Transforming Bread

 Bread baked by the Zoe Project team in the Rectory

Bread baked by the Zoe Project team in the Rectory

I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.  (John 6:51)

For many months a small group of parishioners from Saint Mark’s, working with a cohort of Christians from communities in various other denominations, has spent time talking, thinking, praying, and imagining what a new ministry would look like that could gather for a holy cause young adults in our day and age in this city.  They were led on a journey to stimulate their imaginations.  They were challenged to think through difficult questions about funding and sustainability.  They were asked to consider what it takes to capture the attention of young adults these days.  This has been the Zoe Project, organized through the Princeton Theological Seminary, and funded by the Lilly Endowments. Mother Takacs led our team with care and thoughtfulness.  But all those questions were not easy to answer.  Occasionally the team met with me to review ideas, and I think they mostly left those meetings feeling frustrated, since I heaped more hard questions on them, and provided no answers.

One day, Erika told me they had a new idea about gathering people that had to do with baking bread.  She told me that there is sort of baking sub-culture to be found around professional and amateur ovens in the city, and that artisanal baking has grasped the interest and gripped the imaginations of a certain kind of young adult, who might or might not be a hipster.  Speaking to me of hipsters will get you nowhere.  But speaking to me of bread is a different story.  This concept, I thought, was exactly the idea they had been looking for.  Go with it, was my advice!    

The inner machinations of how the project has thus far unfolded are not of much homiletical interest.  But, we have been hearing, and will continue to hear, about bread, as we read through much of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel this summer.  Bread is and ought to be of interest to Christians - be they hipsters or not - since Jesus tells us over and over in this famous discourse, that has been forever preserved in one of the worst hymns ever written, that “I am the bread of life.”

Earlier this summer, the Zoe Project team gathered with me around the kitchen counters in the Rectory with four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast.  We gathered to bake bread.  As we proved our yeast, and watched for the little bubbles to form, showing that the single-cell organisms that had been dormant in their dried form, were, in fact, alive, we talked about the three transformational processes that take place when you bake a loaf of bread.

When you combine the activated yeast with the flour and water and salt, the first transformation begins as “the yeast in the dough metabolizes the starches and sugars in the flour, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas,” as a knowledgeable source reports.  “This gas inflates the network of air bubbles, causing the bread to rise. During rising, the yeast divides and multiplies, producing more carbon dioxide. As long as there is ample air and food (carbohydrates) in the dough, the yeast will multiply until its activity is stopped by the oven’s heat.” (finecooking.com).  More generally, this process of the conversion of sugars into gas by yeast is known as fermentation.

The second transformation that takes place is my favorite one, since we can be most intimately and directly involved with it, as we were in the Rectory kitchen.  This second transformation is the result of kneading the dough, which we did the old fashioned way - with our hands.  “Wheat flour,” I am told, “contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, which combine to form gluten. When bread dough is first mixed together, these proteins are mangled and knotted together in no particular order. As bread dough is kneaded, these proteins line up and strands of gluten form to create a matrix within the bread dough. This matrix creates strength and structure, which traps gasses and allows the dough to rise.” (thespruceeats.com)  It’s a marvelous thing to feel a ball of dough become pliable, smooth, and elastic beneath the heel of your hand.  This process of transformation is what leads to light and airy bread.

The last transformation that takes place happens in the oven where the ball of dough becomes a loaf of bread.  First, the heat of the oven increases the rate of expansion of the yeast, causing the dough to rise and expand further.  Next, as the heat intensifies, the yeast dies, and its expansion ceases.  But as the heat increases further, the starches and glutens in the dough begin to set and gelatinize, forming the crumb of the loaf.  Meanwhile the outer part of the dough dries and caramelizes under the rising heat, to form the crust.

Flour, water, salt, and yeast are transformed in three distinct processes to produce a loaf of bread.

Many Christians, I fear, have forgotten that to follow Jesus is to enter into a process of transformation.  Jesus did not call people to follow him who were already the right sort of people, who had achieved a high level of spiritual insight and sophistication.  He called people who needed to be transformed: who needed yeast, and kneading, and heat to transform the ingredients of their lives in to something more than they dreamed they could be.  He called them; he sent them; he challenged them; always in order to bring about their transformation: to change them.

And today, Jesus still calls us, and sends us, and challenges us, because, like every Christian soul before us, we need to be changed.  We need to be transformed.  Our lives become something so much more than we ever dream of, if we accept the yeast, and the kneading, and the heat of the Gospel of Jesus’ love to make of us something new.

