Father Nicholas Lang
The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
I don’t remember a lot of clever lines from movies I’ve seen but I do have a few favorites like “Go sell crazy somewhere else. We’re all stocked up here.” It’s classic Jack Nicholson from the comedy “As Good as it Gets.” It turns out that there are a few lines from films that have become cliché and you might be surprised to know that the most overworked one in recent decades is "You just don't get it, do you?"
Dr. Evil says it in an Austin Powers movie. Martin Lawrence delivers this line in Big Momma's House and we hear it from Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada. Those who utter this hackneyed line comprise a long list of celebrities. But the list doesn't include Jesus.
His audience in today’s Gospel wouldn't be the first not to get it. In just the first six chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus has shown remarkable patience with all kinds of people. The theme of non-recognition and rejection is a thread that runs all through it. The encounters Jesus had were often with needy, troubled people displaying various degrees of skepticism and distrust. To all of them Jesus could have offered that cliché "You just don't get it, do you?"
Jesus could have said it to Nicodemus who scratched his head about this whole idea of “being born again.” He could have said it to the woman at the well. "No, I'm not talking about a drink of water from this deep tank. I'm talking about my presence that fills a thirst no earthly water can quench." He could have said it to the man by the pool. "No, healing doesn't come from bubbling water stirred up by an angel. It comes from me, and I'm standing right here next to you." And he could have said it to the crowd in today’s Gospel. "No, I'm not talking about bread that wears off in a couple of hours and leaves you hungry again. I'm talking about the Bread from Heaven that God has sent into your world to feed you so that you may have eternal life.
Perhaps it was the declaration Jesus made in this chapter of John’s Gospel that was most difficult for his audience to grasp. Jesus didn’t say “I am kind of like bread,” but rather “I am bread.” In a following verse the crowd says, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it.” Yes, it’s not that easy to swallow. How do we wrap our head around such an unusual, even outlandish statement?
A church group spent a couple of weeks working among desperately poor people in Haiti. One afternoon they piled into a little truck with two great pots of rice and went to a desert-like place where folk lived in tiny grass huts beside a dried up riverbed. There they came to offer the folks the rice. As soon as the truck approached, dozens of people ran toward them, many of them naked, all of them famished.
Frantically, they pushed in among these missioners, thrusting their small eating bowls toward them. In a matter of five minutes, more than two hundred pounds of rice had been distributed. Then the people in the village fell silent and moved back to their huts as the truck drove away.
The minister who led that trip to Haiti later reflected on it in a sermon. “I’ll never get that sight out of my mind. To stare starvation in the face, to see what bread means to hungering persons, is to know the radical quality of Jesus’ statement, ‘I am bread.’”
I suspect that those who complained to Jesus that day never knew that kind of profound hunger. I’ll bet they were well sated upper echelon community leaders, movers and shakers, whose stomachs were well filled and wine cellars well stocked. The notion of such profound hunger eluded them. But do we get it? Most of us here have sufficient food for our nourishment and enjoyment. Hunger, however, is not always visible nor is it just physical. How many of us here today may have some unfulfilled hunger for something other than food?
Or maybe some of us feel empty because we have not been feeding on the most nutritious things in life. Some of us may be as tired as Elijah on his journey and have not had real nourishment for a long time or not enjoyed fully the many gifts in life God sends our way. In my practice I get calls every week from people who are hungry for peace of mind. Hunger comes in many forms and conditions.
The conflict Jesus encountered in this Gospel is really about his audience’s frame of reference, the box they created for God. Jesus is challenging them to step outside of the comfortable and familiar framework they have established for themselves. He refuses to be limited by either their understandings or their misunderstandings.
He invites them to live a new life, a larger life. He invites them to eat new bread.
As we approach the communion table this morning, we come with open, empty hands. Be aware of what we are receiving. We don’t always see things for what they really are. That’s why Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
As the refrain from our Communion song directs us, look beyond the bread you eat. See your Savior and your Lord. Holy bread for holy hunger. It is, once again, God’s invitation to be nourished with food for our soul.