“The Bread of Life”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Sunday, August 5, 2018
My mother lived for over 20 years in Sharon, Connecticut. Each summer our family drove to where New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut intersect to spend a long weekend in Sharon with my mother and brothers and their children. We cooked big family meals, dined in country inns, ate homemade donuts, played tennis, sat in the sun and swam in Connecticut’s deepest lake. My heart still warms whenever I drive the winding, stonewall-lined roads of Connecticut.
Reflecting on those summers, I think of Lyman Beecher, a famous Colonial New England preacher. One Sunday, he was to exchange pulpits with a neighboring minister who held a rigid view of the doctrine of predestination – that God knew in advance who would go to heaven and that God controlled events carefully on earth. Beecher had a more liberal view of this doctrine. On the appointed Sunday, the two men started on horseback, each going to the other’s church, when they met midway. The neighboring minister said, “Doctor Beecher, I wish to call your attention that before the creation of the world God arranged that you were to preach in my pulpit and I in yours on this particular Sabbath.” “Is that so?” said Beecher, glaring at him. “Then I won’t do it!” And turning his horse, he returned to his own church. So much for predestination.
None of us was predestined to attend worship this morning. All of us are here by choice, unless your parents or spouse twisted your arm. We come here to find something that we cannot find elsewhere and to experience the Sabbath. As many of you know, we created something this year called “The Worship Challenge” and invited our members to commit to worshipping every Sunday barring illness, for a year, even on weekends when they are away. Over 80 members committed to this spiritual practice. It’s a wonderful way to transform your life.
The Ten Commandments are central to our faith. Few among us would consider committing murder, adultery or stealing. But honoring the Sabbath is no longer seen as a “commandment” but rather as a “suggestion.” The French philosopher Voltaire said, “If you want to destroy the Church, you must destroy the Christian Sabbath.” Today, if you sign a lease to operate a store in the mall, you must agree to be open seven days a week or pay a fine. We have created a 24/7 culture, where we can buy a car, go to the gym or buy a dozen eggs at 3 a.m., but we are killing ourselves by having no pause in our week – no time that is sacred, different and spent in God’s presence. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why we are the most depressed people in the world. Ten percent of Americans are on anti-depressants. Having no Sabbath hurts us.
Increasingly for Americans, play is work. We have trouble hitting the off switch in our lives. Even when we go to the beach, we bring along our laptops and cell phones and handle emails and transact business. Whatever we do, it has to be productive – even our vacations. We are so focused on productivity that we can’t help but think of leisure as related to work, so we take on projects of self or home improvement or push ourselves to exhaustion as tourists.
NASA scientists can see from outer space levels of nitrous oxides, which are by-products of fossil fuel combustion. These fluctuate during the week. They go down on Friday in Islamic countries; down on Saturday in Israel; and down on Sunday in the United States, Europe and Japan. These levels never go down in China, where the numbers stay steady throughout the week in places which have no Sabbath and where life goes on 24/7.
At the beginning of the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln issued an order that no soldier should fight or march on the Sabbath unless under direct duress. Why? He did this in part because George Washington had done something similar, but Lincoln said that it won’t matter who wins the war because if we lose the Sabbath we will all have lost and become slaves.
In his classic novel Moby Dick, Melville describes a turbulent scene where the whaling boat scuds across the frothing ocean in pursuit of the great, white whale, Moby Dick. The sailors are laboring fiercely; every muscle is taut. The sailors expend every ounce of energy rowing as sweat and sea water mix. Only one person does nothing. He is the harpooner, who sits quiet, poised and waiting. Then Melville adds this sentence, “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.”
We all struggle to find ways to manage our time. The busy priest, the busy lawyer, the busy mother, the busy student, but busyness stops us from caring about what we actually cherish. Forty million hours of vacation go unused every year. It is a symptom of forgetting what truly matters in life. Honoring the Sabbath helps us to focus on what we value and helps us to be fully present to those whom we love.
There is only one figure in the Bible who describes himself as busy. It is the devil. In the Book of Job the devil tells God, “I have been busy going to and fro, up and down.” So, I ask you this question, how often do you honor the Sabbath? Do you worship each Sunday somewhere? What price do we pay when the Sabbath becomes optional in our lives? When we fail to honor the Sabbath, what role model do offer this world where darkness threatens to overcome the light?
Last Sunday, we heard about how Jesus multiplied five fish and two loaves miraculously to feed as many as 15,000 people. This Sunday, Jesus shifts from miraculously feeding the crowd and focuses on enlightening them spiritually. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
In her book In Search of Belief Joan Chittester asks, “’Do you believe?’ I asked myself. It was the year my mother died. Her grave was still fresh in the ground, her voice still fresh in my heart. But gone. ‘Do you believe?’ I asked myself. ‘Do you? Really? And if so, what?’ The answer was neither a simple one, nor a simplistic one. It had been hard won, still forming, always new.” Later she adds,
I deeply believe that God is almighty. But I do not believe that God is a magic
act. God is much more than that. God is almighty enough to enable me to be
what I can become without having to depend on a Superman God. Clearly,
when God intervenes in life, God intervenes through us, through the
natural order, through the grace of conversion…
She notes, “The real miracle, I believe, lies in the fact that God provides us with everything we need in life to come to wholeness by living well the lives we have, however paltry they may be. If there are those who lack the goods of life, it is not because God does not provide them. It is because we do not provide them.” The church is the place where we come to taste the bread of life, the Eucharist, which transforms us even when we are completely unaware of it.
Many years ago, when I was in seminary, my father and I met in New York City to go to church and spend the day together. I watched my father in his beautiful, charcoal grey suit walk down Park Avenue. We greeted each other and walked into St. Bartholomew’s cavernous Episcopal church, where people like Malcolm Forbes and Jackie Onassis used to worship.
It was a special Jazz Mass. Early in the service, an elderly black man who was leading the jazz quartet lifted his hand in a testimonial fashion and said, “The other day, I turned 85 years old, and I feel so good. God has blessed me. Life is great. God is good to us.” Then he lifted his trumpet and the band kicked in, and he started to sing,
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
I had never heard Louis Armstrong’s It’s a Wonderful World before and it was so beautiful. After receiving Communion, my father turned to me and said, “Isn’t this great. A little jazz and a little Eucharist.” There was a huge smile upon his face, and he looked utterly content.
Then the congregation began singing, “I am the bread of life.” It made my heart swell. I looked up and noticed that many members of the congregation lifted their arms in praise as they sung. It seemed very un-Episcopal to me. I thought to myself, “I will never do that,” until upon singing the third stanza I saw that both my father and I had our hands raised in the air as if some spirit had overtaken us and moved our limbs with a mind of its own.
“I am the bread of life,” says Jesus. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We have come here for Sabbath rest and food that does not perish but rather transforms our soul. This is the leaven in the loaf of life that helps us to see, touch, smell, listen and live. Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage.
Close the door to the toolshed and turn off the computer. Stay home, not because
you are sick but because you are well. Talk someone you love into being well
with you. Take a nap, a walk, and hour for lunch. Test the premise that you are
worth more than you produce – that even if you spent one whole day of being
good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight. And when you get
anxious because you are convinced that this is not so – remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been
established, even when you are not working.
So, why not give yourself and those whom you love the gift of Sabbath rest? Stop working. Rest in God’s arms. Spend time with the people you love. Read a book. Enjoy your garden. Watch your children or grandchildren play. Eat the bread of life so that you might move from leading a life that is busy to a life that is full and rich. Commit to worshipping each Sunday for a year and see how it transforms your life. Amen.