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Bread for the World – Br. James Koester

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Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78: 23-29
Ephesians 4: 1-16
John 6:24-35

This past Lent, I took on what some might think of as a rather unusual Lenten discipline. It was a discipline which by all reports, was highly popular among the brothers in the community and our guests. In fact it was the most popular Lenten discipline I have ever taken on. I decided for Lent to bake bread two or three times a week. At one point, after going through 100 pounds of flour, and starting on my third 50 pound bag, Timothy told me that we had gone through more flour in three or four weeks, than we normally go through in a year!

I wanted to bake bread for a number of reasons. I have been an on again – off again baker for most of my life. As a child my mother would occasionally bake bread, and I would help her. I still have among my recipe collection the Robin Hood No-Sift Bread and Rolls recipe booklet into which my mum stapled one or two of her other favourite bread recipes. As a teenager I took up baking on Saturdays and branched out beyond the usual white or brown bread into the worlds of bagels, croissants, stollens and French bread, to the delight of my father. Shortly after I was ordained, I took a bread making class as a way to get out of the house (and away from the parish!) one night a week. I made so much bread during that class that parishioners soon discovered that if they were the first people in the parish office the next day, they would go home with a fresh loaf of bread. After coming to the community, I put my bread making “on the shelf” for a number of years. But when I was living at Emery House this last time I thought it would be fun to try sourdough breads, so out came my bread bowl once again.

But there was more to this Lenten discipline than simply resurrecting an old hobby. I wanted to do something with my hands, something creative, but also something that I could do and finish in a day or so. I have too many half finished projects scattered about my cell that I didn’t want to start one more project that would take me weeks or months (or even years) to complete. I wanted to do something for Lent that I would actually finish.

But more so, I wanted this Lenten discipline to be of service. I wanted to give something that people would enjoy, and that I would enjoy giving.

For me at least, baking bread seemed to be the perfect thing to do for Lent. It reconnected me with myself. It was a hands-on project, and the brothers here will tell you that I increasingly love to work with my hands. And most importantly, people would enjoy it, and from all reports, they certainly did.

Now sourdough bread is actually quite fascinating. Not only does it have a subtle flavour, it has quite a curious history that stretches far beyond the Yukon or California gold rushes all the way back to the dawn of civilisation. In fact, if it weren’t for bread, and what we call sourdough bread specifically, we wouldn’t be here. At least we wouldn’t be here the way that we are. It was only when early humans made the connection between wheat and flour and bread that settled farming began and from there villages, towns and the cities of today sprang up. With the intentional cultivation of wheat and the baking of bread, came the domestication of animals and the end of the age of the hunter-gatherer societies.

But even with all of our skills, all of our knowledge, one thing that we have not been able to domesticate is the one thing that domesticates us: bread. For thousands of years, bread has basically been a wild food. It was only in the late 1800’s that scientists “discovered” and bakers benefited from readily available packaged yeasts. Until then, you either had to have a fistful of old dough to knead into your new batch, or hope against hope that your new bread would “catch” some wild yeast spores.

And that is my entrance to today’s gospel reading from John, because what I discovered this Lent kneading and shaping that 150 pounds of flour into bread day after day, and week after week is what sourdough aficionados have known all along, and what home bakers who use yeast out of a can or an envelope have a hint of, but which most of us who buy bread from the grocery store have long forgotten: bread is a wild, undomesticated, subversive food. It takes time, and effort and a certain amount of brute physical strength. (Kneading a three loaf batch of bread with 12 cups of flour is VERY different than kneading a 6 loaf batch of bread with 24 cups of flour.)

Because I am not a scientific baker (and there are those out there) I don’t know how my bread will turn out. Batch after batch, even loaf after loaf within a batch, are never the same. How much flour or water or salt I use, dramatically changes the shape and texture of my bread. How active, or how slow my sourdough starter is will affect the rise and the flavour of the bread. How long I leave the sourdough to do its “thing” or how long I bake it and how hot the oven is will change the texture and colour of the end product.

In one sense, as the baker, I have control of all of these things. But in another sense, I don’t. Unlike Wonder Bread, my bread is never the same twice and because of that people who eat Wonder Bread are far removed from the realities of real bread, at least the bread that our ancestors ate, and certainly the bread I bake. In the same way people who eat spiritual Wonder Bread are far removed from the realities of the One who is the Bread of Life.

As I discovered this past Lent, bread is wild. Bread is undomesticated. Bread is subversive. It takes time, and effort and a certain amount of brute physical strength. Those who had been fed by Jesus, and who listened to him by the lakeside would have known this. They would have known how much hard work it was to bake bread every day. They would have known how much patience and time and energy and effort it would take to mix and knead and shape and bake bread. They would have known all the variables, and that some days, some times, you simply can’t control them all: that the bread wouldn’t rise; or the ovens would be too hot or not hot enough; that the flour would be rancid or the salt full of grit, but that sometimes in spite of it all, or because of it all the perfect, satisfying loaf of bread would emerge.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35]

All too often, Jesus is seen by too many, as a Wonder Bread saviour: too white, too ordinary, too predictable. As we all know, Wonder Bread, although filling, is not very satisfying. What makes bread satisfying, and baking it a delight, are the unpredictabilities of it. The fun thing about my Lenten project was that I would never know what would happen. I would never know how it would taste, until that first satisfying mouthful.

The same I hope is true for you when you have that first mouthful, that first taste of the Bread of Life. We never know what Jesus will ask of us. We never know how Jesus will appear to us. We never know how he will console, or touch, or heal us. We never know how his words of love, or forgiveness, or even of challenge will affect us. We never know how he will bring us to tears of sorrow, or joy, or consolation, or repentance. We never know how he will delight, or amuse, or ever frustrate and anger us until that first satisfying bite.

Far too many people expect Jesus to be too tame, too domestic, too ordinary. And that, we all know is not a recipe for life, at least not the life most of us want to live. It doesn’t make for good bread, and it makes for an even worse saviour.

I discovered a lot of things this past Lent about bread, and especially about sourdough bread. Mostly I discovered how unpredictable and wild it was, and that THAT was the fun of it. What I didn’t expect to discover was anything about Jesus. But isn’t that the whole point of baking? You never know what you get until you taste it, and that’s the most satisfying thing of all.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!

© 2009

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