Saturday, August 11, 2018

What’s It All About?

“They shall all be taught by God.” [1]

If you were listening to the gospel at all today, chances are that is one sentence that did not exactly leap out at you. It seems off-topic, ill fitting in the rich discourse about Jesus being the Bread of Life. We are loaded with preconceptions about the eucharist and notions of eternal life as a future heavenly existence. About the last thing we are primed to pay any attention to is this rather obscure quotation from Isaiah. And yet here in the midst of a critical discourse is a thought that might possibly change the way we think. It might rearrange the way we hear the whole story. It might even change our lives.

Many years ago when I was a young curate in my first parish we invited Sister Ellen Stephen of the Order of St. Helena to come as a weekend guest. My wife and I had the honor of hosting her. At the time, I was doing my best to start a practice of daily prayer and meditation. In fact, since high school I had in some ways been preoccupied with prayer, trying to understand the logic of it (as if prayer were a thing to be understood logically!). I took the opportunity of opening a conversation with Sister about prayer. Her first words to me were, “Prayer is a love relationship with God.” I had little idea in 1971 that I had just heard words that I would not only remember as long as I had a mind, but words that would come to take on greater and greater significance as years rolled on.

What I’ve come to see in the intervening half century is that prayer is everything, that God is everywhere in every thing, and that the entire experience of being in this universe is about nothing else but being swept up in a continuing love affair with the Essence of Life itself, one name for which is God and another name for which is Love.

To jump to the chase: that, I do believe deeply, is what all the words about “Bread of Life” are about. In all these discourses in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is quite insistent that what is at stake in his life and message is nothing less than the meaning—one might say the secret—of life itself. It is about how to live. It is positively not about how to succeed. It is not about how to adapt or necessarily about how to be happy the way we normally understand happiness. Jesus’ life and message are about the core reality of the universe. Indeed he identifies himself in the Fourth Gospel with the Creator of the Universe whom he consistently calls his father. He is equally clear that the relationship he has is by no means something he wishes to hoard. He clearly wants to impart whatever he has to a community which itself is to be the prototype of a new humanity. His is life lived in right relationship with his Abba, the origin of all.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Jesus does not require us to go through elaborate rituals of initiation into secret cults in order to understand the truth. At one point he says, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”[2]
"My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me." (John 10:27)

In other words, when we are on Jesus’ wavelength, we get it.  We get him.  We know what he is talking about even though we have sense enough to know that we don’t understand it fully nor ever will. 

So when he quotes (freely according to the evangelist writing these words) Isaiah with perhaps an illusion to Joel, “They shall all be taught by God,” he is both saying that his message accords with ultimate reality, the core of the universe, namely God and therefore Truth, and he is also saying that being taught by God is the condition that makes anyone receptive to “hearing his voice.”

Now if you read the entirety of Chapter 6, for that matter the entire sweep of John’s gospel, you’ll quickly see how it is that people, including oftimes his disciples, don’t get it or don’t get it fully, and it is pretty obvious why. Their own preconceptions get in the way. That is exactly what happens to people today, including you and me. We want to be religious, sure. We want to be spiritual. And we think that the way to do it is to figure out how to squeeze it into categories that we already believe to be satisfactory, indeed true. So, for example, take the average American. He or she is schooled to think that our capitalistic economy is the sine qua non, the apex of modern life. We’ll defend it tooth and nail. We’re generally speaking not about to give that up for Jesus. No, we take Jesus and make out as if he himself is a capitalist or at least approves of those who are. He talked more about money than any other single subject and most of what he said flies in the face of capitalist economic theory. We take his radical sayings such as “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow me,” and let all the air out of them telling ourselves that he is not to be taken literally. We read with great solemnity passages from the gospels, sometimes even reverencing them in clouds of incense and intoning them as if they were our most deeply held opinions, such as “Love your enemies,” without thinking that those words all into question the billions of dollars that we collectively put into what is in effect a war machine, ready to spring into action at the drop of a hat. We have whole myths about national security that we imagine Jesus approves of. There is not a shred of evidence that Jesus ever bedded down with any political regime. It seems to have escaped our notice that Jesus took on both the political establishment and their religious toadies in behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the outcasts. We even imagine that those who shouted “Crucify him” were a fickle crowd that had so recently hailed him as Messiah with palm branches and hosannas rather than a religious establishment sick of and frightened by his habit of undercutting their prestige and influence.
"Crucify him," was the cry of the establishment. 
The common people heard him gladly. (Mark 12:37 KJV)

