Summer of Bread, Summer of Soul: A Sermon for Proper 15B, 2021

Proper15, Year B

August 15, 2021

Over the last months, Corrie and I have streamed a lot of movies and television shows. We are revisiting some of our old favorites, discovering new shows, and branching out to explore foreign productions. Some of them are not very good; some of them we continue watching only because we can’t think of any alternatives. Some of them are capable of helping us forget about the world’s problems. Very occasionally we watch something that really wows us.

That was the case with “Summer of Soul.” It’s a documentary using footage taped in 1969 of a series of concerts in Harlem. Unlike Woodstock which took place the same summer and became an iconic moment of American culture, no one saw the film footage of Summer of Soul until it was masterfully crafted into a documentary for the ages by Questlove, with interviews of some of the surviving performers as well as some who had been in attendance. 

It’s a remarkable film both for the quality and diversity of the performers: jazz, gospel, R & B, blues. There are transcendent moments: a young Stevie Wonder drum solo but the moment that is burned into my memory is of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing “Precious Lord.” Jesse Jackson introduces the song, telling the crowd it was MLK jr’s favorite song and that Mahalia sang it at his funeral, just a little over a year earlier. It’s a hot and humid day, and Mahalia has already been singing; she’s tired, and hands the mic to Mavis, telling her she can’t sing it. Mavis is up to the challenge but as she sings, Mahalia recovers, gets up and joins in an improvisational duet that stops time and summons the Holy Spirit. With the memory of MLK’s assassination still raw, after riots and dashed hopes, that moment and the film as a whole, is witness to the hope, faith, and resilience of an oppressed people.

Watching this film more than fifty years after the footage was made is a strange experience. There’s a sense of possibility, of dreams of change, in the midst of the reality of what had taken place. The fashions, the amazing performances bear witness to the joyous exuberance of a people celebrating their culture and music, celebrating being together. But there’s also the reality that we know how the next fifty years played out—the ongoing backlash to the civil rights movement, the abandonment of the cities and the hollowing out of social programs, the rise of white supremacy.

Strangest of all was the power of the experience, the way I was moved while watching the film, and especially while watching the Mahalia Jackson—Mavis Staples duet. With all that’s going on in the world, all the ways my life, our lives, our world has changed, with all of the troubles, suffering and crises, for a moment to be transported into another dimension by a recording of a performance more than 50 years ago, was unexpected, inspiring, and sublime.

What’s more surprising is that I experienced it in my living room with only Corrie and the cats to share it. In an utterly mundane, ordinary space, beauty and grace, the Holy Spirit entered and for a moment we—Corrie and I at least, probably not the cats, were transported to another plane of existence. 

It’s something we used to experience regularly. The effervescence of experience, shared in a group or a crowd, at a concert, the theatre, even at a sporting event, and of course, in a church. But in pandemic, with our concerns for social distancing, masks, and all, those sorts of experiences are rare indeed. Such experiences, such feelings are one of the reasons we find ourselves taking risks we might not otherwise take in light of the continuing pandemic. We yearn to be with others; we yearn to be transported outside of ourselves and away from the narrow, mundane lives we’ve been living, the fear and anxiety that have dominated us.

As we continue to read from the bread discourse in John 6, I find it interesting that we are given a dialogue in which Jesus and his interlocutors debate the experience they shared earlier—the feeding of the five thousand—and reflect on what it might mean for them. In one sense, Jesus’ conversation partners—I hesitate to call them opponents—seem to be trying to draw an analogy between their experience of receiving the miraculous bread from Jesus, with the historical event of the Israelites being fed manna in the wilderness. It’s a very human thing to do, isn’t it, to look for similar experiences in the past, to interpret the present through the past.

But Jesus seems to be saying something quite different: What you see and experience here is nothing like the manna in the wilderness. The Israelites ate manna and died; whoever eats the bread I give them will live forever. We immediately think of eternal life when we hear such language, but when Jesus and the gospel writer speak of “life” in the Gospel of John, they mean life lived now, abundant life, lived in the presence of, in relationship with Jesus Christ. 

There’s something else I want to emphasize. When Jesus speaks of flesh and says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abide in me and I in them” we immediately think of the Eucharist, the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. And rightly so, for clearly that’s one meaning of all of this. But there’s another aspect of “flesh” to which we should pay attention. Remember John 1: “And the Word became flesh and lived among them.”  

This text is about more than the Eucharist. It is about the incarnation, the word made flesh, but it’s also about the flesh-made word living among us, living in us. 

We may want to focus our attention on what these verses suggest about the meaning of the Eucharist. Christians have debated how Christ is present in the bread and wine since the first century. But I think we have more to learn from what else Jesus says here, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

Jesus is pointing to the riches and depth of relationship that are possible in and through him, as we grow more deeply in knowledge and love of him, as we eat more deeply and drink more deeply, as we are nourished by his wisdom. All of that opens up more possibility for dwelling more deeply in him, and he in us.

Even as we struggle with our current lives and the crises in our world—as we learn of the devastation in Haiti, a tragedy on top of all of the other tragedies that nation has faced over the centuries and in recent years; as we watch the collapse of Afghanistan and are reminded again of the failures of American diplomacy and military might, as we confront climate catastrophe, pandemic, and everything else, the noise, the fear, the worries may be overwhelming.

But in the midst of all of it, the cacophony of crisis, Jesus comes to us, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood, in voices raised in song, offering us hope and new life, abundant life. May we find the ears to hear, the eyes to see, the mouths to taste, the life he offers, the life he gives us.

And even if we can’t sing like Mavis or Mahalia, may we reach out our hands to our Precious Lord, so he can lead us home.