Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24 (Elijah revives a widow’s son)
At the Communion table, bread and wine remind us of our connection to God.
In January, I reflected on a story in which Jesus turns water into wine. Today the focus is on bread.
In today’s story from First Kings, ravens provide bread to the Prophet Elijah in the desert. Then a starving widow makes bread for Elijah from just a tiny morsel.
These miracles remind me of a documentary I watched this spring called “Cooked.” It is a Netflix series based on a book by food journalist Michael Pollan. Its four episodes are called Fire, Water, Air, and Earth – the four elements of ancient Greek thought.
Has anyone else seen it? I highly recommend it.
The episode called “Air” is about making bread; and in it, Pollan calls bread a miracle. He says: “all cooking is transformation or alchemy, but baking bread involves the greatest alchemy of all. It takes a small amount of food and turns it into a large amount . . . seemingly out of thin air.”
Pollan notes that “if you only have a bag of flour and water, you can live for a little while. But if I you have a bag of flour and water and you bake it as bread, you can live indefinitely” . . . sort of like the widow and Elijah?
He calls the episode “Air” because the invisible bacteria and yeast needed to make bread are freely available in the air. Pollan adds that “the spiritual dimension of bread is one that you can’t really grab hold of,” just as you can’t grab hold of breath or wind, words with the same root as ‘spirit.’
“Air” shows that flour and water left in the open become sourdough through the action of bacteria and yeast. As a baker interviewed in the documentary says, “these tiny organisms are invisible, omnipresent, and omnipotent.”
Bread is made when regular dough is mixed with some sourdough and baked. The fermenting action of the sourdough makes bread rise; it makes it easier for us to digest; and it gives bread much of its flavour.
Over the last 100 years, bread-making has been industrialized. Commercial yeast is now used in place of sourdough. Whole grains have been replaced by refined flour. And 30 or so chemicals are usually added. This results in bread that is harder to digest and is not as nutritious, Pollan says.
You can still find bread made of nothing but flour, water, salt. But such bread is only a small percentage of the bread eaten today.
Pollan’s documentary on bread got me thinking about communion. At the Last Supper, Jesus uses bread and wine to symbolize his body and blood. This makes sense given how common bread and wine were and how miraculous they seem.
Is it a problem, then, that we rarely use wine in the United Church and we often serve highly processed bread rather than whole-grain sourdough?
I am not suggesting that we switch to wine and sourdough bread for communion. The elements of our sacred meal are just a symbol of the presence of Jesus, and we take them in small portions.
But the relatively dispirited state of our elements makes me wonder what else might be lacking in our worship services.
At a Worship Meeting this past Tuesday evening, Bev said that some of the youth had questions about communion. I replied by saying, “who doesn’t?” I know that ordained ministers are supposed to have answers. But communion is a mysterious ritual that puts us in touch with the Holy Mystery we call God and the painful and joyous stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Perhaps if I celebrate communion a few hundred more times, I may come to grasp more of its meanings.
When I was growing up, the United Church didn’t serve communion to children. I am glad that this has changed. Our table is now open to anyone who wants to love God and neighbour regardless of age, regardless of how much we understand the ritual, and regardless of our membership status in the church.
But I also think there was something in the old ways. Communion is an attempt to connect us to the whole cycle of life – its blessings, its struggles, and the grace of dying to old ways and rising to new ones. Until we reach 12 years of age or so, we may not have yet touched all parts of this cycle.
Growing up doesn’t stop when we become teenagers, of course. In successive 12-year-long spans after childhood, we spiral through the entire cycle again — perhaps revisiting the same joys and concerns each time — perhaps becoming more mature — perhaps not.
Communion, I pray, can help. Whether we believe all the details of the stories of Elijah or Jesus, communion reveals the deep realities found in these stories: that life is a gift; that it can be painful; and that it involves dying to old ways of life and rising to a new life that is closer to Love.
The fermentation involved in making wine and sourdough bread make a good fit with the mystery of communion. But grape juice, processed bread, and rice crackers can serve just as well, I believe.
At Jesus’ Table we give thanks in a simple meal of common but spirit-filled foods. By prayerfully eating them, we sometimes know more viscerally that we belong to God and that Christ lives again in us.
I may never fully understand the grace symbolized by this ritual. Nevertheless, we meet this grace again and again in the ups and downs of our lives.
May today’s celebration of Communion remind us that the power of the Holy Spirit is here with us – whether in bread and wine, in song and silence, or in love and the struggle for justice.