Around 8,500 years ago, in the area of today’s Iraq, one of the single most significant events in all of human history occurred. Humans began to cultivate wheat.
According to historians, it’s practically impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this development. Wheat would eventually become the single most important food for the entire world. It enabled us to found cities, where culture flourished. You can trace all kinds of things back to our first planting of wheat. For example, that’s when our relationship with cats began, as we welcomed them into our shelters to keep mice from eating our stored wheat.
Here was a gift of God that became, as we say at Mass when we offer it back to God, “the work of human hands.”
The theology of how we treat creation has developed over the years. The old way of viewing how we treat the natural world was called “dominion.” According to that theology, nature was ours to plunder without restraint because God had placed us as masters in dominion over the world. Dominion extended to many aspects of social life, such as slavery, oppression of women, pollution and extinction. These social sins were considered justified by the absolute dominion of men over the world, a mastery supposedly established by God.
Today we as a Church look at nature differently. This new theology of considering our relationship with the natural world is called “stewardship.” It’s based in the stories of Jesus that talked about a servant who receives good things form the master and works to nurture them. And we can take this idea of stewardship and extend it from nature to all aspects of our lives. Our wealth, our family, our parish, our talents, our communities.
I wonder if there has ever been any gift of God that has been more subject to stewardship by humanity as wheat. When we say that wheat is the work of human hands, we are laying out an ancient story, a story of stewards both good and bad.
It was not that long ago that most people were farmers. Even in the early 20th century, a third of this nation lived on farms. Today it’s about 2 percent. The wheat that makes this bread was something our ancestors knew intimately. They knew when to plant it, when it was ready to harvest, how to harvest it, how to store it. Wheat is our link to our ancestors.
Did you know the United States is enduring our worst drought since the 1930s? This has pushed up the price of wheat around the world because we are the world’s largest exporter of wheat. For example, Egypt imports the majority of its wheat, mostly from us, and subsidizes the price for its citizens. The price of wheat for Egypt has gone up some 60 percent recently. Wheat connects us to all the people of the world.
Wheat is big business. Monsanto produces genetically modified wheat seeds and requires farmers to buy seeds form them every year. Farmers are not allowed to take seeds from their crop and replant them as they have for thousands of years. If the wind carries some of Monsanto’s seed to your field, they will sue you and require you to destroy your entire crop. Wheat is a vehicle of economic oppression.
The bread we use for the liturgy is made of wheat and water, and nothing else. In fact, if there are any additives, we presume the consecration of that bread is invalid. That’s how much we value the simplicity of bread. Wheat in its simple state is holy.
Every month we welcome Homeboy Bakeries here to sell their bread. It’s made by young people struggling to pull themselves out of the cycle of gang violence. Wheat is hope.
How do we make sense of the tremendous and bewildering spectrum of what wheat means to us? It is love, history, greed, family, culture, oppression, hope.
We cannot make sense of this ourselves. Only God can. And this is why we take this bread that embodies the joy and hope, the grief and anxiety of the world, and lay it on the altar before God.
In the same way we take wine, also the work of human hands, and offer it to God.
Wine was first made probably around 500 years after we first began growing wheat.
Through much of our history, wine protected us from disease when we mixed it with water. The alcohol in wine kills germs, which is why we can drink from the same cup at Mass. Wine gives us health.
The same alcohol in wine that protected our ancestors from disease can also cause ruin. Many of us know people who are victims of alcoholism. Wine can bring death.
Recently scientists discovered that wasps play an important part in the making of wine. Wasps carry yeast in their bodies, and when they drink from grapes this yeast makes its way into the grapes, beginning the process of fermentation before the grapes are even picked. This wasp yeast is what gives wines their local flavor. Wine celebrates the place where it was made, broadening our experience through diversity.
All these people in every age and place who have brought this bread and wine to this place and time have taken the gifts of God and made them the work of human hands, for better or worse. There have been good stewards and bad stewards all along the way this bread and wine have come.
What kind of stewards are we? Clearly in the case of bread and wine we have a mixed record. And maybe that’s why Jesus told us to bring bread and wine to this table and ask God to sanctify them, to make them his flesh for the life of the world and thus renew and bless our feeble attempts at stewardship by making us the body of Christ.
Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34, Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51