Once upon a time, when I was a young bride, I took up bread baking. For several years, as part of a larger effort to cook things from scratch, I baked bread each week. Each Saturday I gathered the ingredients: whole wheat flour, fresh yeast, honey, molasses, salt, water. I mixed them in a large ceramic bowl, white with blue stripes. I began to learn the science of how long to let the dough rise, how quickly the yeast will foam and bubble, how long to knead without kneading too long. Soon it became an intuitive process, no longer ruled by timers and recipes. I learned to live into the bread-making.
Then I had a baby, and I am sad to say that except for a few times here and there, I have never returned to regular bread-baking. #1 Son is 22 now, so there has been a long gap. I became a purchaser of bread and a maker of sandwiches to pack in lunches for the three children who eventually came to me. I’m not sure I would really know how to begin the process now, what corner of my kitchen could be made warm enough for the rising. My hands and wrists, compromised by a quirkily named syndrome, would no longer be able enough for kneading.
My hands touch bread in a different fashion now. No longer the baker or even often the sandwich-maker, I am now the Bread-Breaker and the Bread-Giver.
Most of us, most of the time, share that bread with a familiar community, following familiar rituals of consecration and distribution. We gather as the Body of Christ, and we share the Body of Christ. It’s part of who we are, perhaps a part we don’t stop to examine often enough.
After Hurricane Katrina, I traveled to Mississippi on a mission of pastoral relief to a Methodist minister whose house had been devastated by flooding during the storm. Rev. R rode out the storm in the crawlspace attic of her ranch home, along with her husband, her mother, two young children and a dog with an upset stomach, while her house filled with five or six feet of water below. My presence for two Sundays allowed her to take some time off, much needed as she worked on plans for rebuilding her home.
On that second Sunday, we celebrated Communion. Warned in advance, I knew that they came forward to receive the bread and the juice. I knew, also, that R had a habit of tearing the bread for her parishioners, then handing it to them. The sharing of that bit of practical information led to some conversation about the logistics of trays being passed or bread being dipped into juice, about what we are accustomed to doing and what seems odd simply for being unfamiliar.
I followed the words in their order of service and said exactly the words the people expected to hear. (At least I hope I did!) I wasn’t there to bring them some new way of doing things, but to keep things going for them as best I could. I worried a bit about being coordinated enough to hold the plate and tear the bread and hand it to each person while remembering to say the words they expected to hear: "The Body of Christ, broken for you."
When the first person in line came to me, and I tore the bread, I had one of those moments of intense surprise, as if the bread itself were saying to me, “Gotcha!” Or as my second son, Snowman, would say, “Snap!”
Yes, it was a “snap” moment, and it reminded me later of that greatest of “snap” moments, experienced in the story of the Road to Emmaus. Two of the followers of Jesus are walking to Emmaus on Easter evening, when a man falls in and walks with them. The reader knows from the beginning it is Jesus, but Cleopas and his friend cannot recognize him. They tell him of all the events that have taken place, and still they grieve for their master, saying they never believed he would die, for he was to redeem Israel. And although they have been told the story of the empty tomb, they cannot put together all the pieces of the story until Jesus begins to explain the words of the prophets, all while they are walking along the road.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
(Luke 24:28-31a, NRSV)
Snap! Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him! It happened in the breaking of the bread. There was a first time that people who knew Jesus made the connection to him through the bread that represented his body. And they would go on to recognize him, to perceive his presence, each time the bread was broken.
Snap! As I tore those pieces of bread at the faraway Methodist church, Christ’s presence became apparent and took away all my worries about getting Communion “right” that day.
Sometimes we have to experience something anew to remember what we were doing in the first place.
That morning, I let go the idea of procedures and prayer books and simply gave the bread.
"What a wonderful mystery this is! Our greatest fulfillment lies in giving ourselves to others. Although it often seems that people give only to receive, I believe that, beyond all our desires to be appreciated, rewarded, and acknowledged, there lies a simple and pure desire to give…Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life…all of our life."
(Henri J.M. Nouwen, "Life of the Beloved")
We are beautiful when we give. We embody God’s love.
Yesterday a special person in this congregation, Nancy B., gave me a gift. It was a sample of lotion, and the lotion smelled like Sweet Peas. But it also smelled just like love.
We are beautiful when we give. We embody God’s love. This is no theoretical or metaphysical concept. It smells as good as the lotion. It feels as real as the bread. It tastes indescribably sweet.
The loaves of bread on the Communion table remind us that, just like the bread, we are the body of Christ. Like Cleopas and his friend, we are often content to tell the story of how confusing or disappointing the world seems to us, how things aren’t fair or didn’t turn out the way we planned. We’re not ready for that “snap” of recognition to take us by surprise, that reminder that to be the Body means to be the bread, and to be the bread means to be broken.
A whole loaf will never feed anyone.
Breaking bread allows us all to share it and to take it beyond these walls to the community and to the world, a living witness to Jesus Christ.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. (Luke 24:30-31a, NRSV)
We are called to be the bread, broken and given. We are many kinds of bread and serve in many different ways. But in each case the loaf must be broken open to feed the world. If we strive to remain whole, not sliced or cubed or torn into pieces, we will be static and stagnant, engaged in tactics of preservation and survival. Where would we be if Jesus had chosen to protect himself?
Instead, Jesus allowed himself to be given for our healing and our reconciliation with God. To be his body faithfully, we must be broken and given, too, opening ourselves to the “snap” of recognition that will point the way into the future, for each of us and for this church. Beloved, we are given to be the bread, embodied. Amen.