We are the Bread of Life

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1 Kings 19:4-8

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

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“Let there be peace among us and let us not be part of our own or another’s oppression”

When I was a child my parents and I would drive out to my great Aunt Jessie and great Uncle Stewart’s place “in the country”. We were usually accompanied by my cousin, my aunt and my grandparents.  It was a place where my cousin and I were pretty predictable in our actions.  First, we would stop in the kitchen to see if Aunt Jessie was going to make peach ice cream, which also meant that we were going to take turns hand turning it on the front porch.  On the counter there was a large beige earthenware mixing bowl covered with a damp dish towel. 

That was the indication that we were having rolls with dinner. My cousin and I were then given instructions on what fresh vegetables were to be picked for dinner: Kentucky wonder beans, corn, tomatoes, lettuce to name a few.  Returning from our outdoor farmers market, my cousin and I then took a walk down the dirt road to Mr. and Mrs. Mack’s house.  The Mack’s had a real farm complete with a barn, and animals.  Mr. Mack would ride us around on his tractor and let us feed the chickens.  Mrs. Mack would then treat us to fresh squeezed lemonade and homemade chocolate chip cookies.  Quite satisfied we would then run back to the house to begin the churning of the ice cream. My father would take the sealed metal container of milk, cream, sugar and peaches and secure it in the ice cream maker, surround it with ice and top it off with rock salt.  I preferred to churn later in the process as what I really wanted to do was to punch down the dough for the rolls.  I remember my Aunt Jessie saying “give it a good punch”.  My small hand lost in the dough that then surrounded it.  She would then take the back of a dinner knife and scrape the dough off my hand. I would watch her intently knead the dough.  She had arthritis of the hands and I never grasped the full weight of how difficult a task this might have been.  She rolled the dough out on a wooden board that she had spread flour.  Taking a drinking glass, dipping the rim of the glass into flour, she would cut circles of dough to form the rolls.  She would then pick up each circle and fold over the top third of the roll.  Then taking each roll and placing it carefully on a greased baking sheet.  The remaining dough would be gathered and the process repeated until there were two full pans of rolls.  Another rise, then brushed with melted butter and placed in the oven.  The house smelled wonderful.  It was as a young child that I learned that Making Bread is An Act of Love.

Over the years I have made yeast breads but nothing ever equated my Aunt Jessie’s rolls.  But I continue to hold my truth that the making of bread is an act love. I recall making a loaf of challah and my father and I sitting at the dining table, a warm loaf of bread and a plate of butter between us. 

My current love for bread baking came after I read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Bread in the modern context as we have come to know it, is the result of the advent of roller mills that made white flour widely available and of the commercialization yeast in the 1880’s.   While it made life easier it took much of the nutrition out of bread and made bread commercially available for purchase.  It was a staple of the dinner table in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s predictable in color and pretty tasteless, it had preservatives so it had a long shelf life. It must be noted that for most of European history, bread represented more than half the calories in the diet of the peasantry and urban poor according to French historian Fernand Braudel.

But ask any serious two thousand and eighteen, bread maker and they will tell you time and time again, that making bread is an act of love.  My friend Julie Carson, gifted me with starter yeast last year.  Since then I have tended, fed and used the yeast to bake bread. Now that act of love hasn’t been easy and at many times it appears one sided in the yeast favor.   Yeast has popped out of containers moved in mysterious ways along the kitchen counter and made its way onto the floor.  Only to continue to expand in the process.  Julie says this means that I am doing it right.  Baking bread is a gift of love and an abundant, life giving and sustaining gift.

So, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” are we looking at Jesus as boring factory-made bread?  What comes to mind when we hear “I am the bread of life”?

Perhaps some will think of the bread that we used for communion.  In most Episcopal and Anglican churches to commemorate the Lord’s Supper we use the communion wafer.  It’s easy, it’s convenient and it comes in a resealable container of 500 and it has no resemblance to the taste of bread.  Is this the “bread of life” to which Jesus likened himself to? 

Today’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus’ proclamation “I am the bread of life.” Earlier we read the story that has come to be known as the feeding of the five thousand, where many hungry people are feed because there was love and sharing enough for all.  The focus of this feeding story has been on the meal and very little attention paid to the bread itself and what is might signify.  In the same way that the focus on mass feeding has been on the miracle and not on the food itself, so, too, with today’s proclamation that Jesus is the “bread of life,” we usually focus our attention on Jesus rather than on the bread.

But how can we begin to understand what Jesus was saying about himself until we look more closely at the bread?  When Jesus talks about the bread he is looking about a community that is all inclusive.  All inclusive, means all-inclusive because if we don’t include ALL we place restrictions on the way that we live our life in this world.  We get predictable bread.

When I visited South Africa a few years ago I was introduced to a rich dense brad they call Seed Loaf, boasting different seeds and grains which yield a loaf of complex texture and rich flavor.  This is how it was described on the market’s web site “Seed Loaf, our healthiest loaf, is hearty and moist.  Made from white flour, whole wheat flour, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, bran, sunflower oil and honey and yeast.”  This is definitely the sort of bread invoked by Jesus’ claim: I am the bread of life.

The passage from John’s Gospel is a lesson is about love, believe, and abundance.  It is difficult to associate mass-produced bread with the actual kneading and baking of a loaf of bread.  We are all accustomed to a huge aisle devoted to bread in our local market. Abundance, yes. Not so much anything else!