It should probably not surprise us that in a world in which most people have forgotten how to make their own bread, and have, by and large, lost interest in it, so many people have also forgotten that the Christian faith is meant to be a process of transformation that makes more of your life, not less.  And in a world that is largely distracted by its countless screens - which can do almost nothing to change our lives for the better - it should not surprise us that so many people have lost interest in the possibility of transformation, which, after all, takes time, and effort, and is a process that can certainly fail if you don’t stick with it, and if you are not willing to try more than once.

We have to remember that the Christian life is a life of transformation, that the Gospel is yeast, and kneading, and heat for our lives, to bring about change, and make us into something new.   And we have to be willing and able to tell the world about this transformation in our own lives.  If we can’t, then we are kidding ourselves about what we are doing here.  If we don’t see change in our lives by the power of Christ, then our yeast is not activated, our dough has not been kneaded, and our bread is not baked.  And what can we tell the world if our own lives are little more than a lump of wet flour that hasn’t risen, can’t grow, and won’t be placed in the hearth?

At the end of our baking session in the Rectory kitchen earlier this summer, we had 12 loaves of light, white bread on the counter.  The crumb could have been lighter, and the crust could have been crisper.  But it was our fist time out, and I expect we will get better with time.  We let the loaves cool and wrapped them tight to keep them fresh.  And the next morning, one of our Ministry Residents and I put the loaves into a bag and we walked over to Broad Street Ministries with our bread to share them with whatever hungry months might need to be fed at that fine place, where so many come for food.

When Jesus tells us that he is the living bread, he is not just using a metaphor.  He is telling us that he is our yeast, that he will knead the dough of our lives, and that the fire of his love transforms us in its heat.  The transformation that comes by the gift of his life is every bit as real as the transformation of flour, water, salt, and yeast when they become a loaf of bread.

One reason to make bread together is to remind ourselves, and to teach others, of the transforming power of God’s love.  For if God can take simple ingredients like flour, water, salt, and yeast, and make of them a delicious loaf of bread, just imagine what God can do with the likes of you and me, if we will allow it!

The Zoe Project team and I are still experimenting, still learning, still plotting.  What’s more, we are still asking God to be our flour, our water, our salt, and our yeast.  We are asking God to help us learn to ferment, to develop structure, and to transform us with the fire of his love.  We are asking God to show us how to share the Bread of Life with others who have not yet tasted it, and to keep feeding it to those who have.

And God keeps feeding us with the flesh of his Son, who is among us and with us every time we take bread, and bless it, and break it, and share it in his Name.  Praise be to God that we can always make more bread, and consecrate it in Christ’s Name to share with more people, and to bring life to this dying world!

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
12 August 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 12, 2018 .

Feedback

When the Israelites grumble against Moses and Aaron in the sixteenth chapter of the book of Exodus, they are doing something that we might actually think, under other circumstances, was kind of good.  They are stepping back and observing the time they are in, weighing their current condition against their former one. Weighing one moment against another tells them something important: things are not getting better for them.  In a previous moment, they had food in Egypt. In a previous moment, though hardship was everywhere, they had security. Now they have sand. And hunger and thirst. And surely a pervasive sense of uncertainty. They are after all at the beginning of what will be a long, long, period of wandering in the desert.  Maybe it’s starting to dawn on them that the journey will be long. Maybe that’s when they look up and decide to lodge a complaint.

We don’t call it complaining, when we notice that things aren’t going the way we want them to go, when the trends are all wrong.  We call it “assessment.” “Giving feedback.” We think of ourselves as charting and analyzing our progress so that we can be honest with ourselves about our successes and failures, or those of others.  Had we been with Moses and the people in those early weeks of their long journey, we might have suggested earnestly, some of us, that we stop and look at the numbers and make a graph that helps us to assess whether God’s promises were really being met.  Whether the God of Moses and Aaron was hitting the benchmarks for delivering the people of Israel to the promised land.

Because let’s face it, God wasn’t performing well at all in that quarter.  The beginning was great: God went public with a big show of strength at the Red Sea, but now God was underachieving.  God was not exceeding expectations. Honestly, God seemed strangely uninterested in expectations.

You hear the language I’m using, a little bit facetiously: the language of performance evaluation, in which hitting benchmarks and making goals and exceeding expectations determines our worth and even our viability as employees; the language of academic assessment, in which all learning experiences have to be measured in terms of explicitly-stated goals and outcomes; the language of the stock market, in which our ability to retire from a job, should we succeed in keeping one, depends upon our ability to analyze investments and predict financial trends.  This is the language of wisdom for us. These acts of assessment are the best practices the world can offer us. We are supposed to know where we stand, to know whether we are on track to succeed. We analyze because on some deep level we believe that our fate is in our own hands.

