Sermon: A Loaf of Bread
Key Sermon Text: Exodus 12:14-20 (The Feast of Unleavened Bread)
The most interesting, and probably most oxymoronic feast in the Jewish calendar is called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Interesting because of what it symbolizes. Oxymoronic because of the title. You see, in many ways, the difference between a sweet roll and a matzo is really a few grains of yeast.
I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. My father was principal of an elementary school in what was then considered the poor part of town, where narrow and tall homes stood closely together, each with a statue of the Virgin Mary in the front yard and a small prayer grotto in the back. Life in the Hamilton Avenue section of town was centered around tight-knit families of Italian descent, and the priest of St. Roch’s church, Father Pellucci, might as well have been the governor of Connecticut, so great was his influence in the neighborhood. Many of the families in the district made their living working at the Arnold Bakery, the main plant of which was about half a mile from Dad’s school. And therein hangs a tale.
I am convinced that one of the things that made me what I am today was the Arnold Bread Company, and the lovely aroma that hung perpetually over the whole area around Hamilton Avenue. You see, I am a bread addict. I love bread in pretty much any form. I love sweet rolls, baguettes, garlic bread, pumpernickel, rye (even with caraway seeds), wheat and white. I love onion rolls, bagels, and babka. I love a good batard, bialy bread, or biscuits; black bread, bread pudding, brioche, parker house rolls, Kaiser rolls, bulky rolls, challah, ciabatta, corn bread, spoon bread, croissants and croutons, datenut bread and flat bread, focaccia, French toast, texas toast, bread sticks, hot cross buns, monkey bread and muffins, naan, flaky filo, pita, pizza and popovers and pretzels, scones and soda bread, tortillas, tacos and toast of any kind. My favorite restaurants are Au bon Pain and Panera Bread, and I’m working on a Yankee Candle flavor that is going to be called Italian Bakery. Did I tell you that I LOVE bread?
Now, if you have a pencil, I brought the ingredients list from my favorite sweet roll recipe with me this morning, and I’d love to share it with you.
1/2 cup warm water
1 1/2 cups milk, lukewarm
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup shortening
7 -7 1/2 cups flour
1/4 ounce of active dry yeast
Our key text this morning is Exodus 12:14-20. Why don’t you turn to it and read along with me. God is speaking to Moses and is telling him how Israel is going to escape the plagues he is going to bring upon the Egyptians and how Pharaoh is finally going to let them go. Here’s what he says,
“This day (the day the Lord delivers Israel out of Egypt) shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.”
There are actually seven major feasts in the Jewish Calendar. Beginning in early April, they are Passover, The Feast of Unleavened Bread, The Feast of First Fruits, The Feast of Pentecost, The Feast of Trumpets, The Day of Atonement, and The Feast of Booths. But the one that most has to do with food is the sequence of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits, which all come in a two week period sometime in April, depending on the cycles of the moon.
Together they portray to Israel the history of God working miraculously on their behalf to bring them out of Egypt. To the Jews this was a present experiences every year. While the actual events happened around 1300 BC, if you ask an observant Jew, even today, they will always say that Passover is the celebration of the day God saved us from the plagues in Egypt. The experience for them is being lived right now, so clear is their sense of community in the collective. There is no difference between what happened to the Jews ancestors and what is happening to them right now. To the Jews, Passover is not merely a memorial meal. In a very real way, the Exodus may as well have happened last year and this is the first celebration of the liberation.
When you think of what happened in as the Jews left Egypt, the sequence makes perfect sense. Every Jewish home prepared a huge meal, all on one night. The plan was that each home that could do it would prepare a whole lamb and eat it in one sitting. Four days before the Exodus, the Hebrews were commanded to set aside a lamb.(Exodus 12:3) and inspect it daily for blemishes. During the day on the 14th of Nisan, they were to slaughter the animal and use its blood to mark their lintels and doorposts. Up until midnight on the 15th of Nisan, they were to consume the lamb. Each family (or group of families, if they needed to group together in order to have enough people to consume the entire lamb) gathered together to eat a meal that included the meat of the Korban Pesach while the Tenth Plague, the death of the firstborn of every house, ravaged Egypt.
