John 6:35, 41-51
In the name of God who forms, Christ who rises, and the Holy Spirit of fire. Amen.
I think one of the more surprising things that happened at the start of this pandemic was the sudden, and inexplicable shortage of yeast. Though it was probably an overreaction, I could basically understand that people were buying up cleaning supplies and disinfectants – those would be helpful in fighting the spread of the virus. I could even understand the shortages of facial tissues and paper towels. The toilet paper shortages made a little less sense to me… But the thing that baffled me most, was that there was a sudden shortage of yeast.
In our household that hit us pretty hard. Not that we bake bread every day, but baking fresh bread is a fairly normal part of our life. We do it with enough frequency that we typically keep yeast around the house. It never occurred to us at the start of the pandemic that we might need to stock up on yeast. I suppose it was partly because people suddenly had more time at home, and partly because groceries often became sort of hard to come by – but whatever the motivation was, people were suddenly baking bread at home at rates unseen in my lifetime, and probably for a while before that.
Eventually we got our yeast. Everything that happened in terms of pandemic panic seemed to hit here a few weeks before it hit where my parents were living in rural Tennessee. So, when we couldn’t find something – yeast, soap, boxed macaroni and cheese (don’t ask… we all had our pandemic cravings…) – whatever it was, we would call my mother and she would ship it up to us. So, we got our yeast, and bread baking resumed at its normal rate in our home.
But it was sort of remarkable. Before our lives were so dramatically shifted by the pandemic, there were so many things that we took for granted that suddenly came to front-of-mind focus. Bread was certainly one of those things. Every grocery store seems to have a full aisle dedicated to the stuff. It’s available in such vast quantities that it seems like a never-ending supply. And that’s to say nothing of the fancier breads that you’ll find in the bakery section. But even those – the fancier ones – while they may be slightly more appreciated, we still take even them for granted. We expect they’ll always be available.
So suddenly, bread – this completely normal and common thing – became extraordinary. It became something to be celebrated and appreciated. I thought of that this week as we celebrated the midweek Eucharist. The feast we observed that day was the Feast of the Transfiguration – one of the major feasts of the church. It commemorates the story of Jesus taking Peter and James and John up to a mountaintop with him, so that they could accompany him as he prayed. While they were up there, Jesus was visited by Moses and Elijah, and a thundering voice from the clouds came down declaring Jesus as God’s beloved son, and instructing the disciples to listen to him. In the midst of all of this, Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzlingly white. Even his face had changed. Jesus, this common boy who was born in a stable, the son of Mary and Joseph, who everyone knew – he had been changed into something more extraordinary than anyone around could have imagined.
So much of the story of Jesus is defined by the extraordinary. He was born of a virgin. He was wise beyond his years as a child. He turned water into wine. (Another example of something common being made into something more valuable.) He healed the sick in body, mind, and spirit. And even in death, his extraordinary story wasn’t finished yet. He was raised from death into perfect and eternal life. He visited his followers and kept teaching them until they saw him ascend into heaven.
But the story of Jesus isn’t just the story of the extraordinary. It is that, but it’s not just that. In what we read today, we hear the people reminding us that Jesus was just a man. “Is not this Jesus,” they say, “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” They had known him as a baby – weak and dependent. Just who did he think he was?
You may or may not have noticed, but this is actually the third week in a row where the Gospel lesson that we’ve read in church had something to do with bread. First, it was the feeding of the five thousand. Then it was Jesus promising bread that would end all hunger. And now, today, it is Jesus declaring “I am the bread of life.” Like the vast aisle at the grocery store, it seems that bread is everywhere we look these days. It’s completely common. Like that kid who grew up around all these people he was now teaching.
And that, I think, is the remarkable thing. Bread is common. Under normal circumstances, at least, it is abundant. It’s something we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. What is extraordinary is not the bread, in itself, but the fact that it is this common tool of nourishment – this boring thing – that Jesus uses to teach the people about the extraordinary nature of God’s love; the extraordinary nourishment that God offers all of us who hunger.
Because that’s how God works. The God who is the supreme being, the God and creator of heaven and earth and all that is, this God who is truly supernatural – beyond nature – this amazing God chooses to interact with us, common, created people, through things that are common: Through a baby born in obscurity. Through the same water that we use to wash and to quench our thirst. Through bread – brought to us by simple ingredients and simple processes, and something that everyone knows and barely notices.
God values the common things of life. God values what is common place. God values the boring, everyday things that we almost don’t notice. Those are the tools that God uses to help us encounter the holy – to help us to grasp God’s nearness. And God even uses common tools of creation like us – to help and to heal; to teach and to grow.
Jesus didn’t say, “I am the filet mignon of life.” He didn’t say, “I am the rare bottle of wine of life,” or, “the truffle oil of life.” He said, I am the bread of life. That basic thing that we all need and know.
The extraordinary aspects of Christ and of this faith have value. But it’s not a value that exceeds the value of the ordinary. God claims it all. God uses it all. And God claims and uses us – when we are extraordinary, and maybe even more, when we are ordinary. We have profound value for a God who interacts with the world through ordinary things. It is our calling to claim and to share that value. Amen.