080821 Pentecost 11
The service begins at minute 2:00 and the sermon at minute 18:00 of the video
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; John 6:35-41
Well, I enjoyed my vacation, but now it’s over. One of the things that changes when I’m on vacation is that I stop being such a news junkie. Even though I don’t completely turn it off, I consume less of it than usual. But it caught up with me very quickly upon my return, and the left-right divide was even more striking to me this time. I realize that both sides tend to oversimplify the events and issues they cover, creating hardened opinions in their audience. They sometimes justify their oversimplification by arguing that the truth is too complex for people’s attention spans. They may be right: the truth is complex; the only way to let it to set us free is to engage the complexity.
That’s what David did with the death of his son, Absalom: King David wept over the death of his son, who had become his political enemy. And that’s what Jesus did when people questioned his claim to be the bread of life: How could you be the bread of life when we know your mommy and daddy? Perhaps David and Jesus can help us with the complexities of loving our adult children when they refuse to be vaccinated; or reconciling with the insurrectionists who consider themselves patriots for attacking the Capitol; or caring for tenants who face eviction, while many of them abuse the system by taking the money, and instead of paying their rent, spend the money on new cars and new furniture; or acknowledging that our political leaders have failed and been hypocritical in their attempts to solve homelessness, while admitting that the problem is complex and their efforts have been sincere. We will not solve the problems that plague our society if we don’t hold some of David’s mentality of loyalty and love to those who disagree with us and actually do us damage, and Jesus’ willingness to hold onto truth while being seriously questioned. David did not resolve everything at once. He kept making mistakes, even as he continued to acknowledge them.
One thing that kept leading David to make mistakes was guilt. We all face experiences of ambiguous and seemingly impossible choices. One reason we find them so troublesome is that we love to find cause and affect relationships between what we’ve done and what ends up happening. For most of us that usually leads to guilt feelings at some point: I should have been wiser in setting limits around my children’s choices; I should have been more compassionate with tenants who were gaming the system; I should have gotten more involved in the homelessness problem before criticizing politicians; I should have worked harder and not gotten laid off from my job. And we may be partly right.
According to 2 Samuel, David wasn’t completely wrong about his guilt. The text connects David’s sin of raping Bathsheba and arranging for her husband to be killed on the battlefield, with the events leading up to the deaths of two of his sons – Amnon and Absalom. The story suggests direct parallels between David’s sin and the subsequent suffering of his extended family. We must find a balance even in dealing with our guilt. Some of it is true, and needs to be confessed and corrected. But sometimes we go to absurd lengths to invite guilt into the picture, and that makes things worse. I know, because I have. This is also complicated
Our guilt feelings – legitimate or not – can lead us to behave in ways that actually increase the suffering that results from our mistakes. Parents can be so wracked with guilt that they over-react when they think their children are making mistakes. David’s story is a magnificent illustration of the dynamics and intricate interweaving of sinful acts and their consequences. But the complexity of life is so much bigger than our guilt. When we press everything through the filter of guilt, we ignore the tragic dimension of life. And that’s dangerous. David didn’t do that. He acknowledged his guilt, engaged his grief, and continued to lead the people.
Then we come to the Gospel. The fact that the lectionary dedicates five Sundays to the Gospel of John’s chapter-long reflection of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus’ claim to be the bread of life exposes the complexity of that reality. Each section of the passage introduces a different part of the complexity. I want to address two elements in today’s passage.
The first is what I call the scandal of the particular. The religious leaders replied to Jesus, How could you be the bread of life when we know your mommy and daddy? They sounded more like Plato than Moses. For Plato, the ideal is the real. In other words, reality should be found in the ideas of permanent things, not in the things themselves, which are subject to change and decay. It’s a trap many religious people fall into; they want to keep religion in church. The argument goes something like this: it’s fine to talk in church about the bread of life, the cross, loving your enemies, or, as the letter to the Ephesians proposes, speaking truth to our neighbors, being angry without sinning, making sure people have enough income to be able to share with the needy. But don’t try to do those things outside of church. It’s unrealistic to practice those things in the real world.
During our lifetimes, the scandal of the particular has excluded women from construction jobs by accusing them of stealing jobs from men; it has excluded blacks from sitting at the same table, or using the same bathroom and drinking fountain as whites because the “law” said they had no right to those things; it has excluded young immigrants from legal status because their parents carried them over a border when they were babies; and it has excluded disabled people from all kinds of employment because “obviously” they couldn’t do the job. You can’t be the bread of life because we know your mommy and daddy. We do this to ourselves as well. We often say ourselves: who do you think you are believing you could change the world?
An even more timely distortion of Jesus’ teaching is revealed in the words, the bread that I will give is my flesh. That phrase makes me think of the reading I’ve done this last year about black people feeling the oppression of white supremacy in their bodies – in their flesh. Michael Dyson wrote: Our bodies carry memory… we feel the history in our bones… in the pits of our stomachs… inside our psyches… in our arteries. Ta Nahesi Coates spoke frequently of the fact that black bodies built this country for the benefit of whites. Could it be said that blacks have given the bread of life to this country by giving their flesh – as slaves, as victims of police brutality, as a discriminated group, as sexual objects? Blacks know the answer is yes. The rest of us have the luxury of debating that complex truth.
Yes, life is complex. And when we try to remove the complexity, we end up hurting somebody – maybe even ourselves. It’s difficult to keep engaging it. That’s why the sides in political debates are getting hardened: it’s easier to oversimplify than to engage the complexity. But the biblical story enters into the anguish of a father, whose son has become his enemy, and the critique of one who dares to call himself the bread of life in a particular body, and a particular time and place. How will we engage the complexity of our lives and of this world to be agents of reconciliation, rather than firebrands of conflict? How will we be the bread of life in our bodies, times, and places? May we dare to seek and find the answers to those questions.