“The Common Reoriented”

For the smallest one in our house, school on a screen is a challenge. So, as we chip away at the assignments in manageable doses, we also engage in hands-on learning around the house. I’ve always done a lot of cooking. But it had been years since I made bread the long slow, way. First, we mixed water, yeast, honey and flour, forming a soupy brew. Soon, the delicious smell of fermentation permeated the whole house. Then, we added more flour, and began kneading.

I was inclined to let the stand mixer do the work. My baking partner knew instinctively, though, that she needed to touch the dough, to press it through her fingertips and pound it with her fists, to explore its bouncy stretch and to mold little shapes that could inhabit imaginary worlds. More rising followed this playful kneading. Then we had the fun of punching down the smooth spongy globe. Then another rising. We shaped the loaves and set them in the pans to rise yet again during our afternoon walk. One more hour in the oven, and then, finally, it was time to bring the warm, fragrant bread to the table.

As I considered today’s scripture texts, this all-day project of bread-making kept coming to mind. Our passage from Acts centers “the breaking of the bread” as a central practice of the church. And of course, the Psalm’s familiar imagery includes a good shepherd who sets a bountiful table before us. Bread, in our tradition, is not only bread. Bread is community, or, to use the language of our faith, communion. Like the process of bread-making, the true sharing of a table—as a household, as a church, as a world—takes time, preparation, patience, and commitment. It is an act of devotion.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Here, the breaking of bread is linked to fellowship, or koinonia, the unique brand of community formed by encounter with the risen Christ. The author of Acts describes koinonia: “They had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In other words, the devotion of breaking bread reorients our common life. “Common” has two meanings, and both are important. What is “common” is shared. And what is “common” is ordinary and everyday. So Christ’s table teaches us to treat the daily gifts of life—money, possessions, food, land, air, water—as a common, sacred and shared.

During a recent trip to Guatemala, Greg Hubinger and I both read a book about the troubling role of the US in the history and politics of Guatemala. Many afternoons, after work was finished, we would discuss our reading sitting on the balcony of the hotel, looking out over the bustling village of San Lucas, and the deep blue beauty of Lake Atitlan. Greg recently loaned me another book, A Stranger at My Door. The author, Peg Bowden, lives in remote border country in Arizona. One December, a few days before Christmas, Peg (or, in Spanish, Margarita) found Juan Carlos at her doorstep—starving, freezing, so dehydrated he was drinking his own urine.

There are two scenes of “breaking bread” in this book that come to mind as I ponder what it really means to “have all things in common.” When Juan Carlos stumbled into Margarita’s home, she was afraid and uncertain. In her distress, she immediately opened her refrigerator and fed him a feast of leftovers. Given his body’s weak state, his system could not handle the richness of the food. He rushed to the bathroom to be sick. The other table scene happened years later in Juan Carlos’ home after he returned to Guatemala. As they sat at the table, drinking coffee and talking after dinner, the reader gets to hear Juan Carlos’ thoughts.

I look at Margarita and think about her life in los Estados Unidos. She lives in a beautiful home with pure water coming out of the faucets, and toilets that flush. Food is crammed into the cupboards and refrigerators. Her dogs are fed three times a day. They don’t eat scraps on the floor. I saw this. It looks like pictures in the magazines. How can I explain my life here? . . . Maria goes crazy living around my mother, who tells her what to do and how to do it. She constantly begs me to find another home for us. My father looks at me with frustration because I come home with no money after a day in the fields. . . . There have been times when I thought I would die, a bullet in my brain, as I drove a bus around Guatemala City and Xela, my cash purse full of quetzales and coins. . . . There have been times I’ve wished I was dead.

And today we sit in this room, the table piled high with food, a table so full of food we cannot possibly finish all of it. I am trying to impress my American friends. I am poor, and Maria has prepared a feast that we cannot afford. I desperately want Margarita to stay with my family and understand the problems I face each day. And yet, I am terrified she will do this and she will see the suffering and the hunger and the fighting with the children, with Maria, with my parents. (pp. 168–171)

Eating together is a revelatory and intimate act. Sharing a meal means sharing our lives. It can be beautiful when a person who lives in poverty and a person who has plenty sit at a table together. Inevitably, it is also awkward and heartbreaking, for the people on both sides of the chasm. Similarly, the table fellowship, the koinonia, that we share in Christ both warms and disturbs our hearts. The breaking of bread calls us into equitable and mutual relationships, and it calls us to sit with the discomfort of injustice and our own complicity in it.

COVID-19 is revealing both the pain and the possibility that sits with us at our common global table. The same fault lines and systemic disparities that have always been present mean that more people of color are dying of this disease than white people. Essential workers like home health care workers, migrant farmers and childcare providers are receiving neither a living wage nor adequate protective equipment. Undocumented and mixed status families are left out of the stimulus. Small business owners can’t get loans while big businesses grab millions. Renters and landlords alike need support to avoid disaster once the governor lifts the stay on evictions. At the same time, those who aren’t receiving stimulus checks have been reaching out to me, looking for ways to redistribute the funds to those who’ve been left out. We, as First Church, have expanded our Little Free Library to be a little food shelf too. We are exploring the concept of a mutual aid network in partnership with the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association. We are beginning think that perhaps from now on, virus or no virus, we’ll drive and fly less and walk and bike more. Rather than treating connection and community, health and well-being  as luxuries, we’ll declare them essential for everyone.

Today’s passage from the book of Acts offers an idyllic portrait of the early Christian community. The sharing of a spiritual life among people of extremely diverse backgrounds allowed for the mutual sharing of money and possessions. Because of this redistribution of wealth, no one was in need. The church grew steadily. Every day this unique community offered a lifeline for more and more people. Even those looking in from the outside admired the church. The whole world drew hope and strength from the deep devotion of Jesus’ followers, from their spirit of unity and their unselfish generosity. It seems far-fetched that such an ideal community ever existed or ever can exist. Indeed, just a few chapters later, the book of Acts describes profound discord in the church, much of it over the sharing of money and possessions.

It seems to me that neither rose-colored glasses and naïve good intentions, nor fearful, heart-closing cynicism will do. Our Good Shepherd, the risen Christ, points toward the green pastures and still waters. His rod and staff guide us on a path that winds through a narrow space between the vision of what could be and the reality of what is. He is beside us in the dark valleys and he sets a table before us even in the presence of our enemies, in the face of those forces that stand in the way of creation’s flourishing. Listen, again, to Barbara Kingsolver’s words:

The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers  nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now, I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.