There were two obvious ways to go with my message this evening: feet or bread. Truth be told I have recently become quite enamored with one of these things. You can take a sigh of relief…I’m talking about bread. That’s the thing I’ve fallen for and the thing I have come to understand as a profound insight into the divine.
I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that my recent adventures in bread-baking have been profoundly spiritual experiences. Off and on over the past year and a half I have been trying to make sourdough bread at home. Our kitchen counter is home to a glass mason jar with bubbling white substance that is nothing more than flour and water. Well, flour and water with enough bacteria and yeast from the air to introduce the process of fermentation. Every day I add a little flour and a little water, while pouring off the equivalent amount of sourdough starter. Whenever I’m ready, I mix in some of that starter with a large amount of flour, water and salt. Over the course of two days I mix, wait, knead, wait, knead, and wait some more until it’s ready to bake. Yesterday this came out of my oven:
There is nothing quite like the overwhelming sensation of pulling a fresh-baked loaf of bread out of the oven. The heat, the smell, the anticipation, the culmination of all that work and waiting – the hardest part of the process is the three hours of waiting for the bread to adequately cool once it has been baked.
I don’t need to assign spiritual metaphors to the bread-baking process in order to make it holy. A beautiful loaf of bread doesn’t have to stand for anything other than what it is in order to be sacred. Baking and eating bread is a spiritual experience in and of itself. And maybe that’s why Jesus identifies so intimately with it. Throughout scripture Jesus says things like “I am the bread of life” and holding a loaf of bread he says, “This is my body.” He didn’t say “In a way I am kind of like bread” nor did Jesus say “This bread symbolizes my body.” He meant it quite literally. Which only makes sense when we understand that Jesus as the second person of the Trinity – the Cosmic Christ – is the expression of God that, since the beginning of creation, has been sustaining and energizing all forms of life.
Did you know that a loaf of whole-grain bread baked from fermented dough has all the nutrients a human body needs to survive? Truth is, if someone gave you an unlimited supply of flour and water and you consumed them on their own, you wouldn’t last very long. However, if you mixed the flour and water, allowed them to ferment, and then baked and ate that bread – that is enough sustenance to last you indefinitely.
When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and holding a loaf of bread he says, “This is my body,” he is identifying his divine nature that gives us what we need in order to survive and thrive, all of which is found is something as unassuming as wheat seed and water and air.
This is all quite literal; and I could stop now and be satisfied that I have communicated the truth of God’s grace and God’s presence for us in the gift of bread. However, I recently rewatched an episode of the Netflix show Cooked by Michael Pollan and was reminded of the many ways in which bread is an outstanding metaphor for the spiritual life.
[here’s where we watched the video: Cooked season 1, episode 3, final 5 minutes]
Not to take away from the literal truth that Christ is present to us in the physical substance of bread, but I just have to pull some of these metaphors out.
In the video clip, Michael said the wheat seed has everything needed to sustain physical life and our task is how to access the nutrients. Likewise, everything needed to sustain spiritual life is available to us; we do, however, have to figure out how to unpack and access it. Prayer, worship, community, the arts, reading scripture…each of these disciplines comes to us like a tightly-packed seed. Our task is to engage with these disciplines in a way that allows them to expand, change, and create something new in us. Praying, worshipping, reading scripture just to check them off the to-do list (or engaging in them because you feel like you’re supposed to) is like eating a whole wheat kernel…it will be unpleasant and will not yield any benefits because it will just pass right through you without being digested.
Michael also mentioned that bread-baking is accessible; that anyone can do it, mostly by feel rather than rote recipe. And some times are better than others. So it is with the spiritual life of discipleship. All people have the same opportunity to connect with, and be informed by, the divine. Sometimes our efforts seem to yield little fruit. Other times we are gifted with something truly incredible, sweet-smelling, and nourishing; and the benefits extend into our larger communities.
Also, he said that he found confidence and satisfaction as a result of his bread-baking. As your pastor I pray for nothing less for each one of you. May your walk with Christ lead you to newfound confidence and genuine satisfaction at the gifts God has given you.
I recently came across, and found hope in, the expression, “Spiritual formation is the slowest of all human movements.”* Sometimes we look at our faith and life as a disciple of Christ and wonder if we really have anything to show for it. If the fruits of the Spirit are peace, joy, love, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, how much more of that stuff do we have than we did yesterday? Has all our worship, prayer, service, faith, brought us any closer to a life that looks like Christ’s? The sourdough bread process reminds us that we cannot rush our spiritual development. Instead, our spiritual lives require attention, care, intention, and time.
May you come to know and experience God through the physical universe, with all its complexities and wonders. And in the same way, may you come to know and experience God through your internal universe, with all its complexities and wonders. And may you be transformed into something far more than you could ever expect, hope, or manage on your own.