Sermon for Sunday, August 1st, 2021
I am taking the long road in my sermon this morning, but please come along with me. I promise, I do have a point and I will eventually get to it.
Many of you know that when I was an undergraduate, I did a summer term at Oxford University in England. That experience is actually part of how I became an Episcopalian, but that is another story. But while I was there studying, and mind you this was my first time outside the United States, while I was there I started to have cravings for a biscuit. Now I know that this is New York and y’all think a lot of your bagels, and yes, I can appreciate a really good bagel, but I will never love them or crave them in the same way that I do biscuits. Biscuits were a staple for us. Grandma always had them on the table, maybe not at every meal, but at most of them. They are a part of my culture. Now here is something that you need to know if you don’t already know it: biscuits are not really a part of British culture. I love England. I have lots of friends in England. And the English have some wonderful food, but they don’t really have biscuits. They have the word “biscuit,” but the word biscuit in England means a cookie, not the fine, flakey quick-bread that we make with shortening and buttermilk and flour. Now I wasn’t going hungry, but for some reason I just really wanted a biscuit. So in-between studying and exploring churches and castles, I was also looking for a biscuit. I figured maybe their McDonald’s would have a sausage biscuit, but no. No biscuits. Then I tried KFC. Surely if they sold fried chicken they would also sell biscuits. No luck. No biscuits there either. This was getting serious. I remember at one point trying to explain to some of my lovely English hosts what an “American Biscuit” was because they had no idea what I was talking about, and I said “well, it’s kind of like what you call a scone, but it’s usually lighter and fluffier and buttery.” “Huh” they said, and just kinda shrugged it off. It didn’t really mean anything to them.
You know, at the time I thought I was just having a strange craving, but looking back now I realize that it wasn’t just my stomach I was trying to fill. I wasn’t just longing for a fluffy piece of bread, I was longing for a symbol.
I think sometimes we misuse or misunderstand the word “symbol.” We talk about symbols like they aren’t real things or aren’t important. I myself have used the expression “just a symbol.” But symbols are real things, and they are powerfully important. Symbols are little things that connect us to much bigger things. They are physical things that connect us and reconnect us to memories and stories. And symbols show up all the time in everyday life. In fact, that is when they are the most powerful. Think about bread for a second. Growing up we would buy sliced bread or yeast bread from the store for things like sandwiches, but we never made that at home. At home, the everyday bread that we made was either cornbread or biscuits. As I mentioned, my grandmother loved them. I can remember watching her make them when I was little. She would bring out this giant green Tupperware bowl from under the counter that she kept her flour in, make a well in the center with her fist, pour in some milk and oil and start to work it with her hand, drawing in little bits of flour as she gets it to just the right consistency, then shaped it into biscuits, and baked them off. Whenever the family gathered you can be reasonably sure that there would be biscuits on the table. So to me, a biscuit isn’t just a piece of bread, it is so much more than that. It is a symbol of a whole world of relationships: it reminds me of the South and my family and my grandmother, and my aunts and uncles and cousins in South Georgia. It reminds me of a dialect, and of values, and my faith. All those stories told over the dinner table and all the while this little piece of bread was there, just absorbing it all. A biscuit is about so much more, to me at least, than just a piece of bread. I didn’t realize that when I was on my first trip to England, but I do now.
This all became more clear to me very recently when I discovered Ms. Brenda Gantt. Now if you don’t know who Brenda Gantt is, I will share with you a link to her Facebook page and some of her videos. Brenda Gantt is a grandmother in South Alabama, who about a year or so ago started recording videos with her phone, standing in her kitchen teaching folks how to cook. She now has over two million followers I believe, and the video that really turned her into something of an internet sensation was one of her showing how to make biscuits the traditional way. Well you know I had to watch. Ms. Brenda takes her big bowl of flour, makes a well in it with her first, pours in the buttermilk…I think you are beginning to get the picture. She was doing almost exactly what my grandmother did. In so many ways she was reconnecting me with my grandmother who died several years ago: through some of her words and phrases and mannerisms, but most importantly in the food she was cooking. Food just has this amazing symbolic power to connect people. It is a connection that isn’t just happening in your head either, your whole body is a part of it. So naturally I have been watching Ms. Brenda just about every day, not just for recipes, but also because when you watch her you just feel like you are hanging out with her in the kitchen. She talks about what she did today, and what her family is doing, and very often she will talk about her faith or even read from the scriptures. You get the sense that this has very much become a ministry for her. And you know, watching her, and seeing the love that she just pours into her followers and into the food she is making for her family, I at least feel very ministered to. In one video, she invites a pastor friend over and the celebrate communion right there on her chopping block. There was another video, and I forget what Ms. Brenda was making, but while she was cooking she grabbed this very long dish towel that was clearly designed to be worn around the neck. Now I haven’t seen that type of dish towel before, it looks kind of handy, but when she put it on and stood before her big chopping block island in the middle of her kitchen, well darned if she didn’t look a lot like a priest saying mass with a stole on. Now to my knowledge Ms. Brenda is not ordained and in any event she is a Baptist and Baptists don’t usually wear stoles, so I don’t think the she was trying to look like a minister, she was trying to fix supper, but for me as a good Episcopalian who loves traditions and signs and symbols, well for me it caught my eye as if God was trying to get my attention and say “pay attention now, because there is something important going on here.” Maybe Ms. Brenda isn’t ordained, but the act of pouring your own life and your own love into some food that is then going to give life and joy to others, that is a priestly act. It is a sacrificial act. And it is an act that Our Lord himself performs.
