Bread line

I hear the word bread line, and I see men and women waiting in line for something to eat. Inevitably, I see a woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg[1] that has become defining for my imagination. It is called Christ of the Bread Line and it shows Jesus waiting in line with others for something to eat.

“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” the righteous will ask, and you know his teaching about the judgment of the nations. Jesus reminds us that we don’t have to look far to find him.[2] He stands in line for bread. He applies for food stamps. He who is the very bread of life, waits patiently with the poor until we know how to eat and how to share the bread of mercy with each other.

Bread is so beautiful because among many other things it contains our shared human need to eat as well as God’s desire to give us all that is needful and more.

It’s difficult for us to know and understand what is happening in Syria, but a few days ago there was a story from Aleppo.[3] Every morning, just before sunrise, some rebel fighters step away from the front lines in the city for another vital and urgent task: baking bread. Bread is a mainstay of the Syrian diet — it accompanies every meal — and the city has been paralyzed by over two weeks of war.

In war everything becomes a weapon, even bread. “The regime has tried to deprive our supporters of water and gas, and now they are using bread,” said one militia member. But he said the rebels had learned how to fight back against the government’s attempts to keep bread out of areas controlled by the opposition. “We took control of the wheat warehouses in Aleppo’s suburbs,” he said. “We have many of them, in several areas, and they might keep us supplied for weeks.”

Some of you may have seen the footage of bakeries in Aleppo that have become opposition outposts, with long, loud bread lines snaking around corners. Abu Mohammed, a rebel baker in eastern Aleppo, said that skirmishes sometimes break out among customers, especially when there is not enough to go around. But his squad — seven to nine rebels baking and distributing bread — try to feed who they can and make sure no one gets preferential treatment, he said.

Bread is so beautiful because it contains the stories of our human hunger for food but also for freedom, our hunger for power but also for peace.

In bread all dimensions of human life come together. It contains the generosity of earth and sky, the blessings of sun and rain, the miracle of growth, the skill and toil of human labor; it contains the hunger of the poor and the appetites of the rich; it contains the poetry of our songs and the prose of our commodities markets; it contains our worries about tomorrow and the feast of the Lord’s table. Bread contains what we do to each other and what we do with life. When we begin to receive Jesus  like bread, we begin to see how in him all dimensions of human life are coming together in new ways, in redeeming ways, in ways that are healing and fulfilling. We receive the bread of heaven for the life of the world.

In 1983, in yet another armed conflict in our hurting world, Israeli troops pushed north into Lebanon. Members of a church in Beirut began to buy all the food they could – cans, boxes, bags, you name it. They were not sure if the troops would come all the way to Beirut or stop further south, but they wanted to be prepared.

Then the siege came. West Beirut was totally cut-off. No one could enter or leave. No food was allowed in. People ran out of bread. The bakeries ran out of flour.

At the church, they called a board meeting to decide how to distribute the food they had stockpiled. Two proposals were put on the table. The first was to distribute food to the church members, then other Christians, and if any was left to Muslim neighbors.

The second proposal was quite different. First food would be given to Muslim neighbors, then to other Christians, and finally – if there was any left over – to church members.

The meeting lasted six hours. It ended when a much-respected elder – a woman – stood up and said, “If we do not show the love of Christ in this place, who will?”

Her question ended the debate. They had the courage to follow the demands of love rather than fear. The second proposal was passed, and in the end there was enough for everyone in the neighborhood.[4]

Bread is so beautiful because it can be broken and shared, even across lines that appear to be carved in stone.

Now we’ve been in Aleppo and in Beirut, and I think it would be good for us to add a quick stop in New Jersey. Many years ago, Joey Ramone met Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park, and he asked him to write a song for The Ramones. Don’t worry if you don’t know The Ramones; I want to talk a little about the song Springsteen wrote that night. It was a great song, but he didn’t give it to Joey. He recorded it himself in 1980, and it became one of his best-known songs ever.

The opening lines sound incredibly cocky,

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back

But then the tone changes dramatically, and the chorus hooks you,

Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
Everybody’s got a hungry heart, everybody’s got a hungry heart …

I love this song. I love to turn up the volume and sing along at the top of my voice, and I hope that before either Springsteen or I retire, I’ll have the chance to sing it with him and a few thousand others. I love the song because I know the hunger that  doesn’t come from the stomach but from the heart. Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and we tend to try and fill it with a lot of junk before we know what we really want or see what we need.

Bread and Roses is one of the great songs of the labor movement, and it has this beautiful line in it that sounds like a prayer:

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

Our hearts are hungry and they will starve unless they are nourished with beauty and truth and respect and forgiveness and hope. I still think that Isaiah said it best, finding words for the call of God’s voice,

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.[5]

“Come,” the voice cries out, four times in this brief passage, and in Jesus, this urgent, loving word becomes flesh. “I am the bread of life,” he tells us. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He doesn’t just sing Isaiah’s lines, he embodies them.

The deepest human hunger can only be stilled by love, unsentimental and dependable love. And Jesus is the bread that stills that deepest hunger. He is the gift of God’s unsentimental and dependable love. The only way to overcome a world hostile to the purposes of God is to love it – and there is nothing sentimental about that love, as even the most casual glance at the life of Jesus will show. God does not respond with hostility to a hostile world. God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.[6]

This bread chapter, like much of the gospel of John, is colored by conflict and anguish. The words were written during a period of painful separation; followers of Jesus were trying to make sense of the fact that many of their fellow Jews did not share their belief in Jesus.

In v45 Jesus says, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me.” These words imply that those who do not come are unteachable or refusing to listen and learn. Perhaps such words did provide some comfort to those who struggled to understand why so few shared their belief; but to me they only sound like a hurtful insult. We must read and listen carefully, lest we turn bread into stones. Belief is not a simple matter of decision. Belief is not a simple matter. Period.

In v44 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Belief is not a simple matter of decision, but the process and outcome of being drawn by God, of being wooed and invited, perhaps even seduced by the fragrance of good bread. It’s, “Come and see!” over and over again. “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

The gift of Jesus isn’t this or that or the other. It’s not health, wealth, happiness, or truth. It isn’t some thing. The gift of Jesus is he himself, because with him we find the fullness of life our hearts crave. He gives himself to us trusting that we would soon run a rebel bakery in the neighborhood, serving the bread of heaven for the life of the world. No more front lines. No more lines of suspicion and mistrust. Only one long, loud bread line circling around the table of Christ.

[1] Fritz Eichenberg (1901–1990) was a German-American artist and illustrator. He was a public critic of the Nazis, and when Hitler came to power, Eichenberg was able to emigrate with his wife and children to the United States.

[2] Matthew 25:37


[4] See Michael Lindval, The Christian Life: A Geography of God (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001), p. 126

[5] Isaiah 55:1-3

[6] See John 3:17 and 12:47