Little wonder that the crowd hearing him murmured and complained about his words. He didn’t fit their paradigms. His message ran counter to what they held dear. Unless and until we can tune in to what it is that God—the Truth—is teaching us, we will never hear the voice of the Shepherd. We will never be able to eat the bread of life, because our mouths and bellies will already be full of the bread that perishes.

I hasten to say that our obstinacy and in some cases dull mindedness don’t cause God to stop loving us. Or to put it another way, we can go right along doing quite fine without paying any attention to the Wisdom, the Bread, that Jesus both is and is offering. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz puts it, “When God says, ‘I yearn for you,’ I may think, ‘Leave me alone. Mind your own business.’ Some people will answer like this. And for others it’s a very compelling power.’”[3] You may curse the sun, but it keeps on shining. Or the wind and it blows wherever it will. Or your Creator whose very presence is stamped on your every cell and in every crevice of your body, and the Love force that enlivens you will still beat with every thump of your heart. And, just for the record, it doesn’t matter a whit whether you believe any of this or not. It just is.

The issue, however, is how do we open ourselves to this secret, this dazzling Kingdom into which we’re invited, this great banquet prepared for us, this priceless pearl of wisdom? For most of us it starts with clearing away some of the clutter that we’ve collected over the years. Clutter such as the notion that God is somehow distant—up there or back in history or remote. Clutter like the unhelpful notion that eternal life is somehow in the future and amounts to infinite time rather than a different dimension that is present here and now and therefore a life to be lived, not awaited. Clutter like the point of Jesus is to get the good boys and girls into heaven and make sure that the bad boys and girls go to hell. Clutter like the singularly inadequate notion that the entire project of religion is being nice. Those things get in the way of the truth, because none of that clutter is worth a cent, no matter how much we might prize it.

This process of what we might call spiritual housecleaning is not a once-and-for-all operation. It goes on continually, just as growth does. It’s best to realize at the start that the Bread of Life is related to hunger. When we are hungry, really hungry, we generally settle for the nearest food available, not necessarily the healthiest. So we will continue to collect clutter and thus we’ll continue to need to downsize.

What all this is about, of course, harks back three chapters to Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus. In that nocturnal interview Jesus tells Nicodemus, who held all the credentials of a wise person and teacher, that he, like everyone had to start over. Be born anew, be “begotten from above,” Jesus tells him. You simply can’t shake a little religious seasoning over whatever it is you already have on your plate and call it a day. Nothing will do but learning how to live differently. The analogue to this idea appears in the other three gospels in the most radical statement that Jesus ever made: “Except you become as children, you will never enter the kingdom.” He is not talking about some romantic fluff about children being innocent; he is talking about children because they are newly minted, and, at least in the beginning, uncontaminated by the clutter that society crams into us largely to get us to conform to the existing norms. That is what socialization is fundamentally for.

This of course is only the beginning. Start dancing with Jesus and you’re in for a spin that will take you into places you really can’t imagine. And if you’re already engaged in this dance you will doubtless bear me witness that, yes, about the time you think you’ve arrived at enlightenment, you will see some old shadow drifting in from who knows where that will need to be welcomed, affirmed, included in your nice new interior castle that you were sure was finally in order. Surprises abound.

Remember that when you stretch out your hands today to receive the Bread of Life. Remember that the Bread of Life appears as one thing but is often something far beyond appearances. Remember that you have no wisdom, only smarts and maybe an admirably high IQ. Remember how you were when you were little—open, believing, and generally pushing limits and getting into trouble.
The Bread of Life appears as one thing
but is often something far beyond appearances.

