possible.
Initially,
because they thought there was no food
and then because they thought there was not enough food.
Brother John talked about how he could relate
because he had experienced those same feelings
when he ministered in South Africa.
Yet he learned and is learning,
how in all circumstances,
whether we have nothing
or not enough,
Christ is present.
If there is any doubt, John said,
we need only to look to communion.
(Communion followed the sermon that day.)
John added: “I will be up there helping,
and I may make mistakes when I’m doing it.
I often do. I either have nothing or not enough.
All of you will come to receive communion
and you will bring your emptiness or inadequacies
as I will when offering the wine,
probably trembling while doing it.
Yet still, Christ is present with us and through us,
and will insist that what we have to offer
is sufficient because Christ makes it so.”

After Brother John’s words,
I receive communion with trembling hands,
and John offers it with trembling hands.
We discover the truth together
that even there, flaws and all,
the Holy is present.

What could be more glorious, more beautiful than that?

Amen.

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