St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Sunday before Advent
November 24, 2019
“When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”
LAST SUNDAY I had the pleasure to celebrate the Eucharist in the lovely chapel of St. Thomas’ Church in San Francisco. After the service and coffee hour, Canon McNeely and his wife took me to a real San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf fish restaurant for a sumptuous lunch. No such lunch would have been complete without the waiter first serving us a basket of warm San Francisco style sourdough bread. I ate my part of that bread with special pleasure. There is nothing like sourdough from that one place on earth.
I used to make bread for the family, back in our Berkeley days. Bread is usually made by soaking dry yeast from a packet in warm water – proofing it by seeing it foam – then adding flour and other ingredients to make a dough. Leave it to rise, then punch it down, kneed it, let is rise again. It can rise with other means than yeast, like you do with soda bread. But sourdough is special in that the leavening that causes those gases to form, raising the dough, putting millions of small bubbles in it, is straight out of nature. The yeast could in fact, if you’re lucky, come out of the sky into your dough. This special yeast is a combination of a natural yeast and a lactobacillus that actually ferments, or transforms sugars into alcohol, producing that tangy, sour taste we love.
The oldest record of people making sourdough puts it 3700 years ago in the alps of Switzerland. But this technique had to be used thousands of years earlier, as it’s described by Middle Eastern authors contemporary with Christ. Think of sourdough as St. Paul says, in an illustration, that a little leaven leavens a whole lump (Gal 5:9) meaning the sourdough starter added to plain dough, left to do its magic, becomes larger and is transformed.
When I started making bread, I didn’t understand yeast. My yeast didn’t completely dissolve, like sugar or flavor packets might, so I heated it up in a pan, just about boiled it to get it to smooth out. It smoothed out all right, and my little loaves never rose at all, giving us tasty little bricks to eat—not the first unleavened bread, but certainly unintended unleavened bread. I was killing the yeast. Yeast is a living thing, a vegetative kind of spore that grows and multiplies rapidly. With it, you double or triple the size of your bread and it gets softer, expanding prior to and while baking, and gets easy to chew. My first breads were real chewing exercises.
The crowds around Jesus would have loved to see some bread that afternoon. They’d followed Jesus and His disciples out into the country and it was getting late. Everyone’s stomach was telling them to eat, but they hadn’t brought food for the long day’s teaching. Jesus sensed their bodily needs and turned to ask His Apostles how they might purchase some bread. It was a mysterious question, for this was no place to buy enough bread for five thousand people. That would clean out every supermarket in Chico and still leave people hungry. Philip explained that problem to Jesus, stating the obvious about their treasury and the cost of so much bread. I’m not sure what Andrew was thinking when he pointed out the five barley loaves a young boy was carrying, and he also made it clear he wasn’t offering a likely solution.
“Make them all sit down,” came Jesus’ reply, and He took the bread from the boy gratefully, and lifted it up in His hands. “Blessed are you, O King of the Universe, who has given us grain for making this bread!” he said: the customary Jewish blessing of bread. These would be the very words He used the night of the Last Supper when He also lifted up bread and gave the blessing. Then He added, “Take and eat this. This is my Body, which is broken for you. Ever do this, in remembrance of me.”
Jesus passed the five loaves to the Apostles, gesturing that they break them, and pass them round. Their guts tightened for fear of looking foolish in front of such a vast crowd. What was He doing? Just do it, I guess. They began to tear the bread and hand out small handfuls of the broken loaves. At each rip, the bread grew in their hands. As they passed small portions of the loaves into other’s hands, those parts also grew, and multiplied, and as their astonished eyes beheld it, those five little inadequate loaves of bread became a huge meal for 5,000. From a boy’s basket to Jesus’ hands, through their hands, to the multitude and all the time it grew. And at the end, it had grown until they needed 12 baskets to collect all the leftovers.
Where did the miracle come from? Well, I can’t do it. I have killed the yeast too often to think I have any power to raise bread, except carefully, using plenty of added yeast. But like sourdough, this miracle came invisibly from the sky, a natural leavening, turning a small lump into a meal for many.
Just so, the one small meal in the upper room saw Jesus break a couple of loaves for the Apostles, yet that same meal is going on and on now for centuries, for two millennia, and the billions who have eaten this bread are still in that room with them, taking bread torn by the Savior’s hands.
