Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “I am the living bread … Whoever eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6)
After three weeks away, my head is spinning from all that has happened.
Three weeks ago: Bismarck, Annunciation Convent, Marcel Breuer
Two weeks ago: Fort Collins, parents’ 70th wedding anniversary (1948!)
Last week: wedding of my niece in a mountain valley near Taos
Meanwhile back at church: death of a beloved child of the parish
Armando released on parole (30 min response time!)
Trip to Indian Market: a new edge—activist, resistant
All this leads me to think about the question: is there a thread running through the events of our lives, both public and personal, both tragic and celebratory, that somehow holds them together?
And the thought toward which my mind turns comes from yet another event of the past week, when the author Jim Kristofic (who grew up on the Navajo reservation) talked with a group from the parish about that experience. One of the questions he reflected on was what gives a modern-day Navajo his or her identity? He suggested that it is not tradition (for too many traditions are of ambiguous meaning in the modern world, though many are still rich); it is not language (for too few Navajo are able to speak Diné, though many do); and it is not ancestry (for too often Navajo are of mixed blood, through intermarriage, though many are not).
For him, the essential factor is a way of life—a certain orientation toward the world that is based on a sense of the sacred (both of land and people); a commitment to the wider community and of one’s obligations to it; and a distinctive patience with time (for there is always time enough for whatever needs to be done, because time is endless).
And out of that third element—patience with time—Kristofic drew an important point. If we have a sense that life extends beyond physical death into an eternity (however we conceive of that), then we are as close to eternity in the present moment, as we will ever be. If time is infinite, then we will be no closer to its end in 100 years, than we are now. We already live life eternal.
Now, take that thought and bring it to bear on today’s gospel, where Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, by whom those who partake will live for ever. We tend to hear that as descriptive of something in the future. But what if Jesus is saying something more like what Kristofic said of the Navajo: “I offer you a way of life, and those who choose to follow it will find themselves swept up here and now in the life of God, which knows no beginning, and no end?”
What if Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves not just as finite, physical beings who are born, live our lives, and then die—but as part of God’s creative drama in which all things are interwoven in one tapestry of living, and creating, and loving, and sharing, and giving? And what if the key, the point of entry, is to commit ourselves to living as he lived: always on behalf of the other, always on the side of mercy and compassion, always along the trajectory of peace and relationship?
Now, that’s not a new thought, I know. But at moments when we find our heads spinning from all that has happened, both good and bad, it is important to be reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are part of the community of creation that both gives us everything that we have, and asks of us everything that we are.
At my niece’s wedding, I was asked to be one of two officiants. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to give a homily as part of the “ceremony” (this was a very secular wedding), but just in case, I gave one anyway. I talked about how a wedding celebrates two things in particular: the life that two people are creating together in their marriage, and the familial context which gave them birth and shaped them into who they are. It was a moment to recall that day was both about them, but also about my niece’s grandparents (my parents), who were celebrating 70 years of marriage; her other grandparents who were celebrating 60 years of marriage; and each of their parents, who were celebrating 32 years.
The point is, that who we are as individuals is shaped by the bonds of relationship and commitment that we make and with which we are surrounded. And so, I said, the recipe of “Me first” and “Me alone” is not conducive for human flourishing, either for individuals or for nations. A wedding, therefore, is in this day and age a truly prophetic act: not me first, but us together. And then, since I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be speaking or not, I just left it at that.
But this summer for me has been a time for reaffirmation of these primordial truths: that (as an old prayer puts it) life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only an horizon—and an horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight.