In weather like this, it’s easy to put a perfectly good loaf of bread in the breadbox one day and find it covered in luxurious green the next morning. As one breadmaker said in an interview on NPR, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” [cited by Mark Davis, Left Behind and Loving It, 7/28/15] . The process that makes yeast ferment and makes bread to rise is so close to the process that spoils it.
When the crowd came looking for Jesus the day after he had fed them with the 5 loaves and two fish, [the story that you heard last week], he said to 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 Humanity will give you.”
There is “bread that delights in taste and satisfaction of hunger,” Mark Davis writes, “but which also spoils over time.” [ibid.] That is the bread the crowd was looking for and the bread which we spend most of our lives looking for, “working for the food that perishes,” as Jesus says. But Jesus also remembered that other time when he was hungry, having fasted for 40 days, “We do not live by bread alone,” he told his Temptor then, at least not by the bread that spoils and perishes. We live–truly live, become fully alive–by the food that endures for eternal life; not by the bread that Jesus produces for the crowd, but by the bread that Jesus is.
“We crave radiance in this austere world/ [poet Elizabeth Alexander writes], light in the spiritual darkness.” [from “Allegiance,” in Crave Radiance]. We crave radiance. I was finally able to listen to a whole broadcast of OnBeing with Krista Tippett on VPR last Sunday. It’s on from 7-8 Sunday mornings, and I am usually getting up and ready, catching only snippets at the beginning and sometimes, the end, and then, if I’m smart and remember, I read through the transcript of the interview later on in the day. If you don’t know about this show, I urge you to check it out.
Last Sunday Krista’s 2010 interview with Elizabeth Alexander was re-broadcast, and I savored every minute of it. I even was smart and remembered to read the transcript during the week, to catch what I had missed. Elizabeth Alexander was the poet who read her poem “Praise Song for the Day”at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. I was grasped by the title of Ms. Alexander’s book of poetry–Crave Radiance–as it so perfectly captures the hunger and thirst that is at the heart of all our hungers.
I do crave radiance. Call me a religious nut case, if you will. “I hope you didn’t think about religion on vacation,” someone kindly said to me this week, but alas, I did and I do think about it–not the religion of institutions and committees and pronouncements, but the “re-ligio”–the tying together, the “re-ligamenting” of who we are with each other and with the Source of our being? Yeah, I think about it all the time. Crave radiance.
The psalmist knew about this craving– “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
Jesus called God “abba,” “papa,” in Aramaic the word also means, “source of the radiance.” “We crave radiance in this austere world,” Alexander writes, “light in the spiritual darkness,” and in her interview with Krista Tippett, she said, “We crave truth-tellers. We crave real truth….There is so much baloney all the time.”
Donald Trump attributes his popularity to his truth-telling. “I tell it like it is,” he claims, and his approval ratings among Republicans suggest there is, indeed, something going on here. Of course, the same might be said of Bernie Sanders, who has been “telling it like it is” for over 40 years. We crave truth-tellers. We crave real truth..There is so much baloney all the time.” I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you think Donald or Bernie are telling the truth, or if it’s baloney.
“Very truly, I tell you, [Jesus told the crowd] 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 Humanity will give you.”
We are indeed offered so much baloney, by our politicians, by advertisers, by the media, even, too often, by religious institutions or personnel. Jesus seems to be saying here, Mark Davis points out, that there is a way of pursuing faith that is wonderfully attractive but which can prove ruinous in the end….Instead of the bread he produces, which will spoil, Jesus says to crave the bread which he is.” [ibid] What we need is not right doctrine, or even memorable stories, but a way of being, a way of being fully alive. That’s the radiance we crave. What we need is food that endures. What we need is light that is radiance, not just manufactured or glittery, bouncing off the surface, but rather Light that radiates from the Source of the Radiance, that, in fact, is at the heart of our being.
Now, of course, “there are people in the world,” as Gandhi said, who are “so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” The hunger that we experience as relatively well-fed people is not the same as the full-body, physical hunger of those who are literally starving. One American woman who went to Haiti wrote,
[In Haiti] I have seen a little girl try to ease her hunger by eating dirt. When I approached her, she covered her lips to conceal the mouthful of grit and pebbles, but tiny tell-tale stones glistened on her lips and chin….I just wish we could set a table [or have Jesus turn the stones into bread] for the little Haitian boy who cried in my arms last night….I asked him why he looks so sad. He burst into tears, eyes full of pain, and whispered, ‘I’m hungry.’” [in Kate Huey, sermonseeds, 7/28/15]
Crave radiance, but first remember those who crave food and water.
“What if the mightiest word is love?” Elizabeth Alexander asks in her inaugural poem. “Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to pre-empt grievance…” She is asked if a word such as love has any place in a political context, like the inauguration of a president. “The word is sober,” she replies. “The word is grave. The word is not just about something light and happy and pleasurable. The word calls up deep, deep responsibilities.”
“Very truly, I tell you, [Jesus said,] 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 Humanity will give you.” This bread which Jesus is, this radiance direct from the Source, is not merely love, love, love, which, in one sense, is all you need, but it is also hard work, deep, deep responsibilities. It doesn’t always taste or feel good, but it is real, it is true. The hard work is practicing staying open to that Radiance, noticing how and where it appears in our bodies, in our relationships, in our moments of quiet and stillness, in our experiences with community. It is seeing to it that Haitian children have more than dirt to eat, let alone the children who live in our midst here in Bennington. It is the bread we serve at 5 o’clock on Sunday afternoons, and may I remind you that there is always a need for more people willing and able to be part of our Sunday Supper team or to work at the Kitchen Cupboard?
“What if the mightiest word is love?” And what might such a mighty love look like in the context of our community, our nation, our world, so torn apart by divisions of every kind? As Krista Tippett points out, “tolerance” is not nearly a large and mighty enough word for what we are called to do. “Love can sit with disagreement,” Alexander says. It can “listen, let it stand whole….Really hearing the grievance of another, intimately, goes a long way to moving people forward.” That is the advice given to Bernie Sanders this week by members of the Black Lives Matter movement. Listen. Really hear our grievances, our experiences now.
Poetry, of course, is the currency in which Elizabeth Alexander deals. “Poetry…is the human voice,” she writes. Human beings have always sung, she points out, which is another form of poetry. But religion–true religion–is also the human voice, giving rise to the deepest longings of the human spirit. “Poetry,” writes another poet, “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” [Audre Lourde, cited by E. Alexander, onbeing]
Is that not what our faith can do–give our hopes and dreams language and ideas and put them into action? Is that not the true bread we long for–to form the quality of light within which we [base] our hopes and dreams…” ? Not in airy, fairy, other-worldly language or images, but like poetry, in the midst of our very ordinary, daily lives? Can a dream rise up through onion fumes… and yesterday’s garbage ripening in the halls?” poet Gwendolyn Brooks writes? Can we experience Radiance in the midst of doing the dishes, balancing our checking account, scrubbing the toilet, checking our e-mail or text messages? What are we spending our time seeking, the bread that spoils or the bread that lasts?
This is the bread that lasts, but also the bread that spoils. Mold could grow on this. The grape juice could become wine or vinegar. What is important is who we become – what kind of bread and drink we become – once we have taken them in. What if the mightiest word is love?
May that word become flesh in us. Let us keep the feast. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark