Today and tomorrow our morning prayer readings bring us the concluding sections of John's great meditation on Jesus as the Bread of Life, his 'technological upgrade' for the synoptic accounts of the Institution of the Lord's Supper. I am going to invite you in these two brief talks to enter into that core image of the Bread of Life, and reflect on two questions. The first, which we will think about today, is Are We Hungry? And the second, which I will address tomorrow is Are We Willing to be bread? I will begin and end each reflection with a poem, as I believe poetry can speak more powerfully than prose, and I have re-produced copies of those poems for your further delight...
We have come so far from bread.
Rarely do we hear the clatter of the mill wheel;
see the flour in every cranny,
the shaking down of the sack, the chalk on the door,
the rats, the race, the pool,
baking day, and the old loaves:
cob, cottage, plaited, brick.
We have come so far from bread.
Once the crock said ‘BREAD’
and the bread was what was there,
and the family’s arm went deeper down each day
to find it, and the crust was favoured.
We have come so far from Bread.
terrifying is the breach between wheat and table,
wheat and bread, bread and what goes for bread.
Loaves now come in regiments, so that loaf
is not the word. Loaf
is one of the oldest words we have.
I go on about bread
because it was to bread
that Jesus trusted
the meaning he had of himself.
It was an honour for the bread
to be the knot in the Lord’s handkerchief
reminding him about himself. So,
O bread, breakable;
O bread, given;
O bread, a blessing;
count yourself lucky bread.
Not that I am against wafers,
especially the ones produced under steam
from some hidden nunnery
with our lord crucified into them.
They are at least unleavened, and fit the hand,
without remainder, but it is still
a long way from bread.
better for each household to have its own bread,
daily, enough and to spare,
dough the size of a rolled towel,
for feeding angels unawares.
Then if the bread is holy,
All that has to do with bread is holy;
Board, knife, cupboard,
So that the gap between all things is closed
In our attention to the bread of the day.’
I know that
“man cannot live on bread alone.”
I say, let us get the bread right.
'Let us get the bread right." If we get the bread right, we will find that we and others hunger for it.
I don't know what pictures, what sensations come to you when you hear the word bread. When I asked some of the girls at the Glennie school what they thought of when they heard the word bread they came up with an astonishing list of varieties that their ten year old selves enjoyed - from focaccia to croissants to lavash. It was clear that their taste buds had traveled even if they had never themselves left Toowoomba. Which left me questioning in terms of church, whether our liturgy and our outlook resembles damper when the rest of life has moved on through brioche to spelt- and from an Anglican perspective whether we are still serving the stale crumbs of European loaves long gone mouldy in the Australian sun. A different conversation, perhaps for a different day.
For each of us the smell and texture of bread is a childhood, visceral memory with many associations. For myself I remember the smell of the baker's shop we visited each day, and the warmth of the tiny miniature loaf my mother bought for me as I held it all the way home, and the joy of the tiny slices, slathered in butter and sometimes honey that I ate for lunch. I loved it all, and still remember it with joy, despite the stomach ache it brought me, for we did not know in those days that I was intolerant of wheat and dairy and all their goodness. As I remarked at Synod, I have become allergic to my profession!
For the blessing and sharing of bread and wine, one of the few spiritual practices specifically commanded by Jesus, seems to have become something of a minefield. As Cynthia Bourgeault points out, "There are questions of priestly power and control – who can celebrate and who can’t – and increasingly exclusive and rigid rubrics around who can receive and who can’t. On top of that, there is the growing cultural discomfort with the primary symbols themselves – wine is, after all, alcohol, and bread is gluten – and a rising demand for politically correct, chemically appropriate substitutes leaves the former stark simplicity of the communion table now looking like a cafeteria line, filled with a profusion of “self-service” alternatives."
Setting all our very real and individual dietary problems aside, I find myself asking ' what is really going on, when we can no longer meet around the staples of life, food and drink?' In reality is it that we in Australia, and other Westernised, wealthy countries, are no longer hungry? No longer hungry for physical food, and no longer hungry as a consequence for spiritual food either? Have we simply sated ourselves with an over abundance that confuses our senses and leaves us with stomach ache, spiritual as well as physical, for after all our spiritual and physical selves are not to be divorced. We are what we eat is a truism that operates at many levels.
Augustine reading in the Eucharistic bread both the book of nature and the book of scripture at once said, 'Christ is the bread, awaiting hunger.' Many of Jesus first followers were hungry. They were poor and they did not know whether they would have bread that day - which is why the line in the Lord's Prayer, Give us this day our daily bread, is a political statement as well as hopeful petition. To those first followers Jesus provided a miracle - the answer to their hunger. It is a miracle that still speaks to the many in our world who are starving. As Gandhi said, ' there are so many hungry people in the world that God could only come into the world in the form of food' - it is the obvious and wonderful action of the God who loves us, using the simplest possible technology for communicating that love - bread for the hungry. And those who are hungry give thanks when they receive life giving food - that is why we call our central act of worship, Eucharist, thanksgiving.
Richard Rohr puts it like this,
Somehow we have to make sure that each day we are hungry, that there’s room inside of us for another presence.
If you are filled with your own opinions, ideas, righteousness, superiority, or sufficiency, you are a world unto yourself and there is no room for “another.”
Despite all our attempts to define who is worthy and who is not worthy to receive communion, our only ticket or prerequisite for coming to Eucharist is hunger. And most often sinners are much more hungry than the “saints.”
So are we hungry? Are we able to bring to Christ all those unsatisfied, unsatisfactory and still longing parts of ourselves, in trust, and find in Him the living bread?
A final poem by Luci Shaw as we continue to ask that question,
Christ risen was rarely recognised by sight.
They had to get beyond the way he looked;
Evidence stronger than his voice and face and footstep
waited to grow in them, to guide their groping
out of despair, their stretching towards belief.
We are as blind as they
until the opening of our deeper eyes
shows us the hands that bless and break
our bread, until we finger
wounds that tell our healing , or witness
a miracle of fish, dawn-caught
after our long night of empty nets. Handling
his word we feel his flesh, his bones, and hear
his voice saying our early - morning name.
reflection by Penny Jones for ACSQ Clergy Summer School, January 2016