Sermon: Awkward Bread

August 15, 2021

Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

by Eric Anderson

A young ‘elepaio got the idea one day to live close to the ocean.

He was still quite young. He’d left the nest, but he continued to follow his parents as they sought food and showed how it’s done. Sometimes they’d bring him choice morsels when he was tired and sitting quietly in the tree.

But he’d flown around enough on the mountainside of Mauna Loa to see the great blue expanse of the ocean. The land stretching out to it didn’t look to inviting, he had to admit – the Ka’u Desert is pretty rocky and stark – but the sea itself looked amazing.

He told his mother about it in all excitement. She didn’t say much, having noticed that he didn’t listen when she said it was a bad idea for an ‘elepaio to live near the ocean. But a day or two later, his grandmother appeared. She was widely respected as among the wisest of the ‘elepaio.

“So you want to live by the ocean?” she asked.

“Oh, yes!”

“Come fly with me,” she said. “Are you ready for a long flight?”

He was. Off they went.

They didn’t fly toward the ocean, however. They flew parallel to it, making their way west toward Kona, staying about the same altitude on the mountainside as they’d started. Soon enough they could see the coast bending toward the north, with the Pacific Ocean gleaming to the west. The young ‘elepaio thought Tutu was showing him a more hospitable place to live near the sea than the Ka’u Desert.

But instead, she turned to the right, and they flew along the slopes of Hualalai, and then over the grasslands between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, toward Kohala. Once again, they could see the ocean in its vastness beyond the northern shores of Hawai’i Island. Their flight continued, eastward now, over Kamuela and along the eastern slopes of Mauna Kea. They saw Hilo Bay, and the green groves of Puna, before they flew over Kilauea on the way back to their home on the southern face of Mauna Loa.

“It’s an island,” said the young ‘elepaio.

“Yes,” said Tutu. “We live farther up the mountainsides because those who’ve tried to live below haven’t come back, except a few, and they describe their family and friends getting sick and dying. So we live here, where illness doesn’t strike us so often. But did you notice anything else about our mountains?”

The young ‘elepaio wasn’t sure he had.

“The ocean is also our home,” said grandmother. “All of the mountains have their roots in the sea.”

Just a footnote to that story: Tutu was quite right. Many of our native birds, including ‘elepaio, are terribly vulnerable to avian malaria, which is transmitted through mosquito bites – and mosquitoes don’t survive well at higher elevations. It’s one of the hazards that a warming climate brings: increasing the range of those mosquitoes and decreasing the range of Hawaiian birds.

This is one of those moments in John’s Gospel – or any of the gospels, for that matter – where you wish, where I wish, that Jesus would just lighten up. It’s like he’s pushing to be misunderstood, or disputed, or rejected. The people he addressed were so confused that in verse 52 they “disputed among themselves,” about what Jesus could possibly mean by giving them his flesh to eat. They could have asked Jesus – it seems like he was right there – but unlike Nicodemus in chapter 3, they didn’t. I think that’s a measure of how unapproachable they found Jesus in this moment of hard, confusing teaching.

C’mon, Jesus. Lighten up.

It’s not just that the image of cannibalism is gross – it is – or that first century Jews had a deep historical revulsion to cannibalism – they did, and they do today, and so do Christians – or that Jesus connected this with eternal life – which is scandalous, when you think about it. No, it’s something else, something I’m pretty sure they spotted, and it’s the reason they weren’t going to ask Jesus about it.

Jesus was clear: it was never about literal cannibalism. That’s a metaphor – it makes my skin crawl, but it’s a metaphor. The most scandalous thing Jesus said here was his insistence that the source of eternal life was himself.

For a good first century Jew, steeped in the teaching that the source of life is God, the best possible response was, “How can this human being give us nutrition for eternal life?”

When Jesus went on to compare himself to manna, that put the sour frosting on the bitter cake. Everybody knew that those who had eaten manna in the wilderness during the Exodus had died. They hadn’t died because they’d eaten manna – that had kept them alive in the desert – but they’d died because people don’t live forever. Manna had been the distinctive gift of God. By claiming to be the bread come down from heaven that would bring eternal life, Jesus said, basically, “It’s all about me.”

Well. That’s awkward.

When people start insisting, “It’s all about me,” that’s usually a good time to do something. For some people, that’s a good time to encourage them to seek mental health evaluation and treatment, because in some instances, that’s a symptom of a treatable condition. With other people, though, particularly those who desire power over other people, that’s a good time to find other leadership. How many times in history have leaders insisted on loyalty that sacrifices the wellbeing of their people? How many times have such leaders impoverished their citizens or subjects? How many times have they led them into wars? How many times have they brought their nations, or their organizations, or their churches, to disaster?

Absolute loyalty is not due to any human being. It cannot be given to any human being. No human being is worthy of it. No human being has ever avoided abusing it.

And here we find Jesus asking for, if not precisely absolute loyalty, absolute reliance upon himself as a sustaining gift of God.

Well. That’s awkward.

It’s also rather tempting. I’m with Cheryl Lindsay when she writes at, “I confess… I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of praying for the same thing. I’m tired of disappointments. I’m tired of two steps forward, ten back. I’m tired of doubting that change is going to come. Maybe it’s just my personal confession, but sometimes I get tired of the wait. I’m tired of looking in a mirror dimly, not seeing the fullness of the plan, all the while knowing that God is calling, expecting, and compelling me to be faithful to the plan. Sometimes, I don’t want to wait for the unfolding plan, I just want to see the end.”

As COVID-19 continues to spread in Hawai’i, frustrating the hopes we’d had for this late summer and fall, I am desperately tired of waiting. As hate crimes have risen against Asian Americans and against Jews, I am desperately tired of waiting. As African Americans watch legislature after legislature pass laws to restrict their access to the voting booth, I am desperately tired of waiting. As Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders suffer the highest rates of COVID-19 infection, just as they suffer the highest rates of poverty and homelessness, I am desperately tired of waiting.

But then, there’s the old story about a conversation with God: “God, why do you permit so much suffering in the world?” And God replies, “Why do you?”

John told us in verse 66 that this very teaching drove away some portion of Jesus’ disciples. That level of reliance, that level of trust, that level of faith, was too much. Some remained. The twelve for certain, the women, including Mary Magdalene, who would eventually come to care for Jesus’ crucified body, possibly some others. John wasn’t clear. They put their trust in Jesus when others would not. Their witness is that they found Jesus worthy of that trust in life, in death, and in resurrection.

Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher: “And life according to John means that what you need for your life to be sustained God provides, that life is abundant (10:10), that eternal life is not something you can conveniently and conventionally postpone to your future but is your promise in the present, that any claim about life with Jesus, life with God, means an abiding, a unity, a reciprocity, and oneness. It means real relationship, here and now, life that is not a remembrance of Jesus’ past life or a hope for a future life but life lived in the moment as God’s grace upon grace.”

The awkward thing about Jesus is that he not only made outlandish statements, he backed them up. The awkward thing about Jesus is that he not only made outrageous promises, he kept them. The awkward thing about Jesus is that he not only claimed eternal life, he delivered it. Awkward bread, indeed.

Awkward bread to nourish us for this time of disappointment, frustration, fear, and waiting.

Awkward bread to nourish us for a better time to come.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

The sermon as delivered is not the same as the sermon as prepared. They’re close, but they’re never the same.

The illustration is from Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church (Central City, Kentucky) – stained glass, portal tympanum detail, I AM the bread of life. Photo by Nheyob – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on August 15, 2021

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