St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
August 8, 2021 Reflection
In 1987, Pope John Paul II visited the Bay Area. As usual, my editor at the San Mateo Times was looking for a local angle on the story and he found one. I was sent to the Mercy Center, a convent and meeting center in Burlingame, to interview a nun who had written some new music that would be used during the Pope’s Mass in San Francisco.
That was how I met Sister Suzanne Toolan. When I mentioned that I’d recently returned to the Episcopal Church, she said she had a hymn in our Hymnal, so from then on I started checking the names of hymn composers. Turns out Sister Suzanne wrote “I Am the Bread of Life,” which also appears in Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist hymnals. The song, which Sister Suzanne wrote between classes she was teaching in 1964, has been translated into 20 languages. She’s also written lots of other music, including some Taize chants like “Jesus Christ, Yesterday, Today and Forever” and “Now in Peace, O God.”
Sister Suzanne has said that I Am the Bread of Life shouldn’t really work for congregational singing. “It’s too low. It’s too high,” she says. She believes the big draw is the Scripture from which the lyrics are drawn, some of which were read to us today.
What is it that’s so compelling about Jesus as the bread of life? Over the past few weeks, it seems that bread and feeding have been talked about over and over in the Gospel. Spoiler alert, we’re not done with the topic yet.
For me, I think it comes down to both the simplicity and the complexity of the message. Jesus tells us that belief in God and the Savior are all that we need. We need faith to survive in a way that transcends our need for physical nourishment. This was a hard message for the people in his hometown congregation to hear. They had been taught that obeying the laws and customs of their people were the only way to a peaceful Paradise. Now one of their own was telling them they had to believe in him and he would raise them up on the last day. In the early Christian church — the people for whom John’s Gospel was written — the sacrament of the bread and wine became a way of being church, after many had been ousted from their synagogues for their beliefs.
This message of God’s continuous care for us sounds too good to be true and so we struggle with it. It’s not as easy as it sounds because believing in Jesus isn’t really the end of it. If you believe in Jesus and his message, then you also believe that doing your best to imitate God, as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, follows that belief, Can you really believe in God’s mercy and the sacrifice of Jesus without believing that you are destined for good? As the Psalm says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they that trust in him.”
But we are often at a complete loss to discern what is good. Our trust wanes when things happen that don’t seem right and God doesn’t seem to do anything about it. That brings us to the first reading. Absalom has committed two very serious sins. First, this son of David takes it upon himself to murder his half-brother, who raped and abandoned their sister, Tamar. David had refused to avenge his daughter.
Second, Absalom leads a rebellion against David, God’s chosen King of Israel, in which thousands die. Absalom dies grotesquely, but David mourns this rebellious but beloved son. David knows very well that his own sins have had a big role in the sorrow of both his family and his country, and he wishes that he had died instead. As so often happens, a sin leads to a cascade of unforeseen events. David’s successor, his son Solomon, asked God for the gift of wisdom, of discernment to know the difference between right and wrong. Absalom surely thought he was doing the right thing.
But we don’t have Solomon’s gift. We continue to sin, sometimes unknowingly, doing things we don’t really want to do. Even when we’re really trying to do good, we can sin. Which brings us back to Jesus as the Bread of Life, who is with us every single day and hour to comfort us in our guilt and frustration, and to forgive us. This nourishment, this love, is what keeps us going through our earthbound lives and into the afterlife. As living beings, we need real food and water to live, but as living spirits, we need our faith, and we need it 24/7 and forever, not just at mealtimes. Our Holy Communion is a way of reminding us of this need and of our relationship with both the Trinity and other believers throughout the ages.
Last week, we were fortunate to once again be able to have an in-person Communion which many of us have really missed this past year. Yet this longing, for me, has also made me think more about what I really need from church. From the first Christians, Communion has not only offered us a living reminder of the Bread of Life, but has been part of the identity of Christians and the church. But as always, what Communion stands for is the real Sacrament. And we’ve had to look at new ways of addressing the future, which I find both scary and exhilarating.
Of course, the whole world has gone through this experience. The Mercy Center, where Sister Suzanne, now in her 90s, still lives, hosted a Taize prayer service on the first Friday of the month from 1982 until April, 2020 — 38 years. I used to go occasionally when I lived on the Peninsula and there were many people for whom this was their home congregation. When the sisters realized that Covid wasn’t going to end anytime soon, they began an online Taize service. If you would like to participate, go to the Mercy Center Website for details. I’m not sure if Sister Suzanne is still able to be there, but I know that her music is still part of the service.
And today, we’re going to sing “I am the Bread of Life,” difficult as it is, but knowing that our basic needs can only be met through our faith.