Consider Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Western MA, a small bakery. Berkshire Mountain makes its own yeast and only uses fresh milled flour.   Online orders need to be placed by Sunday at noon to be baked and shipped on Tuesday. They have a sort of cult following of “breadies” and followers of the bread guru Richard Bourdan.  One can order:

Cheese & Herb Bread

Cherry Pecan

Ciabatta

Dark chocolate

Jalapeno and Cheese

Peasant French Pan

Spelt Bread

Visiting the bakery is a bread Disneyland. Driving through small towns in Western MA confused by the GPS, I was on a mission to search out and buy “real bread”. When we finally arrive, I stood in front of a small wall of daily selections speechless and mouth ajar. Here I was with real bread, food for the soul, handmade, made with care, made with love. When the bread is sold out for the day there is no going to the back of the bakery to retrieve additional loaves. No bread comes in a plastic sleeve.

Our lives – our families and friends are enriched – with a diversity of likes and dislikes.  Why not our bread? And to turn that around: When Jesus spoke of himself as bread, as the Bread of Life, is it possible that he was speaking of richness of texture, of boldness and flavor? That he was inviting us to a greater feast in our life of faith?

Jesus’ ministry was built on the rich foundation of many stories of feeding and being fed.  We have one example in Today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible.  I reading from Kings, Elijah sets out on a long journey sustained by the gift of the angel of the Lord: food! Not just once does the angel feed him, but twice.  The angel commands him: “Get up and eat!”.  This wasn’t just any food, but bread.  Elijah “got up and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”

Jesus was well-acquainted with the Exodus story, and would have known the tradition that the Lord God sustained the Israelites in the wilderness with manna – bread—from heaven.  Which is actually not bread as we know it but is a sustainable, edible food that combines morning frost is edible and tasted like bread.

The Exodus theme permeates John’s Gospel, setting up a tension between the manna given from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread that feeds us in the wilderness of our souls.  Somewhere in the midst of that tension we find the bread of life: not manna from God, not the flesh of Christ, but the Bread of Life, the Bread that brings LIFE.

Now if we continue on with the reading we have those who aren’t quite sure about Jesus’ claim of who and whose he is. Now, bear with me one moment as I am going to change the context of some of the commentaries about this passage. I am going with the phrase the crowd began to complain.  I have been blessed with long longevity on both my mothers and fathers’ side of the family.  Part of this blessing is that I was blessed at an early age with the importance of listening and being with the elders.  Respect was given by me and in turn stories were given to me as an oral history of struggle and triumph.  In my own family, my grandfather moved north for the promise and fulfillment of a good job at the Ford Motor Factory.  The pay was good and steady and moved many African Americans into the middle class. My father’s older brothers went to work at Fords, however my father after his first few months of working at Ford as a welder was pulled aside by a fellow auto worker who said to my father: “this work is not for you, go to college”.  It was a few weeks later that my father fell off a scaffolding and was given the time and space to consider his career path.  His choice to go to college was initially met with a community that wasn’t sure how a college education was going to lead to steady employment and to provide for a family.  Many a neighbor said “you know Wyatt and Christine’s child… “He’s going to college, He’s thinks he better, who does he think he is? 

My father received a PhD and encouraged his younger brothers to obtain a college degree. We have all known a person or two or three in our lives who said “you know what so and so’s child is doing…”.   Do we say that in disbelief or do we say that in amazement for blessings that have been given to that person?  This is not an old conversation.  The writer of John knew the people they were writing to and knew the questions on their heart and minds.

Jesus was baking something new.  Creating the yeast that would break from the plastic container on the counter and flow onto the kitchen counter and onto the floor and carried out the door to feed the people.

This vision of bread given to us in John’s Gospel teaches us that we will be feed that we are enough, that we are loved.

To eat the bread of life in love means that communities come together to have conversations about their differences and support each other when forms of racial hatred are expressed in their communities.

To eat the bread of life in love is to check our privileges at the door and stop for a moment to let the Holy Spirit into our hearts and into our thoughts.

To eat the bread of life and love is to have compassion for one another even under the most difficult of circumstances,

To eat the bread of life means we struggle and wiggle in comfortable and uncomfortable conversation with the other of differing opinions and we stay present.

To eat the bread of life means we don’t discount, belittle or shame the other as we are all “the other” at times.

The author and humanist chaplain, Jim Palmer wrote this week:

My God is better than your God

My religion is better than your religion

My belief system is better than your belief system.

My philosophy is better than your philosophy.

My ideology is better than your ideology,

My ism is better than your ism

My race is better than your race.

My socioeconomic class is better than yours.

My degree is better than yours.

My cause is better than your cause.

My political party is better than your political party.

 

And the wheels on the bus go round and round.

Meanwhile, there is something beneath all those layers that unite all of us together as one.

We are operating out of the beliefs, mindset, narratives and ideologies that are programmed in our heads.  We are divided and separated.  But when we allow ourselves to sink down into our innermost being and common humanity, we discover we are more alike than we are different.  We desire and fear the same things, we are caught up in that inescapable network of mutuality and single garment of destiny, and when we let ourselves go there we know in our deepest self that love goodness, peace, harmony, beauty, solidarity and compassion is what’s most real.

We are one human special and family: there is no real conflict or division between us.

Stop listening to them, Start listening to you.  –Jim Palmer

 To break real bread is messy, crumbs fall everywhere, bread broken by hand is never even, but there is a joy and a love in the sharing with others.

Breaking bread is beautiful.  Breaking bread is messy. Breaking bread is comforting.   Breaking bread is an amazing act of love. 

Let us break, bread together on our knees, or at our table or when we encounter the other or one another daily in our journey.

-The Reverend Dr. Karen Coleman, Associate Chaplain for Episcopal Ministry

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