Sunday, April 06, 2008

Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Our evening meal usually begins the same way: Food is served, family gathers, and we reach for the “Billy Book.”

The book is actually called “A Year of Grace,” a book of table graces edited (and several written) by our friend Bill Kervin. There are, as the title suggests, 365 prayers of blessing from a remarkable variety of sources.

We often take turns selecting the prayer, the idea of following Bill’s order long since out the window. My son, of course, has found all the short ones. An example:

Gratitude is heaven itself.
(William Blake)

Or the poetic and fun:

For every cup and plate full,
God make us truly grateful.

When I get a turn, I tend to go historical or cultural:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
And may our meal by you be blest. Amen.
(Martin Luther)

O God, who makes a thousand flowers to blow,
Who makes both grains and fruits to grow,
Hear our prayer:
Bless this food
And bring us peace.
Amen. (Dutch)

And Carmen, our resident Hebrew scholar, will turn to the Psalms:

The earth is God’s,
And all that is in it;
The world,
And those who live upon it.
(Psalm 24)

There is a wonderful variety of prayers in the book, something that landed Bill in some hot water with conservative book distributors. Bill included some non-Christian prayers in the book, which is not kosher among our conservative friends. He was even removed from the catalog, which could have ended badly, had the story not made the newspaper. As a banned author, his book started flying off the shelf.

The turning point in our Gospel lesson happens at table:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

The language of the passage sounds so familiar because it became the basis for many Great Thanksgiving prayers. The pattern was adopted for communion, and with Paul’s description of the Last Supper and became the basis for this symbolic meal.

When we begin to unpack the poetry of this passage, there is quite a bit happening at table. There are four steps:

He took bread.
He blessed the bread.
He broke the bread.
He shared the bread.

When I imagine the blessing, my mind immediately goes to Matthew 26, and the blessing over the bread in the upper room: "Take and eat; this is my body." This may be possible, but my sense is this blessing would have been more traditional, something comfortable and familiar. In that case, it would likely have been something like:

“Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

This is the traditional Jewish blessing over the bread, a blessing that dates back many centuries and provides an echo of the prayer Jesus would have shared with his friends. It’s an echo but also a pointer, it opens up a larger story hidden in a few words.

Whenever you hear “who brings forth bread from the earth,” think omer. More specifically, think Exodus 16 and the miracle of the omer. It goes like this:

The Israelites cried out and complained that Moses had brought them to the desert to starve. God heard their complaining, and answered with the gift of manna from heaven. But God also sent a test. The test was to see how well the Israelites could follow instructions. You can probably guess the answer.

There were actually three miracles here, if you count the gift of manna itself. So the first was the gift of manna, next came some directions. The manna would come each morning, enough for every member of the tribe to have a single omer of manna (my smart bible naming this as about two quarts). The summary of the first miracle (second if you count manna) goes like this:

The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed.

In other words, the manna had some miraculous property whereby it would automatically redistribute itself, ensuring that every one got their omer. Think of it as an early version of Revenue Canada. The Israelites would be out early, gathering quickly before the heat of the day, and perhaps some were too weak or too tired to gather their entire omer. Not to worry, because God was already redistributing the manna that all could eat.

The second miracle of the omer (third by the manna-first count) is much more fun, the kind of fun usually associated with boys around eight or nine. You see, the second miracle of the manna involved trust, and the Israelites were having some difficulty trusting that the manna would appear every day. Some were shrewd, and decided to eat only part of their omer on gathering day and save the rest for the following day, just in case the manna failed to appear that day. Here’s what happened:

Moses said to them, "No one is to keep any of it until morning." Some, however, paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but when they awoke it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.

You might call this the “miracle of the maggots,” of “the miracle of the smelly food,” perhaps another name for Toronto’s pioneering green box program. Whatever you call it, it was gross, as the kids might say, and swift judgement from the God who said “trust in me.”

There was one exception to the gathering rule, that being that every Friday morning there would be a double portion, two omers for everyone, one for today and one for the Sabbath, the day where the command was do not labour. This one seemed to go more smoothly, and the Israelites stopped their grumbling until, of course, they became tired of manna. But that’s another story.

The miracle of the omer shows up in another rather famous place, another case where something is hiding in plain view. Jesus prays about the miracle of the omer, one day, when he teaches his disciples to pray saying “give us this day our daily bread.” He is praying that each of us receive our omer, no more, no less. He is praying that we have the bread we need. It is deep in tradition and radical in it’s simplicity. It is God’s wish that we each receive our daily bread, that we each have the omer we need to be healthy and thrive.


“Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

The other little bit of context here is the experience of wandering in the desert. Everything that happens in the desert, manna, water from the rock, receiving the law, everything that happens relates back to rescue. These are freed slaves, the very people that God freed “from the slave pens of the delta,” the rescue of captive Israel. Bread is the sign of liberation, and the manna in the wilderness is continued care as this rescue continues.

And what about us? We are heirs of the liberation that Moses led and God provided, forever provided with the model that oppressed people should be free and basic human needs should be met, because the entire fabric of God’s desire is woven with freedom and justice.

But there is more. The most basic freedom God brings is from ourselves. We collect more manna than we need, we hoard the manna, we curse the manna when it is maggoty and we easily tire of the very thing sent to save us. We fail at every step of the story, and we continue to fail as children continue to go hungry in our nation, one of the richest every known.

And there is still more. When Jesus broke the bread, which is his body, our brokenness entered the life of God and somehow we were forgiven. And this is the most amazing miracle of all, that you and me, in all our sin and failure, would receive the forgiveness of this God of miracles.

This day, like every day, is filled with miracles. The miracle of bread shared, and Saviour revealed, and forgiveness extended. The miracle of daily bread, and cup of blessing, and the gift of a table to gather and give thanks. Amen.


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