Sunday, August 02, 2009

Today's Sermon: John 6:24-35 "Bread and Circuses"

A couple of decades ago, in a fit of insanity, I agreed to run for statewide political office. It was a wild ride for someone whose prior political experience had been limited to some fundraising for my favorite congresswoman, and some advocacy work for women-owned small businesses. The state in question was Rhode Island, the smallest state in the union, where politics is conducted at the retail level. You go to parades and shake hands, you go to Rotary meetings and speak, and you go door-to-door to meet folks and ask for their vote. I knew that part of the fabric of the political process was to go to the high-rise senior housing projects in the northern part of the state that were home to elderly French-Canadian immigrants…those housing projects had been a pork barrel project of a former congressman who, in the fine tradition of Rhode Island politics, went to jail for corruption.

Rhode Island politics – you gotta love it.

I knew I had to go to these projects and present myself to the senior citizens, wonderful folks who had worked in the mills, until the mills went away. And I thought I’d do well, since I spoke some French, as many of these folks did. But I decided to check in with one of the grand old men of Rhode Island politics to check out what the protocols were for these visits. “Doughnuts!” he barked at me. “Doughnuts! You gotta bring a few boxes of doughnuts, and some cans of coffee as well. They will not listen to you if you do not bring the doughnuts.” So I hit Dunkin Donuts before my first foray into the wilds of the Pawtucket Section 8 housing…five dozen assorted, heavy on the chocolate frosted….and I was glad I did, because the forty or so residents of the first building would not have paid the least bit of attention to me if I had not brought the doughnuts. When they first wandered into the room, in fact, the very first thing they did was look over to where the refreshment table was to be sure I had brought the goodies. They nodded, a few of them headed over to the table to grab two glazed to keep them properly fueled for a political conversation, and we began. I do not know how many votes I earned that day, but I do know that if I had not brought the doughnuts, I would have lost them all. Now, for them, in the moment, it might have been about the doughnuts, but for me, what I was hoping was that they would hear my message, about a whole lot more than just a box of pastries.

Food and politics….it’s an old combination. Back in the 1st Century, the Roman poet and satirist Juvenal wrote about the habit of the politicians to give out food to keep the people under control. He talked about the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a means of gaining political power through populism. “We used to sell our vote to no man, but now we have abdicated our duties. The populace who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now holds back in their participation in public life and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”[1]

“Bread and circuses,” a cheap way to get the favor of the people…it was no compliment. Juvenal wrote that at about the same time that the Gospel of John was written, interestingly. “Bread and circuses.” It was a practice that continued into more modern times – in the 19th Century, the Spanish called it “pan y toros” – bread and bullfights…the same idea. Keep the people fed and amused, and you can control them. Today we get doughnuts and parades and YouTube…the same rules seem to apply.

Our Gospel story today follows the story of the feeding of the 5000 in the Gospel of John, and it seems some of the people who were at that event have now followed him across the lake to Capernaum. Jesus asks them why they came. Are they just looking for a little more food? A few more miracles? He wants to make sure that they realize that his time with them, healing and teaching and feeding, is not simply bread and circuses…those events across the lake were another thing entirely. A whole lot more than mere loaves and fishes. He wants to be sure that they don’t mistake him for a politician trying to gain their favor with a free lunch, or a magician doing tricks…he wants them to understand that it is about something else entirely. And he explains it in a very interesting way. He starts off by telling them that if they are looking for some food, they are focused on the wrong thing. If they think Jesus is just about the free lunch, they are mistaken. They have work to do, to earn a different kind of food, the food of God. Well, this just gets them confused…after all, they say, God gave the people of Israel food before, right? Manna? When they were wandering in the desert? Is it not alright to look to God for food? So Jesus tells them again…God did give them bread, but there is even greater sustenance that comes from God. “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Jesus tells them to think big. These are hungry people, but they are hungry for things they may not even realize yet…their hunger is deeper than manna could fill. How could they not ask the question: “How do we get this bread?” Think about it: if all they really wanted was the bread and the fish, there are probably easier ways for them to get it than following Jesus across the lake. No, even if they cannot articulate what they think is going on in their hearts and souls, they sense there is something in this man, this Jesus, that they need. Perhaps they do not know yet who he is, but they want something of what he is. So they make the journey across the lake to him, and they engage him in conversation, not even knowing what they are asking for…and he responds with a remarkable and cryptic statement: Jesus says “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

“I am the bread of life.” A powerful claim, and a hidden manifesto. In Greek it’s ego eimi…I, I myself. A literal translation of the Greek would be “I, I myself, am the bread of life.” A great big underline under the word “I.” Imagine someone pointing at his own chest and widening his eyes as he says “I…I’m the one, I myself, am the bread of life.” There’s that much emphasis in the phrase. And it’s a clue to the people who would have heard that gospel passage in John’s community…because that phrase “ego eimi,” that “I, I myself” recalls a much earlier self-identification, all the way back in Exodus 3:14. Moses is standing in front of the burning bush, having a conversation with God. Moses says, “if I go down and tell the people who has said I’m in charge now, who should I say you are? What’s your name?” And God says, “I am who I am.” I am I myself. And the translation of that phrase from Hebrew into the Greek of John’s day is what? Ego eimi. So when Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” he’s saying, “I am God who is the bread of life.” He’s telling them he is not a politician or a magician…he’s God come down to them to give them more than just some bread and fish. He is not offering them bread and circuses. No, he offers them something that will fill them more than food. Something permanent, something that will give them eternal life. Not bread and circuses, but that which endures beyond time. And here’s the promise and the challenge for us as well. What kind of bread are we asking for when we pray? Doughnuts or the bread of life?

Sometimes I think of my past life in banking. Small business owners often came in asking for a loan for their enterprise. They’d have carefully calculated the absolute smallest amount they possible could to keep the business going, or to buy that one piece of equipment…they’d walk into the meeting with a request for $15,000, and worry that it was too much. They’d be shocked to think what was going through the banker’s mind; “Why is this woman only asking for $15K? Outside of the fact that I’m not going to make any money on a transaction that small, she could grow so much faster, and with fewer cash flow crunches, if she asked for a larger amount. With her sales, her business could easily support a $100K loan, and it would mean she could hire two more people and expand her product line and increase her sales.” The business owner was asking for doughnuts, when what she needed, and what the banker wanted to give her, was a much more substantial meal, a banquet. Granted, talking about small business banking these days might make us all laugh…but there is a wisdom there. Dreaming of a banquet instead of doughnuts may not be greedy, if it yields something more lasting, healthier, stronger. So why just ask Jesus for the little things, the doughnuts, when he can offer you so much more?

Why not pray for the bread of life, the promise of eternal salvation, when we will never be hungry or thirsty again? The fact is that Jesus does not want to give us bread and circuses, he wants to be our bread of life. Do not sell yourself short. Do not sell Jesus and his generosity short. In a few minutes, as we bless the bread and wine in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, we will hear those words again:

Sanctify [this bread and wine] by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.

Remember Jesus’ words: Ask big, pray big, and know that he is there for us. Amen.

[1] Paraphrase, Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81

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