Remember Linus from the comic strip “Peanuts?” He was the one who never went anywhere without his blanket. It provided him with security and stability. What do you cling to that brings comfort when things get hard? What do you hold onto at night that gives you hope for tomorrow?
World War 2 turned thousands of children into refugees and orphans. Each was traumatized and many were starving, all of them bereft of literal or metaphorical security blankets. Though many were taken into care by orphanages and refugee centers, there were problems, particularly at bedtime. Many of the children had trouble going to sleep, others would awaken during the night after nightmares. All struggled with pervasive anxiety about what fresh terrors the next day would bring. They had lost so much that were distrustful even of those who said they would care for and protect them; this had not worked out for them in the past.
One orphanage struck upon a brilliant bedtime technique: they sent the children to bed at night with a piece of bread. They found that this tangible sign did more than teddy bears and lullabies to encourage the children to rest. It was a reminder that they had eaten this day and a promise that they would eat again tomorrow.
Sometimes we are all like Linus or those orphans—we all need a security blanket, a tangible reminder that we are safe in God’s hands. One of the most effective, tangible comforts we have is food. Consider Elijah in today’s OT reading from 1 Kings. Elijah is literally running for his life, after winning a show-down against 400 priests of Baal. After an intense and lengthy drought, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel arranged a contest: Elijah versus all the prophets of Baal. The winner was the one who persuaded their God to send rain. The loser would be executed. You see how it turned out, because here we have Elijah on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, who have decided he, too, should be killed. Though grateful that God had ended the drought, Elijah is now fearful and exhausted. He finally collapses under a tree and asks God to take his life. And then he falls asleep.
And how does God comfort the grumpy, distraught prophet? By showing up repeatedly with bread. An angel (who is also, apparently, a Jewish mother), comes to him more than once demanding: “Elijah, eat something! Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” And then offered him literal bread from heaven. According to the story, Elijah was able then to go “on the strength of that food for 40 days and 40 nights,” or at least until he reached a place of safety.
Likewise, in today’s Gospel reading, the crowd listening to Jesus’ lengthy sermon about the Bread of Life needs strength for their journey ahead, though they don’t yet know it. They have no idea what is to come. They are still on a bit of a Savior high, having just witnessed Jesus feeding a crowd of about five thousand with some dinner rolls and two fish, then walking on water, and finally asking a storm to cease (which it did). Why wouldn’t they expect such a Messiah to make their journeys smooth and easy?
Jesus knew that soon enough those who called themselves by his name would have to carry on without Him. Following Jesus and doing what He asked – going out to live His love – wouldn’t be easy. Sometimes their ministry wouldn’t be well received. Sometimes it would be dangerous and difficult for them. Jesus knew that he and they would suffer for delivering the Good News that all people are precious in the eyes of God.
And so, in preparation for their task ahead, Jesus gives them bread to sleep with — the bread of his teaching as well as literal bread. He gives them promises to hold onto when they are afraid at night: promises like, “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away,” and “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” These are assurances for Jesus-followers of every time and place who face adversity and trouble. These are hope-filled crusts of bread that we can sleep with and that will sustain us on our journey, wherever Jesus leads us.
For some, the request that we eat the bread of life which is Jesus is a bit off-putting, cannibalistic-sounding. But the metaphor is a vivid way of explaining the mystical event we think is going on every time we celebrate communion: the idea that we take on some of Jesus’ own essence as we eat the bread and drink the wine. That we somehow absorb some of the very stuff of which Jesus is made in the meal.
Personally, I like the idea that as I eat the bread many of you bake, I am taking into my own body Jesus’ own passion and strength and wisdom. And when I consider what following Jesus means for us—standing up for the equality and worth of people of every race, gender, age, sexuality, religion, and tax bracket— advocating for the dignity and well-being of the unpopular and victimized—and sacrificing my own self-interest by serving others, then, like Elijah, I fear might just collapse from fear and exhaustion. I need the nourishment that comes from Holy Communion. And I need a bit of such bread to sleep with when I go home.
Jesus knows that after he ascends into heaven, all the world will know of him is the Church. WE are His body and blood, his hands and feet and voice on this earth. We have been baptized into the name of One who spent more time with the sick and disenfranchised than he did with kings. We are called now to step up and be agents of change just like Jesus was. We are the Light of the World. We are the Gospel-bringers and the Hope-bearers. We are God’s ambassadors, representing God’s gracious acceptance to all we meet.
And for work like that, we need sustenance. As we ourselves are able to sleep with the assurance that the Bread of Life is always with us and for us, let us share that Good News with others who are afraid, alone, or in need. Let us spread over others our security blankets. Let us draw near to God, to the creation, and to one another, feasting at this table where Jesus is host and guest, meal and message. And may we leave here today, eager to share God’s compassion and generosity, the Bread of Life.
~Pastor Sue Schneider