SUNDAY 26 JULY 2009. PROPER 12. YEAR B. JOHN 6:1-21.
Sermon in the Community Church at the end of General Chapter.
The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, tells the story of a narrow escape – his narrow escape – from what might have turned out to be a rather embarrassing situation - perhaps a minor diplomatic incident.
The then President of Israel was visiting this country and, as a gesture of courtesy, the British Prime Minister invited him to lunch at No. 10. Not surprisingly, the Chief Rabbi was invited as well. All the arrangements were carefully put in place. The menu was drawn up in accordance with the proper kosher requirements and all eventualities were catered for – or so it was thought.
The appointed day arrived and it was an impressive gathering of the great and the good who assembled at No.10. In addition to the state President there were several members of the Israeli cabinet, plus the British Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other notable personages and luminaries.
In due course the company was bidden to the dining room where luncheon was about to be served. The guests were shown to their places at the table, where they stood, with heads bowed, waiting for the Chief Rabbi to say the grace. It was at that moment that Dr Sacks realised to his dismay that something that was absolutely essential was missing.
In Jewish custom and practice, to pray a blessing on anything you have to have in your hand, or within reach, the thing for which you are asking the blessing. It has to be there, physically present, otherwise you cannot pray the blessing. That was the problem which confronted the chief rabbi. There on the table were the place settings, with all their elaborate paraphernalia of cutlery, glassware, china and linen – and nothing else. The food was in the kitchen, to be brought in after grace had been said and the guests were seated. So how to pray a blessing on the meal when the meal was not there? To have prayed a blessing in such circumstances would be tantamount to taking God’s name in vain.
So Dr Sacks was in a dilemma – to pray or not to pray? Then, unexpectedly, a solution suddenly presented itself. He noticed that halfway down the table there was a gold epergne – an ornamental centre piece – which someone had decorated with a bunch of grapes. It was the only item of food in the room but it was enough. Dr Sacks recounts the immense relief with which he was able to launch into comprehensive blessing, which included heartfelt thanks for nature’s generous bounty and particularly for the gift of the vine and its fruit. The day was saved. God’s goodness was duly honoured.
There it is – the same thing – in this morning’s gospel reading – that all-important action, integral to the blessing before a meal: Jesus took the loaves and when he had given thanks he distributed them to those that were seated. (John 6:11). That was at the feeding of the five thousand. It was the same at the last supper: Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. (Mark 24:22). Again at Emmaus – he took the bread, the evangelist tells us and blessed and broke it.
There was nothing original or unusual in what Jesus did. It was (and is) customary at the beginning of the meal in an observant Jewish household for the head of the family to do just that – to take the bread into his hands and to say something like Blessed are you, King of the universe, bringing forth food from the earth: to you be all glory, now and for ever. In every Jewish household there is always bread on the table at the beginning of the meal, so that even if the food is still in the kitchen, the blessing can be said.
Using language loosely we might speak of Jesus, or any other Jewish host, saying grace when he takes the bread into his hands and gives thanks. In Christian practice the grace at the beginning of the meal generally takes the form of asking God to bless us and the food we are about to receive. Jewish practice – which Jesus followed and which the Christian church still follows when celebrating the Eucharist – is not to ask God for a blessing as such but rather to bless God himself by giving thanks.
It is confusing that in the English language the one word bless has two related but different meanings. To bless someone or something means to hallow, to consecrate, to sanctify that person or thing. So we bless a couple getting married: we bless a crucifix, a rosary, a motor car, or anything whatsoever (as the old Rituale provided).
However, there is another meaning when to bless means to praise: Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name: Bless the Lord O my soul and forget not all his benefits.(Ps 103:1-2)
So when Jesus took the bread and said the blessings, it was not in order to make the bread special as though by a sacred formula. Rather it was in order to praise God for the gift of bread – and not for bread only but for everything that bread represents –fruit of the earth, and work of human hands – for all the life-support that God provides for us and for all creation: Blessed be God for ever.
Dr Sacks, you might say, was saved from what would have been an embarrassing situation by a bunch of grapes. In today’s gospel reading we are told that the large crowd which persisted in following Jesus was saved from the pangs of hunger by five barley loaves and two fish.
The fourth evangelist is the only one of the gospel writers to tell us that the bread which Jesus took and blessed at the feeding of the five thousand was barley bread. The point is that barley bread was cheap (whereas wheaten bread was not) and so was the only kind of bread which ordinary people could afford. For them this coarse, rough bread was their staple fare, their daily bread. Jesus takes this low-grade, poor quality stuff and uses it. He doesn’t look around for something better, something more worthy. He accepts what is offered, takes it into his hands, says the blessing over it – praises God for it – and at once the situation is transformed. Previously it was hopeless, empty. Now there is abundance – enough and more than enough – there is life, sustenance, nourishment, for everyone.
Jesus’ way of saying the blessing – his way of blessing God – was to give thanks. Ever since, Christianity has been a eucharistic religion – a religion which bids us at all times and in all places … always and everywhere to give thanks. Gratitude, the characteristic Christian response to life, is the glad acknowledgment that everything is gift, everything is grace – a bunch of grapes, even the barley bread of daily life, the ordinary, commonplace things, events and circumstances.
All may of Thee partake, says George Herbert,
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with this tincture, For thy sake,
Will not grow bright and clean.
Gratitude is one of the most profound responses we can make to life. To make a blessing, to say a thanksgiving over life, even when life seems unpromising, is the best way of turning life into a blessing.
Eric Simmons CR