Sermon: Cheeseburgers, Barley Loaves, and the Bread of Heaven

13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Gospel text: John 6:51-59

In keeping with the lectionary texts of the past few weeks, which, in case you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, have all been about food in general and bread in particular, I would like to tell you the story of a cheeseburger.

It was a McDonald’s cheeseburger, and my grandfather had asked for it. He was in the hospital, and the doctor, concerned that he wasn’t eating enough, told him he could have whatever he wanted. And he wanted a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

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We arrived at the hospital and transported the long-awaited sandwich to Grandpa’s hospital room, where he was lying. After we’d all hugged and kissed him, the duty of announcing the arrival of the much anticipated burger fell to me. “Grandpa,” I said. “We brought you a cheeseburger. We made sure to get it the way you like it: onions, no sauces.”

And my grandfather, much enfeebled after months of chemo, weeks of hospitalization, and several days of not eating anything, looked at me and retorted, “You got it wrong. I wanted mustard.”

Well, we weren’t about to let the lack of a silly little condiment spoil this burger. So while my mom began wrestling with Grandpa’s dentures and my uncle started finagling the bedside table to make it yield its tray, my dad and I descended four floors to the cafeteria…which was closed. After pushing past the closed doors and pleading our way past the staff, we escaped with a little pouch of mustard and returned to find that a nurse had been called in to fix the table, and that the dentures had just conceded after a protracted battle.

My aunt unwrapped the burger so that I adorn could it with mustard, and we placed it reverently in front of my grandpa, who observed, “Well, now it’s gone cold.”

So my mother whisked it away to the secret microwave that she’d somehow managed to find during an earlier visit. After this final amendment, Grandpa did take four tiny bites of the cheeseburger before pronouncing himself satisfied.

I don’t think a McDonald’s cheeseburger has ever been the center of so much pomp and circumstance. But I remember the cheeseburger saga not as a story of how much my grandpa loved McDonald’s cheeseburgers, but as a sign of how much he was beloved. My family and I were willing to move heaven and earth to get that burger—warm, pickle-less, and with the appropriate amount of mustard—to my grandpa, because we would move heaven and earth to show him how much we loved him.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is trying to tell the crowds that heaven and earth have already been moved to give them, not just the food that they’ve been asking for, but the food that they really need.

It’s been a long time—four weeks—since we started reading this chapter, so indulge me in a quick review:

Jesus begins by feeding five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish. Then he walks away in the night, taking a shortcut over the Sea of Galilee.

The crowd, terrifically excited about this meal and the mystery, follow him to the other side of the Sea. And even though Jesus knows that they’ve really been drawn by the prospect of bread and circuses, he urges them instead to believe in the one God sent.

And the people, who still don’t quite get the message, say, “Great! Can we have another sign, please, so that we can believe in you? How about that manna in the wilderness thing, huh? THAT was a good sign.”

And Jesus says, basically: “You are being given manna. You’re being given more bread. It’s me. I’m the bread. I’m the food you need, not just to stay alive, but to live. You already have it. It’s right here in front of you.”

In other words, Jesus is saying: It’s not about the cheeseburger. It’s about the belovedness. You, you hungry people, are beloved by God so very much, that God has moved heaven and earth to give you bread. Me. I am that bread. I am that love.

Shortly after the night of the cheeseburger, my grandpa came home on hospice. We set up his hospital bed in the living room, in the center of the house—which is something hospice encourages to help the family accept the fact that death is imminent.

And it seems strange to say, but having the hospital bed in the living room made life more imminent too. From my view out the back door while holding Grandpa’s hand, I could see my dog joyfully reducing a stick to tiny shards. Whenever we ate dinner in the next room, the percussive noises of the respirator kept the beat to every conversation. The paperwork for Grandpa’s body donation hung on the refrigerator next to a painting of my five year old nephew.

For a while, I struggled with the normalcy, even the abundance of common life that was going on around me as my grandpa moved closer to death.   A pastor once told me that people’s bodies take on a sort of beauty as they moved towards death, a sort of transcendent loveliness as they moved closer to the moment when they’d be embraced by everlasting arms. I looked for that transcendence, but couldn’t see it in my grandfather, in our crazy busy house. It was normal. It was common. Nothing seemed unusually alight with heavenly splendor. No new piece of wisdom burrowed into myself to give me fresh insight.

Well, sometimes, like the quarrelsome listeners throughout John 6, we go looking for miracles in all the wrong places. They stood there, asking Jesus for a sign, for the bread of life, and he kept looking at them and going, “Yes, ok, you have it! It’s me! I’m the Bread of Life! I’m standing right in front of you! Just believe it!”

They didn’t believe him, because he didn’t look like what they expected. He looked too common. He made it too easy. Believe? Just believe? Was that it?

And then finally, at the breaking point, Jesus promises that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will abide in me, and I in them.” Think about that promise for a moment. Don’t get hung up on the mechanics of the eating and the drinking, on the rational and philosophical minutiae. Look at the promise: “I will be in you. You will be in me.”

Because this is what’s going on: the holy enters into the common, and the common enters into the holy. In the mystery of the incarnation, God took God’s very self and put it into common, sweaty, bruisable flesh. In the promise of the gospel, Jesus comes to us in things that are so common, so ubiquitous—bread, water, one another—and makes them holy.

This is the great mystery of faith—that God has come among us, and now dwells in everything, and brings us to dwell in God. Nothing is merely common, anymore. Nothing is untouchably sacred, anymore. God has broken down the barriers between death and life; sacred and profane; holy and common. Not a single moment of our lives is untouched. Not a single place we dwell is apart from God’s presence and God’s love.

The transcendence I had been searching for was in the very commonest things—in cheeseburgers and barley loaves. Jesus abides among us, and we abide in Jesus, as the room fills with death and life, grace and grief.

In a few moments, we’ll celebrate Jesus’ presence among us in Holy Communion. Our voices will blend with those of the angels around God’s throne as we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The great prayer of thanksgiving that we lift will be the prayer of voices living and voices dead. Heaven and earth will touch here, and Christ will be present in the bread and the wine in ways too wonderful to understand. There are white palls and spotless purificators and the sounds of the organ and song—as well there should be, because after all, in worship we bring to God the best of the praise and thanksgiving we can possibly offer.

But don’t let the pomp and circumstance obscure for you what is at the heart of our meal: a common loaf of bread, and a simple cup of wine that is both the sign and the reality of how much we are beloved. God has moved heaven and earth to give us this bread and this cup, this meal through which God dwells in us and we dwell in God.

And that is no less true against the sound of organs, than it is against the hum and bump of the respirator, or against the sound of a child’s laughter, or against the sounds of death and life, powers and principalities, against the patchwork of sounds that make up the very commonest moments of your lives. Everywhere, God is there. And you are in God.

Amen.

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