Pentecost 11, August 8, 2021

Rev. Susan’s Sermon for Pentecost 11/Proper 14 – August 8, 2021

There is a moral story you may have heard that makes the rounds from time to time on the internet, involving wisdom passed down from a man to his grandson.

“A fight is going on inside me,” an old man (sometimes depicted as a native american, but probably not*) told the young boy, “it is a fight between two wolves.  One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The Light Wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you grandson…and inside of every other person on the face of this earth.”  The grandson thinks about this for a moment and then asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”

The old man smiled and simply said, “The one you feed”.

We are in the midst of an extended lesson from the gospel of John. In this passage Jesus tries, over and again, to get people to understand his relationship to God, his relationship to us, and his mission to the world. 

Today, the intention is to have us focus on the meaning of Jesus as “the bread of life,” a key tenet of our faith.  This statement is, at the same time, innocuous and profound: he compares himself to the most basic form of nutrition –bread– to achieve the highest goal — life. 

There is beauty in the simplicity of the statement. He keeps pushing something we’ve noted before: that you are what you eat and what you feed on. is of great significance.  Those of us who have signed on to this belief, have few issues with that concept of him being the bread of life.

You can’t help but notice, then, that there’s a different reaction to his statement in the gospel: there, it met with scorn and contempt. People complain and criticize.   “How can he make these claims?” they grumble. “Who does he think he is, this Jesus?!” “He’s just a local boy, puffing himself up.”  When I don’t like you, what you do or what you stand for… I question who your mother is or  maybe even give you another one, one of my choosing.  

Anger was a common reaction to hear him say, “I am the bread of life.”

I don’t know if it’s the pandemic, the internet,  the political situation, lack of awareness, self-centeredness or what, but anger seems to be the way we react to a lot of things now.  In anger we complain, kvetch, criticize and call each other out for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Every day, it seems, we hear of people behaving horribly, unleashing their anger on any and everyone.  A guy so out of control on a flight, he ends up being duct taped to his seat.  People throwing tantrums in restaurants; food servers receiving the brunt of their wrath because things aren’t to their liking.  Olympic athletes are scorned and heckled  because they don’t meet a couch potato’s expectations. There seems to be an endless loop of reasons why people feel entitled to react in outrageous ways. And anger becomes fuel for more discontent and more brokenness.

There is, of course, a place for righteous anger, times and places where we must raise our voices to quell injustice, oppression and the mistreatment of others.  This kind of anger however, doesn’t or shouldn’t lead to violence.  Indeed, the Christian tradition includes many who were able to speak truth to power while maintaining a non violent stance. 

It’s hard to do though. It requires work. I need to always remember that the first victim of self-righteous anger is me. I speak from experience: there was one time where my anger, so completely off the charts, landed me in the hospital!

Sometimes my anger has me feeling like Elijah in the Old Testament reading:  he’s just so done with his situation, he wants it all to be over. Rather dramatically, he asks to die. He is earnest in his petition, he’s been through a lot. He wants out. Instead, an angel appears and tells him to ‘get up and eat.” The angel even insists a second time, “Get up and eat, “otherwise, the journey will be too much for you.”  And there it is: the bread of life. Strength for the journey.

Just when we are about to be consumed with anger and hatred, just when we are about to lose it, just when we want to check out, be done, escape from the world, the Lord shows up and says: “I am the bread of life; Take, eat.”

What an astounding thing that is: that we are offered always, consistently, without question, the very thing that will bring us back from the brink of death; something that will put out the rage we feel. “Take, eat.”

How can something so basic be so healing?

“The teaching of the church that the sacraments are an outward sign of an inward grace. That is, that the sacraments are visible physical things and actions that point to an invisible spirit and the love of God in action within us… But it is not only an individual journey for in coming to his table and feeding upon Jesus we find ourselves beside all those others who come to eat and drink – it is the family meal of the church: our families, our friends, our neighbours, those we love and care deeply for, those we are estranged from, those we do not agree with always, and those we do not know. We come as part of the crowd of five thousand who Jesus fed by the lake long ago, and as part of the crowd of millions who today declare Jesus as Lord.” (Susan Lodge Calvert)

And as we are focused on eating, sustenance, and how it creates and builds community, I want to also keep in mind how easy it is to fall into the grumbling and complaining pit.  As St. Paul puts it: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger… 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…”  

That’s what reminded me of the wolf story, hackneyed though it is. Which part of ourselves are we going to feed?

When we, or the situation we are in, are out of control, it’s helpful to take note of what is feeding our anger and discontent. Be angry, if you must, but do not sin. Rather, turn to what gives life, not what diminishes it. A diet of acrimony and confusion will only endanger your life.  Choose wisely what you will consume; see that you are nourished not diminished.

“Take, eat” are probably the most forgiving words any of us can ever hear.  The words come from the One who offers us nothing less than himself, the Bread of Life.