NYE Reflection #4: Imitating Bread
JR Martinez’s story is inspiring. In the blink of an eye he went from a confident nineteen-year-old in Iraq cruising in the desert in a Humvee to a helpless, burning soul trapped inside a military truck torn apart by a landmine. Then, a bitter, painful recovery in a hospital bed. 34% of his body burned, lacerated liver, broken ribs. A glimpse into a mirror to see that his face and body would never be the same. He shouldn’t have survived. Even when he did make it to a hospital, he almost didn’t survive. How could he recapture his will to live? What was the point? But something clicked in JR after his mom strongly told him that it didn’t matter what he looked like on the outside. He started to realize that no matter how dark the place was that he was in, it mattered more how we he would choose to live his life. What mattered most was who he was and how he lived. So seven months later as an outpatient he visited another injured, depressed patient and shared his story with him. JR found that this helped that individual hope. He started visiting other patients. He started encouraging people with his story. He started to uphold a new philosophy by keeping 2 words in his back pocket: adapt and overcome. JR moved from imagining to happening. Rather than being paralyzed by the tragedies and struggles of life, he chose to act, and his voice and his story continue to bless people and inspire them to make positive changes in their lives.
Katie Britt, one of the participants from UCCW, was inspired and moved by the whole experience of NYE. Katie has a unique perspective and reflection that she will share with you now.
As I hear Katie tell her story–as I remember JR Martinez’s story—I am inspired and encouraged by how their experiences, but good and bad, moved them to do something positive. I know that Katie will take these experiences with her to college and find ways to bless others and accept all people for who they are. She will encounter obstacles, but like JR, Katie will find ways to adapt and overcome. But I admit to you that this week most of my thoughts have stayed in the dark place that JR talked about, as I continue to think about the events of last Sunday. I’m sure most of you know of what happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, at the Sikh Gurudwara, the place of prayer, worship, and community for members of the Sikh religious community. A peaceful and well-established community of Sikhs in that part of Wisconsin is devastated by the loss of six human beings at the hands of a gunman. There is no explanation, no appropriate words to say. It’s just tragedy, loss, anger, sadness, and pain. When I heard about the shooting, my mind raced back to our visit to the Sikh Gurudwara in West Philadelphia. It was only last December 4th that members of this church—youth and adults—experienced the hospitality of the Sikh community in Philly. We experienced their prayer service, wore head scarves, and shared food with them. And now this. One of over more than 700 attacks on Sikh communities in the United States since the events of September 11th, 2001. Why Sikhs? What have they done? Have they prayed too much? Have they been too peaceful? Why?
The answer lies on the outside. Many, many people in this country see turbans and headscarves and think one thing: Muslim. Still others move much further to: terrorist. Suddenly, what’s on the outside seems to matter so much more than what’s on the inside. I spent a few days talking with my friends and colleagues in the Philadelphia interfaith community. There was candlelight vigil in Philadelphia. There were letters, phone calls, and emails to the Wisconsin Sikhs, but also to the Philly Sikhs. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus–people of various faiths wanted to show their support and express their great sadness. But I sat in emptiness wondering why it always takes something as horrific as this for us to wake up. I questioned why especially in our Christian churches we choose to remain so ignorant of our neighbors—how they live, practice their faith, who they are as people. I just wondered if we actually lived what we say we believe on Sundays—how would that change our world, or at least the little corners of the world we live in? Instead of being silent, what if we used our voices loudly to speak out against discrimination and prejudice? What if we believed that the men, women, children, and youth of the Sikh community were part of our family?
And then my thoughts turned to bread—the delicious bread that the Sikh people shared with us on that December afternoon. We dipped it in the curry and the yogurt sauce. We laughed. We learned as they taught us. We asked questions. We sat on the floor together. I left the Sikh Gurudwara filled. Why? Was it the bread, or was it something else, something way more significant and important? And why now, after the violent event of last Sunday, did I feel so empty? I felt hollow and with a bad taste in my mouth, because I don’t understand how we as human beings can hate, hurt, and kill simply because of someone’s appearance, or simply because we don’t know anything about them and they are different, so we assume that they are a threat to us. And my emptiness deepens when I think about my own Christian community—that often we are silent when it comes to injustices, persecutions, prejudices, and hate. I watch the NYE videos and remember how accepting and passionate about justice the youth were for those 5 days in Indiana, and I wonder why we don’t keep that going.
