Unless you have a really poor sense of smell, you probably noticed the enticing aroma of bread baking in our sanctuary. It’s one of my favorite scents. I find it comforting. It makes me feel like all is well in the world. And what’s even better than the smell, is the taste of it, especially when it’s still warm. There is nothing else like it.
Today is week three in the lectionary that deals with the theme of bread. The first week was the feeding of the 5,000. The second week was manna in the wilderness and Jesus telling the crowd that he was the Bread of Life. This Sunday Jesus explains what he means by this expression. We also have one of my favorite Old Testament stories where Elijah throws a pity party for himself in the desert, collapses from sheer exhaustion, and the angels wake him up and give him freshly baked bread and water.
I’m not sure why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have so many bread stories in a row. Clearly the subject matter is important. However, it’s a challenge for preachers to come up with something different to say every week. (And we have two more weeks of bread stories to go!)
This week I’d like to share with you three bread stories from my life and what they’ve taught me about Jesus as the bread of life. As I share these stories, and you smell the aroma of bread being baked, I hope it will inspire you to recall your own bread stories. As these stories come to mind, I hope you’ll take the time to think about what lessons they may teach you about Jesus, the Bread of Life.
The first story involves a bread I bake every year for the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, which is also known as Day of the Dead. The bread in question is Pan de Meurtos or Bread of the Dead. Now I know that sounds absolutely morbid. But if you’ve ever tasted it, it’s a little slice of heaven. Pan de Muertos is an egg bread that’s flavored with anise seeds and orange peel. It is traditionally shaped in small round loaves which are topped with an orange glaze and a sprinkle of sugar. Yeah, it’s as good as it sounds. I serve these small loaves at my annual Dia de los Muertos party. I usually tuck one loaf in the freezer to share with Abiding Savior on All Saint’s Sunday.
During Dia de los Muertos, we set up an “ofrenda” in the dining room that is filled with pictures of loved ones, fresh flowers, objects they treasured in life, and little “calavera” figurines which are quite popular in Mexico. We also place a loaf of Pan de Muertos on the ofrenda to remember times of feasting we had with the dearly departed.
Now I know this tradition is not something everyone would enjoy celebrating, but, for me, it’s a powerful way to celebrate the saints who have gone before us. The Pan de Muertos reminds me that Jesus, the Bread of Life, fed these saints well through all the difficulties they faced. It strengthens my faith that Jesus will do the same for us. He is the daily bread we need. He connects us to all the departed saints who now make up what Paul calls the “great cloud of witnesses.” As I eat a slice of that delicious bread, I hear my ancestors cheering me on, “You can do this, David! We are rooting for you!”
My second bread story involves Grandpap Butera, my step-grandparent, who emigrated to the United States from Italy. During World War II he ran his own bread delivery truck, and baked bread out of his home. I’ve been told that he was quite generous with that bread, and often gave some to those who couldn’t afford it. It was more than a way to make a living, it was a ministry. My grandfather made sure that no one went hungry in his neighborhood. In his later years, when I knew him, he still baked bread. I got the chance to watch him do it.
He used three simple ingredients: water, flour and yeast that came in small squares. I don’t know if they even make it anymore but it’s amazing yeast for bread. With these three simple ingredients and no recipe to guide him, he made some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted. It was a hearty, substantial loaf with a great crust. It was big enough to feed an entire household along with a few neighbors if they happened to drop by.
When I think of Grandpap Butera’s bread, I am reminded that Jesus, the Bread of Life, is the same kind of hearty, substantial loaf. He can feed a crowd, with leftovers to spare. Now, where have I heard that story before? Hmmm. He gives of himself again and again, as a gift of grace to those whose hunger cannot be satisfied by the kind of bread the world offer us. Jesus is the daily bread we pray for, in the Lord’s Prayer; the stuff that helps us to make it through today, and then the next day, and then the next.
The beautiful thing about this Bread of Life is that it is given to us as a free gift. We cannot earn it by good behavior. We cannot pay for it with any kind of currency, barter or trade. This Bread of Life, is offered to all who accept the gift. It transcends race, ethnicity, life circumstances and creed. It is the tie that binds us all together in love.
I am thankful to Grandpap Butera for helping me to understand that bread is more than just something that fills our stomachs. It can also be a gift of hope to our neighbors when they need it the most. Jesus, the Bread of Life, is that same kind of gift. While Grandpap Butera’s bread is one of the best loaves I’ve ever tasted, I’m sure he would agree that Jesus, the Bread of Life, tastes even better!
My last bread story is one I’ve shared before. But it had a profound effect on the way I understand holy communion. It was my senior year in seminary. My best friend Alex was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was absolutely devastated. It put me in a theological crisis where I had to ask myself the big question: “Where is God in the midst of this senseless tragedy?” Because if THIS is a part of God’s perfect plan, God and I are going to have a major problem.
Now you might think that seminarians and pastors have this “God-thing” all neat and sorted, but I’m here to tell you that this is definitely NOT the case. We have the same doubts and questions you have. The best pastors are those who admit there is much about following Jesus that is a mystery to all of us. The best pastors are those who, as Nadia Bolz-Weber once said, “Preach from their scars instead of their wounds.” What she means by this is that we should be honest about our doubts and struggles, but we should always move beyond our doubts and struggles, to the hope and healing Jesus offers everyone.
With that in mind, I go back to my final bread story. After Alex died, I felt very disconnected from God. I went to our daily worship services at the seminary, but the hymns rang hollow and the words of the sermons I heard, fell on deaf ears. Thankfully, my two best friends at seminary, Kerry and Machelle, showed me lots of love and compassion during this difficult time. I don’t know if I could have coped without them.
When Christmas break came, I was still feeling that disconnect, but I made myself go to Christmas Eve worship. There is not much about that service I remember. Nothing brought comfort to my wounded soul, until it was time for communion. When I came up to the altar rail, and Pastor Bennett put that bread in my hands, I lost it. The tear began to flow. And Jesus made himself known in the bread and wine in a way I had never experienced it before that moment. I think it was because I was receiving more than words and melodies. This Bread of Life was something I could physically hold in my hands. I could see it, touch it, and taste it.
In that profound, powerful moment, I knew EXACTLY where Jesus was: He was with me in the midst of my suffering. He held my hand as I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, even if I wasn’t aware of it. He reached out to me through my caring friends, and the bread and wine I was now receiving. This experience had a profound effect on my life ever since. No matter what trial I have faced since then, I have no doubt that Jesus is with me. All I need to do is go tho that Table, eat the bread and drink the wine, and I know Christ is with me.
I hope this Table has the same effect on you, because it is there that we experience the Bread of Life in it’s most powerful form. The good news is that we don’t have to be worthy to receive this gift. It’s there every week, waiting to feed us, and to remind us, that Christ walks with us every step of the way.
So, Friends in Christ, these are three of my bread stories. I hope that you will share some of your bread stores with each other as they come to mind. Jesus is the Bread of Life, who feeds us well with his many gifts of grace. Let us give thanks for the food that strengthens us like no other meal our world can offer us. Amen.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck.