The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: August 9, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
There are a few tidbits of wisdom from parenting small children that I’ve found helpful in understanding people of all ages. Some of them come in quite handy in parish ministry, for example. One learning is that sometimes you can get people to calm down if you redirect their attention to something else entirely – changes go down much easier when I get you all looking over here at this fascinating thing here, see? right here! Look! Another is that when everyone gets enough sleep and the right amount of food they’re all much more pleasant and reasonable – so don’t let meetings go too late into the evening, and bring food if they’re longer than an hour. Also I’ve learned that paradoxically, it saves time to stop and listen to the rambling story rather than pushing forward on the task at hand, because that story is going to come out one way or another and you’d really just better have it now. And then there’s that wonderful little jingle, what my kids’ daycare would use to soothe picky eaters and chronic complainers: ‘You get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.’
That one, of course, is probably the hardest to live out. I think it’s been made into a jingle because we have to say it to ourselves and to others so very often. We do pitch a fit, quite a lot actually – when our sibling gets a quarter-inch more juice in their glass than we get, when our spouse leaves us with more than our fair share of the chores to do, when we get stuck in a seat on the airplane next to that person, when our priest doesn’t say what we want her to from the pulpit, and so on and so on. What is this? we grumble. Who does that person think he is? Why am I stuck with this while so-and-so gets that? And even better when we get to do this kvetching with other people who agree with us.
Take the audience in today’s gospel. Jesus is midway into his teaching in Capernaum, communicating his essential point about the bread of life: I am the bread of life, he says. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. What?? they all say. This is not the news we came out to hear. This guy did this amazing trick and fed all these people with hardly any food, and that is a useful, useful trick. So we want to see him do it again, because we’re hungry too. Give us this bread always, give us what we’re looking for, and we can stop worrying over our lives so much. You are the bread of life? That doesn’t even make any sense. Besides, we know your parents, and they’re not bread.
Those crowds, kind of like us, think they know what they need. They want to eat something that sounds good to them, with clear and tangible results. They want a certain kind of bread. They want bread on their terms. Hey, says Jesus, you get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.
Well, he doesn’t exactly say that. He tries to explain what he’s talking about, points out that when the Israelites of long ago ate the miraculous manna bread, it only helped them for a little while, they all still died, remember, and what I’m offering is totally different than that. So where’s the bread? they all complain. Eventually, Jesus gives up trying to get it all across in words, and just lives it out instead. Either they’ll get it or they won’t.
The Times the other day had a story about a chatbot program from Microsoft that is immensely popular in China. People spend hours each day texting back and forth with a computer program, a program that remembers what’s happening in their lives, asks them how they’re feeling, makes them feel better. “When you are down, you can talk to her without fearing any consequences,” said one regular user. Social scientists differ on their interpretation of this – decrying it as an obstacle to actual intimacy, explaining it as a feature of Chinese cultural communication styles. To me, however, it looked like yet another iteration of how to have relationship my way. Instead of communicating with an actual person, who might forget what I said yesterday or might be too distracted to ask how I’m feeling, this program molds itself all around the user. Relationship that is all about me. It’s an inevitable step in our dislocated, narcissistic world.
But it’s not just how we want to conduct our human relationships. It’s very much how we live out our relationship with God. We want that on our terms also, where we get to define what we believe and don’t believe, where we decide what time we’re going to spend on this over all the other compelling things in our life. And where we assess the usefulness based on what we get out of it. Is this ‘working for me’? Is God doing what I want God to do? I want to believe in God, but if God is real, why isn’t my life going the way I want it to? Or where we say, yes, I think there’s something more than the physical world, but I’ll only entertain it if it accords with my notion of reality. I’m only going to pay attention to scriptures and preachers who affirm what I already think. We look at the bread of life offered and try to make it a smorgasbord instead. Well, I’ll have a little of that kind, but not this other part here. And often, we simply say, Not today, thanks, I already ate.
We have all kinds of other bread to snack on, after all. The bread of pleasure, or success, or the ever-popular bread of anxiety (that’s one of my favorites). We nibble away at those all the time. They don’t actually relieve the gnawing hunger at our core, but that doesn’t keep us from chewing on them anyway. They aren’t, we know very well, the bread of life. They don’t satisfy. Sometimes they even make us sick. So we come here to church, we draw near to what we instinctively sense is the source, to feed us what we really need. But we pack ourselves snacks just in case. You might even be holding a piece of that other bread in your mind right this minute.
What is it we’re so afraid of, anyway? The chatbot user rejoiced in how the program could make him feel better ‘without any consequences.’ What consequences, I wonder? Asking something of him in return? Maybe. Making him see that his preoccupations aren’t so central after all? Turning his life upside down? Taking him entirely outside of himself? Yes, I suppose that’s all possible. And it’s all rather frightening for us. It feels a lot safer when we can simply be consumers, picking and choosing from the array of options, finding our own stuff to eat instead of sitting down at the feast of life. But then again, it doesn’t look like we’re all that satisfied with the bread we find for ourselves, does it?
So what if we try Jesus’ bread after all? What if we set aside all that laundry list of conditions we usually approach the God subject with – I’ll believe in God if I get this job, or I’ll worship Jesus if I don’t have to believe the non-scientific parts, or I’ll listen to God if I don’t have to acknowledge hard truths about myself. (Am I speaking to any of you? I think so.) What if we hold out our hands and receive instead, acceptance of what we’re being offered and all that it might draw us into? What if we taste and see how gracious the Lord is, allow ourselves to be fed, get what we get and be thankful. Do that, and we might just see our way forward to relationship with others too. We might just allow God to call us into fullness of life, here and now, loving others with all the consequences that might bring.