So in our world it’s perfectly understandable that the people of Israel should turn against their leaders, and against their God, and demand outcomes.  And it almost seems unfair that God would turn the tables and decide instead to test the people. What arrogance! God, who is underperforming, declares the intention to measure the faith of the people instead of keeping the focus on self-evaluation: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.’”

Do you hear how God is calling them to live?  No charts or graphs, no contracts, no long-term strategies, no benchmarks or points of comparison. It sounds like God isn’t anxious at all. There is bread each day, and everything you need right now is within your grasp.  Can you gather up what this moment gives you and then move forward, deeper into the wilderness? Try that on your next job evaluation. Look earnestly at your supervisor and say, “I’ve done meaningful work today. Can you accept that and venture with me into the unknown?”  Or imagine your financial planner leaning across the desk and speaking these reassuring words: “You’ve got enough money for today.”

For us that’s a preposterous way to live and God is irresponsible to propose it.   And I’m kidding when I suggest that you invite your supervisor out into the wilderness.  And if that’s your financial planner’s style you need to make a change.

But I can tell you this: for all our sophistication in predicting outcomes and assessing performances, the wilderness is still out there ahead of us.  It’s on the nightly news, it’s in Congress. It lurks on the edges of our conversations. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone use the expression “we are in uncharted territory” in the last several months, I’d have no need for a financial planner.  Our physical environment—the weather—and our political system should be enough to challenge anyone’s sense of serene control and predictable outcomes. And of course we are all coping with the wilderness on personal levels as well, in our families and relationships, as we age, as we aspire to complete that degree or envision our futures.  

We don’t wander in the same way that the Israelites did but there is something recognizable about their predicament.  I think I recognize their nostalgia, too. Wasn’t everything simpler in the past?

And so I’m profoundly grateful, this morning, that God’s promise of daily bread still stands.  I’m grateful that Jesus has told us, and keeps telling us, that he himself is the bread of life.  That he has gathered us together this morning to harvest the manna with joy and confidence. This is more than enough for today.

And it’s more than a symbol.  Taking this identity for us, becoming our manna in the wilderness, Jesus addresses so much more than just our physical hunger, or even our anxiety.  Jesus embodies for us the long history of God’s presence among us, the constant care and feeding that have sustained us through uncharted territory not just for a decade or so, but for all time.  The meal shared among the people of God, with its roots in traditions that go way back before us.

And if we are uncertain about how to step forward, that Bread of Life tells us everything we need to know.  Be gathered up. Be broken open. Be what we share with one another and with a hungry world. Be the bread that God has been for you, for of us together. Go out and be the bread of life this week, with your focus on the present moment, not so much on outcomes. If we are the body of Christ, we are not only fed with a sustaining meal.  We are sustenance for the world.

Do we know where human history is going?  Are we on track to exceed expectations? What is our performance evaluation going to look like?  We do not know. It’s a mistake to allow the language of assessment to replace our fundamental sense of God’s providence.  It’s a mistake to believe that we are not being effective if we are not in control of the outcome.

It is correct, according to God, to believe that God’s grace is enough for us.  It is prudent to believe that we are receiving the bread of life, and that we are also becoming the bread of life.

Wilderness?  Yes. Hungry? Absolutely.  Fed? Yes. Improbably, abundantly, with love and joy and grace and gratitude.

Coming back to take another step into the wilderness tomorrow?

Yes.  By the grace of God, yes.  A hundred thousand times, yes.  By the grace of God, yes.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
5 August 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 6, 2018 .

Jesus the Gardener

remb_christ_magdalen_grt.jpg

In 1638 Rembrandt painted the scene we just heard described in the Gospel according to St. John.  Conventional artistic renderings of this scene depict that climactic moment when Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus, who has just called her by name, and she rushes over to him to embrace him, which he will not allow.  Later in his career Rembrandt would turn his hand to that more conventional rendering, too.  But in his earlier version of the scene, Mary is kneeling at the top of a set of steps that lead to the open and empty tomb.  Before her is the jar in which she has carried the spices.  The two angels sit casually inside the dark, cave-like tomb.

Jesus is right there in the painting, but the artist provides a good explanation for why Mary Magdalene could have mistaken him for the gardener: for although he is bathed in a warm light rising over the distant towers of the Jerusalem Temple, he is, in fact, dressed like a somewhat dandy Renaissance gardener.  He is clad in a white robe, carrying a spade in his hand, he has a knife or pruning shears tucked into his belt, and he is wearing the sort of broad floppy hat worn by someone who spends long hours outside in the sun (although this particular broad-brimmed hat has a sort of J. Peterman vibe about it).  As Rembrandt paints him, Jesus looks, for all the world, like a gardener.

