Tuesday, October 02, 2012

World Communion Sunday 2012

Newark Central – World Communion Sunday 2012

Isaiah 28: 23-29, John 12: 20-26

"The Baker's Lament" presented by Dennis Kohler
           by Jeff Gill

*  *  *

So, where were you at 4:30 am?

I was where I always am. You know where the baker has to be, don't you?

This is not a complaint. A baker's life is a good life. My father was a bricklayer, and his father was a farmer. Their lives were up with the sun, and down with it, but their fortunes were just as up and down. The frost or the rain or the economy could cut them off or build them up, and just as quickly bring them down.

Me, I bake the bread. People eat bread in good times and in bad; they may want a wedding cake once in their lives, and some cookies for Christmas, but week in and week out, they need bread, and I bake it for them.

In return for the stability of my livelihood, I don't get up with the sun, I get ahead of it. The sun rises to see me already covered in flour and half done with filling the vats with dough to set and rise in the room by the ovens. And I'm home well before dinner, unless there's one of those cakes to be made . . . but that pays for the extras, so no one minds. I see the dinner table with my family more than my father ever did, or his.

You could call it cleaner work, as well, although it seems like I'm always washing my hands. I'm in dough up to my elbows as often as not, and moving from the rolls to the doughnuts to the loaves, it's all fresh and sweet. Some people don't like the smell of yeast at work, but I remember grandfather's barns, and helping shovel out from around the cows: give me the bakery any day.

And I do still smell it. Some people say the scent vanishes from over-exposure, but I've never found it to be so. Fresh bread baking is my best advertisement, and noses are my billboards, but I get the first sniff. You learn, you train your nose like you would your fingers on a piano or your eyes on sentry duty . . . the faint tinge of too much crust, edging up to overdone; yeast distinct from mold, always a hazard; the richness of bread not quite ready to be removed from the oven, but moments before you might smell something burnt if you waited a touch too long.

[sniffs the air, smiles, lets everyone imagine the scent]

But baking the bread is nearly the last part of what I do. It all starts with the flour. You know, even the Bible knows that you have to have your flour ground just right, not too fine, not too rough. Isaiah 28:28!

You seem a bit surprised, as if I wouldn't know the Good Book well enough to quote it for you?

It's true, I'm rarely in church. Someone has to bake the bread, and I assure you I haven't been sleeping in and skipping services. I'm not one of those who say "Oh, I can worship God just as well out in nature, like the fourteenth fairway!" But of necessity, my work table and my sales counter have become my communion tables. If this is where I have to be, to feed my family and carry out what I perceive to be my own calling, then I need to find my own worship in this space.

So Isaiah and Judges and Ecclesiastes know something of threshing and winnowing and grinding. To get the goodness of the earth into a loaf of bread hasn't changed as much as you might think, no matter how many machines and engines we might have placed in the middle of the process. The farmer tends the grain, and it grows as God sends; after the harvest, the grain comes through the miller to me, and it flourishes as much as I'm willing to work. I can't work hard enough to make grain grow out of season, so I let God do his part and am thankful . . . and my prayers here in the bakery won't make loaves hop on their own out of the oven. God trusts me to do my part, as well, and I know how many depend on me to do it. The mixing and the kneading and the punching down and the kneading and the rolling and proofing and the baking and the . . . well, I don't mean to imply my work is harder than God's. But I do my part.

And God's part . . . yes, there is growth. And there is death. And there is new life that comes as if out of the fire, transformed and reborn. It's right there in John's Gospel: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." My days begin alone, and in the dark, but the ovens are lit, the day breaks, and the smell of bread brings people to my shop. The seed is scattered, but the harvest comes in. The bread is baked, but it must be broken for anyone to eat.

There have been moments in my life, and I daresay in yours, that I would have preserved, untouched. [Picks up loaf of bread from table.] There are losses that hurt so much that you could almost wish you'd never seen the days that led to goodbye. There are times when you have to get up the next day, and come to the shop, and you think . . . why bother? Why must we scatter, and lose, and break? [Breaks the loaf, with half in each hand.]

Except, the perfect loaf on the shelf? It's made of wax and papier-mache. It isn't real, and can't feed anyone, hungry child or indifferent customer. [Sets down broken loaf.] A loaf, so well made you want to keep it on display, for pride and personal satisfaction? It will rot. And given enough time? Will become a thing of horror . . . plus, the health department would shut you down. "Sir, you do know that your display is filled with moldering, decaying lumps of bread?" And will you answer "Yes, but they were perfect, weren't they?" No. If they're perfect, all the more reason to break them, and slice them, and share them, and see them gone.

Because, after all, the next line after Jesus tells us about how the grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die? "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." [Picks up broken loaf again.]

This way, I have bread that lives on. [Holds up halves.] It gets eaten, and becomes part of those who enjoy it, and strengthens them to go out and love and work and care and try. And love. You can't put the loaf back together again, but it becomes whole and everlasting when the memory of a good meal and the meaning of the time spent around that table goes into those lives. [Sets halves down again.] And that love.

And those lives are what God uses to make something eternal, something everlasting. Our lives, your lives, my life. I may only make it to church for Christmas Eve and Maundy Thursday, smelling of dough and toast and a bit of icing behind my ear, but I know enough of God's plan for this world to know this: that for all the reaping and grinding and rolling and baking we might go through, we are part of the recipe. We ourselves are invited to be fed by feeding others. Our brokenness can help make others whole. Our hunger for grace can feed others with the Bread of Life.

Me, I've got to go make the doughnuts. Cream filled, the kids love those.

[ten minutes]

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