Life is a love relationship with God. At the end of the day love alone suffices and satisfies. The Bread of Life personified in Jesus promises that it is true: they, including you and me, will all be taught by God.

A sermon for The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B, on the text of John 6:1, 41-51.

©  Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018.

[1] John 6:45; a reference to Isaiah 54:13; cf. Joel 2:28-29.
[2] John 10:27
[3] Adin Steinsaltz, “Educating Desire,” Parabola, vol. 31, no. 2 Summer 2006 (New York: Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition, 2006), 62.


Friday, August 10, 2018

What Is There To Eat?

“Son, eat what’s put before you.” That was one of my mother’s core principles, apparently. I grew up in a family in which children weren’t consulted about what they wanted to eat, with very rare exceptions. Somebody, normally Mama or Grandmother, fixed a meal, put it on the table, announced that it was ready, and assumed their accustomed places. The rest of us gathered, bowed our heads, thanked the Lord for what we were about to eat, and ate without complaining. When on rare occasions we went to a restaurant I cannot remember once anyone complaining about the service. Perhaps it was always stellar.

I guess she did, but I don't remember my mother
ever cutting up meat for me.
 I left home, went to college, and found pretty quickly that complaining about what was served in the dining hall was the favorite daily topic. I truly cannot think of one occasion on which I sat down at table and heard someone exclaim how good the college meals were. Clearly I was in another culture. But I by and large agreed with the assessment of refectory food and soon chimed in as one among many critics.

One night a friend asked me to join him and his father for dinner at a restaurant in a nearby city. I gratefully jumped at the chance to get off campus for a really good meal. We went to what was reputed to be a fairly good restaurant. My friend’s father almost immediately began complaining about the place. It was far too chilly. The background music was too loud. When the waiter brought something, back it went with complaints and orders to bring something fresher, or better cooked, or not so ill-presented. I sat there almost unable to eat, so uncomfortable I was at this spectacle of complaining, the like of which I think to this day I have never seen matched. I could hardly enjoy my steak. My host must have asked me ten times how this or that or the other was.

I guess these wandering Israelites would be sympathetic. They are not known in their own scriptures as particularly compliant. They complained. And complained. And complained. “Why did you bring us all the way into this wilderness to starve us? Slavery was better than this!” Poor Moses. Poor Aaron. The complaining never seems to have stopped. First it was having no food. Then it was having the wrong kind of food. Then it was having no water. It got old after awhile. Little wonder that one time Moses took his staff and banged it against a rock, angry with his high-maintenance tribe.

The themes of hunger, eating, and food are perennial in the Bible. So when we leave the Exodus story and enter John’s gospel we encounter more questions about food and eating. In that case it was Jesus who had to contend with the fallout from another feeding in another wilderness, namely the occasion on which he took and blessed a small amount of bread and fish and with it fed thousands of people. If he had been looking for a way to become a rock star or President or king, he held the key in his hand: feed people. Feed them what they want. Control the supply of bread. Indeed that was one of the tempting possibilities he faced at the very beginning of his ministry: “turn these stones into bread.” In other words, manipulate the food supply, a sure way to bring people to heel.

The issue woven through this matter of food and complaining is the clash of the very real human problem of hunger on the one hand and the misunderstanding of true nature of spiritual nourishment on the other. Both physical hunger and spiritual hunger are real. They may even in some ways be connected. The chief difference is that by our very nature we are a lot more aware of our stomachs than our spirits.
What the Gospel of John is driving at in those passages where Jesus speaks of himself as the Bread of Life is that there is a sustenance the soul needs that is a far cry from the food that satisfies physical hunger. Don’t, for God’s sake, see that as a code word for the Eucharist as we know it—not just yet at any rate. Set that aside for the time being. Let’s talk about how Jesus himself is Bread. In essence, Jesus overturned more than just the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. He overturned the entire way people look at the world. Rather than playing the game in which most religion ancient and modern specializes, namely how to become superior to everybody else, Jesus deliberately broke down walls that separate people from each other and people from God. And how did he do that? By eating! His worst offense, the one that got him in trouble most often, was having open table fellowship with any and everyone. He ate with tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, men, women, sex workers, the whole gamut of his society. Nothing drives people in power insane more quickly than to have someone contest their specialness. Do that and they will tweet their minds away. This was just a part of Jesus’ message: how to live differently. He dared to identify his way of forgiveness, acceptance, and freedom with the Life of the Kingdom, which is a way of talking about God’s life. His implicit testimony is that that way of living is true Life. And thus he is the Bread of Life, the very substance that gives life its real purpose and meaning.

