Hard Words

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost | John 6:56-69

Hard Words

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

IMG_2519Taking offense has been raised beyond an art to a daily occupation. Each day a staggering number of people find the energy, interest and time first to half-read or half-hear the words of others, to take umbrage, and then to attack. The trolls have left the bridges and stroll in the light of social media. So long as people spend their energy and time being outraged on Facebook and Twitter, the poor will always be with us.

It is not a modern day problem. The Internet has simply given us a new venue.

The people of Capernaum, where Jesus was living, were just the same. The lectionary passage from John’s Gospel describes people taking offense at the ongoing metaphor Jesus was using—bread, and his own body, as a symbol for the life of the spirit.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Hard words, indeed. If he meant what he said to be taken literally, Jesus was insane. We read that many of Jesus’ own disciples left him.

The Gospel of John lacks the obvious communion passages of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Instead, John takes the metaphors of bread and wine and weaves them throughout the entire narrative as running themes to explore the spiritual aspects of the life of Jesus. Even so, the words are hard. The image is so visceral—eating a man’s flesh, drinking his blood—that they would be more easily accepted as elements of a horror story: The Vampire Cannibals of Capernaum, or something like it.

Stone gargoyle
A stone face at Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Perhaps he is contemplating a soft word.

In the posts of the past weeks, perhaps enough has been mentioned of the bread metaphor. Still, we might do well to consider the value of hard words.

We often hear them—words spoken in anger, or in ignorance which is the frequent companion and precursor of anger. Sometimes we ourselves speak or write them, words to condemn others, to screech our indignation, to demonstrate our personal righteousness.

How often we want to be right. Jesus was right, of course, all the more so if Christianity has the truth of it and this man was also somehow God. Oddly, Jesus did not appear to be very interested in being right.

What was he interested in? Working from the supposition that what

Another stone face from Biltmore House. Perhaps this one is considering a hard word.
Another stone face from Biltmore House. Perhaps this one is considering a hard word.

we do demonstrates who we are, we might figure it out. Jesus fed hungry people. He had compassion, and patience, for needy people. He healed the sick ones, paid attention to the marginalized ones, spent hours talking to and teaching anyone who was willing to listen. He was kind to children.

He was angry with people who claimed to be good. He made a violent scene in the temple itself.

I don’t know whether he would have had a Facebook page. Maybe. He did sit down in the synagogue to teach, which was the closest thing to public media in his day. I suspect that he would have posted interesting things, and for one post or another, many of his followers would have un-friended him. Following someone two thousand years ago took more energy, but the idea is much the same.

The hardest words are the ones we need, but do not wish, to hear. Give up the French fries and the sugar. Stop the drugs and the drinking. Get over yourself. Put your children first. Be faithful. It’s not all about you.

Hard words may convey the greatest love. Those who care about us the least are also least likely to speak the hard truths we need to hear.

Jesus may have hard words for us all.

Hard stones in waterfall
Hard stones at Linville Falls in North Carolina

Bread and Stone

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost  |  John 6:51-58

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Bread and Stone

Mt Mitchell 5I wrote this post while visiting the mountains of North Carolina with my daughter. Twice we hiked along trails on Mt Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. The first day was cold, and the mountain was covered in clouds, making the trails quiet and secretive. The second day was warmer, sunlight streaming through the forest, so that the same stones and trees were sometimes hard to recognize as the ones we had found the day before.

Mt Mitchell 2Along the trails I thought about the way Jesus used bread as a metaphor for life. The stones rising around us and the forest growing from them began to take on the same meaning.

The mountains of Appalachia are old. These mountains are not as tall as the Rockies or the Himalayas, and there is none of the astonishing grandeur of those jagged peaks. The Appalachians have been worn down by time, covered by trees and moss, until like Grandfather mountain and Graybeard and Mitchell, one is left gazing at a chain of old men and women, moss ridden, home to birds and squirrels and bears.

Hiking through these hills, there is also the constant reminder of the stone beneath one’s feet. The landscape may be softened by trees, moss and mushrooms, but the stone is always there, just beneath, supporting the life above. These mountains were here when the plants came into being. These stones rose up long before the dinosaur ancestors of ravens clawed and squawked across the rocks.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the peculiar claim that he is living bread, come down from heaven. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he tells his neighbors in Capernaum.

They are appalled. Why wouldn’t they be?

Mt Mitchell 3A man they have known for years tells them that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is life itself, and they are supposed to understand that he is anything but insane? They were not a people given to metaphor.

We might restate the idea for them, and for us, something like this–God is in the bread we eat, the stones beneath our feet, the stars across our sky. God is in all that sustains our lives.

There is a popular notion that rational people should reject everything that cannot be expressed or explained in scientific terms. According to this way of thinking, anyone supposing the existence of God is at best ignorant, at worst delusional.

God is not the only such idea. We cannot explain a great deal.

Why do we love? Why do we mourn? Perhaps the long developmental period of humans and apes provides a basis for our devotion to our children. Lizards, in contrast, lay the eggs and walk away from their young, or perhaps eat them. Even granting the power of evolutionary forces to explain our initial bond, how does that explain love?

Anyone not knowing that love is more than biological compulsion and obligation is missing a great deal. No, he is missing everything worth knowing.

Mt MItchell 4Science is wonderful. Through science our lives are better, our scope of thought is widened, our pursuit of our potential is less limited. Science can explain attraction and the biological basis of our compulsions. It has not quite explained our minds, as differing from our brains. And it has failed altogether to explain love, that which the ancients called agape.

Faith is not delusion, nor is it in antipathy to science. The idea that one must either accept science or faith is a false dichotomy. It is the task and joy of science to explain how things are. It is the joy and the task of faith to explore what may be. I suspect that faith and science are a double spiral that one day will join in a point of understanding, transcending our ideas and ways of thinking.

Meanwhile, we have metaphor instead of explanation.

Eat the bread, drink the water. We may find God in the stones beneath our feet.

MtMitchell_Gazing

Commonplace

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost | John 6:35-51

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Commonplace

Bread. Water. These are the two central images in the Gospel of John. Did you ever wonder why?

GrassesCommonplace things are easy to overlook. They are also the things that give us life.

Look at the components of our world. The most striking thing about the elements composing our bodies is how common they are. We are life forms based on carbon, scientists tell us. Here on earth, carbon is everywhere. It is the dust of the universe. Nature builds with what is on hand, what is abundant.

We should not be surprised that our lives are housed in the commonplace.

Some carbon is special, like the compressed chunks we call diamonds. We treasure these bits of hard shiny crystal, but this form of carbon has no real value to organic life. The carbon trapped in a diamond no longer combines in any of the myriad ways that support life on our planet.

It is ironic that we have come to value things so rare that they cannot help to sustain our lives.

We are not consistent in our treatment of common things. If we find something that we agree is valuable, like a diamond, we are glad. If we see something common, though we are made of it and sustained by it, we are not impressed. If only we measured ideas the same way, but we treasure commonplace thoughts and reject rarities of insight. We would rather be right in our closed minds than have the clamshell of our thoughts pried open by the rare and unexpected.

Dogwood FlowerThe audience in this Gospel’s story were angry with Jesus. They were in the synagogue of Capernaum, the place where Jesus made his home, and he was commonplace to them. They saw him on the street, knew his family. So long as he walked their streets and did not disturb their commonplace thoughts, they accepted him. When he made the claim that he brought them something of God, they scoffed. They grumbled.

We would do the same.

In fact, we are doing the same. We walk past the commonplace landscape, breathe the commonplace air, taste the commonplace bread of our meals, drink the commonplace water, and we do not appreciate the value in them. We do not appreciate that these are the things that sustain us. We would trade away the common things in our lives, only to be left with the cold sparkle of crystallized carbon.

If we would see something of great value, we need only look around us. Life is in the taste of bread, the sparkle of water.

In this Gospel, we hear that Jesus raised the commonplace to the divine, and that he brought the divine into the commonplace.

God may be found in the stardust at our feet.

Maple Seeds

Breadcrumbs

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost  |  John 6:24-35

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Breadcrumbs

Bread is evil, or so the internet tells us. Never mind that we humans have looked upon bread as our most basic foodstuff for millennia. Now we hear that eating bread makes us fat, inclines us to diabetes, and perhaps even to worse things than that.

I do not intend to give it up. I like bread. Any food so central to the human experience as to become a metaphor for life itself is worth keeping.

FreshBread_wideBread is the metaphor that Jesus repeatedly uses for himself and for God’s relationship to humanity. “I am the bread of life,” he says in the Gospel of John. Later the same Gospel records Jesus using even more vivid language, declaring that his followers must take and consume his broken body. Some Romans—not surprisingly—wondered whether early Christians were cannibals. Such language combined with descriptions of the ritual of communion raised doubts.

None of it was meant literally, of course. Jesus was not urging people to take a bite out of him. He may not even have meant to limit the metaphor to himself. So much attention goes to his claim of being the bread of life that we gloss over the preceding statement: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

That which comes and gives life–that is a much broader statement. It is no longer just bread, no longer just Jesus. How about light and warmth? How about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the trillions of atoms, molecules, interactions and energy sustaining us?

What about the touch of a loved one, the smile of a child, the kindness of a stranger? What are they but a trail of breadcrumbs leading to God?

They sustain us as surely as our daily bread.

Daily bread—it is a phrase we have from the prayer Jesus taught his followers. The Greek word is επιούσιος, epiousios, and it is a peculiar one. It is a hapax legomenon, a word or saying found only in one context, in this case the Lord’s prayer. Matthew and Luke each contain versions of the prayer, drawing on the same source and preserving this odd term.

επιούσιος might mean daily, or needed, or necessary. It might mean something else altogether. We have nothing for comparison, no other use of the term.

Perhaps it means “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”—that kind of bread.

For people of faith, everything that sustains us is the gift of God. Such faith-speak puts off those who are wary of the not-yet-known, and anything dressed in God-language is rejected by the devoutly non-religious. Nevertheless, what we couch in the language of faith does not loose its reality.

Knowing that the effusive light bathing our world is flung to us in particles and waves from the star at the center of our planet’s orbit does not harm my faith. Light, energy emitted by the sun, is natural. As the warmth on my child’s face, it is miraculous. The one thing does nothing to lessen the other.

On a hot August day, understanding how ice cream is made does nothing to lessen the wonder of it. Knowing the science of baking bread does not diminish the taste of it.

The ritual of communion has been explained by theologians so many ways. For some, the bread is miraculously, if metaphysically, the actual body of Christ. For others, God is present in some way that is just beyond expression or comprehension, somehow behind or with the bread. For still others, the bread is merely a symbol, a way of imagining the simple and sustaining gift of God’s presence.

No matter how we explain a symbol, the reality behind it remains. No matter how long the trail of crumbs that lead back to the origin of life on this planet, all that sustains us is of God. Explanations of love need not stand in the way of experiencing it.

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

Two Fish

Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost  |  John 6:1-21

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Two Fish

Why is this miracle so popular—the feeding of a crowd of people near the Sea of Galilee? It is the miracle found in all four of the gospels, and it is odd that this one claims such attention. Jesus makes blind people see, heals people with a touch or a word, even brings the dead back to life, and we gloss over the details. Let him feed a crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish, and we keep talking about it.

Only one other miracle holds our attention this way—Jesus walking on the water of the same sea. Oh, we talk about his resurrection, but not in this way, and we tend to put the resurrection story in a category by itself. Ask any child in Christendom to tell about the miracles Jesus performed, and she will tell you about the loaves and the fishes and about walking on water.

We get it, on some level. The tale of feeding the multitudes fills our own hunger for security, addresses our fears that our own needs will not be met. In gathering the people, Jesus is our mother. In giving food, he is our father.

Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard
Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard, 1505-1566. Museum Rockoxhuis, Antwerp.

It is a story of comfort, needfulness, shelter. Something deep within us responds, seeing our simplest, basic needs of rest and food being met by the image of God. This is not a God of the heavens, or of distant thrones or fire and thunder. This is God choosing to be present in the sharing of a simple loaf of bread.

This is God demonstrating the divine in the commonplace. It is epiphany in breadcrumbs.

As to walking on the water, who would not wish to do such a thing? We would revel like children in such a power, to feel our bare feet supported by the waves.

We suspect that our lives are ephemeral, shifting around us like water. If only we could learn to rest in the currents that we fear will drown us, to trust in the continuity of change to support us, then merely walking on water would seem a simple thing.

Perhaps it is no mystery as to why we tell each other the stories of these two miracles, no mystery as to why we treasure them above so many others. A blind man who sees is wonderful, and we sense that in some times and some ways each of us is blind. A sick person is healed, and we realize that any of us may succumb to illness. We accept that death comes to each of us, if a chariot of fire does not Elijah us away, but that is no match for our present awareness of the transience of life, the denial enabling us to imagine we are walking on solid ground.

All of us respond to hunger. All of us need rest. All of us need to feel that we are standing and not sinking.

It is no miracle that we tell these stories. It is only human.

Having these stories to tell? That is a God thing.

Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto
“Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti): The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” (13.75) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/13.75. (March 2014)