I have to admit that I was taken by surprise by today’s gospel. We’ve been following Mark’s story for so long that I, reading ahead, was all ready for the feeding of the five thousand. So homily in head, half-prepared, I opened the book and found not Mark but John. The church, in its wisdom, aware that there isn’t enough of Mark to share among the Sundays of Ordinary time, inserts at this point four weeks of John, John meditating on broken bread. You almost can’t see the join. Both gospels are telling the same story of a miraculous feeding but all the details are different. Gone are the sheep without a shepherd from Mark. Instead the crowd follows Jesus because they have seen the signs. Gone is the Jesus who, moved by what he sees, sets out to teach the people at some length. Instead an enigmatic, almost reserved, figure breaks bread in the desert. Gone is the challenge to the disciple to take what little she has and in its breaking and sharing discover an abundant blessing God. Instead a commanding Jesus tests the crowd and the disciples with a question and a sign. And, sad to say, gone is the homily I had prepared. Instead here I am rambling about the homily that I am still preparing. But ramble with me a little longer and let this be a preamble to the next three weeks in which John himself unpacks the meaning of this gospel. I hope you like bread because you’ll have it in abundance!
John puts the familiar picture of the feeding of the five thousand in a skillfully chosen frame. And I want to pull back the focus from the picture to look at the frame. The frame is a careful construction of signs and the seeing of signs. It is fashioned from the heart’s hunger and the quest for satisfaction.
The crowd comes after Jesus, John says, because they saw the signs he worked for the sick. But he means more than just that the crowd wanted healing. A deeper hunger drives them into the desert after this wonder worker, a hunger for deliverance, for freedom, for political change. They want done with these Romans who occupy their land, they want a leader, they want the Messiah, they want a sign that God has returned among the people, they want a second Exodus. God knows the histories of the time are thick with messianic candidates who took their crowd of followers into the desert to show them a sign of God’s promise and blessing on their cause. God knows the same histories tell of crushed rebellions and crowds cut down like grain by Roman blades.
So it’s a risky quest the crowd is on to follow Jesus to this place, and so close to Passover with its reenacted sign of freedom from slavery. Is he the one? Will there be a sign? And Jesus gives them a sign. Stepping into the sandals of Moses, Jesus provides food in the desert — the bread of the poor taken, blessed, broken, given — enough to satisfy any hunger, enough to convince any doubter. Simple food, in abundance, overflowing.
It is a sign—an obvious sign—but a sign of what? To the questing crowd it’s a clear sign that they have found their liberator, their leader, their king. But Jesus turns his back on this meaning by running from kingship back to the mountain. But there was a sign. In some ways the next three weeks ask— a sign of what? What is the hunger being satisfied by the bread from heaven?
It ought to be a sharp question for us, brought to this place once again to see the sign of bread taken, blessed, broken and shared. It ought to be a sharp question for us when slavery is once again in the news. When the bread of the poor is denied them. When strangers are unwelcome in the land. When the sick die alone and the living want to die.
For John the Eucharist is a sign thick with politics. It ought to be for us. To come to this table is to seek to understand a sign — more, it is to take part in a sign that we do not understand, that defies our expectations, that satisfies hungers we didn’t know we had but leaves others gnawing. What we do here goes beyond these walls or it goes nowhere. But where it goes is only to be found by going along. The invitation at this table is not simply to be fed. It is an invitation to be food. When we take the broken bread of God to ourselves we say Amen to being ourselves taken, blessed, broken—yes broken— and given to others. Think twice about that Amen. Think three times. But come and join the sign and be the bread of the poor.
July 27th, 1997
Jefferson stands there, enormous in bronze, in his memorial in DC: caught in mid-stride, stepping boldly forward, eyes gazing into an horizon of promise. I gazed up at him with throngs of fellow tourists in his classical temple of Enlightenment virtues, chiselled round with words of hope and freedom — of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Near his feet, I watched him in the gathering dusk and let myself be moved by the spirit of the place, by his spirit, stirring, optimistic, eager for an unbroken future of promise, free from the bonds of past authorities, old allegiances, with a destiny to fashion — a bold experiment in political freedom, individual liberty, and the good life for all.
A mile down the Mall, in the fallen night, another giant — this one shaped from stone — waited to hold an altogether more ambiguous court. A mile or so, and fourscore and seven years, separate Lincoln from Jefferson. But the gulf of the spirit is broader by far. Lincoln sits like Jehovah of old on his seat of judgement, a face ambiguous as any gods’. Is that a frown? A smile? Is that massive head overlooking his nation benignly or to condemn? Are those eyes promising mercy or justice?
What is certain is the challenge they hold and the silence they bring to the masses who mill at his feet. Between Jefferson and Lincoln something beautiful has been born and has died. A grand experiment in liberty, borne on the backs of slaves. A new land of the imagination stolen from the dreams of it’s native peoples. Lincoln sits at one end of the American promise, bathed in the blood of brother against brother, kith against kin, judging a nation, challenging a people to acknowledge the death of a dream, and to begin it’s birth all over again.
A hundred-odd years later, Lincoln still sits there in ambiguity — sign of an end of dreams, sign of a new beginning. What of now? What of today? America was born in a battle against oppression, against colonialism, against pretensions to global power, against interfering across the seas, against the sway of the strong over the weak. America won that battle and with it the mantle of power and the capacity to become all that she was born not to be. How different is she now? How well does the dream live in American hearts? With welfare in ruins, the stranger unwelcome in the land, with the right to bear arms killing cruelly on every street corner, with international power wielded lightly with a heavy hand. Add your own tests. How well is America doing? What’s the judgement from Lincoln’s throne?
Amaziah, the king’s priest, wants none of those questions asked. Amos the unwilling peasant prophet is deported for speaking in the wrong place: “Don’t prophesy here — in the king’s sanctuary, in the royal temple.” But these are the very places he speaks to — to political power and religious piety in holy alliance against the ideals of a nation. Listen to the words of Adonai, from the lips of a greasy, uppity socialist from south of the border.
“You sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for the price of a pair of sandals — you trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” “I despise your festivals, your burnt offerings. Get away from me with the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your worship. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amaziah is right to throw Amos and his God out of Israel. Israel had never been more prosperous, more influential as a nation, more hopeful for the future, never been more able to do what it wanted. Israel was discovering its destiny, at last making its way in the world.
So Amos, don’t come here with your words of doom and gloom. You’re out of synch with the signs of the times. Why focus on the little difficulties we have, on the economic inequities that are inevitable in a growing nation. We are doing what we can. We want just what you want. Give us time and we’ll work things out. But right now other things are more important. We’ve got to safeguard jobs, we’ve got to attend to national security, we’ve got to pay our way, we’ve got to make our mark, fulfil our God-given destiny. And look! our liturgy’s never been better! Give us time, Amos, give us time.
Amos and his God gave them twenty five years. Twenty five years before the prosperity crumbled, the nation collapsed, and the rich and famous were taken away in chains to be strangers in a strange land.
Did Amos watch from his village south of the border? Did he smile as his borrowed words came to pass, or is that sadness on his lips?
And as Amos looks from across the border upon this nation, as Lincoln looks from this nation’s heart, is that a smile we see on their ambiguous faces or sadness? Are those eyes promising mercy or justice? Can we hear their silent challenge? Can we let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?
July 13th, 1997