Jesus feeds people. Not just spiritually or metaphorically. Jesus literally feeds people. And this is not a one-time thing in the gospels; it happens over and over again. Feeding people is important to Jesus. Even after the Resurrection, Jesus tells Peter, “if you love me, then feed my sheep.” In today’s gospel reading that you heard just a minute or so ago, Jesus had just been feeding the five thousand, and people are still following him and looking for him. And Jesus says to them, right now you are following me because you are hungry. “You are looking for me…because you ate your fill of the loaves.” But Jesus offers us more than just a piece of bread that fills you up one minute and is gone the next. What he is really offering people, through his food, is relationship with him. That is the food that leads to eternal life: bread that is more than just flour and water, but that is a symbol or our relationship with God. Bread that is a reminder of God’s love and care for his children, just like the fine, flaky manna in the wilderness. Bread that is life-giving in a way that includes the body, but that is really about so much more than a cure for hunger. Bread that feeds us with God’s own life. Bread that connects us to others that we love. Bread that reminds us of stories, and values, and expressions, and physical actions. Bread that is really a little piece, a little taste of a whole other world.
Is that too much to ask of a little piece of bread? Well, I don’t know. If grandma or Ms. Brenda can do that with a simple biscuit, what can the Lord of all creation do with a little dough? If this flaky piece of bread can reconnect me to my past and remind me of who I am; if this can feed me both physically and spiritually, and I just baked it this morning, then what can the bread that Jesus gives me do?
Jesus says in the gospel today that “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” When Jesus gives us bread, he isn’t just giving us a snack to tide us over. It is his own life that is offered. He isn’t just giving us a piece of bread. He is offering us a relationship, an eternal relationship with him. In this church, right before we receive communion, we say the Prayer of Humble Access, which many of you know is my favorite prayer in the entire prayer book, and right at the end of that prayer we say: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” Whenever we participate in the Lord’s supper we are renewing our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are re-inviting him to be a part of our lives and asking him to be a part of his. And we believe that in that whole act of drawing us together, uniting us with his life, and uniting us to each other, and recalling stories, and values, and God’s love…we believe that Jesus is really and truly present in that act. Sure Jesus is present in our lives in other ways, but he is especially present in this way. And the symbol of his presence, is a little piece of bread that points to a whole world of relationships.
That is why we treat the bread of communion with so much reverence and respect here. Because we believe that Jesus is touching our lives in a very special way through it. It isn’t just a reenactment of something that happened a long time ago; we aren’t just using Jesus’s recipe here, we are asking him to be the chef. It is God’s heavenly feast that we are invited to be a part of. We don’t always understand exactly how God is working through communion, and maybe we shouldn’t try to over-define it and just take Jesus at his word: this is my body; this is my blood. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” It is a mystery and it is miraculous, and I am ok with that. I want to be a part of this meal, because I want to be a part of Jesus’s life and the life of his people.
Whenever I eat a biscuit, I am reminded that I come from biscuit eating people, and I become a biscuit eating person once again. And not that there is anything wrong with scones and bagels, they can be lovely, as can the people that eat them, but I have no doubt that I will die a biscuit eating person, and until that day comes I will try and spread the good news about biscuits to the non-biscuit eating world, much like Ms. Brenda is doing and I pray for God’s blessing upon her.
But as much as this bread means to me, there is another piece of bread that means more to me than a biscuit, and it is far more important that we all spread the good news about it. Because it’s not just a piece of bread. It is a symbol of the heavenly feast. It is a little piece of another world, that God has given us here. It isn’t just bread; it is a relationship with the saviour. We treat this bread with a lot of reverence here, because really, what could be more precious than a relationship with Jesus?
Here is the link to the Cooking with Brenda Gantt Facebook Page:
Here is the biscuit video that started it all: