Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Today’s gospel lesson contains a familiar and earthy metaphor for our spiritual life as Christians, which is “eating the bread of heaven.” For me, this metaphor brings to mind my mother and my sister—because both of them have vocations associated with food and nutrition; my sister is a dietitian. So, what does it mean for us to ‘eat the bread of heaven?’ We know what it means to eat, physically. To eat something, physically, we spend time ‘chewing’ our food—to savor its taste and enjoy it’s flavor—and in order to help break down the cell walls and release the nutrients contained within, which are then absorbed and used by our physical body. This physical process of eating and digesting has been a metaphor for our spiritual lives for a millennia. We are asked do the same—to eat the ‘bread of heaven’ just as we eat the bread on our tables. To ‘eat heaven food’, I believe, means that we are to take real life situations and ponder them prayerfully so their spiritual truths can be savored (for the joy of living) and so the ‘spiritual’ nutrients can be released into our souls—and imbue our minds with truth, or wills with courage, and our hearts with love. That is the process of, in the language of our opening prayer, in which we learn to think and do what is right. I’d like to share with you today 2 real experiences that, I believe, have spiritual truths and nutrients for our spiritual lives; I certainly know that have spiritual truths for me—and I trust they will for you, as well. The first is a real life story of a family I knew, and the second is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer who is considered a dignified and courageous Christians of the 20th century.
First: a family story. Some time ago, I was asked to preside at the memorial service for the father of a friend of mine. I had met his dad, on occasions, and I had fond memories of him—but I didn’t know him well. He was a beloved soul, who had lived a full life, and died at the age of 91. I gathered with the family before the service to ponder how best to honor him during the service. I met with the deceased’s wife, two of their adult children, and one of the grandsons. As they talked, they described a man who was loving and funny. They agreed that he taught them about loyalty and the importance of caring for family, friends, and neighbors and for being honest in business. The grandson told a story about his grandfather sitting patiently with him, when he was in junior high school, as he struggled to do his math homework. “He definitely did not do the math problems for me,” the grandson said, “which was kinda irritating at the time, but he definitely helped me figure out how to do it myself.” This story, for some reason, shifted the conversation into a deeper level about being responsible for oneself—a lesson which seemed to resonate with others in the room. After this, the family shared that there was a 3rd sibling, an older brother, who had been estranged from the family for about 20 years. Many of the reasons for their estrangement had been forgotten; others revolved around mean-spirited things siblings say to one another when at their worst. As they said that, I could relate to my own experience of feeling guilt about unkind things I have said to my siblings. For this family, one of the sons (who was at the meeting) became known as the ‘golden boy’ and the other brother as the ‘black sheep.’ When the black sheep broke ties with the family, he did, however, kept in-touch with his father on occasion. They shared that the break came about the time that the ‘black sheep’ reported to the family that he was HIV+. But, they said, their father courageously embraced his son, while his siblings—the two siblings that I was sitting with at the moment—shared that they were not as gracious as their father when they first heard the news, and now they regretted their judgmental reaction to their brother. As they talked, it became clear that there was gap between what their father had taught them—about love, honesty, and taking responsibility for one’s action—on the one hand, and about their 20-year estrangement from their brother, on the other. And they walked away from the meeting pondering how to respond to their estrangement. No one expected ‘the black sheep’ to show up at the memorial service, yet as you might anticipate, he did. After the service ended, the family faced one another—and instead of yelling and blaming or cold shoulders, there were tears and hugs, and “I’m sorry” and “I love you” and “I really want to talk and clear things up, when the time is right, okay?” For me, it seems like a glimpse of heaven—a moment of grace and love, amidst their grief. They family had found the courage to face their hurt, resentment, and guilt to genuinely confession their wrong doing, to be truth tellers, and to seek reconciliation. I checked in on the family later, and I was moved to hear that they had continued to talk more openly with one another—and while it wasn’t all easy, they did feel it was the right thing to do.