Bread transforms ground up seeds of grain into a meal by introducing a life within a life. The yeast is alive – I found out, because I could kill it. Yeast is alive, and a seed is alive even when it looks dead. You could still plant it, before it’s been ground, and you’ll grow a wheat plant, or rye or barley. So, a life enters another life and it grows, transforming it into something wonderful that is enjoyed by others.
Wine is just like that. Grapes are gathered, harvested in September from the burdened vines that have sent their life into the ripe fruit, filled with natural grape sugar. The grapes are crushed, mixing the juice with a powdered substance on the skins. The powder is yeast, from the sky, from above. If you drink the juice now, it’s just Welch’s, just grape juice. Leave it alone only for a while and the process begins, that yeast grows and changes the sugars into alcohol, and the sweet juice turns into wine. The one thing we add to wine is the ingredient of time.
The science of making wine guides a vintner to add certain types of yeast to the grapes, certain varieties of grape pressed and treated differently from others, white wine handled quite differently from red. Northern California has become one of the most productive wine producing regions in the world, and the Napa Valley to a wine lover sounds as sweet as does San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf to a lover of sourdough. A life enters a life, the yeast into grape juice, and transforms it into a pleasurable new drink.
The alcohol in wine also keeps the drink from spoilage and it was prized for that, as well as the slight intoxication it produced to 1st century people. Jesus raises a large goblet of such wine at the end of their solemn meal, holding it high for a moment to gain the attention of the twelve. “Blessed are you, O King of the Universe, who has made the fruit of the vine.” Now still holding it up, His voice thickening with emotion, Jesus continues, “Drink this, all of you, for this is My Blood, my final will and testament, a covenant in my own blood that seals for you and for many the forgiveness of all sin. Ever do this whenever you drink this, in remembrance of me.”
A life within a life. It goes on.
Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding was to turn simple water into wine so the celebration could continue. Water to wine. Now He takes wine, a life within a life, and He turns it into His Blood. And now He enjoins us to drink it. We drink it by command, giving us the seal of His New Covenant, having His Blood cover us, wash us inside and out, making us clean of sin. We are sinners, fallen, foolish, like straying lambs. He puts His life into us, and we are cleansed by Him in us, a life within a life.
Where can we buy bread, that all of these may eat?
Where are we to find enough wine to satisfy so many?
Here. Right here. The mystery of two simple foods long a part of another memorial for the Jews, entering the Passover commemoration, thanksgiving time for Hebrews, that they were led out of Egypt from slavery to freedom and a Promised Land. This night of nights, the angel of death passed over our homes and, striking the Egyptian firstborn sons, set us free.
Now, a new light and a new life has entered into that ancient ceremony and the bread that begins it, and the cup of wine that concludes it are shown to have entirely new significance. Jesus holds aloft the bread and breaks it. He holds high the cup of blessing, then passes it around. All must eat, all must drink, for this is His Body and His Blood. It enters us.
It is the wonder of the Incarnation that, like a key to a lock, opens to us the mystery. God enters humankind, and becoming one with us, saves and transforms all people. A life within a life, making the old life a new thing. Water turns to wine, and now wine into His Blood. The miracle continues.
We meet as in that upper room they met.
Thou at the table, blessing, yet dost stand.
This is my body, so thou givest yet.
Faith still receives the cup as from thy hand.
Sourdough bread simply rises because it is a life within a life, seeds looking very dead, but full of life and potential life, ground to powder, hopeless, helpless: just add water. Letting nature enter now, with God’s Providence, a life within this life releases another force and it raises as from death to newness and promise. Then we eat it. It is life within our own lives and with pleasure we take it in. The tiny particles of that destroyed bread break down and travel through our bodies, adding nourishment to every cell in us. We are more than we were, a life within a life. The common miracle of eating has been transformed by the creator of food and of us, to become the way to Him, fellowship with God, and with one another. The miracle goes on.
Listen to this early 2nd century prayer of the Eucharist, the Holy Communion as celebrated by the Syrian Christians after the fall of Jerusalem and dispersion of the Jews from Palestine.
Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.
If you need a reference, read Hymn 195. This broken bread was once just seeds scattered on the hillsides. Then the many seeds produced by a new crop, in harvest-time were gathered again, and ground, then baked, yet broken again and the first few seeds now feed thousands. These who are fed will one day again be harvested from the whole earth and gathered into Christ’s eternal kingdom, God’s Son. A life within a life.
A simple lesson from the miracle of San Francisco sourdough and a cup of wine from the Napa Valley.