A reflection on the readings for Proper 23A: Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
The other night I had a sudden urge to make homemade bread. I looked through the cabinets and found all the ingredients: yeast, honey, olive oil, whole wheat flour, white flour, and salt. I wanted to make an herb bread so I also needed oregano, basil, rosemary and marjoram.
I have made a lot of bread in my lifetime, it’s something I really love to do. I am especially fond of kneading bread, and always think of my great-grandmother. She had some peculiar ideas about cooking. For example, she thought it was important to only stir cake batter in one direction so that the molecules aligned in the same direction. I guess stirring in multiple directions would mix up the molecules and the cake wouldn’t turn out well? I have no idea if that is true, but I try to follow her instructions anyway.
This particular baking process was a little doomed from the start. First of all, the yeast expired on Sept. 24. Well, I thought, there’s no harm in mixing it with some warm water and a little honey, and see if it’s still good. So I did, and after ten minutes the yeast was frothy and clearly still alive.
Into the frothy yeast I added oil, salt, and the herbs and stirred them. Then I measure two cups of whole wheat flour and one cup of white flour, and dumped all three cups into the liquid all at once.
And then I gasped. Flour is never poured in all at once into a bread recipe. For bread the flour must be added a little at a time, stirred in and then kneaded in, until the dough as achieved just the right consistency - not too wet and sticky and not too dry.
But now that the flour was soaking into the liquid there was nothing to do but stir it in a little and then pour out the dense mixture and make an effort to knead it. The dough was heavy, dry, thick. But I kneaded it anyway, hoping to get a little elasticity out of the dough. After a couple of minutes I formed the dough into a ball, rubbed oil over it, placed it in a bowl and covered it with a towel. I left it sit in a warm place, hoping it would rise. An hour later it had almost doubled in size, so I punched it down, shaped into a round loaf, let it rise again, and then baked it.
The bread turned out almost perfect - the texture was even although it was a little dry - but nothing a dollop of butter wouldn’t fix.
It’s amazing to me that with all of these problems - expired yeast, way too much flour, and not nearly enough kneading - the bread still turned out well. I’ve always thought that bread making was a fine art - requiring a certain amount of skill to know just how much flour or kneading the dough required on any given day. But now I wonder if bread is incredibly flexible and adaptive, prone to turn out well, even under challenging circumstances?
Our readings this morning from Philippians and Matthew suggest that we are prone to come out well even when faced with challenging circumstances. The community in Philippi is struggling through some conflict. Paul writes to assure the community, settle them down, and focus them on their mission as the Body of the Christ. Likewise in Matthew we are reminded that God will go to great lengths to bring everyone into the kingdom - and all we need to do to qualify for God’s kingdom is to live a life of transformation - like bread dough rising from the yeast within, a life where we are striving to become the best version of ourselves that we can manage to achieve.
So, if we are to come out well, even when facing challenges, how do we do this? Again, our readings offer us some insight: we practice living our faith in and through the challenges we are facing. We practice by nurturing an attitude of gratitude in and through the challenges. Paul calls this “forbearance” and it leads to joy.
Joy is a “discipline of perception,” it comes from how we view the circumstances of our lives. People facing difficult times can still live with joy in their hearts. This is not platitudinous, nor is this a naive thing to say. The joy that comes from having God and Christ at the center of our lives is a spiritual reality. When are able to focus of our lives in such a way that we develop an awareness of God’s presence, regardless of life’s circumstances, we feel a sense of peace and peace leads to joy.
Paul is encouraging the people in Philippi to understand that joy grows from the soil of life’s challenges because it is in and through the challenges that we are broken open enough to see and feel God’s presence, and this leads to joy. Mixed up ingredients in bread still makes for delicious bread - mixed up ingredients in life can lead to peace and joy because God is with us.
Through out the 105 years of this congregation we have shown a great deal of forbearance, which has produced much joy. In the last three years we have buried many of our beloved parishioners, and that has been sad, and yet we give thanks for their presence in our lives. We have had financial challenges and transitions of clergy and staff. These are all stressful events. At the same time however we have welcomed new people into the church and through relationships with one another we have each experienced relationships that have transformed us in the best of ways. We have responded to many global and local needs - for example in the 19990’s we helped resettle refugees from Kosovo and built wells for water in Africa. In the 2000’s we responded to the damage from the earthquake in Haiti and most recently we partnered with a church in Liberia to build a k-12 school, helped launch Blessings in a Backpack which has become a successful response to hungry kids in the Dearborn school system, created and supported the annual Holiday Market to help local artists, and initiated a food pantry in the church that feeds many hungry people. We have supported Chapel Day preschool and a local Boy Scout troop for fifty years. This summer we were hit with a major flood and lost the use of our basement during Summer Arts Camp - in a week that also included a wedding and a professional recording session for Renaissance Voices. That was a tough week - but it was a great week too - filled with much grace and many blessings as we all adapted and made the best of a very bad set of circumstances.
Being adaptive and making the best of challenges is one of our strengths. It leads to the heart of our character as a Community-Centered church and the joy that lives in and through our mission and ministries as we respond to the ever-changing needs of this community and the world. As a Community-Centered Church our mission is building transformational relationships with each other here at Christ Church, with others in the wider church and interfaith community, and in the world around us. These transformational relationships are built on grace, on the love and the many gifts of our lives that come from God, as we Nurture an Attitude of Gratitude, gracing forward the blessings God has give us.