Delivered at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, PA and their outdoor Saturday night service at Old St. Luke's. Just a reminder, this is pretty much a transcript of the sermon, so it's written as I spoke it, not how it would be written it for publication.
Scripture: Exodus 16:2-4,9-15 & John 6:24-35
It is very difficult to preach about life after such a devastating two years. We have become accustomed and desensitized to living and dealing with death. It is a fact that 600 thousand Americans and at least 4 million people worldwide have perished to ever raging COVID-19. We watched the death of George Floyd on our phones and laptops. We have heard about and witnessed the outrage due to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Antwon Rose, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, and countless others. Our trans siblings, our Asian siblings, and our Jewish siblings all experienced increased incidents of violence since last year. Drug overdoses have skyrocketed in the ongoing opioid epidemic. We witness daily the death of our environment and watch our mountains die with the removal of their tops. And because of how awful all of this is, sometimes we would like to ignore it.
In the book Images of Baptism, author Maxwell Johnson writes, “We are, it seems, a culture bent on denying death, on shielding death from ourselves, of ignoring its bitter reality until we can ignore it no more. But even then, we continue to deny it through our practices of embalming and our cosmetic and often illusory attempts at bodily restoration.” Johnson asserts that we must “let death be death.” The issue of death is something that we cannot and should not ignore.
As part of the end to the pandemic in our region, I have found it important to participate in rituals and activities that celebrate and mark the end to this time. Before this congregation’s first indoor service, and my first service ever in this building, I participated in bringing the hymnals and prayer books out of storage and back into the pews. I went to my alma mater’s commencement ceremony, something I felt fulfilling because I did not experience one of my own in-person being a 2020 graduate. I met 2 of my best friends from seminary in person for the first time and went to a Pirates game.
A normal response to someone who has asked you to help get something out of storage is “is there food involved?” or maybe “Do I have to?” or if its because you happen to have a truck, it may be “wow do I regret getting this truck!” Because of the context of the death that has surrounded us, asking someone to take the things we stowed away in covidtime out of storage becomes a mark of victory.
A normal response to someone who has attended a college graduation may be a nice card stuck in a mailbox. Now it is a mark of fortitude.
A normal response for someone hanging with their friends would be a “oh, how did it go?” but now friends are greeted with tears of jubilation, deep – momentous hugs, and catch-ups that include stories of isolation, sickness, and strength.
The normal response to going to a Pirates game would be “how much did they lose by?” Now it is something that we could not have imagined a little bit over a year ago.
Understanding the events that have surrounded us provides context. These events would seem trivial without any context of the events that we have experienced. It is a mundane activity to move something out of storage. It is an exciting, but normal activity to attend a college commencement. It is normal to see friends. A Pirate’s game is a fun afternoon outing. But in the context of the death we have all experienced, each one of these activities was abundantly special. It sparked new life and joy. It marked a resurrection.
In our reading from the Hebrew Bible, we encounter a hungry people. A people that God has delivered from their enslavers and marched into the wilderness whose hunger now causes them anguish. In this anguish they complain to God, saying that “at least in Egypt we had something to eat.” God gave them bread from heaven, sustainment, something to prevent them from dying in the wilderness.
The Gospel reading takes place a day after Jesus has fed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread. Jesus’ disciples escaped the crowd on boat and Jesus meets them by walking to them on the water. When the crowd realized that Jesus and the disciples had gone to a different location they got on boats and went looking for them. When the crowds found Jesus, Jesus seemingly scolds them by saying “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” In other words – you came not because you knew the divine things that I did, but because you are hungry. He then uses the opportunity to give a lesson about life.
Like many of Jesus’ metaphors, here he compares our physical needs to our spiritual needs. Jesus compares the manna that sustained God’s people in the wilderness to his own life that sustains us for eternity. Those who ate manna eventually died, those who partake in the bread of life will live forever. We are challenged by Jesus to look at life as something beyond physical sustenance.
Almost ironically to our modern ears, by talking about life, Jesus invokes death. The bread of life image was repulsive to the listeners of his day, who could not fully understand the analogy and somewhat foreign to us, given our dismay at death. The odd thing about this passage is that Jesus had not yet died and resurrected. The fullness of this passage could only be understood in a post resurrection world.
In talking about life, Jesus points to his death. He shows us the importance of his death which was to come. The point of his death was to give us life, to show us that the ultimate death had been conquered. That the mortal grip on our souls is no longer. He showed us that death is a very real and important part of life. In the context of Christ’s death and resurrection, our lives become important, eternal and everlasting.
Without an understanding of death as a part of our lives, we do ourselves a disservice. It is not only a source of mental trauma, but a source of sacramental confusion. We cannot fully understand dying with Christ in baptism if we cannot accept dying, and we cannot fully accept the resurrection without understanding and appreciating death as part of it. We cannot understand the “communion of saints” if we do not understand that the saints that have gone before us in glory still participate with us in worship.
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed this sermon with Rev. Laura and I thought that I was done, but just a couple of days later my father was diagnosed with leukemia. This came as a shock and we’re not sure what this news means one way or the other – but it contextualized and brought the words that I was thinking and praying about home.
This news emphasized the fact that death should be important to us – because Christ overcame it. We are a church of life only because of the death and resurrection of Christ and in Christianity we have a unique opportunity to speak life over death in the places that we see and understand it because of the resurrection. We should be okay with death and as Christians we approach differently because we don’t view it as the end. Death is so very hard. I don’t mean to brush over that fact.
But my point is this, church: in order to be a church that proclaims life, we must have a clear consciousness of death. In order to proclaim life over death, we must be able to identify death within our community. In order to worship the one who proclaims himself the bread of life, we must have an understanding of what it means to have life and death at all. In order to preach a message of liberation, we must understand what it means to be living captive to sin and death. In order to bring resurrection to our communities, we must first acknowledge the death that exists.