FRESH BREAD IN THE MORNING
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown
February 3, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 58: 6-12; Luke 4: 14-21
When I was in Beit Sahour in 2007, every morning Hassan’s mother would send him to the bakery down the street to get a small bag of fresh bread for breakfast. She would count out the money while she wrote down the exact amount she expected to pay and the amount she expected to get back in change for a small plastic bag containing about 8 pieces of bread. Hassan would take the slip of paper and show it to the shopkeeper and then return with the bread. His mother would then prepare breakfast before sending him off to the sheltered workshop for developmentally disabled adults where he spends his days.
Beit Sahour, a small predominantly Christian suburb of Bethlehem numbering about 12,500 people, is a tight knit community where most people know each other at least by sight and where people watch out for one another. It has the place we know as Shepherds’ Field where tradition says the shepherds heard the angels tell them of the birth of Jesus. The local Greek Orthodox church is built on that very site. It was all part of what was loosely called Bethlehem a thousand years before where Ruth met Boaz and gleaned the wheat left as was called for in Deuteronomy – And when you glean your fields, glean only once and leave the rest for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, for remember you were once aliens in the land of Egypt. Thus there was wheat for everyone to make their bread.
Charming stories we think, but we live in another age, where you have to buy our bread and the other items of daily living. Today, in response to the cry of the needy, we stock our food table in the back of the church, organize programs to run services like the Calico Cat, and take a more structural approach to poverty and other issues in our society. Every once in a while – not too often – but every once in a while, someone in our society comes along and calls us to remembering who we are as a nation, what our calling is, and how we should respond to that calling. We don’t have too many Bobby Kennedys or Martin Luther Kings who spoke out against injustice rather than worrying about focus groups and other ways of positioning themselves to get elected.
Jesus, that morning he began his public ministry, as the text tells us stood to read the words of the prophet Isaiah – and all eyes were fixed on him. He must have been a com-manding and mesmerizing figure in his day, challenging authority and calling the rulers to task. We are so used to hearing the words that we forget how threatening they must have been in his day. The Galilee of Jesus was under Roman occupation; the West Bank today is still, is under Israeli occupation. The people who lived then were fearful as are the people in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour.
The Israeli army called the Israeli Defense Force or IDF for short – called the IOF by the locals meaning Israeli Occupation Force – continues to conduct operations in West Bank towns, including Bethlehem and Beit Sahour detaining people designated as terrorists. A terrorist can be someone like Ahed Tamimi, the teenager who slapped an Israeli soldier when he tried to push her family off their farm or Rouzan al-Najjar, the medic who got too close to protesters in Gaza and was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.
The standard operation usually goes like this: several jeeploads of Israeli soldiers come up to a house at 5 or six in the morning, storm the house, break in, guns drawn, and take the suspected terrorist to some undisclosed location. The family goes to find out where the suspect has been taken and the IOF soldiers either stare back blankly or threaten to arrest the women in as well. It may take several days or even weeks to find out where the arrested person has been taken. By that time, the suspect has been removed to the other side of the Green LineIt’s actually not too different from Immigration & Customs Enforcement operations here.
The writer of Luke says in his preface that this gospel is being written so that we may have an accurate account of what Jesus actually said and did and what happened to him because there were so many stories about him. We only have snippets of some of those so-called stories, and no real idea of what else may have been said at the time. Then, as now, we only get a glimpse of the truth of actual events in spite of the twenty-four hour news coverage of CNN. But now, as well as then, there are certain essential truths that cannot be denied: we are called to be God’s people and to live by God’s law, to feed the hungry and free the oppressed, to visit those in prison and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor – to open our hearts and our lives to all those around us, and to make sure that everyone can have fresh bread in the morning.
This past week our occupying powers, the politicians in Washington, came to an agreement to temporarily reopen the government. During the shutdown, more than 800,000 federal employees were furloughed; some were required to work without pay. Whatever happened to the Thirteenth Amendment, you know, the one that prohibited slavery? People who rent units under Section 8 and their landlords worried about payments. Great time of the year to be evicted for nonpayment.
And as to food, the bread that people eat, millionaires and their friends suggested that they borrow from their credit unions or just cut back. Is this some third-world country with narcissistic dictators? Seemed it was.
Now supposedly things are back to normal, whatever that means. It seems to mean that the poor still go on being poor and that the wealthy still get more than they deserve in light of this month’s events. It would make for a good comedy if the repercussions weren’t so serious.
Food banks, already dealing with the strain of feeding government workers, are caught up in the confusion regard-ing SNAP benefits. That’s the program that used to be called food stamps. Imagine feeding your family on $250, the assist-ance for a single mother with one child. Most of us couldn’t feed ourselves on that amount.
What is the good news to the poor that Jesus preached? If we look back at Mary’s song of praise as recorded in Luke, it is to totally overthrow the social order with the rich being sent empty away. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is stark: blessed are you who are poor . . . who are hungry, for you will be filled.
The fresh bread of the morning is not in some afterlife but as we say every Sunday, “Thy will be done on earth . . . .” Now that the government is back in business, as they say, we should all call our members of Congress to pass legislation that positively impacts the poor. As the wealthiest nation on earth, our goal should be to end poverty. Budgets are moral documents and should reflect our vision for a better America so all will have fresh bread.
The table before us is a symbol of living as a welcoming people. The cup you see and the dishes on which the bread is placed were crafted in Hebron, about ten miles from Bethle-hem. Through my translator, the old man who ran the pottery workshop where they were made told me to bring them back to the United States with love and to tell people here that the people of the West Bank only want to be able to live in peace without an occupying army. These dishes carry the ancient symbols of our faith – a loaf of bread and two fish.
As we break our bread this morning, we share the same meal of our Christian brothers and sisters not just in Beit Sahour and Bethlehem but here in America. Through the breaking of this bread, we declare that we are broken and yet part of one loaf, the loaf of our faith that God calls us to feed the hungry, bind up the broken hearted, free the oppressed, and to declare that this will be the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of peace, the year of jubilee.
Let us pray: Help us, O God, to be witnesses of the One we follow and to work for the end of poverty so that all will have fresh bread in the morning. In the name of him who shares bread with us, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.