"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
One of the things I have been doing since I graduated from seminary is to start reading some of the books that I didn’t have time to read in Seminary. One of these books is “Take this Bread” by Sara Miles. The book is a memoir of her radical conversion to Christianity. Sara grew up in a house where all faith and belief was regarded as insincere and pointless. Both of her parents were born to Christian missionaries and spent their childhoods in huts in Burma and tents in Baghdad. Eventually they returned to the U.S. and were stifled by the small town conservative churches they returned to. Her parents’ childhoods left them scarred and she writes that her parents had a “grudge” against Christianity. Consequently, as a child Sara thought that Sundays were for reading the paper, cooking elaborate meals and spending time with family.
As Sara grew up she became a journalist who reported on political unrest in Latin America. Consequently, she also became something a social activist too. Though it became it clear that she couldn’t make a living as a social activist or writer. So when she wasn’t traveling, she worked in a kitchen in New York prepping food in a noisy crowded kitchen. Sara’s love of food continued to grow in this atmosphere and she began to notice what an impact food had on her and those around her. She shares stories of moments in war-torn El Salvador when strangers offered her food. While working as a journalist in Latin America, Sara fell in love with another journalist and became pregnant. They moved back to the U.S. because they were concerned for the safety of their unborn child in such a violent atmosphere and so they moved to San Francisco. She continued to be a journalist and covered domestic politics and was particularly concerned with the AIDS crisis. All the while, Sara’s love affair with food continued to grow as she cooked for her own family. Her life was happy and moved in a comforting soothing way. And then it happened.
One early morning as her daughter slept, Sara walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. She has no idea why she went in, she had no reason to be there. She writes that she had no interest whatsoever in being a Christian, she merely went in as a spectator. She participated in the service and in the Eucharist. She accepted a piece of bread with the words “body of Christ” and some wine with the words “blood of Christ.” In this moment something “outrageous and terrifying happened” to her. She writes that: “Jesus happened to me.” Sara still can’t explain exactly what happened at her first communion but she felt like she had been “knocked over” or “stepped suddenly off a curb” and found herself weeping. As she left, she chalked up the experience to the beautiful music making her cry. But the word Jesus stuck with her and she wanted that bread again, even though she couldn’t think of why she did. She continued to go back each Sunday and was embarrassed that she couldn’t articulate the reason why. This pattern of going to church and crying through communion went on for some time. She was “struck by the raw physicality of that mystical meal” of communion. She was wading into the mystery.
Sara avows that she was an unlikely candidate for conversion to Christianity. She was a secular intellectual who was prone to skepticism and here she was feeling pulled toward Christianity. Her life was turned upside down and she felt lonely and destabilized among her secular friends and family. In this confusing time the only thing that kept her grounded were those pieces of bread she got every Sunday. She had found her sign from Jesus in the living bread. In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ followers ask him for a sign saying: "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" These people need a sign to believe in Jesus. Their ancestors were given a sign that helped them know who to believe in and they want the same thing! And this is easy enough to understand. How many of us are waiting for signs?
I can’t tell you how many times I have asked for a sign from God. I have prayed for a sign that would help me choose a seminary, or to let me know that I was making the right choice about a job. If I am being honest, I often wish for more than a sign, I usually want a clear concise text message. I have yet to receive one. But I often get my answers in some form, though it may not be the form I expected. The answer will come in a conversation, or during a time of listening or in a moment where I just felt right. There is no manna raining down from heaven like in our reading from Exodus. And yet when Jesus responds to their question, he says that his Father gives them the true bread from heaven. This is the bread that Sara Miles stumbled upon that morning in San Francisco. This bread changed her whole life and gave her the sign she needed. Her whole conversion was centered on a piece of bread. This bread inspired Sara to do many new and different things. I plan on sharing about these new steps in her journey next week.
At the end of this morning’s reading Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life.” Interestingly, his followers don’t ask for further explanation (as I might have done), they just plead "Sir, give us this bread always." So perhaps understanding the Bread of Life isn’t as important as receiving it. Sara Miles did not understand the Bread of Life but she did receive it; and receiving it was enough to change her whole life. So perhaps receiving the Bread of Life through the Eucharist is enough for us today. Perhaps it is the sign we need to believe. Amen.
---The Rev'd Deacon Grace A. Pratt