The verb "pasàch" is first mentioned here in this account in Exodus 12 and there is some debate about its exact meaning. It refers to both the sacrifice itself – the lamb or goat that the Israelites ate, and to the event. The word pasach means "He passed over", in reference to the angel God "passing over" the houses of the Hebrews during the final Plague of Egypt. But if you look at other instances of the verb as it is used in Scripture, a more faithful translation may be "he hovered over”, or “he guarded.”
When, in his horror over what had happened, Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go, they left in such haste that they didn’t have time to add yeast to their bread and let it rise before baking. But they needed food. You don’t pick up your family in 1300 BC and get in the family car for a trip. You had to do a massive amount of preparation, and baking was one of the key things. You’re not going to be able to cook for a while, at least until you are sure you’re not being pursued by the Egyptian army. So what you do is very akin to what troops did through out the ages until the invention of canning just before the American Civil War. You made unleavened bread or hard tack. It stores well, lasts a long time before going stale, isn’t prone to molding, and can be remade into a great many forms after it is baked. The matzos the Jews baked as they prepared to leave Egypt don’t require rising, and bake up like giant flat crackers. You can also carry a ton of them, as they take up relatively little space.
And so, the day after the Passover, the Jews begin to celebrate the Feast of the Unleavened bread, to remind them that this is what they ate as Pharaoh’s troops pursued them. There is one remarkable feature of how a Jewish home prepares for the Passover and Unleavened Bread Feasts. For five days before Passover, every observant Jewish home must remove every last molecule of yeast or leavening agent. This includes fermented wine, bread of any kind that has yeast in it. Anything that includes baking powder, and any thing which left unattended, would ferment over time. The rules for what is to be removed from the home are quite complicated and yet quite clear. In most Jewish homes today, the removal of the chametz, the yeast, is a kind of a game, and children are very much included in the process.
But why remove the leaven? Again, it is a reminder. There are two ways of subjugating a people. The first is to heavily oppress them and work them so hard that they become docile. The second is to overfeed them to the point that they become lazy. Curiously, it seems that the Egyptians used both tactics. Once they were out of Egypt, when they were in doubt as to whether God would provide for them, one of the ways in which they grumbled was to remind Moses and Aaron that back in Egypt they always had more than enough to eat. And the food the Egyptians gave them was not prepared according to the ways they had observed back in Canaan. Though they did not yet have the Law, they were eating Egyptian food, adopting Egyptian ways, and more and more being assimilated into Egyptian society. The leavening agents the Egyptians used to bake their breads came to symbolize bondage, oppression, and sin to the Jews. The removal of yeast from the home was a very tangible reminder to Israel of the need to continually guard against assimilation, against bondage, and most of all, to live in such a way that they continued strongly connected to the God who had rescued them.
A really major element of God’s progressive self-revelation to Israel was an understanding of what sin is and how insidiously sin works itself into our lives. And what better way to teach a child, or in this case, a people with a child’s knowledge of God, about it than to use the visual of how little yeast is required to take a loaf from being a soda cracker to being a nice puffy loaf. Israel was to remove the sin from their midst that had built up over the past year. This concept of an annual cleansing has been largely lost to the church today. We either treat sin so stringently that those who sin must suffer in silence or suffer the embarrassment and vengeance of our leaders or we treat sin so cavalierly that it become a joke.
One last thing about unleavened bread. On the last night of his life, when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples he took a loaf of unleavened bread – bread without the leaven of sin and presented his disciples with a very powerful visual. When he cracked the matzo, he said, “THIS is my body…” this unleavened bread. This bread with no sin. This body with no sin. This, more than any other, is the evidence that Jesus lived a sinless life. And he calls us to this same kind of holiness today. For the meal we are about to celebrate is an unfinished Passover that we have been celebrating with Jesus weekly or monthly or as often as we wish ever since that night.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”
We’re going to sit with that admonition for a few minutes. Rather than go straight into Communion today, as this is the last Communion before Passover, let’s use this time to remove the chametz, the sin, from our lives. We’ll sit for a few minutes, and then we’ll come to the table.