The day my grandmother died, I wore her apron, and I baked.
Several of the things that were in her kitchen are now in mine, and I used them that day: her wooden-handled whisk, her bread pans, her metal spatula.
She was the one who taught me to bake. She won the Oregon State Fair for her pie in 1978, something I brag about more than I probably should, though I hope pride is maybe less a sin when it’s invoked on behalf of a girl’s grandma.
She taught me, first, to bake cookies; and she graciously overlooked how much gingersnap dough I snitched from the bowl as it chilled. Suffice it to say that first batch didn’t make the full four dozen cookies that her Better Homes and Gardens cook book had promised. A couple years later, when I was probably ten years old, she taught me to bake pie – apple, and berry – and the cream cheese pie that was her own creation after my grandfather was found to have diabetes. Finally, when I was twelve years old, my grandmother taught me to bake bread.
She made all kinds, and she baked it fresh every other day of my father’s and his three siblings’ childhood. But what I most remember was her cracked wheat bread. It was substantive, the kind of thing that kept you fed for a while, once you ate it. And my Grandma Rae was fastidious about its preparation.
That first time I baked bread with her, taken to distraction as I was, she put a pencil and a small spiral notepad on the counter next to the flour bin and mixing bowl, requiring that I make a hash mark for each cup of flour that I dipped and leveled and dumped into the bowl of her KitchenAid mixer. It’s possible that I rolled my eyes as I did it, but I followed her rules.
And oh, that bread, when it was done. It was something. When I held it in my hands, it was a like hers – warm and substantive, the kind of bread that would keep you fed for a while, once you ate it.
Today’s gospel hearkens back to the first lesson from last Sunday, from the Old Testament, the book of Exodus. In it, the Israelites wandered in the desert. And they took their protest up a level beyond pre-teenage eye-rolling…they murmured and complained, they cried out, saying that they wished they had died in Egypt instead of suffering such hunger in the wilderness.
God heard their complaint, and God provided; though in a way that required those complaining Israelites to follow God’s direction.
The dew around their camp lifted each day, leaving a fine substance that the Israelites could make into cakes to eat – but only for that day. If they tried to hoard more than what they needed, it would rot. They had to take just enough, trusting that God would provide for the next day, and the next, and the day after that.
The Israelites could not save themselves in that wilderness. Without the quail that covered their camp at night, and the manna in the morning, without water from the rock, they would have died. If they were going to survive, the Israelites had to trust that God would provide, so that, as the psalm says, mortals could eat the bread of angels…because God provided them food enough.
Jesus begins today’s passage from the Gospel of John with a weighty claim: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Well. The people…they start to complain.
“Who does he think he is, with all this ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’ business? We know where he comes from, backwater little town that it is. We know who his parents are…”
Jesus is undeterred. He goes even further. “Stop complaining,” he tells them. “Whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that you may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
The story of manna, the story of this gospel, is not just about people having what they need to survive, blessing though that is. The heart of both of these passaged is about trust. As God feeds the People Israel, the people learn something of God’s wisdom, they begin to know what it is to abide in God’s law.
And learning is not always a gracious process. Discipline is hard. People who have been disappointed and hurt more easily expect to be disappointed and hurt again…and who among us has not had that experience? So the people grumble and complain: in the story of Exodus, in the story of John’s gospel, in examples of this present moment that probably many of us could relate. God’s people have experienced salvation and yet they do not fully trust in the God who brought it to pass.
“God’s gift of manna in the wilderness is intertwined with God’s commands.” And this is something more than a theology of transaction: a holy notion that if you do this, you will get that. No, this is covenant, rich with faithfulness and promise. “And Jesus (the bread come down from heaven) is life-giving in the very same concrete ways that the manna was” for those Israelites out wandering in the wilderness. This was a substantive and faithful promise, one that would keep you fed for a lifetime.
I baked bread this past Monday, in preparation for my mother coming to visit, to spend time with Grace before she leaves for Germany at the end of the month, and to help us begin to pack. I made bagels, actually, for our breakfasts: gluten-free, according to our need. And they were good enough and easy enough to make and eaten quickly enough that I ended up making a second batch again halfway through the week.
As I prepared this sermon, I tried to imagine what my Grandma Rae’s reaction would have been to the way I cook and bake now, wedged in as I am able to do it among a bunch of other things, using different recipes and ingredients than what she had available. I imagine she would have been both curious and delighted….and then diligent about finding the best way she could to prepare the food that we needed. My guess is that she would have gotten right to work on that, and then taught me again what I needed to know.
It was never only about those precise measurements, though they did matter; but more than that, she wanted to create a thing that was necessary for all of us. And even more than that, it was about taking the time to do something that mattered, to teach what she loved to a person she loved, so that I could do that too.
I wore my grandmother’s apron on the day she died, and I baked bread that was substantive – the kind of bread that would keep you fed, once you ate it. I dipped and measured and leveled and, yes, I counted, because that was how I knew it would work. Because my grandmother had cultivated a relationship with me of knowledge and trust that I would have what I needed.
God finds all kinds of ways to show up for us in people who surround us, as Jesus did with those he loved, manifesting the covenant of God’s word that continues to feed us – so mortals can eat the bread of angels. Because God will provide us food enough.