Remember that the conventional depiction of the scene conveys the clear message that Mary was mistaken; that Jesus is not the gardener.  But Rembrandt makes no such assertion; in fact his Jesus probably has dirt under his fingernails.

Now, St. John is very clear that Mary does not recognize Jesus for who he is, but John does not tell us whether or not Jesus was yet recognizable.  Perhaps John does not know.  Nor do we know whether or not there would ever have been a gardener in the vicinity of the tomb.  Not that it matters.  All that matters, really, is the possibility of a gardener.

If there was always the possibility of a gardener hanging around the empty tomb, one way of finding contemporary significance in this ancient resurrection scene is to conclude that there is always the chance of getting it wrong and mistaking Jesus for the gardener - this is the conventional way of conveying the encounter artistically - to focus on the error of mis-identification.

But there is another way of finding present meaning in this preserved ancient moment.  And that way of seeing things is to suppose that wherever there is the possibility of a gardener, so to speak, there is also the possibility of encountering the risen Jesus.  And Rembrandt seems to have imagined this possibility, the possibility that Mary is not entirely wrong about the gardener: that Jesus is both the gardener, and the risen Christ, too.

In order to imagine such a thing, you do not have to suggest that Jesus is some kind of body-snatcher, who might invade the body of an unsuspecting gardener, like some messianic parasite inhabiting its host’s body.  All you have to allow for is the passage of time; and to see that Rembrandt was not interested in painting an historical representation of that first Easter morning.  No, in a very real way, Rembrandt was painting an Easter morning for his own time, a contemporary Easter, with a contemporary Mary Magdalene, contemporary angels, and, of course a contemporary Jesus, who is right here with us even though he happens also to be a gardener.

More than once the Gospel writers tell us that the risen Jesus was not immediately recognizable to his followers after his resurrection.  It is not clear if this confusion is because Jesus has somehow substantially changed, or if he is in disguise for some reason, or if it is because such encounters are meant to be teaching moments, that require a moment of dawning, of recognition, or revelation.

The great value of Rembrandt’s suggestion is that he invites us to think not only of all the places where we have failed to see Jesus, but of all the people in whom we have failed to see Jesus.  And he suggests not merely that we should be on the lookout for Jesus, but that we should be on the lookout for gardeners, too, and for anyone in whom the risen Lord might be made manifest.  We should be on the lookout for gardeners, or  postmen, for shop clerks, and waitresses, maybe even for bankers and lawyers, for all I know, for migrant workers, and for the person who last asked you for a dollar on the street, and for any other neighbor whose presence we are generally inattentive to, but who might, all the same, bring us into the living presence of God, or, to put it another way, who might bring the living presence of God to us.

Those who are only looking for Jesus in someone who matches their own expectations of what he should look like are bound to have rare sightings of the Lord, if any at all.  But those who are on the lookout for gardeners - or for anyone who might bear the image of Christ to them - well, they are bound to have many encounters with the living Lord, who, after all, has constituted his Body in the world by calling many people together in his church.

Just yesterday I happened to be at a cemetery, standing beside an open grave, casting the first handfuls of dirt onto the casket.  Among the tearful mourners were some who might have been hoping Jesus was there with us, and some who never gave it a second thought.  Someone might have asked, “Why are you weeping?” as first the angels and then Jesus asked Mary Magdalene.  Maybe it should have been me.  How many resurrection appearances might have happened, if only we’d been prepared to see Jesus, maybe even in one of the guys who had a shovel in his hand, and who looked like not much more than a gardener.

I look at that painting by Rembrandt, and I find myself grateful that the artist was willing to consider that Mary was not mistaken, per se.  Rembrandt wants us, I think to consider that yes, Jesus was the gardener, and he might still be.  Which means that the risen Christ is standing by you and me, too, probably calling our names, and that nothing more is required to be in the presence of the living Christ than the possibility of a gardener - which is to say that nothing more is required at all.

In presenting to us the gardener, there in his goofy hat, Rembrandt presents also the suggestion of a more generous resurrection than we sometimes allow for, since there is ample room beneath the broad brim of Christ’s floppy gardening hat for anyone who cares to listen to Christ call her name.  

And since we hardly know what to look for any more, when we are looking for Jesus… and since many have given up looking altogether… but since we are all of us headed somehow toward the darkness of the grave…  I find it a matter of hope that there is every possibility that Jesus is right behind me, that he has been here all along, since there has always been the possibility of a gardener, that he is wearing a broad hat, so exaggerated that there is room for me and for you beneath its wide brim, that he knows us each by name, and that, yes, he is the gardener, too.  And with him comes the light.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 22, 2018 .