August 8th, 2021

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The Bread of Action: Part 1

The Rev. Mark Robert Sutherland

Our own collective religious memory contains countless instances and references to bread as a sign of God’s presence, God’s communication with and involvement in human affairs.

As a child, I remember buying bread at the grocery. I remember it came as whole loaves, either white or brown. That’s all I remember about bread until at some point a third option became available – sliced. The arrival of a slicing machine in the grocery meant that in our house bread now came pre-sliced in a plastic wrapper.

The significance of pre-sliced bread has found its way into the language. A common saying in both New Zealand and the UK to describe something wonderful is to say: it’s the best thing since sliced bread! Maybe it’s a saying used by Americans as well. Being a denizen of all three cultures, it’s increasingly difficult for me to keep straight in which of the three cultures a certain aphorism originates.

I remember bread as the staple of my childhood, for bread was not the specialty item to be savored and delighted over that those of us living in Providence find at Seven Stars Bakery. Bread was bread, white or brown, sliced or not. Used as toast or to make a sandwich or a bread pudding –a great favorite of visits to my maternal grandmother.

I also remember a time when eating bread had little downside. The purity of the grain and the metabolism of youth allowed me to consume bread without regard to quantity or consequence. This is alas, is no longer so. The processed nature of much wheat used in making bread is making bread toxic and I now strictly monitor my wheat intake. The slowing of my body’s metabolism also means that bread is now a source of unwanted carbs, and unwanted carbs are the enemy of my aging male waistline.

Bread is the staple food in all cultures where wheat is the staple grain. In wheat growing societies, dependence on bread as the staple food has led such societies to view Bread as a symbol of divine generosity – an embodiment of God’s care and concern for human beings. Our own collective religious memory contains countless instances and references to bread as a sign of God’s presence, God’s communication with and involvement in human affairs.

For several weeks the gospel readings have been following Jesus’ bread teachings in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus following his feeding of the 5000, expands on his theology of bread. The crowds flock in increasing numbers to hear him – but Jesus suspects awed – not simply by the signs and wonders he performs but by the promise of a full stomach.

We recall that hunger was the commonplace experience for the masses of displaced peasantry that flocked to hear Jesus. 1st Century Palestine was undergoing a revolution in agricultural production – with land being increasingly vested in powerful landowners who – like big agribusiness in our own time – were intent on monopolizing resources. Independent peasant farmers were being squeezed out; reduced into itinerant day laborers. This is a story as old as time, and one alarmingly familiar to us as we view with a sense of increasing alarm the monopolistic trajectory of economic developments in our own day.

The crowds don’t like it when Jesus pushes them to move beyond limited expectations. In this morning’s passage they’re beginning to grumble – and worse. In presenting himself as the bread come down from heaven, Jesus evokes a collective memory of the manna that fed their ancestors in the wastes of Sinai. But his use of bread as a metaphor for spiritual food – God’s living bread – falls on deaf ears. If he’d read his Maslow he might have realized that it is a tall order telling people about spiritual nourishment, when their bellies need filling.

Bread is one of the central metaphors of the Christian Faith. We pray: Give us this day our daily bread – extending bread as a metaphor for all of life’s basic needs. Daily bread encompasses not only something to eat, but also somewhere to live, something meaningful to do, and someone to love and be loved by. While we long for the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger we also must work to provide bread to feed the hungry.

Yet, our expectations are so limited. Dom Helda Camara, a liberation theologian and bishop of the Brazilian diocese of Recife from 1964 to 1985, is famously reported to have said:

When I give the poor bread, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.

For most of us, feeding the hungry is consigned to the category of personal charitable action – give a little hand out here, write a check to this charity there. How many of us are also deeply committed to the kind of political questioning that recognizes poverty as a product of our political-economic systems? Even fewer of us recognize what to ensure enough bread for the hungry – I’m using bread here as a metaphor for addressing multiple poverties – will cost us in terms of the resources we currently claim for ourselves. Afterall, tax cuts pay for themselves, but investment in infrastructure only adds to the national debt.

In the Eucharist, Jesus gives himself as the bread from heaven that feeds the life of the world – not a heavenly world, but a real world in time and space. Each Sunday in my introduction I remind us that the Eucharist is both a local –that is, here and now event – as well as a cosmic -beyond time and space event. The celebration of the Eucharist bears certain characteristics which the great Episcopal lay theologian, William Stringfellow identified:

As a transcendent event, the [Eucharist] collects all that has already happened in this world from the beginning of time and prophesies all that is to come until the end of time. But the [Eucharist] is also a contemporary event, involving these particular persons gathered in this specific place and in this peculiar way

A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow. 1994 

As the central aspect of Christian worship, at the Eucharist real bread – the staple of life – becomes the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger. As spiritual bread it feeds and sustains us – who like Jesus’ hearers – are everyday challenged to move beyond our convenient and limited expectations to transform the bread of heaven into the staples of life.

In the Eucharist celebrating the bread from heaven given for the life of the world is also in the same moment making our ethical commitment to the life of the world. The spiritual bread of the Eucharist is also the physical bread of food and shelter – made available in the everyday world through our actions of service and truth witnessing.

Like the crowds that came to hear Jesus, what are our expectations as members of a community whose central action in the world is the celebration of Eucharist?

The bread from heaven, which satisfies our spiritual hunger in the celebration of the Eucharist is our community meal. Is our community a place where we can not only expect to eat the bread of heaven but also ensure that all can eat the bread of life?

Our mission is to pray, worship, and proclaim the Gospel in order to promote justice, and peace.This is what Stringfellow means by Eucharist as a political event.

The very example of salvation, it is the festival of life that foretells the fulfillment and maturity of all of life for all of time and in this time. The liturgy is social action because it is the characteristic style of life for human beings in this world

A Keeper of the Word Pp 125-6