Peter Bankson: A Joyful Celebration of the People of God

Seekers Church: A Christian Community
In the Tradition of the Church of the Saviour

Peter Bankson
Sermon: April 7, 2002

A Joyful Celebration of the People of God


“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.”

John 20:29


I have been thinking about bread lately. We have a new bakery within walking distance of our house, and now that Marjory and I have slightly more flexibility in our schedules on Mondays and Fridays, we have tried walking to the bakery in the morning. Best Buns is full of good smells — hot bread smells, yeasty, lively smells. People who go there for bread and coffee seem glad to be there, and the staff really seems to enjoy their work. I have a sense being around baking bread has a positive effect on the feelings and attitudes of everyone who enters that place.

That is part of what we want to be about as a church. We want to be a welcoming place, where everyone who comes — those who come to celebrate and those who bring their gifts — everyone has a sense of gladness like my experience at the bakery.

Thinking about bread seems like a good idea to me for several reasons:

  • Just a week ago, we celebrated the amazing idea that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples as a new and different presence among them.
  • This morning we will be sharing bread as part of our celebration of Communion. It will be a sign of the mystery that followed Jesus’ crucifixion, when his body disappeared but his presence remained — just the opposite from what those around him expected.
  • The bread will be Christ’s body broken to redeem us. We believe that our commitment to following Christ will unlock the door to a different way of being in the world, a path that may lead through trial and tribulation, but ends in transformation.

Therefore, the bread can be an object lesson, a parable for our own spiritual journey, an illustration of just how deeply rooted in reality is this radical idea that there really is meaning after mortality or life after death.

As followers of Christ, we are called to commitment and transformation. There is another common understanding of personal growth filling the bookstores and weekend workshop circuits these days. It calls for setting goals and sharpening skills and becoming more competitive, more successful. Leadership gurus and “life coaches” feed it. However, the idea Jesus brings us is quite different. This is a call to commitment, a commitment to Christ and the Good News he brings. It is a call for you to give yourself away. We refer to this in our call to be a church that “… comes together in weekly worship rooted in the Biblical faith, with shared leadership; and disperses with a common commitment to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives.

This journey will nourish the world around us, and transform us in the process. A journey runs against the currents that swirl around us. In many ways, this path of personal and community transformation is the path to bread — from grain, to flour, to dough to rising loaf to nourishment for the wider world.

The Wheat Must be Transformed to Make the Bread

Here is a loaf of fresh bread. Trish took it out of that little oven in the corner just before we entered the sanctuary. It is warm, and aromatic, and ready to eat. Moreover, we will be sharing it as a community in a few minutes. First, though, I want to take a couple of minutes to reflect on what it took to make this loaf, and what difference that might make for us.

Let us start with the wheat. Our Christian tradition has many stories about wheat. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…” “A sower went to sow some seed … and some fell on the path where the birds ate them, but some fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty.” We remembered this story in our liturgy this morning. Here is a bit of the harvest from that good soil.

[Hold up bowl of wheat berries.]

Whole grains. In good soil, each one of these could sprout into a wheat plant, grow tall in the summer sun and produce grain, “some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty.” [ We sing “Now the Green Blade Rises…!”]

[Pass around the bowl of wheat berries.]

Grain -> Flour

Most wheat is not planted, but ground into flour.

[Hold up the bowl of flour.]

In flour, the individuality of each wheat berry is lost, and the life force of the wheat, which could have raised up the next generation, is ground and mixed into something that is pure potential.

It is in the nature of wheat berries to die to themselves. Some die to become parents of the next generation; others die at the hand of the miller, to become flour. Nevertheless, all of them die. That is their call, the role that gives them meaning and purpose, their destiny. A wheat berry is born to be transformed into something else … something that will nourish the next generation. Some nourish the next generation of wheat; some become bread for the world.

It is not always easy for me to think positively about this part of the process of becoming part of the Body of Christ. It means my offering myself — my energy and experience, the skills I’ve developed, the gifts I may receive from God — offering myself into this community to support a vision that I can claim, but never own. Although I will be able to add my voice, the direction we take may well be determined by some other prophetic word … from someone else.

