Eating the bread of fulfillment

Brother Will once told a group of pastors how, after he became eligible for AARP membership, he used to take an herbal supplement that was to help him remember things – until he noticed how often he forgot to take it.[1] Memory is fickle.

“How could you forget that?” your spouse exclaims, your friend, your child, and they’re clearly disappointed, hurt. And you feel terrible, and all you can say is, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to forget it, I just did… I wish I knew why I remember the most random, useless stuff and forget things that actually mean a lot to me and to you.” Memory is fickle and strangely selective.

On their journey from Egypt to the promised land, the Israelites complained in the desert, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”[2] In hindsight, Egypt began to look like the never-ending lunch buffet on a dream cruise, “Remember the fish we used to eat for nothing?” Nibbling flakes of manna in the wilderness, they didn’t remember the bread of affliction and oppression, nor did they remember how they used to toil for nothing in Pharaoh’s service no, in the golden glow of memory, it was all one big, free lunch, every day, in the house of slavery.

For the people of God, forgetfulness is high on the list of challenges to living as people of God. Hence the commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”[3] Hence the festivals, the stories, the rituals, the prayers, the songs, the liturgies:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (…) Take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.[4]

Take care that you do not forget to whom you belong, whose world you inhabit and whose life you are living. The entire chapter eight of Deuteronomy is dominated by the threat of forgetting and the urgency of remembering.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[5]

Bread is life, but bread alone is not enough for living. Bread without the word that comes from the mouth of the Lord is bread without memory, bread without obedience, bread without justice.

The Israelites had eaten the bread of affliction and they had eaten the bread of freedom, and now they were about to taste the bread of fulfillment. By the banks of the Jordan river, the wilderness behind them, and before them the land of promise, Moses said to the people,

The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.[6]

Bread without scarcity. Land of abundance. The gifts of God for the people of God, to be received and enjoyed. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Receive the gift and bless the Giver.

There was great joy in Moses’ naming of the good land’s abundance of water and produce, but there was also an underlying anxiety: how would the wilderness-tested relationship between God and the people change in prosperity? Would the great acts of divine generosity in turn receive the people’s glad response of obedient gratitude?

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (…). Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God...[7]

Prosperity, Moses warned the people, easily leads to amnesia and self-congratulation. When you eat the bread of fulfillment without memory and without blessing, you will get more than a little full of yourself. “If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish,” Moses warned them.[8] When your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, forgetfulness may set in and you may begin to serve and follow other gods, gods that command that you live and think in terms of “me” and “more” and “now.” My land, my bread, my wealth, my power, my strength, my life — Moses saw it coming, Jesus resisted it: bread without memory; eating bread without blessing the Giver will quickly turn into the assumption that the land’s abundance is mine for the taking. In the wilderness, bread clearly was a daily gift, and the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.[9] But in the land of abundance, Moses worried, forgetfulness might separate the gifts from the Giver, and soon there would be among God’s people those who had too much and those who had too little.

Bread is life, but bread alone is not enough for living. When we talk about bread, we talk about all the ways we relate to one another and how we relate to God. Bread contains our relationship to the land, to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor. When we talk about bread, we talk about justice. Without justice, our relationship to the land becomes death-dealing instead of life-giving; our relationship to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor all those relationships become oppressive and abusive, death-dealing instead of life-giving. Bread without memory becomes the bread of affliction.

Somebody said, “The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.”[10] I eat. You eat. He/she/it eats. We eat. You eat. They eat. I am eaten. You are eaten. He/she/it is eaten. All living things eat. Active and passive. Past, present, and future. For any creature to live, other creatures must be its food. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil, animals eat plants and other animals, and microbes and fungi eat animals and plants and return them to the soil. And we humans are part of the cycle, no matter how hard we try to pretend we are not. All flesh is grass, and all grass is soil. And without soil, the land is merely lifeless rock, gravel, sand, and dust.

Our God created and ordered life so that every living thing must eat. For us, human beings made in the image of God, the question bread poses is how we eat: yes, we are plowing, sowing, reaping, grinding, mixing, baking, buying, selling, breaking – but are we receiving or devouring? Those who receive know life as a gift that is given to be shared in communion. Those who devour know life only as a hunger for more that can never be satisfied. Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and writer, said it beautifully in his essay, The Gift of Good Land, almost forty years ago,

To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.[11]

Life devoured in insatiable consumption is a desecration, life received and shared in communion is a sacrament. We are only beginning to understand that the whole world is God’s promised land for humanity; a land where we may eat bread without scarcity, where we will lack nothing; where we shall eat our fill and bless the Lord our God for gift after gift after gift.

On Thursday, most of us, I hope, will gather around tables of thanksgiving with family and friends to break bread and bless the Giver. And today as we prepare to gather once again around the table of Christ, the table where we taste and see and practice life shared in communion today we bless God the faithful Giver of all good gifts with the gifts of food that we bring to the table; we bring them with thanksgiving and with prayers for our hungry neighbors who have too little.[12] So bring now the boxes, cans, jars and bags of food and let us set the table.


[1] Will Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke and Bishop of Northern Alabama for the United Methodist Church.

[2] Num 11:4-6

[3] Ex 20:2-3

[4] Dtn 6:6-9, 12

[5] Dtn 8:2-3

[6] Dtn 8:7-11

[7] Dtn 8:12-14, 17-18

[8] Dtn 8:19

[9] 2 Cor 8:15; see Ex 16:18 “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”

[10] William Ralph Inge as quoted in Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul (New York: Free Press, 1994), 17.

[11] Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1997), 281.

[12] We had a special offering of food for The Little Pantry that Could that Sunday at Vine Street.

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