This is, I believe, an example of one family ‘eating the bread of heaven.’ The bread of heaven, in that moment, was the God-given desire to love and be loved, to forgive ancient (or, in this case) adolescent hostilities and sibling rivalries. The shock of grief can open hearts and minds. Reaching out to one another, saying, “I love you, and I’m sorry” was being fed by heavenly food of grace and truth. They were no longer on automatic pilot; their will to go good was engaged. Likewise: our will—our capacity to reflect on life, and choose our words and our actions faithfully—is essential to who we are as child of God, created in God’s image. It is that part of us that can recognize and respond to the heavenly substance of love, truth, forgiveness, honesty, and courage. Here, by way of reminder, are some words from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, that are spiritual nutrients which, I believe, this story contains: Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us…
The other story that I want to share is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Pastor and theologian, who lived during the first ½ of the 20th century. He was teaching in seminary during the rise of Hitler. Eventually, he became involved in the resistance to Hitler. Bonhoeffer spoke up about the dignity of all people (not just some) and against the prejudice that was unleashed and fueled the violence of the Third Reich. He saw through Hitler’s rouse, and spoke up about it and wrote about it, and actively plotted to help end Hitler’s rule. He was eventually imprisoned by the Nazis, and killed, while in prison, just days before the allied forces liberate the concentration camps. He wrote, while in prison, to his family and other members of the Christians resistance, who sought to stem the tied of escalating prejudice, violence, war, and hatred. I find his words deeply resonant, particularly today, as we remember the events of Charlottesville, Virginia, from a year ago. Bonhoeffer wrote these words:
“We have been silent witnesses to evil deeds. We have become cunning, and we have learned the arts of obfuscation and equivocal speech. Experience has rendered us suspicious of human beings and often we have failed to speak to them a true and open word. Unbearable conflicts have worn us down or even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? Geniuses, cynics, people who feel contempt for others, or cunning tacticians are not what we need—but simple, uncomplicated and honest human beings. Will our inner strength to resist what has been forced on us remain strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves blunt enough, to find our way back to simplicity and honesty?” (Quoted from the documentary, “Bonhoeffer” by Martin Dolbmeier, 2003).
In Bonhoeffer’s case, the answer to his rhetorical question was, thankfully, “Yes.” Yes, the inner strength of good people did eventually overturn the power of Hitler and restore Germany to a country that strives to be more loving, and more live-giving for all its people. Here, again, these words from our second reading from Paul’s letters to the church in Ephesus and ponder how they, together with the story of Bonhoeffer, can be bread of heaven on which we can feed: Paul writes: Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. (The story of Bonhoeffer also reminds me of what Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Along the way of life someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”)
So: what does this have to do with us, today? How do we practice truth-telling, and live in love—not only in times of ease, but also in challenging times when evil seems to have the upper hand? How do we learn how to be angry but not fall into sin? How do we develop our courage be faithful in our world, and make no room for the devil? The story of my friend’s family seeking to reconcile after the death of their beloved father is a real story about seeking to feed their lives with the spiritual food of forgiveness and love, of truth and understanding. The life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a story about speaking up and acting out against public falsehoods of prejudice, and acts of violence. It is a story about the bread of heaven which is filled with honesty, simplicity, candor, truth-telling, and the power of love for all, not just some. We, too, as beloved children of God and followers of Jesus, are called, each in our own way, to speak truthfully in the face of falsehoods and deception; we, too, are called to the profoundly difficult task of being angry, but not falling into sin; we, too, are called to risk simplicity and honesty, and remain strong in our faith even when falsehoods are forced upon us.
At the heart of our call, as Christians, in the task of developing Christ-like courage—which is the ability to not only think but do what is right. And the good news for us today is that we have been given the gift of courage—it is the bread of heaven on which we can feast today. I read a reflection about courage recently (in a newsletter that comes from spiritual care services in Dignity Health, the hospital system within which I work) that I would like to share it with you. “Courage,” it says, “comes to everyone in a different form at distinct times—sometimes when we hope it comes and other times when we least expect it. Courage might come actively. When we stand up to injustice, when we voice our truth, when we confront sources of suffering, we are courageous.” This is the type of courage that Bonhoeffer represents for us today. “Courage might also come receptively. When we hold another in their pain…” and refuse to retreat into triviality; “when we hear to truly understand another, when we receive the anger and hurt from one who has been abuse, we are courageous. Receptive courage requires a choice not to respond, a decision to become a container for a piece of the world’s anguish. Or, courage might come invisibly. There are times when our courage will not be known to others. We are courage when confronting our wounds, or reclaiming a moral compass, deciding on a new way of being in relationship with ourselves, with those around us, with the fullness of creation. Quiet and interior, with this courage, we live accountable to ourselves,” to God,
“and our most heartfelt commitments. With all courage, our aspirations become lived truth.” May we all be blessed with the spiritual food that we need to live our lives today. Amen.