Historic Churches in Tiny Towns

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Sunday, August 9, Father Sandy preached at Immanuel Episcopal Church in LaGrange, Tennessee. His sermon follows...

It was the end of a long, cold day, and we had been on the road for hours. Everyone in our traveling group wanted to go back to the hotel for a hot shower and a warm meal, but our enthusiastic tour guide would not give up on that one last stop. We asked him to make it mercifully brief.

Our motorcoach pulled into Capernaum at dusk. The historic synagogue was at the center of the tiny town; its first century pavers slick from the rain, the ruins of Roman and Jewish villages emanating out in every direction. We mustered the strength for polite attention as our professor informed us about ancient temple practices, but we were far more interested in the bus, shower, and dinner that would follow his conclusion.

All of this changed when he handed his bible to a student and asked her to read: “[Jesus] said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.”  “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate bread in the wilderness, and they died…I am the living bread…whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

In the midst of our hunger and our weariness, God showed up. The perfunctory nature of the moment gave way to a surprise encounter with the divine. Tears fell on rain-soaked pavers. We ate our fill that night, but in a far different way than we had expected.

***

A few years ago, inspired by a wonderful memoir, I taught myself how to bake bread.  Since bread has only four ingredients, the task seemed simple enough. It wasn’t. Yeast must be nurtured. Time must be managed. Temperature and humidity must be controlled. Bread is a paradox: At the same time, both simple and complex. You have come here hoping for an easy sermon on some famous words. But, when it comes to bread and life, nothing is easy.

Bread plays a prominent, yet complicated, role in Holy Scripture: Jesus is born in Bethlehem, which is literally translated “House of Bread,” but when Jesus’ ancestor, Ruth, went to Bethlehem, there was no grain – no bread in the house of bread.  In John, Jesus says that he is the bread of life. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he takes bread and offers it to his disciples saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.”  Most notably for us this morning, the Israelites were baking bread when they left Egypt, but God made their bread in the wilderness.

Consider the affront that Jesus’ followers would have perceived when he pointed out that the Israelites died while they were eating manna in the wilderness. Manna was a gift from God. Manna was the sign of God’s provision. Manna was the reminder of God’s love. What’s wrong with manna, the Israelites would have asked, forgetting that their ancestors had complained about it daily. There is nothing wrong with Manna, Jesus would have replied. Manna was good. Manna served its purpose, but God has more in store for you than manna. God wants more for you than just the basics of survival.

Our ancestors had bread, bread from heaven, but they did not have this bread. Their bread sustained life for an hour, maybe a day, but this bread, this Jesus bread, imparts life forever.

***

A few weeks ago, I visited with a college student from my last parish in Virginia. Like many young adults, she had taken a break from the church, seeking to find community in other places. The occasion for our conversation was a sense of melancholy, which even we so-called grown-ups can understand. My young, undergraduate friend had so much – so much money, time, opportunity, and privilege – and yet she lacked a sense of fulfillment: “Fr. Sandy, the groups I joined became my community, but community for them was always focused on achieving some goal. None of them wanted community for its own sake, community for the sake of being stronger together than any of us can be separately.”

My friend had bread. She had lots of bread, bread in the form of that remarkably blessed lifestyle that we call the small liberal arts college, but something was missing. You and I also have lots of bread. We have the resources we need to live, and a church family with whom to gather. We have the beauties of creation, the freedoms of our country, and the will to live as good and productive people. Yet even this bread – this good, hearty, filling bread – will leave us hungry at the end of the day. The one true bread is Jesus Christ, the God who shows up in the midst of our hunger and our weariness, the God who gave up the joys of heaven so that he might offer those very same joys to us.

Eating the bread of life means putting our relationship with God in its proper perspective, acknowledging our smallness, recognizing our sinfulness, and living with such grateful hearts that we cannot help but be extravagantly generous.

I wonder what it was like at Capernaum that day. Were the pavers dampened by rain and tears? Did Jesus offer the bread of life to a small group in the corner, or could his words be heard in the village just outside? Did the leaders of the town begin to realize that they hungered for something more than the money and power they had spent their lives amassing?

We will never know the details of that day, but we can determine the details of our day. Just as then, Jesus’ words are ringing out in an historic church in a tiny town. Just as then, Jesus is inviting his hearers not to be distracted by the things with which they are blessed, but to be sustained by the one from whom all blessings flow.

Amen.

Sandy at Capernaum

Citations:

[1] John 6:59 (NRSV)

[2] William Alexander. 52 Loaves. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2011.

[3] Ruth 1:19-2:3

[4] Luke 22:19 (NRSV). Cf., Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22.

[5] Exodus 12:33-34, Exodus 16:4-8

Photo credit: "Capernaum synagogue by David Shankbone" by David Shankbone (attribution required) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Posted by Cara Modisett at 10:58 PM
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