What can you do with flour? Make bread, of course. I will come back to that in a moment. However, what else can you do with flour? Make paste … or pasta, line a baseball field, thicken gravy. Crackers, pancakes, ice cream cones … all come from flour. This flour is a very versatile product. It has a central place in our life. Moreover, the wheat must die to make it happen.

What might we do as a community? Church, of course. We will keep coming back to that. However, what else can we do to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures where we live and work? A place of refuge for artists and healers … a center for community efforts to nurture the environment … a learning lab for creative life in small churches … a public place of celebration, prayer and meditation. All of these are stirring in us as we begin to move our souls to Carroll Street.

By itself, flour is still mostly potential and possibility. It has let go of its identity as “wheat” but has not been shaped to meet a particular purpose. The forces that make flour are all outside the grain. I have tried to grind grain using a traditional stone mortar and pestle. It is hard work. The grain is not made to go gently into that dark flour bin. It resists the loss of its “grain-identity.” Nevertheless, if it is not ground into flour, there will be no bread. Does this suggest anything to you about the Easter story — about the crucifixion of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ — about what it means to be a servant leader in this time and place?

Flour ->Dough -> Loaf

What is next on the path to bread? … It takes a bit more energy and focus, plus the addition of water and yeast, but the next step is the development of the dough, or “sponge.”

[Hold up the bowl with soft yeasty ‘sponge”.]

What makes dough different from flour? Well, it is wet … and the yeast is working in it to raise it up. I know people who talk about Seekers Church as a “yeasty” place. We are lots of creative energy … painters and poets and writers … administrators and policy advocates and teachers … parents, grandparents and tutors … so many potential opportunities to “understand and implement Christian servanthood!” When we gather informally, for an overnight, or a coffee hour or the Easter breakfast, you can hear yeasty energy bubbling in every corner of the room.

All yeast and no flour makes for no bread. Part of what it means to be the Seekers Church is that we are willing to be flour to another’s yeast, to listen fresh ideas into speech, to respond to the prophetic word rising up from within one or another of us. As John Greenleaf said in his first pamphlet on servant leadership a quarter-century ago, “Prophets grow in stature as people respond to their message. If their early attempts are ignored or spurned, their talent may wither away. It is seekers, then, who make prophets, and the initiative of any one of us in searching for and responding to the voice of contemporary prophets may mark the turning point in their growth and service.” That is why we call ourselves the “Seekers Church.” Part of our call is to be flour to each other’s yeast, to give our time and energy to support and nurture the emerging sense of God’s call in each other.

It takes both yeast and flour to make bread, but it will not be bread until it has been kneaded. It needs to be worked over — hard — in order to build the internal relationships that help the loaf hold its own in the oven. That process usually takes about 10 minutes of constant movement under pressure, steady kneading.

[Hold up the bowl with the rising dough.]

This points me to the importance of inner structure, and committed relationships. Until we can pull at each other without coming apart as a group, we are not ready for mission. That is one of the core truths of our tradition of mission groups. If we are going to be good news for others, we need to be sharpening our inner skills and building a resilient community. The Psalmist gives us an idea of the importance of our traditional disciplines or spiritual practices — prayer, reflection, journaling.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
     In the night also my heart instructs me.
          (A call to prayer and reflection)
I keep the Lord always before me;
     Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
     My body also rests secure.
          (The trust that supports Christian servanthood)

Once the dough has been kneaded long enough it begins to stick to itself rather than the board or your hands. When enough inner work has been done, the flour begins to release the gluten, forming the long, silky strands that give the dough its elasticity and help it stick together. Go ahead; poke at the dough when it gets to you. Notice how it has left behind the possibility of being pancakes … or library paste.

I spend a lot of time in this kneading process. Over the past ten years, I have come to understand that while flour can get smooth and hang together after about 10 minutes, for groups of people it takes a lot longer.

