The Bread of Presence
1 Samuel 21:1-6
April 2, 2017
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
A number of years ago, my beloved niece, Molly, whom some of you have met, came down to the island for a visit. Molly is the youngest daughter of my sister who died back in 1999. We asked her what she wanted to be sure to do while she was here on the Vineyard. She listed a few things: she wanted to be sure to walk on the beaches – especially Cedar Tree Neck; she wanted to shop at Beadniks (it was still open back then); get coffee at Mocha Mott’s and sleep a lot. She ended her list with her desire to make bread before it was time for her to go back to school at the end of her break.
The bread she wanted to make was a recipe that my sister and I had shared over the years. It was a light, yeasty raisin bread called Ephraim’s Bread and it had a lot of meaning for Molly and me to bake it together in my kitchen. As we went through the process of measuring and mixing and kneading and raising and baking, my sister’s spirit became a very real presence in the house that day. Molly and I felt our own relationship deepening through the shared experience of baking together. Sharing a cup of hot tea and warm bread with lots of butter had all the elements of a ritual meal. That particular bread has power. It brought me to a kind of boundary between my history with my sister and my history with Molly on the one hand and the experience of the mystery of so many things still to be known and experienced – – so much life still to unfold in the aftermath of my sister’s death.
Bread is at the center of the dynamics of both of today’s scriptures. In the story of David from Samuel, David is in the temple with Ahimelech, the high priest. David and his men have been out on maneuvers and have returned to the sacred space near starvation. David asks for bread to feed himself and his men. The priest reminds David that the bread on the altar is the only bread available and it is sacred bread. It was bread laid out on the altar on each Sabbath to remind the people of their connection with God. Only the priests, who were ritually clean, were permitted to eat the bread. But David’s hunger prevails. He assures the priest that his men have not been near women – – they meet the necessary standards for ritual purity – and they consume the show bread – The Bread of Presence.
When Jesus and the teachers of the Law meet, the teachers question Jesus about why his disciples are plucking grain on the Sabbath. It is a form of work forbidden on the Sabbath by ritual law. Jesus reminds the teachers of the story of David as a legal precedent – – his disciples are hungry – – and their hunger is what determines their right to pick up the grain on the Sabbath. In accordance with Jewish law, Jesus reminds the teachers that the Sabbath is created for human beings. Human welfare and well being supersedes the strict interpretation of the law.
Part of these stories is about what is OK and what is not OK to do on the Sabbath, but they also have to do with who gets to eat and who gets to go hungry. Jesus noticed that while people who are well fed and affluent are easily able to observe the prescribed Sabbath rituals and laws with relatively little stress, the poor, who go hungry most of the time – involuntarily – are actually oppressed by religious rituals surrounding the getting and the consumption of bread on the Sabbath. In good Jewish tradition, Jesus was more concerned about the welfare of human beings – about human relationships – and about the relationship between human beings and their God.
Bread is so fundamental to human relationships at many levels of life. It symbolizes well being, generosity, hospitality – in all the many forms it takes – muffins, bagels, biales, foccacia, crackers, whole wheat, rye, multi-grain, French, Italian, leavened, unleavened – – bread is the stuff of life that attends human relationships at meal times, at weddings and baptisms, at funerals, at pot-luck suppers – – at the sacrament of communion.
Not too long before we moved to the island, Armen and I were in the midst of moving into another parsonage. It got to be lunch time and in the chaos of moving, we had no food to offer the movers except a loaf of Pepperidge Farm Toasting White bread and some peanut butter and jelly. We told the guys what we had and invited them to eat. They broke out in big grins and one of the guys said it had been ages since he had actually had a “choke and slide” sandwich. I had never heard that term for PB&J! So – we feasted at the dining room table surrounded by mountains of moving boxes with two strangers we never saw again. Those shared PB&J sandwiches stand out in my mind as the experience of a boundary – a place between what was remembered and known and familiar on the one hand and the future that was in the process of being formed on the other. It was the first time I had ever shared a meal with strangers who were African American. Remarkably, just a few short months later, I found myself serving as the assistant pastor of an African American congregation on the other side of town.
A few years ago, Armen and I saw the film “The Pianist” starring Adrian Brody. If you haven’t seen it, it is the story of a Polish pianist during the Nazi occupation of Poland – – a story of the almost unrelieved nightmare of one man’s survival of the holocaust during WW II. There was scene after scene of brutality – the utter de-humanization of men, women and children by Nazi soldiers – and the utter dehumanization of the soldiers themselves in the process.
As the film unfolded, I became aware of a thread – -a very slender thread – of a humanizing factor that appeared at various places along the way – – a thread that kept the pianist alive and human and perhaps even hopeful.
Bread – was the humanizing factor. It represented the unity of the Pianist’s family in the deepening persecution – – as they shared meager meals together in the ghetto. Scarce bread appeared in the markets and was occasionally available to the Jews who were doing the forced labor perpetrated by the Nazis. Bread became a form of subversive interaction when it was shared between prisoners who had literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. Bread was the first thing offered to assuage starvation.
As the agonizing story of the Pianist plays out, he finally finds refuge with Gentile friends he had met before the horror began. He is starving. They take him into their home at great risk to themselves. As they determine how to help him, he weakly asks, “May I have some bread?” During all his weeks in hiding, someone or other from the underground provides the Pianist with bread from time to time. In his utmost isolation, bread conveys to him the power of human presence in the most extreme circumstances.
In his final hiding place, he is discovered by a Nazi soldier who commands him to play something on the piano. In the tension of those scenes, the Pianist’s life hangs in the balance. Will the officer betray him? Will his refuge be revealed? Is this where his life will end? The Nazi officer returns one last time to the hiding place with a package for the Pianist – a loaf of bread – – the humanizing factor. In that scene in the movie, it is bread that restores humanity to both the oppressor and the oppressed. The sharing of bread puts both men at the boundary of what has been and what is about to unfold and come into being.
The sacrament of communion has a seductive power. It has the potential to take us to the boundary between all that our history has been, all that we have known together on the one hand, and all that is present here – now – waiting to unfold and become. Jesus’ invitation to us is one that takes us right to the altar of the show bread – The Bread of Presence – and offers us the possibility of seeing not only what we are already aware of in our lives, but what is also already in the process of formation – – we get to see the possibility of what God is bringing into being in us before it actually happens. This is such a profound time for us as we contemplate a future for our congregation – already in the process of unfolding.
The sacrament is a time of remembering how God has acted in a holy history ever since the breath of God hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation. It is a time to recall the movement of God that draws God’s people out of whatever whatever sorrow, whatever pain, whatever uncertainty they endure. It is a time of remembering that The Holy One is always present in the breaking of bread – whether it is bread taken from the altar by the High Priest to feed a hungry David, or bread collected in the desert by a wandering people, or bread shared by a man with his friends on the night before he dies. The Holy One is even present in the breaking of bread in a small, rural congregation in Chilmark.
The Bread of Presence – – it contains the possibility of bringing us to a boundary – a place of awareness and vision – – a place of meeting a God who says “Behold! I am doing a new thing! Can you see it – – ready to break forth from the bud?”
We are invited to dine together – to break bread and to eat together. And in the breaking and the eating we are invited to see what kind of future is held in store for us as we remember what has been and follow the One who will lead us into what we are to become.