Updated: Oct 16
Sermon preached by Guest Preacher, the Rev. Joey Lee,
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of San José
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA
October 1, 2023
Sermon Text: John 6:32-35
Did you have breakfast today?
Let us pray.
Most greetings essentially ask your well-being. In English when you greet someone, you ask “How are you?”In French, “Comment vas-tu?“In Chinese, “Ni hao, ma?”
But there is another greeting in Chinese. More for family and friends, less formal, more, dare I say, intimate. One is frequently asked “have you eaten?” (Chi fan la ma?) Literally, “have you eaten rice?” because the word for food and rice are synonymous. It would be like saying, “have you had bread?”
Bread is a common image in our society:
· We probably each have our favorite bread, or can remember a bread we grew up with. I remember commercials jingles, “grow, grow, grow with Lang, Lang, Langendorf bread.”
· As a child of the sixties—and I’ve said, “I ain’t got no bread...man”
· We still use euphemisms – like the BREAD WINNER, (coupled with “bring home the bacon” you’ve got the beginnings of a BLT.)
· We care about those who go without, and organization like BREAD FOR THE WORLD do great work.
BREAD IS FREQUENTLY FOUND IN SCRIPTURE
Leavened bread, requiring both yeast and time, is tastier, yet the urgency of the exodus from Egypt is symbolized in unleavened bread.
Those exodus people, lost and hungry in the wilderness, are fed with manna from heaven, described as “like a fine bread”
· In the NT, Jesus is tempted, when hungry, TO TURN STONES INTO BREAD.
· Bread is central to the miracle of the FEEDING of the 5000.
· We are taught to pray for OUR DAILY BREAD.
· At the last supper JESUS USES BREAD, this most familiar and common of elements, as a symbol of his BODY...his life.
Consistent with this biblical image, in today’s lesson, Jesus proclaims he is THE BREAD OF LIFE, sustanance from which the one who eats, will never be hungry.
BREAD is a rich and powerful symbol, metaphor, sign, and image.
Poet Denise Levertov, in "STEPPING WESTWARD," speaks of the polarities of awomen’s experience: To be constant, but also to move with life’s seasons, she writes:
IF I BEAR BURDENS
THEY BEGIN TO BE REMEMBERED
AS GIFTS, GOODS,
A BASKET OF BREAD
THAT HURTS MY SHOULDERS
BUT ENCLOSES ME IN FRAGRANCE.
I CAN EAT AS I GO.
“Encloses me in fragrance...” I love that image. Some of you may remember the bread mama, or grandma made. After mixing and kneading, time to rest and rise, the tart smell of yeast, and then the warmth of the oven, the aroma would fill the house. You couldn’t wait to get a warm slice, and spread with butter and maybe if lucky, some strawberry jam, or orange marmalade.
(now if I were a more prepared preacher, I would have set a bread machine in here timed just for this moment in the sermon!)
HOWEVER, I HAVE A PROBLEM...
...I don’t have that memory about bread! My mama didn’t bake bread. I’m sure my grandma didn’t either.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a fresh baguette with sweet butter, or a crusty cibatta with a strong cheese and a pinot noir, and you have not lived till you’ve had New York pastrami on rye with mustard.
But it just isn’t a part of my inner life, my soul.
One of my earliest memories of bread, was as a kid growing up in an immigrant family that only learned about hamburgers when they arrived on these shores. My brother and I wanted “hamburgers” and mom said, okay, ground beef patties, what’s so hard? You ever had a fried beef patty between two slices of Wonder Bread? So yeah, bread, it’s okay but, it elicits more funny than fond memories. It doesn’t fill me. It doesn’t remind me of life.
NOW RICE...THAT'S A DIFFERENT STORY
In 1979 I was on a train from Shanghai to Beijing. 1979. This was not the China we know now. Only a year earlier, the then Chinese government decided to begin opening up relations with the West. My parents hadn’t been back in 30 years and jumped at the first chance.
On that old train, clickity clack, clickity clack, the day was warm and humid. You could smell the air and the fields.
This was that luscious and deep fragrance of earth and grass and grain, just after a summer rain. Green fields, as far as the eye could see. I asked my father, “What’s that?” He smiled that knowing smile, like when your child asks you something you’ve known all your life. When a child who thinks they know it all, asks “what’s that?” “Rice...that’s rice.” he said. And in some strange way it felt like home...
Two days of traveling by planes, trains and automobiles, we arrive at the village of my aunt. After greetings and introductions, my aunt, whom I’d never met, turns to me and asks, “chi fan la ma?” “Have you eaten?”
You see, it is rice that touches my soul.
I grew up with rice.
I get full on rice.
When I am traveling away from home, it is always rice that I miss.
I'm convinced that if Jesus had been not in Asia minor but Asia Major, he would have used rice instead of bread, as the symbol.
Because Rice is Life.
A poem by Kim Ha, a Korean Christian activist:
HEAVEN IS RICE
AS WE CANNOT GO TO HEAVEN ALONE
WE SHOULD SHARE WITH ONE ANOTHER
AS WE ALL SHARE THE LIGHT OF THE HEAVENLY STARS
WE SHOULD SHARE AND EAT RICE TOGETHER
HEAVEN IS RICE
WHEN WE EAT AND SWALLOW RICE
HEAVEN DWELLS IN OUR BODY
RICE IS HEAVEN
YES, RICE IS SOMETHING
WE SHOULD EAT TOGETHER
This poem echoes the words of Isaiah.
”Is not this the fast that I choose:
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry”
JESUS IS THE BREAD OF LIFE
The image of Jesus as the BREAD OF LIFE that feeds our hunger, reveals at least two things: that we do indeed hunger…and, that there is a hunger that can only be satisfied by the divine presence
In my work with churches around worship, programs or activities, I am curious in finding out where and when do people meet the Divine, the presence of Jesus or God, or a sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Churches spend a fair amount of time thinking about programs, and planning, and strategies or goals. We look at numbers and stats and try to measure what we do. But it is hard, perhaps impossible to measure experiences of the divine presence. When you or I feel, sense or experience God in our midst. And yet, if we don’t have that experience, at least at some point in our life, what brings us to church? I think we have an experience, and we keep coming back because we want to feel that again. At least that is what kept me coming back.
We don’t know when or even where it happens… it’s not always at church; a campfire; over a cup of coffee; a living room or a hospital room….It may be during a spoken prayer, or in silence, in church or in nature. It frequently happens during music, a song, a hymn, or a particular piece of music. Seldom in a sermon, I’m sure. I once was at Riverside Church in NYC, and during a soloist, I had the sensation that something holy was happening. The hairs on the back of neck stood up. I don’t even remember the song.
And I keep looking for that experience.
For me it also happens around the Table of our Lord. When bread is broken, and I am reminded of the broken body of Christ, and my own brokenness. I am also reminded of the presence of the communion of saints, that are gathered, and my parents, my mentors, those who brought me up in the faith, colleagues and friends who are still present at this table.
On this day Christians around the world, all are gathered around this table. At this table, past and present, at this table of cultures and traditions, a variety of breads and grains, memories and foods that feed our souls and remind us of the real presence of Christ, our friend and our redeemer.
At this table, where we all are fed….
Life is hard and at times difficult. There are burdens to be borne and struggles to endure. And we will need sustenance for the journey. So come, be fed by the bread and the rice of life, Bread from heaven that gives life to the world.
So, have you eaten yet?