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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost — August 2, 2015

Let us pray.

Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

The Israelites were hungry. They had wandered for far too long in the wilderness without sufficient food to keep them going, and they had begun to complain that things were better back in Egypt, even though there they had been slaves. They bemoaned to their leaders that at least in Egypt their captors had provided them with bread to eat, and, having overheard their laments, God decided to send them food—meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Yet the Israelites greeted these gifts not with gratitude and excitement, but with confusion. “What is it?” they asked, staring at that odd flaky substance of manna, which Exodus tells us was “as fine as frost on the ground.”

And now, thousands of years later, we come to this strange table, forsaking our air-conditioned homes in the hot season of summer, because we assume that God will give us something to sustain us through the wilderness of our lives, some small token to ameliorate the meagerness of our existence. But the food we receive puzzles us. Like the Israelites, we ask, “what is it?” as we ponder our allotment in bafflement. The hard gluten-free cracker or the chewy chunk of fresh homemade bread is acceptable enough, and the swig of wine or grape juice is perfectly pleasant, however the reason anyone would consume them as a religious practice is not immediately apparent to us. Is this “holy communion” some bizarre cannibalistic ritual wherein we gain some perverse enjoyment by feeding on another human being’s flesh? Is this “Lord’s Supper” our sad, desperate way of holding on to the distant memory of a founder who left us long ago? Or is this “Eucharist” just an empty ceremony, devoid of true purpose, an excuse to gather together on our day of rest?

Jesus called himself the Bread of Life, but our twenty-first century Western habits impede us from fully comprehending what this likely meant to Jesus and his early followers. Bread was a staple of the ancient Mediterranean diet that Jesus and his disciples would have known, a normal and essential part of every meal—and of food consumption in general. Yet rather than working to ensure that we have enough bread to survive, as Jesus’ contemporaries did, many of us have become afraid of carbohydrates, convinced that the surplus of what once kept us alive will now surely kill us. Eating disorders have become rampant, making many people terrified of all food, including bread. Episcopal priest and Duke professor Lauren Winner recently released a new book, called Wearing God, in which she includes a chapter that explores how our modern approach to bread affects the way we see Jesus as the Bread of Life—and in it, Winner points to a study that found that a noticeable group of women with eating disorders are so scared of calories that they will even refrain, on that basis, from eating bread and drinking wine at some services of communion.

In her thorough meditation on bread, Winner goes on to explain that, even when we do eat bread, we experience a historically unprecedented separation from it. After all, when we cut a slice of fresh bread for our turkey sandwich or bite into our crisp breakfast toast, we usually have no idea who grew the grains or ground them into flour or mixed in the water or kneaded the dough or placed it all into the oven. Winner calls attention to how bread typically appears in our lives ex machina, with none of its history known to us except the place where we purchased it and the price that we paid for it. And Winner further notes how the process of making bread has become incredibly mechanized and standardized. As a result, the bread we do eat is often made up of overly refined flours and formed into artificially perfect rolls and loaves, meaning that our breads tend to have a texture and a shape that Jesus and the Twelve probably would not have recognized.

In recent years, as whole grain foods have gained a certain nutritional and culinary cachet, we’ve grown more comfortable with a diverse selection of breads that at least have the appearance of being more natural and authentic. And some of us even bake our own bread, as a member of the parish did for our Eucharist this morning. But the way we use bread in our Eucharistic services hasn’t necessarily kept up with the times. A few churches, like ours, now use so-called “real” bread rather than the stale, cardboard-like wafers that are still standard in many places, but the variety and appeal of a bakery’s bread section are usually nowhere to be found at the altar. Winner, who fondly recalls baking chocolate zucchini bread with a friend, finds herself wondering why it would feel so strange to use that same bread in a celebration of communion. She assumes that if she had tried to pull off such a stunt in an actual Eucharist that other participants would have asked her why she preferred an exotic bread to the “regular bread” that must have been in her kitchen and would have further protested that Jesus surely “hadn’t meant cocoa and zucchini.”

But lest we get caught up in dreams of croissants and bagels, of banana bread and pumpernickel, let me admit that I don’t think Jesus in this discourse means to discuss literal bread. He essentially indicates so himself, denigrating the crowd for coming simply because they ate their fill of the loaves at the feeding of the five thousand and urging them not to “work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Nonetheless, I think it’s important to contemplate the physicality of tangible, edible bread and the complex role that bread plays in our culture and our lives, as I suspect that doing so clarifies and enlarges our understanding of what Jesus is saying about himself. If Jesus really is the Bread of Life, if Jesus truly is the One who satisfies our hungers and assuages our thirsts, then Jesus has a role to play in all of the things that sustain us; in all of the things that keep us alive, passionate and interested; in all of the things that make us happy. If you’re having trouble believing and you’re looking for him, he’s not too far away. Jesus is no bland, uniform pill, one-size-fits-all, straight off the assembly line. Jesus is the source of all nourishment and the origin of all pleasure—the densely nutritious, highly caloric Bread of Life available in all sorts of tasty varieties—from baguette to brioche, from sourdough to ciabatta, from pumpkin spice to chocolate zucchini.[1]

[1] Winner, in Wearing God, puts it this way: “God is not only panary provision—God is also about delight. It is one of the beauties of this metaphor that bread, like the One who made the hands that made the bread, contains both: enjoyment and necessity, sustenance and pleasure.”

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