The house of bread
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief. It was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair.”
With that string of antithetical pairings Charles Dickens opens his novel A Tale of Two Cities, set in London and Paris toward the end of the 18th century. He is describing an era of such promise and potential for goodness, but also for the opposite. The best of times, the worst of times.
Dickens’ litany could describe another historical context as well [—I’m not referring to our own, at least not yet. I’m thinking of Palestine in the time in which Jesus was born.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That name means “house of bread”. An auspicious, promising, idyllic image comes to mind: Jesus born in Bethlehem, house of bread. But, he is born during the reign of the Roman king Herod. As Laura mentioned just a moment ago, king Herod ruled with a heavy hand and was not interested in sharing. And he ruled from the menacing city of Jerusalem, a city that harbored both political and religious hierarchies that each possessed formidable tools of intimidation and suppression. If Bethlehem is the house of bread, then we could think of Jerusalem as the house of dread.
Magi from the East set out to find and to worship the Christ child in Bethlehem, but along the way they nearly became ensnared in Jerusalem and Herod’s web of manipulation and deception. The best and the worst, light and darkness—it’s a story Charles Dickens would have been proud to write.
18th century Europe; first century Palestine. What about 21st century North America? We can recognize those very same polarities in our own time and place, can’t we? And they have been brought into extraordinary focus by a pandemic.
We have seen such kindness and courage this past year; such compassion and creativity; such scientific brilliance and dedicated community leadership and service; such sacrificial front-line workers and health care providers. Wisdom, belief, light, hope.
But we have also seen the opposite: foolishness, hubris, deception, illness and death, Rachel the matriarch, weeping for her children. The year just ended presents us with another story Dickens would have been pleased to have conjured up as fiction, a very mixed record, we would all agree, of accomplishment and failure.
I’m reminded of the occasion in late November 1992 when Queen Elizabeth II was invited to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her reign. It had been a difficult year for the queen. Her daughter divorced, one son and his wife separated, another son and his wife separated. And then, just four days before this grand celebration in late November, Windsor Castle caught fire and burned, its most historical features destroyed in that fire. The queen, bless her heart, joining the valiant effort of many who tried to retrieve treasures from the castle while it burned, caught a cold. It was cold and rainy that night, and coming in and out of that fiery scene, she became ill. Just four days later, before a crowd of hundreds of well-wishers, doing her level best to stay positive, and with characteristic British understatement she said, “Nineteen ninety-two will not be a year on which I look back with undiluted pleasure.”
I think we could borrow her words, couldn’t we? 2020 will not be a year on which we look back with undiluted pleasure. The best, to be sure; but also the worst. Light, but also darkness. “Nothing human,” Frederick Buechner once wrote, “is not a broth of false and true”; including, it would seem, the course of human history.
But Matthew’s story does not languish in a paralysis of that false-true, best-worst polarity. Just beyond the verses that Steve read with us earlier, Herod dies, and Jesus reenters the scene, beginning his Galilean ministry; healing, and teaching, and feeding, and forgiving. Other Herods will emerge, of course, and Jerusalem is still Jerusalem, but these entities will never, ever overcome this singular gift of hope and redemption that is the Incarnation, the presence of Christ on the world’s landscape.
Eventually Jesus’ ministry leads him from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from the house of bread to that house of dread. As the young and fearless prophet arrives in the old and fearsome city, he gathers with his disciples in an upper room, and with quiet courage offers them bread. Into that scene of fear and peril he provides sustenance, nourishment, forgiveness, assurance, hope. Soon after, his life will be given for the life of the world. The menacing city will be unwittingly transformed into a place of redemption for all the world, for all the ages.
The way of Jesus becomes the way of those who follow him—bringing our gifts of bread, both literally and figuratively—into places of hunger and need and fear and spiritual searching. This is our work—just as it has been in the checkered year just ending. And as is always true, I believe deeply that by the grace of God in the giving we, too, are gifted; and in the doing of this work we will find our own checkered selves, our best/worst, wise/foolish, believing/disbelieving selves heartened, healed, and hope-renewed in the giving.
What work specifically is your work to do in the new year? What is yours to do as a way of bringing bread to a hungry world? A more intentional serving or leading role; a financial commitment; a discipline of prayer; a gift of correspondence in a time where such communication has become golden; a conversation in a difficult relationship; or other means of encouragement? Perhaps it is to listen to one whose question, “Where is God?” when heard carefully, is not a question of accusation as much as a question of seeking direction to the One who offers comfort and assurance in a difficult time.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I’m describing what I have already seen in you, in us, lived out in your faith journey. Yet one season of love and leadership calls for another. And so, I invite you to take time today, or this week, to reflect and pray about the deepening of that sacred work into which the Spirit is continuing to guide you in the coming year.
Last March when a pandemic ushered us out of this sanctuary—it seems ages ago, doesn’t it—as we left, we shared a simple but profound insight offered to us by Cameron Bellm: “With the church doors locked,” she wrote, “and this table out of reach, we must become the sacraments to each other.”
Her words continue to remind us of our identity and calling as the distributed church. Although we cannot gather at this cherished altar-table to receive the sacrament, we have found our way during this year to other tables, crafting altars in the world—at home, in the neighborhood, in nature, in online gatherings, on stationery, by phone, on this very street corner—and we have even begun to cherish these new altar-tables, discovering Christ present at each one, offering the bread to us, and through us. We have, with quiet courage, ourselves become the sacrament to each other.
Maybe that is always God’s purpose for our life together in Christ, both in season or out of season, and Matthew’s story serves to remind us of this: Bethlehem, the “house of bread” is not a destination, but an origin, a beginning, a place from which over and over we set out to meet the hunger at hand, with bread in hand, and Christ always in the offering.