We have been full of yeasty ideas about Carroll Street. For two years we have dreamed and decided, and dreamed and decided again, about what our new place will be like. We have aired new ideas on top of new ideas, while we helped the plans develop. It has been a lot like kneading the dough. Some days we would meet for two hours and end up stuck! It takes a lot of kneading to transform the dough into a loaf. Nevertheless, yesterday as I met with others from our Building Development and Decorating Teams, I had the sense that we are beginning to stick together more and be stuck a little less. That felt like good news — the emergence of a smoother, tougher inner structure.

In order to become ready for baking, the dough needs to be shaped, and allowed to rest while the yeast does its last work. Shaping the loaf helps pull all the parts together. Moreover, the yeast feeds on the flour causing the loaf to rise, preparing it for the final transformation.

I think of this as a kind of inner growth, a time of reflection like the one you would find on silent retreat. It is also like those times in your mission group when you are working through a tough issue and you stop long enough to let all members of the group settle back into the deeper relationships that hold them together. Let the dough rise.

After we have heard a challenging Word here is worship, our liturgist often holds the silence for a longer time of reflection. Let the dough rise.

In the Stewards’ meetings when we have come over a rough road and through the dark woods to a decision, we often take time in silence, to let the dough rise.

This is a kind of Sabbath for the bread. After grinding, mixing, and kneading … we let the dough rise.

I sense that we will be given a time for that kind of final rising this summer, as we watch Carroll Street take shape, and wait for it to be ready for us to move in. It will be a Sabbath before the celebration, calm before the storm, a time when we might be frustrated by the wait. However, it can be a time for that special kind of yeasty creativity that works within an existing structure, to fill what has been given with new life.

Loaf -> Bread

Baking makes the commitment permanent. That heady aroma, the light texture and the digestibility all come from the baking. This is when the yeast gives up its life for the loaf. When the process is complete, the wheat has become bread for the world.
When we share it, we are being made ready for that unique call that is God’s offering to each of us to bring meaning and purpose of our life together.

Communion is a Joyful Celebration

It is time to share this bread, time to remind ourselves that we are gathered as a tiny part of the Body of the Risen Christ. As you take a piece from the loaf, think about others in the circle. How is that person across the room 'yeast' to you … or 'flour' to your yeast? Moreover, how can you help them through the kneading time we are experiencing, and into the rising time that should follow?

This whole idea of becoming bread for the wider world does not make much sense … unless you believe that Jesus was right when he helped us understand that there really is life after death — meaning after mortality. As Jesus told the disciples the week after his reappearance, “Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.”

To receive communion is to be picked off the kneading board and punched back into the wet loaf, to be reattached to the yeasty dough of community, where we are mixed and mingled, spread thin and combined, re-invigorated by the living yeast carried by others.

To celebrate communion requires courage enough to go to the oven, to give over my life to the larger call of God on us as a community. When, after months or years of being kneaded, we are finally sticking more to each other more than to the board, when the yeast has finally multiplied enough to enliven the whole loaf of us, then we are shaped, allowed to rise, and baked — transformed by the heat into nourishment for others. When the communion, this little community, gives itself as a body, to feed the world beyond itself, then we have not only claimed salvation for ourselves but also offered ourselves as part of the salvation of the world. Then we become part of the Body of Christ in a new and more intimate way.

Therefore, we wait, and knead, and receive back the fragments stuck to the board. We feel the rising power of that yeasty Spirit, and feel the heat of the fire nearby. We offer ourselves as in Christian servanthood in the places where we live and work. Moreover, by Grace, we look forward to the day when we will be committed together, as bread for the world.

When I stand in the circle of Seekers and offer the bread and the fruit of the vine in Communion, I am part of an intimate relationship with deep understandings. I know that there is much more going on than I can see or name. Truly, it is a joy-full celebration of the people of God.

Flour, yeast, water, salt. Grinding, mixing, kneading, shaping, rising, baking. Bread for the wider world. By the grace of God, we are in this together … for the long haul. We have the promise of God’s loving, listening presence. That is a promise worth celebrating!


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