THE STAFF OF LIFE The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand August 9, 2015
About seven months ago, now, Joanna Jolly of the BBC wrote an article the detailed one of the shifts in the American diet. Entitled, “Why Do Americans Love Ancient Grains?” the article was written in response to an explosion of popularity and of interest mostly by Americans in ancient grains—grains of ancient Mesopotamia, grains of the indigenous peoples of South American, grains of Egypt and the Nile.
Well, Jolly is right: We’re interested. Suddenly we are interested in spelt, emmer, teff, and many other grains from ancient times. We are interested, to be sure, in part because of the gluten free craze that has people like me looking for pancakes and sandwich breads and cereals that are free from gluten. (And I thank all of you who have fed me during the coffee hour and at other times with gluten free goodies.) But we’re also interested in part because Americans are always on the lookout for some magical food ingredient from the past, a silver bullet that when taken ensures longer life or more vibrant health. And, let’s be honest, we’re also looking to eat our way into ancient history—to sample the common foods of the ancient Egyptians, or of the Romans or Greeks or the Persians, travelling by our pallet back through the centuries as we imagine others reclining to eat, like the disciples or the Pharisees with Jesus in the First Century AD.
Spelt has a slender rice-like grain and contains less gluten than wheat, but has a higher protein content. Freekah has a characteristic smoked aroma and a toasted, mildly sweet flavor. A grain from Arabia, freekah contains more protein, vitamins, and minerals than most grains, and up to four times the fiber content of brown rice, though it has hardly any gluten, since it is harvested before its protein develops. It is used in soups, and stews.
Emmer, termed “farro” in Italy, is an ancient wheat that has been cultivated for over 10,000 years. It is also a very sustainable grain—it grows well without chemical inputs and can better tolerate stressful growing conditions than modern wheat. The emmer grown in New York State comes from Europe by way of North Dakota, where diverse types brought by German immigrants have been grown since the late 19th century. Emmer is known for its distinctive, delicious flavor as a cooked grain. This flavor carries through when it is used to make pasta and fl at breads as well.
And then there is Einkorn. Domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent, Einkorn is considered to be one of the “ancient” grains. Einkorn is higher in protein, trace minerals and essential amino acids than any other wheat. The grain may be cooked whole or ground into flour for baking. Einkorn is also safe for some gluten sensitivities.
Often we call bread “the staff of life.” A staff provides support and this phrase with the word staff in it was first recorded in 1638. Today, however, bread is far less of a staff than rice. A majority of the earth’s people eat rice instead of bread. In Indonesia, rice is readily available and no one in that vast country goes hungry because as a staple rice is provided.
In Jesus’ day, however, the staff that provided necessary nutrition was bread. And some layers of Mediterranean society in his time did not always have access to even this most basic commodity. We can imagine Jesus and his disciples reclining in the Upper Room before his Passion. And we can hear his words. In John 13 he speaks of his betrayer and when Peter asks, “Lord, who is it?” he replies, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” The morsel is dipped and handed to Judas. And I imagine bread.
Today as last Sunday in our Gospel reading bread, that ancient grain, that staff of life, shows up. Jesus says I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he or she will live for ever. And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
It is hard to imagine the impact of bread in Jesus’ day. To eat bread and to have bread to eat was to survive. We cannot imagine this. Even though hunger is present in our society, we often cultivate the impression in our lives of an abundance that fills us up almost to the point of being over-full and nauseated. It is a cloying abundance. At least in our images of the good life. But hunger, that American shadow land, remains. Today one out of every six Americans faces hunger. Food insecurity is one of the terms used to describe the face of hunger in America. The USDA defines “food insecurity” as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members.” In 2011, households with children reported a significantly higher food insecurity rate than households without children: 20.6% vs. 12.2%.
Food insecurity exists in every county in America. In 2013, 17.5 million households were food insecure. More and more people are relying on food banks and pantries. Forty-nine million Americans struggle to put food on the table. We rub elbows with them, but they mostly are invisible.
When we take the bread of life at the altar, today and on other Sundays, no doubt we should more fervently think of ways that we here at St. Andrew’s can supply food to others—even others in our own community.
It arrives unheralded often at the main meal of the day. It may be a triangle of pita gracing the edges of a bowl of salad. It may arrive in a basket in the form of a small loaf. It may be wrapped and wrapped and wrapped in suffocating plastic wrap making it difficult to sample. But it often is there.
We assume it. We sometimes avoid it. We now quite commonly possess an interest in its historic roots and lineage. Today it will come modestly in the form of a wafer, thinly sliced and for many of us it will be tinged with wine.
And when we take it in with faith and with a sense of emptiness this meal can be a banquet. And this bread coming as it does from the Master can bring into our existence the spiritual staff of new and unending life itself because it comes from him, from his mission of love, from his willingness to be present to us yet again through this simple thing. Today, this wafer, this morsel, this emmer or perhaps einkorn is offered and blessed and lifted up and then presented. It comes as a vehicle of grace and of presence. It comes to arrest us in our journey, so that at the intersection of this engagement with the Divine, this simple thing might feed us, deeply and completely, bringing us newness and forgiveness, peace and reflection, renewal and joy. We feed upon the presence of God who is for us and for the whole created order the staff of life.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good,” Psalm 34 proclaims. “Happy are those who take refuge in him.” Fed with the bread of life, let us also be people who, in spirit and substance, bring nourishment, strength and even food – to others.
In the name of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.