A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 21, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 6:35-40 and John 15:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Of the many images for God used in the Bible, the image of bread and vine is one – perhaps the one – I can most relate to.  God as shepherd – I know someone up in Washington who has a herd of sheep, but she didn’t get them until after I moved to Fremont and we’ve never talked about them.  God as king – Queen Elizabeth is the most prominent monarch in my mind, and she’s more of a figurehead then a ruler, so that image seems a little hollow.  But God as bread and vine – that I can relate to.  Especially the bread part.

When I was a kid, there was one particular brand of bread that we bought:  Arnold’s Brick Oven white bread.  The only time my mother would buy Wonder bread was if she decided to let us eat fluffernutters – which is a type of sandwich that proves I grew up in New England.  Because my mom didn’t drive and we were a family of six, my mother went to the grocery store almost every day – or she sent one of us kids.  I suppose it was because I was sometimes responsible for bringing home the right brand of bread that I remember what it was.

I also remember when whole wheat bread just started getting some buzz.  My mother thought that maybe we should switch breads, but my father (I think jokingly) insisted that the reason whole wheat bread was brown is that they used the flour they had swept up from the floor.

“White bread has an interesting history.  For centuries, people have been striving to produce ever whiter flour and ever whiter loaves.  This is a story of cultural preference and symbolism, and it is also a story of technology.  According to food activist and writer Michael Pollan, ‘The prestige of white flour is ancient and has several sources, some practical, others sentimental.  Whiteness has always symbolized cleanness, and … the whiteness of flour symbolized its purity.’  For centuries, white flour was hard to obtain; only the rich could afford white bread.  But in the middle of the nineteenth century, roller milling – in which millstones were replaced with metal or porcelain drums that were arranged to grind the flour more finely – made white flour inexpensive, readily available, ‘and whiter than it had ever been.’  So even people of modest means began to buy porcelain-white flour and bake pretty white loaves in their ovens.

“Within a few decades, further technological innovation – developments in ‘microbiology, cereal chemistry, climate control, and industrial design’ – had again reshaped people’s daily bread:  in 1890, 90 percent of bread eaten in the United States was made by women at home; by 1930, 90 percent of America’s bread ‘was baked outside the home by men in increasingly distant factories.’  In a study called White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain suggests that the appeal of ‘modern bread’ – industrial white bread – went beyond convenience.  People loved the ‘streamline’ look of company-baked bread.  When the first automatically sliced bread was sold in the United States (in the summer of 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri), a reporter wrote, ‘The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows.  So near and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.’  The guaranteed perfection of a store-bought loaf appealed to an America in love with science and captive to fantasies of scientific perfection.  The Ladies’ Home Journal wrote in 1923 that in contrast to the housewife who baked by guesswork and was likely to produce the occasionally underdone or misshapen loaf, ‘modern inventions have made an exact science of baking, and there is no reason whatever for failure.’

“Americans loved the bread’s predictable uniformity, and they loved its whiteness.  Echoing Pollan, Bobrow-Strain argues that white bread ‘had long stood as a symbol of wealth and status – and in America, racial purity,’ but in the early twentieth century, Americans’ preference for white flour took on still new meanings.  In an era obsessed with hygiene and sanitation the color white came to represent ‘scientific control’ – all those white lab coats, all those sparkling white kitchen appliances.  Physicians took to the pages of national magazines to urge families, especially immigrant families and poor families, to whitewash their walls; dark walls would camouflage dirt, but on white walls dirt would, in the words of one pundit-physician, be ‘so conspicuous that shame’ would ‘compel … the Polacks and Hungarians’ to clean.…

“So, in short, the history of the lovely white loaf may be found in American’s optimistic quest for scientific perfectibility and in American’s history of [racism,] shaming immigrants and shaming women.”

Lauren Winner concludes, “It seems an odd genealogy for the bread that, week in and week out, Christians name as Jesus.  Jesus, who consorted with shamed women.  Jesus, who is neither orderly nor predictable.  Jesus, who, with his parents, became a migrant to Egypt when his own country turned inhospitable to him.  Jesus, who makes possible our immigration to the Kingdom of God.  Jesus, whose skin is darker than the flour we prize.”[1]

Perhaps Jesus is more pumpernickel than sourdough.  Rather than the modern white loaf, perhaps Jesus is a misshapen, burnt around the edges, under-baked-in-the-middle, hand-made loaf of bread.

“In calling Himself ‘the bread of life’ – and not, say crème caramel or caviar – Jesus is identifying with basic food, with sustenance, with the food that, for centuries afterward, would figure in the protest efforts of poor and marginalized people.  No one holds caviar riots; people riot for bread.  So to speak of God as bread is to speak of God’s most elemental provision for us.

