In Florence, the block our hotel was on – a block of designer names like Fendi and Gucci and Farragamo – had a church on each end. We decided to go to the evening Mass service at one of them. We followed along with a bulletin printed in Italian and a familiar word here and there as best we could. When Communion was served I joined the line, and when I was in front of the priest I crossed my arms in front of my chest. I understood that to be the universal symbol for, “I’m not Roman Catholic, so you’re not supposed to give me Communion, please bless me instead.” To my surprise, while I was standing there with my arms up and my guard down he popped a wafer into my mouth. So I ate it. I don’t believe in excluding people from the Communion table, and the priest either didn’t know or didn’t care, so I didn’t feel guilty. And anyway, by the time I got back to my spot in the pews the little sliver of unleavened bread had dissolved in my mouth. The body of Christ. The bread of heaven. The bread of life.
In some situations, it’s good to use Communion wafers. When I did a chaplaincy internship at Columbia Lutheran Nursing Home, wafers were safest for the residents to eat. Some of them couldn’t even have water that wasn’t thickened, so choking was a real concern. But in general, I prefer a real chunk of bread, preferably something with a crust. Gluten-free, regular, I don’t care, but I like a little texture, a little flavor in my sacrament. I also prefer a little wine in my Communion cup, but that’s a whole different sermon.
Bread. The smell of bread baking must be one of the most beloved smells in the world. Many of us have fond childhood memories that are evoked by the smell of baking bread. Often families have a traditional bread that’s part of their holidays and rituals. My Swedish grandmother used to bake what we called “King’s Crown,” a pull-apart sweet bread covered with frosting and maraschino cherries, for special holiday meals. When I grew up I stuck candles in it, served it at Christmas, and called it St. Lucia’s crown.
Many countries and cultures have their own special breads for special occasions. But there’s also a delicious beauty in common, every day bread. Biscuits and soda bread. Naan and chapati. Baguettes and bagels. My German grandmother didn’t bake anything fancy, but her dinner rolls were fragrant and flavorful.
For a number of years, I kept a sourdough starter in the refrigerator and made all our bread from scratch. If I say so myself, that was some good bread. The starter came from a coworker of mine at Plymouth Congregational Church, Robert Turner. He’s a writer, and the instructions he gave me with the sourdough were like poetry. He wrote,
It’s alive! The sourdough starter I’ve given you is one that I have been cultivating for a while. It’s wild yeast and lactobacillus bacteria living and growing in a symbiotic relationship. Every region of the world has its own variety of these organisms floating around in the air, lending the breads from different regions their distinct individual characters.
All countries and cultures have some form of bread. Bread is the world’s most widely eaten food and has been a main part of the human diet since grains have been gathered. Breadmaking began very simply by grinding some kind of grain into flour, adding liquid to the flour and baking the dough on hot rocks. Bread, they say, is the staff of life. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray every Sunday.
And yet somehow, as I stand in front of you and rhapsodize on and on about bread, I am becoming more and more uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable because even as I extol the importance and goodness of bread, I’m keenly aware that many in this circle can’t enjoy cinnamon rolls and pita pockets and corned beef on rye as part of your regular diet. I feel the way I did about bringing cookies back from Italy for our lunch last week, setting out something special that only some of us could enjoy. Uncomfortable, and exclusionary.
How has bread, this basic mainstay of human existence, become so problematic and controversial? There are many theories about why gluten intolerance is increasing. Like peanuts, gluten didn’t seem to be a health concern when I was growing up, and yet peanut allergies existed, and people died from being exposed to peanuts. We just didn’t hear about it the way we do today. So part of it is awareness and better diagnosis of a condition that already exists, but that alone can’t explain the prevalence of people who have problems digesting gluten. A study using frozen blood samples taken from Air Force recruits 50 years ago has found that intolerance of wheat gluten, a debilitating digestive condition, is four times more common today than it was in the 1950’s. "It's become much more common," said Dr. Joseph Murray, the Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist who led the study.
The question is, why? As I said, there are many theories. Modern overuse of antibiotics might be adversely affecting the bacteria in our digestive tracts. According to Donald D. Kasarda, researcher with the United States Department of Agriculture, the U.S. has tripled its amount of wheat gluten consumption in the past 40 years.  This is another hypothesis regarding the increase gluten intolerance: We are simply eating too much, and it’s making us sick.
Others suggest that the modification of modern grains to produce crops that are more disease and drought resistant has also made them more difficult to digest. According to research posted at the Weston A Price Foundation’s website, modern wheat varieties are wildly different than more traditional varieties. In short, modern wheat is simply not the same plant it used to be. Use of pesticides and modern shortcuts in grain and flour processing may also be factors.
Sadly, it’s not hard to imagine that we have managed to take one of the fundamental building blocks of human nutrition and turned it into something that makes us sick.
So what does it mean for us today when we hear Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life?” How have we managed to take this fundamental promise of spiritual sustenance and turn it into something so utterly unpalpable, so indigestible, to so many? We know many answers to this question –centuries of intolerance, crusades, persecution, judgment, exploitation of the poor, the justification of slavery, holy wars, abuse of power – somehow we’ve managed to take Jesus’ message of inclusivity and compassion and turn it into a weapon that harms instead of a path to peace. Not only do we read about the weaponization of Christianity as a tool of intolerance historically and every day in the news, many of us know someone personally who has been damaged by the church, or have been damaged ourselves. No wonder the number of observant Christians has dwindled so drastically.
How can we restore the healthy, life-sustaining and -restoring qualities of the body of Christ, the bread of heaven, the bread of life? I find reassurance and comfort in our own denomination’s efforts to restore the message of Christ to Christianity. “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Love your Muslim neighbor as yourself. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often, Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources, Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
Sometimes I feel ambivalent about focusing the pleasures life offers, when there are so many terrible things to worry about. But lately I’ve been thinking that if sunlight on fall leaves or the sound of laughter makes my soul sing, I’m more likely to share a smile than a scowl with the person ahead of me in line. I’m much more likely to think about making a caring gesture instead of worrying that no one cares about me. They will know we are Christians by our love. They will know we are Christians by our compassion. They will know we are Christians by the joy and peace we radiate in every human encounter.
Today we commune together with simple bread and grape juice that are healthy for all, including those who abstain from gluten or alcohol.
Today we also commune with those who have come before, as we observe All Saints day, remembering all the human, imperfect saints who have loved us and cared for us and comforted us along the way, those whose shoulders we stand on, those who have been raised up and live eternally in our hearts. What scents, what sounds, what images evoke memories of the dear departed saints whom you have loved, who have loved you? Take a moment now to remember them, and thank them. What fresh grief still pulls at your heart? Take comfort in the promise that life is stronger than death, that love never dies. The feast transcends our fears of not having enough, our pain over all we have lost, our doubt that we can make a positive difference in the world. This is the joyful feast of the people of God. There is bread for everyone. Amen.