Sunday, August 9, 2015

Some (Not So) Random Thoughts on Bread

John 6:51-58

Every time I travel to Minneapolis, I do all I can to make time to drop in at my favorite used bookstore. Last week, like every other time, I managed to walk out of there with a number of books I just couldn't do without. This time my haul included a little book purchased for $3.50 titled Sourdough Breads and Coffee Cakes: 104 Recipes Using Homemade Starters by Ada Lou Roberts. It was published in 1967. I've always loved reading old cookbooks --- especially the commentary the author adds. In this case Ada Lou Roberts offers a brief 'history of bread." For instance:
In Scotland the finest white bread, known as "manchet," was reserved for royalty and the great landlords. "Cheat," the second finest grade, was found in the homes of the upper-class tradesmen. "Raveled" bread was made from the whole grain flour just as it came from the mill to be consumed by the country folk and villagers just above the servant class. "Mashloch" was baked for the very poor and the servants. It contained only coarse bran mixed with rye. In the great houses, the mistress or housekeeper carried the keys to the food safe where the fine bread and best grades of other food were kept to avoid tempting the servants to acquire a taste for the higher priced products. Later, the government passed  a law requiring the brown bakers to add a certain percent of wheat germ to the mashloch to improve the health of the working class. (p. 17)
And yet, we know today, don't we, that the grains used in the bread for the lower classes were actually better for you than the more refined flour enjoyed by the privileged. Indeed, I find myself remembering now a story told to me by my Uncle Harold. I could not have been more than nine or ten years old and I certainly cannot remember the context or the reason for him sharing this, but this is what he offered. Apparently at some time, hundreds of years ago, the only staple in the diet of a particular people was potatoes. The grown ups would scrape out the meat of the potatoes, leaving the potato skins for the children. The children survived. Their elders did not.

As I said, I have no recollection of why this was shared. I only know that I remember it now these more than forty years later. Both of these speak of 'reversals.' What we think is good for us, may not be. And in the end, it may turn out that those receiving the 'worst' are actually receiving the very best: the best which leads to life. I think of this when I think of the bread that is Jesus --- of how in Jesus things are always getting turned upside down. And that you and I eat the bread: the body of  the Unlikely One who was shamed --- crucified,even, on a cross. And this leads to life.

  • Where have you seen this to be so? Where have such reversals made themselves known to you? How have you known this to be especially so in the Bread of Life that is Jesus?

If you know me at all, you know that I have been baking bread all of my adult life. It was a skill passed down from my mother which came from her mother, which came from her mother --- and on and on. Yet, it is so that it is not so popular these "gluten free 'evil wheat'" days to talk about bread, unless it is in a critical way. And it is so that while not so long ago I could presume that a loaf of my fresh baked bread would be welcome at any table, now I think to check to see if those I would offer it to can tolerate it. A good share of the time they cannot.

Last Friday's Sourdough Bread

And yet, even with this, on most any given Friday I am measuring flour and proofing yeast and shaping loaves. I love the smell, the sight, the texture, and yes, the taste of homemade bread. I love how it connects me in a tangible way with those who have gone before. And yes, there is simply no comparison to any of that which I have been able to buy in any store. Often some of it gets frozen for later use. More often than not, I give some away.

While I have been baking sourdough bread for years, to tell you the truth a lot of that time the flavor was pretty flat. Lately though I've been baking sourdough without added yeast. It takes a whole lot longer from beginning to end --- something close to twenty-four hours --- but the sharp taste is well worth it. I think of this now when I think of this walk of faith where, if we are fortunate, we feast regularly on the Bread of Life. Indeed, I am reminded that growth in faith is not always immediate. Sometimes there simply is no way to speed things up. And perhaps we are better off not even trying?

  • How have you known this to be so in your walk of faith? What has 'taken time' to grow or to mature?  What difference has patience made for you? How has patience been nurtured in you?

Last summer my baking routine got interrupted: my Fridays simply were not allowing me the time and space needed to bake bread. As a result, my crock of sourdough starter sat in the back of the refrigerator untended for many more weeks than are recommended. I would think of it when I didn't have time to feed it. Or I would think of it and simply dreaded peeking in to see what had become of it. Finally, I did anyway. It wasn't pretty. In fact, at first I was certain I would have to dump the whole crock and start over with a fresh one. Even so, I decided to give it a chance. I poured out most of it, reserving just a little bit. I added flour and water and stirred and let it sit. I added flour and water and stirred again and let it sit. And do you know? That starter not only survived, it thrived. This bread is resilient isn't it? And yes, I think of this when I hear Jesus saying he is the Bread of Life. As in so many of his parables, a little bit can do a lot. More than that, in his very living and dying and rising we learn over and over again that life triumphs over death --- even when it appears to be impossible.
  • What do you think? Is this Bread of Life resilient? How have you known this to be so in your own journey of faith? When have you experienced that a little can do a whole lot?
As I understand it, the bread that Jesus referred to would have been some ancient version of sourdough. When you think about it, it does seem obvious that there would have been no prepackaged yeast to aid one's bread in rising, so the only option the baker had was to hold back a bit of the previous day's batch and use it to 'start' a fresh batch rising. The yeast would already have been 'in' that little bit of dough. I am told the particular sourdough starter I use has been nurtured and passed down for more than 300 years. Just imagine for how many generations the starter for the bread that came to mind when Jesus first spoke these words had been passed along.

And yet, even while the dough would have been passed down, it is so that the bread takes on a different flavor depending on where it is nurtured. The naturally occurring yeasts in the air are actually different. This is why, as I understand it, one could carry a starter home from San Francisco which is renowned for its unique sourdough bread, and within a few weeks it would lose its particular distinctness, taking on a more local flavor.
  • And so I think of this. Our faith is passed down from generation to generation. While it is the same, it certainly takes on different flavors depending on where and among whom it is nurtured. Where and how have  you seen this to be so? How is the Break of Life different in the place where you live and serve now in comparison to other places you have known? How is it the same?
  • What experiences do you have of "bread" which might help inform your understanding and receiving and sharing of Jesus as the Bread of Life?

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