A few weeks ago, Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining down at the Farmer’s Market. It was a fundraising dinner – now I don’t know how many fundraising dinners you have attended, and perhaps yours have all been memorable and delicious. I’ve been to too many where I looked down at the plate in front of me, and all I could say was, “Really?” A sad piece of chicken breast, devoid of any residual moisture, sitting on a bed of overcooked, cold pasta, with three or four stems of asparagus trying hard to cheer up the plate. But Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining at the Farmer’s Market; it was a fundraiser for the Nashville Food Project, appropriately called, Nourish.
Every living thing on earth must eat in order to live. But we all know there’s a big difference between fueling your body and eating, between eating and dining, and between dining and feasting. We know that grabbing a bite is different from having a meal. Food is not just calories, proteins, carbs, and fats – and what we do with our food says a lot about what we do with life. In Scripture, images of life’s fulfillment are visions of feasts, not drive-throughs.
So Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining at the Farmer’s Market to raise funds for the Nashville Food Project to continue to nourish our community. The meal had been prepared by some of the best chefs in the Southeast, the wines were delightful as well as the company, and John Egerton MC’d the evening with charm and grace. Before the meal was served, John talked a little about regional foods and about bread in particular. In the South, bread is hot and delicious: cornbread baked in cast iron, biscuits that play the whole scale from flaky to fluffy, with butter and jam or eggs and ham. In the North, bread is rarely hot. Bread is baked at night so it has time to cool off and rest: crusty sourdough, chewy ciabatta, sweet rye with caraway seeds, and gorgeous challah that shines like the light of morning was braided into it. John talked about the invisible line that runs through the Eastern U.S., with hot breads in the South and cold breads in the North, and how much he loved all good bread (as do I).
Bread tells stories. It tells us about our ancestors, about farms and cities, about immigration and slavery and labor relations. In much of the world, bread is the very essence of food and life. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray – and with bread we pray for all that is needed for life to be nourished and raised to fullness.
During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. Their lives had been uprooted by war, their families killed and their world destroyed, but holding on to a piece of bread, they held on to hope and peace.
There’s another John who loves to tell us stories about bread; now I’m talking about the one who wrote the gospel that bears his name. He tells us how around Passover time Jesus was sitting with a large crowd and he said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” They were hungry, and he didn’t want to start teaching until they had all eaten (it’s difficult to learn anything when you’re hungry). Philip quickly did the math in his head and said, “Half a year’s wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Andrew told him about the boy who had five barley loaves and two fish and added, “But what’s one boy’s lunch among so many people?”
You know the story, of course. He took the bread, gave thanks, and distributed it among all; so also the fish, and they all ate as much as they wanted. Male and female, young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish – all ate until they wanted no more. He gave them bread to eat until even the hungriest among the teenage boys said, ‘I’m kinda full’ – and then he told his disciples to gather up the fragments, and they filled twelve baskets.
Now fullness of life is not the same as a full stomach, but nobody wants to hear about fullness of life on an empty stomach either. For the hungry, the good news begins with bread, or rather the breaking and sharing of bread.
The next day, the crowd found Jesus on the other side of the lake, and you already heard what he told them. They had this long talk about bread that perishes and bread that endures for eternal life. We all need the bread that fills our stomachs, but we need just as much the bread that nourishes our life together toward fullness. And Jesus offers himself as the true bread from heaven, the bread that our hearts crave when we hunger for life that is fearless, joyful, and whole.
For many in our community and around the world, the good news still begins with the breaking of bread so they can eat and go to sleep in peace. But we’re all nourished toward fullness by the bread that is Jesus’ life of obedience and love.
I’ll tell you another bread story, and this one has a cake in it. Tony Campolo found himself walking the streets of Honolulu at 3:30 a.m. one morning. He had flown in from the east coast, and the time difference meant that he was up and ready to go way before dawn, hungry and looking for a place where he could get some breakfast and a nice cup of coffee. Up a side street he found a little place that was still open. It wasn’t clean and smelled kinda funny, but it was the only place he could find.
The guy behind the counter asked him what he wanted, and he told him, “A cup of coffee and a donut.” So he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee when suddenly the door of the diner swung open, and in marched eight or nine boisterous women. It was a small place and they all sat along the counter on either side of Tony. Their talk was loud and crude (he was convinced they were all prostitutes) and he felt completely out of place. All he could think about was how to get out inconspicuously.
Then he overheard the woman sitting beside him say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.” Another one sitting a couple of chairs down replied, “Birthday? Why are you telling me? What do you want from me? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or something?”
“Come on!” said the woman next to Tony. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. I don’t want anything from you. I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
Campolo just sat there, but when the women had left he asked the guy behind the counter if they came in there every night.
“What about the one who sat here next to me?” Campolo asked, “does she come in every night?”
“Yeah, her name’s Agnes. She’s been coming in here every night for the last fourteen years. Why do you wanna know?”
“Tomorrow’s her birthday. What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?”
“I like it! That’s a great idea! Hey, Sue! Come out here! This guy wants us to plan a party for Agnes!” His wife thought it was a wonderful idea. “Why don’t you bake the cake, Harry, and I’ll get some candles and nice napkins.”
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back at the diner with balloons and a big cardboard sign that read “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” He figured Sue had done a pretty good job of getting the word out because by 3:15 the diner was packed. At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in came Agnes with a couple of her friends, and they all screamed, ‘Happy Birthday!’”
Agnes was stunned and shaken. Her mouth fell open. They all sang “Happy Birthday” to her when Sue brought in the birthday cake with all of its candles lit, and Agnes just sat there and cried. “Blow out the candles, Agnes!” Harry shouted. “Come on! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” And he did. Then he handed her a knife, saying, “Cut the cake, Agnes! Everybody wants a piece.”
But Agnes just looked down at the cake, and without taking her eyes off of it, she softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I … is it okay if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?” Harry shrugged, “Sure! It’s okay. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”
“Can I?” she asked. She told them that she wanted to take it home and show it to her kids and she promised to come right back. Then she got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was something that belonged on an altar, she walked slowly toward the door and left.
They were all silent, and Campolo looked around and said, “What do you say we pray?” Now that’s a curious thing to do in a Honolulu diner at three-thirty in the morning, but to those gathered there it felt just right. And so they prayed. Tony asked God to bless Agnes, to be good to her and watch over her. They all said, “Amen,” and Harry leaned over the counter and said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Tony told him that he wasn’t a preacher, and he added, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties at three-thirty in the morning for folks who never had one.”
Harry looked at him for a moment before he responded, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”
I don’t know what, if anything, Tony said to Harry. What would you say? What would you tell Harry about the bread that our hearts crave when we hunger for life that is fearless, joyful, and whole? What would you tell Harry about the bread of life?
 See Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), p. 1
 See Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You A Story (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), p. 216-219; I have modified the text