My friend Christopher is a priest in San Francisco and a budding poet. He recently sent me a series of poems that he wrote about the Eucharist. They intimidated the heck out of me. It takes me a long time to read poetry and I always feel like I have missed three quarters of its meaning. When I read poetry, it takes me a lot of time. There seem to be so many layers of meaning. Poetry is rich, complex and can be incredibly profound.
It is important to remember that the Gospel of John is really poetry. It is set up like a magnificent poem. Jesus performs seven miracles or signs and each sign is accompanied by a speech. Scholars call them the signs and the sayings. Jesus is constantly saying I AM and then he uses some incredible imagery. I AM bread, light, the gate, the good shepherd, resurrection and the life, the way the truth and the life and I AM the vine. I AM is the name of God. Yahweh. Which is the same as your very breath...AH, AM...every time you breathe, you say God's name.
Today Jesus says that he is bread. Food. God is food. And today this means very little to us.
Who cares about food? I don't know about you but I spend most of my time trying NOT to eat food. While on vacation, I gained five pounds because who can resist a French chocolate pastry in the morning, especially when it's hot and accompanied by the best coffee ever? We not only have too much food, we need to protect ourselves from the onslaught of dinner parties, fast food and the candy in the line at he grocery store. Food is a battle for me.
But it wasn't a battle in Jesus' time. You must remember that they had no fast food. Everything had to be cooked, dough for bread kneaded, fish caught and cooked. Food was scarce and it was a constant source of worry, when you were going to eat again. Hunger was real, so to say that God was food was to say that God fed you. And this kind of soul food that Jesus came to offer, it feeds the soul.
I am convinced that even though most Americnas are overweight and need to diet, our souls are starving today. Starving.
What is soul food? Today a little body will be baptized and the journey of his soul will begin. He will have this inner life, like a plant, that needs to be nurtured and fed. He will enter into a special kind of relationship with God and his soul will need food. Normal food just goes in and out of the body. Soul food feeds the soul. Things like...art, music, beauty, intimacy, truth...this is the stuff that really keeps us going.
It is often easy to see the state of a human soul when a person is dying. I can see clearly if the soul has been nurtured and fed or if the soul has been ignored and neglected. People who have a soul life have this joy and a willingness to let go and trust, a belief that there is something more than what they can see or even understand. Soul people are mystical and they can let go.
The movie and book Unbroken are based on the true story of Louis Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants, who was captured and held for years in a Japanese concentration camp. Zamperini had this inner strength that kept him alive, even while they starved and tortured his body. When he was fighting for survival, there was an image that would flash into his mind when he needed strength. It was the memory of watching his Italian mother bake. As a little boy, he would sit on the stairs and look down into the kitchen. She would fold the eggs into the dough. She would knead it. The smell, the sights, the sounds of her baking, it would stay with him because that bread was not just food for the body, it was her love incarnate. It was soul food. And when his physical body was dying, he was kept alive by the memory of soul food.
Many of you have heard me tell the story of the Russian priest that I met when I was in college and researching the Russian Orthodox Liturgy. At the end of my studies, I gave this priest money to fix up his church. It needed so much work! Icons were aging, the floor was sagging, the roof needed repair. But when I gave him the gift of some money, he told me to come back the next day.
Father Boris took me to the grounds of an orphanage where he handed out 100 Swiss chocolate bars to the children. That was what he did with my money! It was not practical at all. He didn't fix anything. He bought chocolate! But I realized that he was buying soul food for children who had no concept of joy and of a free gift. He was handing them God's love wrapped in a chocolate bar.
Micah's mom came to this cathedral a few years ago. She took Basic A and out of that class she and some other women formed what is called the Basic A gals. They meet together and pray. It is the kind of group that I want for each and every one of you, because it feeds the soul. The Basic A gals cooked breakfast for the church this morning to celebrate Micah's baptism. They wanted to feed all of you.
If we really understood what this Eucharist is, if we really understood the meaning of this bread and wine really were, there would be lines out the door every Sunday. But the only way you can taste soul food is by beginning to be fed. If you eat this bread and drink this wine regularly, you will begin to realize that a part of you that has long been neglected is being fed. Something deep down inside.
Strange, how we can be busy and overstuffed with food but all the while we are lonely and our souls are starving for connection, for meaning.
What feeds the soul? The beauty of a painting that takes your breath away. A song that moves you to tears. A smile from a child. And this...this bread, this wine.
How can explain it to you? It is poetry itself. That God could be food.