(This sermon was given on Vince Edward’s last Sunday as St. Paul’s Director of Music after twelve years of wonderful ministry with us.)
May our hearts be filled with the glory of God, our minds refreshed by the wonder of Christ, and our bodies raised up by the leading of the Spirit. Amen.
I don’t remember a lot of clever lines from movies I’ve seen but I do have a few favorites like the one on the sign that Vince and Rodney brought me back from Provincetown: “Go sell crazy somewhere else. We’re all stocked up here.” It’s classic Jack Nicholson from the comedy “As Good as it Gets.” It now bedecks my office door. Interesting. I’ve seen a decline in traffic since I put it up. Just kidding.
It turns out that there are a few lines from films that have become cliché and you might be surprised to know that the most overworked one in recent decades is “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Dr. Evil says it in an Austin Powers movie. Martin Lawrence delivers this line in Big Momma’s House and we hear it from Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada. Those who utter this hackneyed line comprise a long list of celebrities. But the list doesn’t include Jesus.
His audience in today’s Gospel wouldn’t be the first not to get it. In just the first six chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus has shown remarkable patience with all kinds of people. The theme of non-recognition and rejection is a thread that runs all through it. The encounters Jesus has are often with needy, troubled people displaying various degrees of skepticism and distrust. To all of them Jesus could have offered that cliché “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Jesus could have said it to Nicodemus who scratched his head about this whole idea of “being born again.” He could have said it to the woman at the well. “No, I’m not talking about a drink of water from this deep tank. I’m talking about my presence that fills a thirst no earthly water can quench.” He could have said it to the man by the pool. “No, healing doesn’t come from bubbling water stirred up by an angel. It comes from me, and I’m standing right here next to you.” And he could have said it to the crowd in today’s Gospel. “No, I’m not talking about bread that wears off in a couple of hours and leaves you hungry again. I’m talking about the Bread from Heaven that God has sent into your world to feed you so that you may have eternal life.
Perhaps it was the declaration Jesus made in this chapter of John’s Gospel that was most difficult for his audience to grasp. Jesus didn’t say “I am kind of like bread,” but rather “I am bread.” That’s not that easy to swallow. How do we wrap our head around such an unusual, even outlandish statement?
A church group spent a couple of weeks working among desperately poor people in Haiti. One afternoon they piled into a little truck with two great pots of rice and went to a desert-like place where folk lived in tiny grass huts beside a dried up riverbed. There they came to offer the folks the rice.As soon as the truck approached, dozens of people ran toward them, many of them naked, all of them famished. Frantically, they pushed in among these missioners, thrusting their small eating bowls toward them. In a matter of five minutes, more than two hundred pounds of rice had been distributed. Then the people in the village fell silent and moved back to their huts as the truck drove away.
The minister who led that trip to Haiti later reflected back on it in a sermon. “I’ll never get that sight out of my mind. To stare starvation in the face, to see what bread means to hungering persons, is to know the radical quality of Jesus’ statement, ‘I am bread.’ ”
I suspect that those who complained to Jesus that day never knew that kind of profound hunger. I’ll bet they were well sated upper echelon community leaders, movers and shakers, whose bellies were well filled and wine cellars well stocked. The notion of hunger eluded them.
But do we get it? Most of us here have sufficient food for our nourishment and enjoyment. Hunger, however, is not always visible nor is it just physical. How many of us here today may have some unfulfilled hunger for something other than food? Or maybe some of us feel empty because we have not been feeding on the most nutritious things in life. Some of us may be as tired as Elijah on his journey and have not had real nourishment for a long time or not enjoyed fully the many gifts in life God sends our way. Hunger comes in many forms and conditions.
Fifteen years ago, I believe that this congregation was hungry for new life. Worship was kind of unexciting. Pews were not full. Yet memories of difficult times were slowly being eradicated by the hope for what might be next for this community. We were a hungry people but we were a worshipping people.
Then we made the bold decision to invest ahead of our growth and call the first full time director of music St. Paul’s had in more than twenty-five years. Our worship came alive in a way that we never dreamed it could. With a commitment to growth and passion for radical welcome at our core, the pews filled up. A chorister program was born. The adult choir of a dozen tripled. Worship filled our hunger. Within a few years, a much needed new organ was in place.
Vince, you have fed us well. We will ever be grateful for your many contributions to the life of this community. They go far beyond the realm of music. Who will become our resident decorator?
May your legacy be found in our continued commitment to offer excellence in all that we do and, especially, in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, our act of thanksgiving for all of God’s gifts to us, for all the wonders of creation, including the heavenly gift of music. I’m sure that you share the sentiment of another great musician, Johan Sebastian Bach, who once said, “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.” God and you play a mean duet together!
The conflict Jesus encountered in this Gospel is really about his audience’s frame of reference, the box they created for God. Jesus is challenging them to step outside of the comfortable and familiar framework they have established for themselves. He refuses to be limited by either their understandings or their misunderstandings. He invites them to live a new life, a larger life. He invites them to eat new bread.
So, my dear sisters and brothers, now we need to think about new bread. Vince has taken the leap to try the new bread at life in Grace Church, Providence. We will be sampling the new bread that our interim director of music, Jake Street, and choral associate Jen Scarozza, will be serving for us through their many talents. It will be different bread, but I know that it will be tasty bread and that it will continue to satisfy our hunger for the presence of the holy and sacred in our midst.
What will not change here at St. Paul’s is that we will continue to proclaim that there is a place for everyone at God’s table, for each one of us and for those not yet here. Our frame of reference, our past, our history, who we are, where we’ve been or where we are going, will never keep anyone from the bread of life. The truth is that every moment of every day God invites us to eat new bread, to step out of the old into a new way of living and being. God just wants us to get that.
As you approach the communion table this morning, come with open, empty hands and be aware of what will fill them. We don’t always see things for what they really are. That’s why Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Look beyond the bread that is placed in those hands today. Holy bread for holy hunger. It is, once again, our invitation to let God surprise us with something new, something different, maybe even something truly fabulous.