In the 1930’s in north America’s great plains, our bread basket, many a farm family saw its dreams blow away on the wind. The farm implements, household goods, even the house and the land went up for auction, one farm at a time, sometimes emptying whole villages. Whatever the family could fit into the car was packed in, along with the children and the ever-present dust. In the Mennonite towns, the mothers baked zwiebach for a week, using up the last of the precious flour. It was the only thing they knew they would have to eat until they reached their land of promise in California’s vast farm land. Zwiebach, little double buns, baked twice until they are hard and dry like crackers, would keep them alive, until they found their new home.
This was how my father came to California as a child. His whole congregation in western Kansas sold everything for almost nothing, and headed west, sending scouts ahead to find a home where they could land together. It is also the story of my great grandfather’s trip from Russia by ship, again, adventurous souls had gone ahead to find a place.
The old wooden immigrant trunk, once filled with zwiebach for the journey, now sits in the entryway of my mother’s house. It is about 4 ½ feet long and 2 ½ feet tall. Once it had been bigger, but one end had to be cut off in order for it to fit on the ship. And it was filled with zwiebach. They had nothing to pack which they could not make again in a new place. But food would be required for the journey. They were simple people who only wanted a place to work hard and to worship God in freedom. Zwiebach was the stuff of life for their journey.
Many Mennonites of my generation no longer bake zwiebach. It takes too much time and we don’t need to do it. So now zwiebach have begun to be a specialty item, made for family gatherings, and for display under a glass dome, or in a glass case on a curio shelf. Why? Because the zwiebach is still a symbol of the stuff of life. It tells the story if the faith of our parents and our parents’ parents. It is a reminder of what little we really need to get along – faith, our community and a trunk full of zwiebach.
Why do I tell this story today? Because today we celebrate both baptism and communion – the two sacraments most common among all Christian communities. These two acted stories tie us together as followers of the Jesus way. Zwiebach are a kind of sacrament to me. They remind me of all the good things my parents received from God and when I eat one, I also enjoy what God has done for me. You might eat them and say, “Oh, a white dinner roll.” But when I eat one, it tells the story of my whole people’s life of simplicity, hard work and faithfulness – to God and each other. I am inspired to live with courage like they did. Mysteriously, I become one with them through time, because we eat the same food.
That is a lot to get from a simple piece of bread! But at least this much is carried in the sacraments of baptism and the communion. 1. They tell a story. 2. They inspire us. 3. They connect us with a community. And, 4. They give a free gift of grace.
Baptism tells us the story of God taking us into the family. I am inspired to live like a child of God, and I become one with all who have received these same waters of baptism – innumerable followers through the millennia, including Jesus himself. And it is all a gift, received but never earned.
Communion tells us the story of God’s love poured out for me, even when I and my human family rejected that love. It tells the story of a love that death cannot kill. And so it inspires me to live into love – both giving and receiving. And it unites me to all who have eaten this food through the centuries, including Jesus himself – especially Jesus himself! And it is all a gift, received but never earned.
Together both baptism and communion give us the gift of belonging.
We live in an age of crisis in belonging. We have become a people on the move to pursue our own dreams, and so, we have broken up the villages and communities which have been the foundation of human life. Marriages are weakened and broken, children are left to raise themselves, elders live in isolation. We follow our dreams, but where do we belong? We still yearn for stability. We want to belong somewhere, to someone. We want to be loved and to know it will last.
This has been exactly God’s message to us running through Old and New Testaments alike. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you…. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior,”(Isaiah 43:1-3). Or, even more to the point perhaps, God’s words to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved child” (Mark 1:11).
The classic definition of a sacrament is: “An outward and visible sign of and inward and spiritual grace.” That is pretty good. The word sacrament is a translation into Latin for the Greek word, mystery. Somehow, that is a piece of the word history which I had missed until this week’s study, and it makes a lot of things fall into place.
Sacraments make real and visible things far too mysterious to be put into words. When we baptize, or when we receive the Lord’s Supper, it is so full of meaning for us that many of us would be hard-pressed to put into words what happens for us there. That may be exactly how it should be. Relax. You don’t understand it?, but somehow, it seems holy, significant, precious? That’s okay. These are places where the veil is thin between us and God.
One of the problems with theology is that it can become a game of words. We divide ourselves up by how we understand words. One of the reasons we have so many denominations today is that we have different ways of explaining what happens in baptism or communion. Many times in church history, someone discovered a new-to-them way of understanding what was happening in these holy moments, and tried to correct the others. Finally, they would start their own churches with the people they had convinced. Communities and families were divided over definitions.
But God, faith, and especially the sacraments are a mystery. These holy moments are given to us as physical actions through which we become one with God and with each other. Where we are given the gift of belonging.
So much of what we do in church is occupied with the left brain – the part of ourselves which is dominant in language, logic and calculation. The Protestant churches, in particular, have made the Word the central point of faith. But sometimes, we have become so word-focused that we think God is a belief system, rather than a loving presence in our lives.
The right brain balances this with love of relationships, visual imagery, beautiful sounds. We need both parts of our brains to be engaged in order to perceive things correctly. That is one of the risks of printing my sermons for people to read – they cannot hear the inflection in my voice, which also carries meaning.
The sacraments are the part of what we do that particularly speak to the right brain. Even in the Presbyterian Church, where we seek to do all things decently and in order, we have the acted stories of the sacraments, which speak to us through our physical sensations, more than through the logical brain. You may understand perfectly what I have just told you about God’s love for you, but when it comes with water on your head, or juice on your tongue, it is more than an understanding. It is a knowing, and experiencing. It completes the circle.
One of the theological words which has morphed in favor of the intellectual is the word, believe. It comes from the German which meant “to hold dear, esteem, trust, to like, love.” The German word for love is “liebe.” The cognate, “be-“ in front of it, intensifies the meaning. So be-liebe is to love something intensely, deeply. To belove. It is not a verb we use in English any more. We only use it as a noun, beloved, for our most intimate loves.
When we relegate belief to the logical side of the brain, which measures precision, it loses the heart of its meaning. To believe in Jesus is to love him so deeply that it changes who we are. Sacraments remind us of this, speaking to our five senses more than to our minds. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight, are powerful memory systems. And so Jesus gave us ways to remember his gifts through our senses and not just through our logical minds.
What we believe about the sacraments may not mean very much. After all, it is a mystery. To use our understanding of a mystery as a test for who will sit at our table and who will not, is to get it all backwards. It is God’s table, God’s font. It is the place where all of us are radically unworthy and radially loved at the same time. No one earns or deserves God’s love. It is just what pours out of God, for God is love.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the sacraments show us that God beloves us, rather than having to do with our believing in God. The sacraments act out God’s grace poured out for us. Poured, quite literally – in the waters of baptism and in the wine from the cup. There is an abundance in the pouring.
God’s love pouring out into us, around us, through us, may be more than we ever imagined. Vincent Donovan, a missionary in Africa, wrote of working with the Masai many years ago. He said the people were all sitting very respectfully listening to him as the priest, and he was teaching them about the Seven Sacraments of the Church. He described a sacrament as a physical encounter or event in which you experience the Transcendent or Grace or the Holy, and he could tell the men were not very satisfied when he said there were only seven such moments. One of the elders finally raised his hand and said, “I thought there would be seven thousand!” 
May you know the love of God in the seven thousand ways God pours out love. And may you know the love of God in your body, mind and soul, as we touch and taste it together now.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
 Richard Rohr – A Sacramental Universe, January 14, 2014