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"Food Allegories" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 1, 2017

posted Oct 4, 2017, 1:08 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

I belong to a cooking club that meets several times a year; something we’ve done for nearly two decades.  We pick themes for the meals.  Inspiration can come from a country’s cuisine, a particular food, a special season.  And over the years a few recipes became trademark favorites.  We can’t gather in the fall without sharing an Apple Tart Tatin, the French dessert of caramelized apples baked underneath a flaky crust but then, when served, dramatically flipped, which can leave an uncareful novice covered in hot apple caramel.


But of all my favorites foods, pride of place goes to Irish Soda Bread.  In my mind, nothing beats a freshly made Irish Soda Bread; still warm from the oven, topped with some butter.


In fact, I like this bread so much that I’ve nicknamed it the “Irish Friend” of our cooking club.  So we’ll be planning a menu - say Indian with a host of traditional foods and then I’ll suggest we add our “Irish Friend.”


Tasting Irish Soda Bread brings back memories of our group, the texture of the bread reminding me of the richness of relationships.  And this happens for all of us with special foods; foods that remind us who we are, where our people come from, our story.  And these special foods not only tell a story but define belonging; eating the food means you belong.  I know a husband who wasn’t really part of his wife’s family until he showed he could eat lutefisk.  (Personally, I would have tried family therapy.)


Food not only nourishes us but evokes memories and defines belonging.  Which, of course, we know as Christians since one of our most important rituals involves symbolic foods.  Bread.  Cup.


How we share communion often reveals something about who we are as a community.  Paul made this point to the Church in Corinth.  He began that letter by noting the divisions within the community, saying, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’”


And now, later in the letter, he returned to this theme of divisions.  The people in Corinth held a church picnic when they got together to share communion; the bread and cup were part of a larger meal.  Except in Corinth, everyone just ate their own food: one person feasting on steak while another went hungry.


Paul saw the way they lived together as a community, and what they shared together beyond the bread and cup of the sacrament, mattered.  And so he didn’t hold back but said, “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”


So Paul reminded the church - and by extension reminded us - of the meaning of communion.  That through the bread and cup we symbolically come to be at table with Jesus, hearing him say, “Do this in remembrance of me.”


Paul wanted the quality of our relationships and the character of our community to be done in remembrance of Jesus.  To not just dunk a bit of bread in a cup, but to show in the way we live together that our lives themselves remember Jesus.  Frustrated with what he saw in the lives in the Corinthians, he said, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”  And we ought to wonder: what would he say about our lives?  About the life of our community?

 

As you think about that question, I want to suggest some of the ways the bread used in communion may help us remember what it means to be in community.

Michael Pollan, the premier commentator of American foodies, once wrote at length about bread - both how to make it and what it means to make it.  Pollon pointed out, for instance, that bread is an ingenious way to transform grass into something delicious and flavorful.  We take a particular kind of grass, wheat, and grind up its seeds; mix the resulting flour with water, salt, and yeast; and we get something amazing.


Humans lived a long time before someone thought to bake a loaf of bread.  According to Pollan, the first loaf of bread rose in Egypt.  People had been eating porridge - essentially wet grass seed, a mush; yum!  Sometimes people cooked the porridge into simple cakes; matzah.  But then someone left a bowl of this slurry porridge out.  It began to froth and bubble.  The Egyptians didn’t know it but yeast multiplied in the porridge and fermented the dough.  And the dough grew in size; a miracle.  And then someone thought to bake it.  But unlike the other hockey puck cakes, a revelation of taste: crunchy on the outside but luxuriantly soft on the inside.  Even better, the bread provided far more nutrients than the soggy grass seed.


The discovery of bread lead to a revolution; and more specifically, the discovery of bread fueled the rise of the first complex human civilizations.  Bread, as Pollan would say, remains deeply connected to society.  We think of making bread as the action of one person; today, Steve working away at the communion table.  But Steve’s work today depends on a long chain of hidden actors: the farmer who grew the wheat, the miller who turned it into flour, and the countless bakers who passed on the knowledge of their art.  To taste bread is to savor the work of countless people who made it possible.  It is the work of a civilization.


