Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pentecost 10B, Proper 14

John 6:35, 41-51

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you look at the cover of this morning’s service bulletin, you’ll notice that today is the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. There are lots of Sundays after Pentecost. Exactly how many there are will vary from year to year. The season after Pentecost is the longest liturgical season in the church calendar. Unlike the other seasons, it doesn’t refer specifically to events in the life of Christ. It’s no surprise then that another name for this liturgical season is Ordinary Time.
Just the name Ordinary Time might suggest that this liturgical season isn’t as important as the rest of the church year. As it happens, Ordinary Time coincides with a time of the year when many of us are first focused on taking vacations and then busy with starting the academic year. If we miss a few Sundays at church we don’t feel like we’re neglecting the observance of any major feasts. After all, it’s just Ordinary Time.
Normally, things that we consider ordinary are the things that we take for granted. Things that we consider ordinary are the things from which we have low expectations and which we hold in low esteem. It may be hard for us to conceive of the idea that it is exactly in the ordinary things of life that God does God’s work. It’s easy to think that God, who is anything but ordinary, wouldn’t choose to use ordinary things as the instruments of God’s purposes. And yet, God does exactly that.
Can you think of anything more ordinary than bread? Everyone eats bread, from the very young to the very old. Bread can be found in many different ethnic cuisines. There is bread for every budget. The person who receives a day old loaf of sliced white bread from the food pantry eats bread. So does the person who buys bread from the artisanal bakery that uses only organically grown whole grains. These breads aren’t identical to be sure, but both are easily recognizable as that staple of life, bread.
However ordinary bread may be, the person who doesn’t have enough to eat doesn’t take it for granted. And neither should we. It’s a substance that’s made by human hands, no doubt. The grain is grown, ground into flour, baked, and arrives into our hands usually via a financial transaction. When we go into the supermarket and pick our loaf off a well-stocked shelf, we might well lose sight of the fact that ultimately, bread is a gift from God. God created the earth and the fertile soil in which the grain grew. God endowed us with the capability of transforming the grain into nourishing food.
Jesus’ contemporaries, perhaps more so than we, were well aware of the value of bread. Bread was a food that was prepared daily in their own homes. Unlike most of us today, they were either immediately aware of the growing and milling of the grain or they were actively involved in its farming. But even in their time, that which was plentiful could be taken for granted, and it was. It’s easy to feel jaded about something that’s literally falling down all around you. That’s what happened when Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness and God sent down manna for them to eat. They had their bodily wants satisfied, and yet they complained anyway.
In last week’s Gospel reading the crowd came looking for Jesus. He had just fed the five thousand, performing a miracle, or what John prefers to call a sign. When the people find him, Jesus tells them that it is God who provides the true bread from heaven, the bread that gives life to the world. And Jesus tells them that he is the true bread, saying, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In our reading today, the people around Jesus aren’t exactly pleased to hear him make this statement. John tells us that “the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” Just for the record here, “the Jews” are the local religious establishment. Jesus and his disciples are certainly Jews too, and the usage of the term here isn’t meant to disparage the Jewish people.
And what is the nature of the people’s complaint? It’s that Jesus is “just” an ordinary person. How can it be that Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven? The people said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I have come down from heaven?”
This questioning has a familiar ring to it. We’ve heard it before. We heard it in the Gospel of Mark several weeks ago. “On the sabbath [Jesus] began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.”
It’s an old and recurrent human story. For some reason it’s so hard for us to believe that God can not only be present in ordinary things, but that choosing the ordinary to express the extraordinary is something that God seems to do on a quite regular basis. If you think about it, you’ve probably had your own moment of seeing God’s hand in a very ordinary situation or person. You have maybe even witnessed one person being Jesus for another.
One of my most memorable experiences of this sort happened about fifteen years ago in a soup kitchen in downtown Charlotte. On that particular day we were serving pizza as well as the usual soup and sandwiches for lunch. Pizza was a special treat there, and a line quickly formed at the side counter where I was handing a slice to each person who came. I looked at the length of the line and realized that someone was likely to go away disappointed. The last two men came up to the counter; I had one piece left. I was prepared for a dispute. To my surprise, the first man said to the man behind him, “You have it.” Both that man and I were astounded, to put it mildly. It might not be a big deal for you or I to make this sacrifice, but among people who didn’t get much to eat period and who certainly didn’t get much of anything special, this gift was particularly remarkable. It was a remarkable gift from an ordinary, or some would even argue, less than ordinary person.
There’s that word ordinary again. Which brings us back to ordinary time, and time itself. Time is something we take for granted. Life is measured out in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and so on. The concept of time is one of the first things we learn in life. It’s always existed. Or has it?
Where did time come from? Remember back to the very first chapter of the book of Genesis. God created time along with heaven and earth: “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” When God finished creating heaven, the earth, and all living creatures, including the humans God made in God’s own image, God rested on the seventh day: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
God created time, so I don’t think it’s going too far to say that no time can be truly ordinary. The Psalmist said, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.” Any day, an ordinary day, is hallowed. And one day, two thousand years ago, God who created time and who created bread, and who created us, chose to come to earth as an ordinary Palestinian baby who grew up to be the man who said, “I am the bread of life.” Amen.