Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51
This Sunday’s readings are about prophets and bread. Somehow that seems fitting since last week the world lost an artist whose work centralized both prophecy and the staff of life.
I’m talking about Elka Schumann, the co-founder of Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater Company. She died a week ago today at the age of 85.
Elka was born in the Soviet Union and came to the United States at the age of 6. She was the grandchild of Scott and Helen Nearing, the revered back-to-nature sages and activists. Elka and her husband Peter founded Bread and Puppet in 1963 originally to protest poor housing conditions in New York City. Since then, their giant puppets – some more than 20 feet high – have made spectacular appearances at protests and demonstrations everywhere.
Over those years, the Schumanns’ focus expanded to include the Vietnam War, climate change, Nicaragua and the Contras, El Salvador, Archbishop Romero, liberation theology, and the general failure of capitalism. Every summer hundreds of volunteers participated in their elaborate outdoor pageants highlighting issues like those.
(My wife, Peggy, was once a puppet horse in a Bread and Puppet portrayal of a circus. And a couple of years ago, she and I visited the company’s Museum in Glover, Vermont. Reviewing the various puppet collections was like reliving the great issues of the past half century. It was all such an inspiring display of insight, creativity, commitment, joy, and courage. The Schumanns’ giant puppets have provided a truly prophetic deepening our collective consciousness.)
However, the mammoth puppets were so stunning and arresting that it’s easy to forget the part that bread played in their work. After all, the name of their company is Bread and Puppet.” (And homemade bread was served at all their performances.) Elka Schumann herself made the connection in a 2001 film about her work. The documentary was produced by her daughter Tamar and DeeDee Halleck. Elka said:
“We have a grinder over there, and we grind the grain ourselves. And the bread is not at all like your supermarket bread. You really have to chew it. You really have to put some work into it. But then you get something very good for that. And when our theater is successful, we feel it’s the same way. You’ve got to think about — it doesn’t like tell you everything. It’s not like Wonder Bread: It’s just like there it is, here’s the story, this is what it means. You’ve got to do some figuring yourself in the theater, in our theater. And if the play is successful, then at the end you probably feel it was worth the work.”
Elka’s words underline the essentials of good theater, good art, good religion. They don’t tell you everything. You must put in some work trying to figure out the message, to unpack it all. Good theater, good religion is not like eating white bread from Piggly Wiggly.
As mentioned earlier, that aspect of theater and faith is important to note this particular Sunday, since the day’s readings highlight the connections between bread, prophets, and the teachings of Yeshua, the giant, larger-than-life (!) construction worker from Nazareth.
What Jesus taught in his illustrative parables – in fact, what’s found throughout the Bible – challenges us to think and question our own lives, the values of our culture, and our too easy “understandings” of life and “God.” That’s what the Schumanns were doing too
Think about the prodigal son, Jesus’ response to the woman about to be stoned for adultery, his dialog with Pontius Pilate about the nature of truth, and the issues raised by the fact that Jesus was executed as a rebel against Rome. Think about the prophet’s dying prayer for his enemies, his injunction to treat others as we would like to be treated, his “beatitudes’” centralizing purity of intention, poverty, gentleness, bereavement, imprisonment, mercy, peacemaking, and passion for justice. At every turn his words and deeds are challenging and (if you puzzle over them) difficult but rewarding to digest.
Understood in terms of rejecting Wonder Bread’s superficiality, all of those elements in the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds should give “Americans” pause. They should call into question the very notion of patriarchy, our worship of the rich, our wars against the world’s poor, our attitudes towards empire and capital punishment, as well as our very denial of truth’s possibility (which Gandhi boldly identified with God).
That sort of hard-to-chew bread forms the backdrop implied in today’s readings. See for yourself. Here are my “translations.” You could find the originals here to tell if I got them right.
I Kings 19: 4-8 Prophets are lonely people Living on the edge of Death and despair. Elijah was no different. He even prayed for death On his way to Mt. Sinai. Instead, a generous Spirit Fed him with bread and water Twice! He didn’t have to eat again For the remaining 40 days Of his journey To God’s holy mountain. Psalm 34: 2-9 Elijah’s miraculous bread Gave him a taste of Life’s Supreme Goodness Directed especially Towards the threatened And afflicted poor. The taste of bread Replaces their shame And distress With joy and confidence In Life’s protective Source. Ephesians 4: 30-5:2 So, Elijah Should never have been sad. In fact, For those filled with God’s Spirit (And bread!) There can be no room for sadness Bitterness, fury, anger, Shouting, reviling or malice. There is room only for Kindness, compassion, Forgiveness and love That mirror Life’s own abundance And inherent generosity. John 6: 42-51 John’s community of faith Identified Jesus’ teaching With the bread That fed Elijah. In fact, They called Jesus himself “The Bread of Heaven” Whose consumption Would strengthen them For “the journey without distance” (From heart to head). This still upsets outsiders Unable to overcome Fundamentalist literalism That yet confuses Spiritual nourishment With fairy tales And gross cannibalism.
When I was a kid, I actually liked Wonder Bread. In fact, I still kind of do. Don’t you? I mean it’s a bit sweet; it’s easy to chew; it’s a nice base for peanut butter and jelly, and it goes down easy. My well-intentioned mother fed it to me and my three siblings without a second thought. I ate it the same way.
But then most of us got more conscientious about what we put into our bodies. With Elka Schumann, we realized that Wonder Bread didn’t really nourish us. So, we turned to bread that (initially at least) was less familiar and that required more chewing and changing of taste-preferences – a bit more work – maybe not as strong as Elka’s bread, but more substantial nonetheless.
For many of us who have stuck with faith as a source of meaning, it’s been the same. We outgrew the beliefs that no longer nourished. We woke up to the fact that Jesus’ teachings need adult interpretation that demands thought and decision about those issues I mentioned earlier — patriarchy, grossly unequal wealth distribution, perpetual wars precisely against the world’s poor, empire, capital punishment, and about agnosticism concerning the Truth that parallels our denial of what we know to be genuine relative to the great issues of our day.
Instead, we’ve reduced “faith” to childish fairy tales that none of us can believe. We’ve made it into Wonder Bread. And this at a time in history when acceptance of life’s essential unity – proclaimed not only by Elijah and Jesus, but by all the world’s great religious traditions – is necessary for our species’ very survival.
In the words of John, the Evangelist, I’m trying to say we need the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Life now more than ever.
Thank you, Elka Schumann for using your puppets and bread to drive home that truth.