Which is why Julia Child once said, thinking of us Americans and our Wonder Bread, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”


Today, when you come to communion, you will have a chance to taste the bread of any number of civilizations.  And when you do, I hope you savor the long line of people who made that bread possible.  To taste the bread of communion that way is to open our hearts to the community behind the bread, to realize our connection to the bakers, certainly, but also the farmers and millers and the centuries over which national recipes developed, to see ourselves in a long chain of connection back to that first Egyptian whose porridge spoiled into some wonderful bread.


So much of what passes for spirituality focuses on our individual relationship with God; a “me-and-Jesus” mentality.  But communion - this ritual centered in bread - calls us to see our connections to people: those in the pew next to us, those around the world, those who came long before.


Jesus, when he took the bread, said, “This is my body.”  I had that statement in the back of my mind when I read something interesting from Pollan.  He’d just observed, “Alveoli are what bakers call the pockets of air that make up the crumb [or moist, tender, interior of the bread].”  Alveoli.  I knew that word; those are the sacs in our lungs that fill with air, that tender place where our blood exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide.  Both the body and the bread have alveoli.


And those pockets of air make the difference between bread and porridge, between amazing and mush.  The pockets form during the rising and baking process; when flavorful gas gets trapped by the gluten molecules.  Over 200 flavonoids can be found in bread; literally the air gives the flavor to bread.


Which means the flavor comes from what’s not present, from the gaps, the spaces, the intangible.  This also seems true about the spiritual life; that what matters most can’t quite be pinned down, but comes in the gaps, in the spaces, the air, the Spirit.


And remember those gaps happen because the gluten forms bonds which capture the air.  The more elastic the gluten, the bigger the gaps will be; and the better the flavor.  But if the gluten doesn’t develop properly then it breaks and the air all collects underneath the crust, one big air pocket.  It makes an interesting allegory to our community.  How elastic are our bonds?  Can we stretch?  Hold our differences?  Make space between us for the Spirit?


When you take communion today, can you taste the crumb and savor the Spirit?


Pollan, when he set out to make his loaf of bread, used a recipe from the famed San Francisco bakery Tartine.  The master baker at Tartine, Chad Robinson, published his recipe.  It runs over thirty pages for a basic loaf.  (This is why many people don’t bake!)


But his recipe really comes down to one key ingredient: the starter, a mixture of flour and water in which yeast and bacteria take root, much as they did millennia ago in some Egyptian’s porridge.


And the starter starts with just flour and water mixed together by hand.  By hand matters because all the yeast and bacteria we need to make bread just live on our bodies.  I like thinking of God’s love as a bit like the yeast - something wild, that exists all around us, there on our hands, ever present.


Once the yeast and bacteria get established in the starter, then it needs to be tended.  The starter - much like a pet - needs to be fed.  But it also needs to be used, because it keeps doubling in size.  So you either bake with it or toss some of it out.  All the time.


Which also sounds like God’s love: bubbling away, doubling every time we look, and really demanding that we make something of it, lest it go to waste.


You can use a little bit of the starter to leaven the dough for bread.  Or you can use a lot.  It doesn’t really matter.  The more yeast you add, the faster the dough will rise.  But sometimes you don’t want it to happen quickly because the longer it takes then the more flavor you get in the end.  Either way, the starter yeast acts to transform the dough, fermenting the flour, building gluten, giving rise to something wonderful.


Sometimes I hear people lament that they don’t believe as much as someone else.  We can wish our relationship with God felt as abundant as it does for someone else.  “I just have a bit of faith,” we might say with embarrassment.


But what if we saw that bit of faith, however much we feel in our hearts, as God’s starter, God’s leavening love, that would transform us: fermenting, building, giving rise to the wonder of our soul.


Can you taste that promise of transformation in communion this morning?  Taste the bread, knowing that God’s love will transform you as surely as yeast changes porridge into bread.  Taste the bread, knowing God’s love acts as the starter of community.


Favorite foods remind us of our past, our relationships, our story.  This morning may communion remind you of Jesus and what it means to live in community.  Alleluia and Amen.




Sources

  • Borst, Marilyn, “A Better World Commuion Sunday,” Called to Worship, (2011).

  • Buchanan, John M., “Shared Meal,” Christian Century.

  • Davis, Stephen T., “Mercy Creates a People,” The Reformed Journal, (1989).

  • Fine Cooking, “The Science of Baking with Yeast,” accessed Sept. 29, 2017.

  • Pollan, Michael, Cooked.

  • Sifton, Sam, “Sourdough Starter,” New York Times, (March 23, 2016).


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