And I continue to think about bread—and this time, I wonder about the bread that Jesus talked about. We’re reading John’s Gospel again, and once again, we find Jesus using that famous I AM statement. Should bring us back to the Moses and the burning bush story. The I AM, ego eimi in Greek, appears 24 times in John’s Gospel. It’s Jesus taking on a prophetic role, being the voice and human embodiment of the Still-Speaking God. This time, I AM the bread of life. The divine name of God is linked with earthly, natural things. It makes sense if you think about it. The dust had settled after such an amazing event involving fish and bread [again] when 5000+ people were fed. People were in awe. Jesus wasn’t impressed, though. He tried to move the people to think differently about what had happened. They were thinking about wheat, white, rye, or pumpernickel. Jesus was thinking about life. The people remembered manna from heaven—all the things from their past. Jesus called them to the here and now.
So of course there was resistance to Jesus’ message, but it wasn’t as we often paint it. It wasn’t resistance from the Jews in general. Keep in mind that Jesus himself and the majority of his disciples were Jews. No, this resistance and argument came from within Judaism itself. The Jews of the temple aristocracy were not ready to accept this new perspective that seemed to feed so many with radical ideas. Again in John’s story, our author reminds us that Jesus wanted the people to “see” with new eyes. In order to understand living bread the people needed to see a new way.
It’s at this point that Jesus brings his message home. He uses the phrase “truly, truly,” what we call the double amen saying. The double amen is meant to grab our attention, to let us know that something important comes next. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. But the English translation of whosoever believes sells the Greek short. This isn’t about believing in something [like a doctrine or dogma] and then obtaining eternal life. It’s a verb in Greek that is less related to the head and more about action. Truly, truly, I say to you, whosoever lives faith has eternal life. Consistently, Jesus’ message was that faith involved an action. People were not healed simply because they “believed” in their heads. They were healed because they reached out to touch a cloak, put down their mats to walk, ripped off bandages, climbed trees, and physically changed direction. The eternal life, the living bread, was not some sort of heavenly goal that you waited for your whole life, but was instead a way of day-to-day living in the now of God’s loving presence.
As people sought to live out this idea, the concept got practical. Be Imitators of God, Paul said. Don’t just talk about Jesus and living bread, but live it out in the world. Don’t just say you love God, but show it by loving another person. Don’t just talk about justice, but make it happen in your community. Don’t just quote scriptures, prayers, and songs, but walk, run, jump, and move to do works of compassion and mercy. Bread that lives. A message grounded in action. It’s like Mahatma Gandhi once said: my life is my message. Jesus of Nazareth modeled this. As bread of life, he gave his life for the service and love of others. He became nourishment for those who were hungry, refreshment for those who were thirsty. He embodied this. Then he mentored others to do the same. We, imitators of God, are to be bread for the world. We are to embody this love, grace, compassion, and life-giving service in the world. But we must remember that we are not perfect—not superhuman bread, not puffed up about it, not pious, not overly proud or sure that we’re better because we’re bread. Otherwise, we will not be nourishment or refreshment to those around us. But if we’re ourselves, admitting that we don’t have all the answers, that we fall, too; that we struggle with faith, money, family, behavior, and life—we humbly become the bread that truly feeds people. Those who encounter us will find a friend or an advocate. Those who are oppressed or pushed down will find safety in our standing with them and for them.
Friends, as people of faith who follow this Jesus Christ, we are supposed to believe that our lives are active participation in the work of God that feeds the world. We’re called to embody a God who gives of self without reward in mind. We’re meant to eat of the living bread that fills our souls with compassion, honesty, mercy, and love. But if we claim this bread, this Jesus Christ, we do so at our own peril. As fellow preacher Rev. Juan Huertas says:
We cannot eat of this bread and forget.
We cannot eat of this bread and walk away.
We cannot eat of this bread and go on with life as usual.
My empty feeling this week stem from this disappointment—that in the church we often pay little attention to being “feeding people,” we spend less energy seeking to be a community of the “living bread for the world.” Sadly, we often spend more energy fighting over the things that separate us, the things that exclude others, that close our doors. We even start to question whether certain people are created equally in God’s image. And yet, we’re offered this living bread. What will we do with it? Will we replace hate with love, ignorance with understanding? Will we decide that being a follower of Christ means living as a follower of Christ, being bread of life for whosoever needs it? I hope and pray that it doesn’t take tragedies for us to really do this. May we use our voices to encourage, bless, and stand for justice. May our hands and feet move to acts of compassion. May we be living bread in all places and times. May we see with new eyes that this kind of living is God’s loving presence in the world. Amen.
 Rev. Juan Huertas pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.