Now we can talk about eucharist. If we want to be like Jesus, then realize that what you are here doing today is participating in a radical ritual. It is not a way to become special or holier or purer so that you can, should you wish to, congratulate yourself on being just a little better than someone else. It is about following Jesus and making his commitment to radical justice, inclusiveness, forgiveness, and mercy your own. That is in fact what is meant in John’s gospel by its emphasis on believing in Christ. To believe means to give one’s allegiance. And if you keep pushing on the question of what that means, it turns out to mean yielding your heart. That might ring a bell. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” the beginning of the first and great commandment. Believing has very little to do with intellectual assent or assuming factuality about this or that. It has everything to do with giving your heart to someone. And that one is none other, for Jesus, than they one who created the heart in the first place.

One day when I lived in Charlotte many years ago I went to a local cafeteria with my family for their Sunday dinner—a kind of Southern thing to do. I noticed that this particularly attractive woman standing not far from us in line seemed to know and be known by everyone. But I didn’t know who she was. Not, that is, until the next morning when her photo appeared on the front page of The Charlotte Observer. Her name was Mary Green and she ran a hot dog stand downtown. The article was about its impending closing, as Mary was about to retire and shut down the operation she’d run for years. I told my wife that we really must go have one of those hot dogs just to see what it was about.

So we went on a rainy weekday. On a side street, overshadowed by high-rise banks and department stores, was Mary Green’s hot dog stand. There was a semi-circular counter in the center of the small space at which it seemed every single kind of person in Charlotte was represented. Blacks and whites sat down side by side. Construction workers and lawyers, bankers and cleaning crews, young professionals and grizzled street people were all chowing down on hot dogs, Mary Green herself serving them up as fast as she could. I thought for a moment how rare this scene was. And then it dawned on me that I’d like to put a candle at each end of the bar because that was as close to the Sacred Meal of the Kingdom that I’d ever come. It was a mass, a Divine Liturgy, a Holy Eucharist, and Mary herself was the high priestess of the Kingdom, feeding all and sundry as if they were her family.

Well, Mary Green went out of business, but St. Luke’s is still in business.[1] Push the boundaries out farther and farther. Make the circle wider and wider until you simply cannot believe all the people that it encompasses. Don’t even think about coming to this table for solace only and not for the strength to testify on behalf of justice and mercy in the world. It is not about having a nice service or a pretty celebration of someone who died and rose ere long ago. It is the act of following him so closely that you become like him, accepting his fate as your own, trusting that he is as good as his word, for he himself is the Word, the Bread, the Life.

The only reason we would complain is that we simply missed the point of it all, imaging that somehow our purpose in life was about collecting those things that made us temporarily feel good and lovely and powerful and successful and all that. Give your heart to him whom you follow, and know that you will indeed eat meat at twilight, and bread in the morning, and you will know him as your Lord and your God.

The "altar" at Green's Lunch,
the counter where Mary served holy food

A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018, Proper 13 Year B on the texts Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John 6:24-35.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

[1] When I was writing this sermon, it didn’t occur to me to check to confirm the actual fate of Green’s, actually named Green’s Lunch. Mary was the daughter-in-law of Robert, the founder in the 1920’s.  She indeed did sell the place in 1975, though continued to work there for some years. Green’s continues to this day under different management, apparently, according to Yelp as popular as ever.  Perhaps there is a lesson here for the Church?