Bread on the Hillside

at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church
Maundy Thursday 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.
Tonight we celebrate and commemorate the founding of the Holy Eucharist. This is part of our annual observance of the events of Holy Week, and it marks the turning point from the joy and celebration of Palm Sunday towards the sad and bleak experience of Good Friday. Last Sunday we stood with the crowds on the streets of Jerusalem, (a few of us on the streets of the Bronx, right around the corner!) palm branches in our hands, to welcome Jesus as we shouted Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Tomorrow we will follow him on his last pilgrimage to Calvary; we will keep company at the foot of the cross, and bear silent witness as he is laid in the cold, stone tomb. Tonight we began with a memory of another of God’s great victories: the Passover of the children of Israel, but before this night is over we will have stripped the sanctuary bare, doused the lights, and gone out into the darkness prepared for tomorrow’s sorrow. But before the darkness descends, before the altar is stripped, we will do tonight as he did on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, as we share in the feast he instituted on that night so long ago, the new twist he gave to the ancient Jewish feast of Passover, as we remember and recall him and all he did for us — Christ, our Passover, in whose feast we will all share.

Now, there is more to this feast than mere bread and wine — and not just because we preceded it with a wonderful potluck seder! This is no ordinary bread, no ordinary wine — not ordinary food and drink. This is a participation in the life and death of our savior until he comes — the meal he left for us by which he never leaves us.

But how, you might well ask, can bread save us? The little bread we will eat in communion, the tiny sip of wine — these would not be enough to save us if we were starving! Ah, but my friends, there is ever so much more to it than that: this bread, this body, is not for my body or your body alone — no it is for the body of the church, the whole community of the faithful, for it is by his body and blood that we become who we are: the body of Christ on earth, to do his will in all we undertake. For in the bread of the Holy Communion, what was once grain on a hillside becomes one bread. And in the Communion itself, we who are many, become one, through the perfect sacrifice of our Lord, who gave himself to the death of the cross on our behalf. The bread we eat is the bread of his sacrifice, the bread of his death, broken to remind us that he died, but feeding us to remember that he lives.

Once upon a time, long long ago, in a Japanese fishing village a man learned how grain on the hillside could save the lives of many. And so did the whole village. The man lived on the top of the hills overlooking the sea. The hills were terraced for growing rice, and they belonged to the man who lived at the top of the hills, away from the shore, away from the fisherfolk and their everyday doings. He was a very rich man, while most of those who dwelled down below simply made it by, day by day. They didn’t envy the old man — this was just the way things were, and everyone had their station in life; so as long as there were fish to catch, the villagers didn’t begrudge the rich man his land or his grain. They traded their fish for grain in due season, and everyone had plenty. And the rich man was a good man, a fair man, and his prosperity helped them all in the long run. The sale of his grain in the capital brought him the resources to build a fine temple on the hillside, and support the monastery near it. Rich man, fisherfolk and monks, all benefitted, and were content.

One year the harvest had been particularly good. The sheaves of grain were gathered in, bundled and ready to be loaded onto carts. Soon that grain would feed the people of the capital, perhaps even the Emperor himself. The rich old man smiled to himself as he stood before the storehouse, looking over the stacks of sheaves, as they glowed warmly in the sunlight that streamed through the doorway and lit the rice-paper walls with a golden glow.

As he stood smiling, and rocking on his heels in contentment, he felt a deep and distant rumble, a vibration too low to hear, but very noticeable to his old legs. He knew, of course, that it was a distant earthquake; far away, nothing to worry about. And so he went back to his review of the crop, smiling as he saw how high the sheaves were piled, in places right up to the wooden beams. He reached out to touch the bundles lovingly, gently, like a proud father might pat his son on the head.

As he glanced over the grain with swelling pride and satisfaction, his eye happened to stray through the open doorway, out towards the sea. His brow furrowed. What was that? He went to the doorway and looked down the terraced hills to the shore. The villagers below were going about their end-of-day business; preoccupied with mending nets, stacking part of their catch to bring to town the next day, stringing the rest on cords to hang to dry. But the old man on the hill saw something else, something strange and worrisome. The sea was moving. Yes, he looked again; yes, the sea was going away, moving out away from the shore. And at once he realized with horror what was happening. Sure enough, out in the distance, out at the western horizon lit by the setting sun, a line had formed on the sea. And he spoke one horrible word in a strangled voice — tsunami.

Quickly, the old man called his grandson. “Bring me a torch! Hurry!” The boy looked at him wide-eyed, but ran off obediently, and quickly returned with a torch from the house. After one last loving look at his grain, the old man took the torch and walked along the edges of the sheaves, letting the flame lick at the ends of the bunches, until they joined together in a devouring inferno, spreading quickly to the storehouse, its paper walls and wooden beams feeding the flames as they leapt skyward. The old man went out to the edge of the hill and looked down to the village below, and then up to the line at the edge of the world, the line that was moving closer every minute.

The people down below couldn’t help but see the flames from the burning storehouse on the hill above. One of the monks was first to see the flames, and he rang the temple bell, and down below the villagers looked up, and then dropping their nets and crates and fish and cords, the whole village grabbing buckets and pails, started running up the hillside, splashing through the terraced pools, scooping up water as they ran, women cupping up water in their leather aprons, bearing it like a child as they rushed along, tumbling up the paths to help their rich neighbor put out the fire that was destroying his grain and his storehouse.

As they came to the hilltop, they wondered why the rich old man wasn’t looking at the fire, but out to sea, as if possessed. “Look,” he said, “look at the sea.” And as they turned in wonder to look, they saw the line on the sea grow until it became a wall of water rushing towards the shore with terrible deliberation, swifter than a horse could gallop or an eagle soar. And as they watched in silent horror, the wave came crashing down upon their empty village, shattering the bamboo huts, boiling up the hillside and destroying the carefully tended terraces, and then, as if satisfied with its destructive assault, withdrawing to its place, like a tiger slowly pulling back his paw, revealing the damage done by his claws, the gouges and gaps of ruins and wrecks where once a village and terraced rice-paddies had stood.

No one said a word. Slowly they turned to face the old man, in the dimming light of the setting sun, the fading light of the fire crackling out behind him, a man no longer rich, but as poor as any of them. He said, “I had to burn the grain to warn you? I knew you would come to help me, and it was the only way I could help you.”

“It was the only way I could help you.” These are words Jesus might well have said of his own sacrifice upon the cross. This was the bitter cup that he had to drink, in order that we might be saved. Jesus, the bread that gives life to the world, became poor that we might be rich, sacrificed all that he had on that hillside on the outskirts of town, lifted high upon the cross for our redemption, lifted up so that he might draw the whole world to himself. He perished there on that dark hillside, that his death might be a flaming beacon to call us from afar, to deliver us from the dangers that surround us, while we were going about our busy lives in ignorance. He is the one who calls us to himself that we might be saved, the bread from heaven who gives life to the world — the bread that feeds and nourishes even as it perishes. Therefore let us worthily celebrate this feast, remembering him who died for us and rose again, who gave his life as a ransom for many, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the bread once scattered on the hillside.

The story of the Japanese village is freely adapted from a folk-tale recorded by Lafcadio Hearn.