I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus said. Which makes this the fourth of five weeks we’re hearing about bread, and the third of four weeks in a row that comes directly from the gospel of John, chapter 6: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Last week the oldest member of Grace Episcopal Church, Holland passed away. And I’m going to tell you a bit about her, because it pertains to bread. Trust me on that. I promise to bring it around.
Bette Comport, age 95, died very peacefully last Sunday at Holland Hospital after being sick for only a few of days. In a way that very few, (but Bette Comport among them) are able to pull off, she decided just about a week before her death, that she was ready to go. And according to Bette, she let God know that. Bette then acquired bronchitis about Wednesday which became pneumonia by about Thursday. She was taken to the hospital and was admitted, and from that point on, Bette pretty much guided her family and the hospital staff through a meaningful and peaceful process of dying.
Now those who knew Bette, knew her to be a feisty and faithful soul. She was a “Rosie the Riveter” in World War II, who although having come from this area, riveted planes for Douglas Aircraft in California. She worked for years for West Ottawa Schools. And in her “retirement,” Bette became a world champion golfer. She won the gold medal in the Senior Olympics at the very-senior-even-for-Senior-Olympics age of what she described as, “in her 80’s.”
Bette had two sons, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. She lived her final forty years as a widow and stayed in the house in which she and Warren had raised their family. Life wasn’t necessarily easy for Bette, but she never said anything like that. She was as feisty and as faithful as they come, right up to her final hours.
I shared last Sunday morning that I had just seen Bette the night before, and while I visited her in the ICU, I spoke a little with her. But mostly, since she seemed to be unconscious, and unlikely to come to again, I sat with her in silence. Bette’s family had left for the night. And I allowed myself to fill with memories and with prayers. It was holy time.
And then at one point I said, “Well, Bette, you’ve had an amazing life. 94 years.” To which much to my surprise she responded, “95!” And that scared me nearly to death because I didn’t really think Bette would speak again. But that was so very Bette. She then smiled a little and received my apology for not adding that final year. She opened her eyes a bit and added, “That’s almost a century.” Which is if you’re doing the math is almost two thirds of Grace’s 150 years.
After setting me straight, Bette went on quietly and slowly to very beautifully speak of her gratitude for Grace Church. Now it’s a profound privilege for me to share those kinds of moments with people, but I am very aware that those moments aren’t mine, they’re ours. And so sometimes you should hear them too. Bette was thankful for what she referred to as “her pew” which was her spot for decades. Two or three or four pews up from the back, and right on the aisle. Bette, while here every Sunday, was not a front row type.
And then Bette went on and talked about how grateful she was for visits over these past few years when it had gotten harder for her to leave home. She was grateful for St Martha’s Guild, St Mary’s members, Eucharistic visitors, neighbors, various Grace clergy, and her Stephens Minister who saw her almost every week for years. And as sort of a summary statement, Bette was thankful for communion. Which made sense because over the years, I think that was her most important lesson to me – the value that this bread has in the lives of so many.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t value it already. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t value and find meaning in this bread. But Bette was adamant that she needed this bread and in some ways she made it clear that she also deserved it on a very regular basis. If there had been too many weeks between visits, Bette let us know, and we needed to hear that. Now she wasn’t deserving in a privileged or even righteous way, but in a clearly “I’m hungry for this bread,” way. In a “this-meal-is-central-to-our-life-together-and-it-gives-me-something,”way. Bette wanted and needed this meal and the church that offers it present to her. And she wasn’t shy about letting us know that. And that clarity helped us serve her.
There was nothing magical about any of this for Bette, she was far too sensible and practical for that. But in ways that none of us can explain for Bette, or ourselves, the bread was Christ for her and so were we. The holiness that we lean into and that shapes us here was present for her there, wherever her there happened to be, which was usually her home. And that holiness brought things and people together that otherwise wouldn’t be one. Bette Comport among them. Bette Comport among us.
In the Eucharistic meal–the community that housed the pew, that mourned Bette’s husband’s death with her, that cared for her kids, that was present no matter the weather or the wartime or the peacetime, that encouraged the golfer to gold, that looked at pictures of the grand-twins whom she loved so very much, that prayed and served the world about which she cared deeply, that visited her right up literally until her final day – in all of that, Christ was with her. In the Eucharistic meal, that bread and those people that gathered and visited were the Body of Christ, the presence of God.
And so Bette Comport, Riveter, wife, mother, grandmother, educator, gold medalist, back pew sitter, taught us all something about the life that comes when we share this bread. She reminded us that when we offer this bread, bless it, break it, share it, become it, and then go out into the world nourished and transformed by it, we are Christ for the world! We become able to acknowledge our own hunger here, which is in itself gift. We are nourished and we are formed. We allow ourselves to be fed and in that become more able to feed others too with the holiness we have been offered.
And so here, our response is thanksgiving. Which is what “Eucharist” means. Thankful not because we understand what’s happening here or because we control what’s happening here. Thankful not because John Chapter 6 makes sense to us. We give thanks because all of this makes bread into life for us. Which makes us into life for each other. And which in ways that are both mysterious and tangibly experiential, we then give life to the world. We’re thankful because all of this helps God be here among us in ways that gather, nourish, strengthen, sustain and send us out to the work God has given us to do. Scattered and yet one Body.
So today, or sometime soon, be sure to walk out into Resurrection Garden which is out the door by the baptismal font and just down the steps from the courtyard. Resurrection Garden is the place of interment for generations of Grace folks. And on Wednesday, Bette’s ashes will be put into the ground there.
Go down there today or someday soon and notice the statue of Jesus there. Christ is there – arms open, alive, open to and resurrected for all! And when you look, see that the statue was given to Grace by Bette Comport, many years ago. And know that in a literal but not always so literal way, that’s how it works. Christ is given. Christ is received. Christ is present. Christ is visible, shared, and taken in. And through it all we become a Body that offers Christ’s gifts to others, generation after generation. Bread of Life and hope for the world.