“Especially for people who have lived with hunger, this is a powerful, palpable image.  But I admit that it is a biblical metaphor at which I sometimes find myself staring blankly.  I have never been hungry for more than thirty-five minutes, and, though I always need to be nourished, I rarely notice this need, and I rarely credit God with my nourishment (more often I either take my nourishment for granted or credit myself – my labors, which provide the money to buy the food …).  So for me (and maybe for you), the image of bread as provision can be a bit of a corrective, showing me how insensible to my dependence on God I really am.  But instructing me in my hunger is not all this image can do.  Bread is basic food, but bread nonetheless contains meanings beyond sustenance.”[2]

And there is something sweet (pun intended) about imaging God not just as bread, but as toast with strawberry jam.  God as the potato bread of the grilled cheese sandwich I dip into the tomato soup on a cold, rainy, winter day.  God as the chocolate tea bread my goddaughter’s mother served at my goddaughter’s tea party when she was three.  God is not just provision; God is delight.  God is not just necessity; God is enjoyment.  God is not just sustenance; God is pleasure.[3]

Winner writes, “In the Middle Ages, several female mystics compare the soul in union with God to bread that soaks up – and grows engorged with – honey or mead.…  Jesus means for us to see bread as a metonym for Him, for His body, for His nearness.”[4]  These sentences sent me scurrying off to a dictionary – well, to Google – to find out what a “metonym” is.  A metonym is “a word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated.  For example, Washington is a metonym for the federal government of the US.”[5]  So Jesus means for us to hear “bread” as a word that substitutes for him, for his body, for his nearness.

Winner goes on:  “The mystics’ prayers would suggest that our own bodies, too, are metonymed as bread, bread that expands with Jesus when we draw close to Him.”[6]  We are the bread, dipped, not into any old honey, but dipped into the honey of life.  Our lives are expanded and sweetened by our relationship with Jesus, by our union with Jesus.

“This is a reverse Communion image.  Usually, at Communion, we draw near to God by opening our hands to receive a crumb of bread.”[7]  In this image, we draw near to God and find God’s hand opened to us.  And we place into God’s hand the crumbs of our pain, our fear, our grief, knowing they soak in God’s sweetness.

“‘Who will enable me to find rest in you?  Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?’  So prayed Augustine at the beginning of his Confessions.  His plea that God intoxicate his heart is a good reminder that our defining meal as Christians doesn’t just include bread,” but also the juice of the vine.[8]  Jesus identifies himself as the vine, God as the vinedresser, and his own blood as that which is pressed from the fruit of the vine.

Jesus wasn’t the first to use this vineyard imagery.  Centuries earlier, the prophets used vine and vineyard imagery to describe life with God.  “God has brought the vines out of Egypt, cleared the ground, planted the vines, and watched over them.”[9]  But the fruit these rescued vines produce is not always good.  Injustice and idolatry lead to a clearing of the vineyard, Isaiah says.  God’s desire for the vineyard has always been righteousness and justice.

I think it’s safe to assume that the original people for whom John wrote his gospel would have been familiar with this prophetic imagery.  “They would have known that they were the vines, and God was the vinedresser who cleared the field and tended it.…”[10]

“Usually we hear in Jesus’s identification of Himself as vine a statement of our dependence on Him, and an instruction about what we need to thrive – if we abide in Jesus, we will have life; if we try to separate ourselves from Jesus, we will not.  But perhaps Jesus the true vine tells us about something beyond our reliance on God.  Perhaps the image also tells us about the perils of incarnation.  It is as if Jesus studied the Hebrew scriptures and found the most precarious depiction of humanity He could, and said, ‘That is who I am:  I am allying with humanity when it is most endangered.’  When I am producing bad fruit and farthest from God’s pleasure, Jesus is already in that place.  It is not alien to Him, and I am not alone.”[11]

I don’t want to ignore or in any way diminish the seriousness of the excessive use or abuse of alcohol or the addiction to alcohol, but I do want to return to Augustine’s prayer.  “Perhaps,” Winner writes, “if I receive Jesus as wine, I would know divine intoxication again.  (Would it be bearable?  Just as being drunk [on love] seems to interfere with what I think I am supposed to do in a given day, or a given life, surely being intoxicated with Jesus would, too.)  I get hints of divine intoxication now and again – quick flashes in prayer once or twice a year.  Perhaps at the heavenly banquet, we will find good, true inebriation, excess that is somehow not unsafe.  Or excess in a place where safety is no longer a concern; excess in a place where, since everything has been reordered for and by God, there is no other order, no other program, for divine intoxication to disrupt.

“In the Bible, men and women observing others caught up in intense devotion to God tended to mistake those people … as drunk:  Hannah was ‘pouring out [her] soul to the Lord,’ beseeching the Lord for a child, and a priest who happened upon her thought she was blotto; those observing the apostles, newly filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, made the same charge.”[12]

Of course, one of the side effects of getting drunk is the hangover.  And because I do not live in constant ecstatic connection with God, I sometimes fear the after-effects.  Perhaps this might be one case where partaking of the hair of the dog might actually be good for you.

“I am the bread of life.”  The bread of life is provision and delight, necessity and enjoyment, sustenance and pleasure.  And we, too, are bread, invited to dip ourselves into the sweetness of God that we may absorb all that goodness.

“I am the true vine.”  We are dependent on God to help us produce good fruit in our lives.  And we are invited to drink of the fruit of the vine that we might be intoxicated with the love of God.

This is an invitation to feast.

Amen.

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015) 103-107.

[2] Ibid, 93-94.

[3] Ibid, 95.

[4] Ibid, 115.

[5] https://www.google.com/#q=metonym (20 May 2017).

[6] Winner, op. cit., 115-116.

[7] Ibid, 116.

[8] Ibid, 117.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 119.

[11] Ibid, 120.

[12] Ibid, 127.

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