Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘bread’

A Taste Test

Psalm 34:1-8;18, John 6:51         

Okay, do me a favor. Open your mouth and say “ah…” Go look in the mirror.

Image result for taste buds

You have taste buds.

You know, those sensory organs on your tongue that allow you to experience tastes that are sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

See the bumps on your tongue? Those are called papillae, and most of them contain taste buds. Those buds have very sensitive microscopic hairs that send messages to the brain about how something tastes. Most of us have about 10,000 taste buds and they’re replaced every 2 weeks or so.

But the nose is part of our tasting too. When we chew, the food releases chemicals that immediately travel up into our noses. The chemicals trigger the olfactory receptors inside the nose and work together with our taste buds to create the true flavor of that amazing lasagna, slice of pecan pie, or a spicy, green Thai curry.

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So now that we are more aware of our taste buds, let me ask you: have you ever taken a taste test? You know what I mean?

Say you’re interested in trying a new flavor of ice cream, or a beverage you’ve never had before. If you’re lucky enough, someone my offer you a sample to try. That way, you can decide for yourself if you like it or if you don’t. You don’t commit to buying something you haven’t tried. You ever seen a baby try something for the first time? The kid approaches the food, expecting the same taste as always, and then is surprised. The baby’s palate explodes. The kid makes hilarious faces and you’re just not sure whether it’s disgust or sheer enjoyment.

Image result for baby faces

But there are other types of taste tests, right? For example, if you cook a lot, you are doing this all the time. You taste a bit of the sauce you’re cooking throughout the process…to see how it tastes. Does it need salt? More tomatoes? Every time I make a curry or a salsa I’m tasting it probably at least ten times to see if it’s spicy enough, or savory enough. I even taste test the batter for cookies or cakes before it’s cooked.

A taste test, though subjective to our palates, is a pretty scientific way to test something. We either like it or we don’t. Or sometimes, the first taste is weird, but the second and third tastes are much better.

So it is with this mind that we can more adequately approach another Jesus metaphor/I AM statement, namely: “I am the bread of life…those who eat of my flesh will live.” First, let me say that according to John’s Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth said this in front of a decent crowd of people, and most of these people were offended by it.

Why? It’s simple—they took it literally, kind of like Drax the Destroyer from Guardians of the Galaxy, they weren’t capable of understanding parables, double meanings, or metaphors.

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So when Jesus said we was bread and that people could eat his flesh and live, the hearers were upset by this statement. What, were they cannibals? Did Jesus’ flesh have some kind of magic power? But there’s even more to the crowd’s offense at what Jesus said, and this is where I’d like to actually go with this:

They were conditioned to believe that the natural world, i.e. “the flesh” was corrupt and impure.

God or the Divine was apart from this natural world and therefore holy. This was the dichotomy in the Greco-Roman world. I would argue that in the West not much has changed. Most Westerners consider God to be far away from the natural world/flesh and even removed from it. We as humans are flesh, fallible, corrupt, blemished. God is not.

So that’s why was Jesus said and did was really offensive. But Jesus wasn’t saying anything inconsistent with what God [Yahweh in this case] was or did. Yahweh, in the Hebrew Psalms, was very present in the very human lives of people and of animals and all of creation. Yahweh heard the cries of living creatures. Yahweh surrounded those who were vulnerable or who were crushed in their spirit, stayed near to them and helped them.

Jesus, in John’s Gospel, continually said I AM…to reflect the importance of “living or abiding” in God and a mutual-indwelling of God in Jesus, Jesus, in people, God in people. In a mystical sense, tasting is seeing that Yahweh is good; tasting Jesus is akin to an interior perception of self and the Divine within the self.

In other words, this Divine/Yahweh/God/I AM/Logos is not far away or separated from the flesh of humanity and creation—it all lives together. Think of it like a dance. The Divine and you are always dance partners, but the dance style can change, according to where you are in life, and you don’t always have to stay on the same part of the dance floor.

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It’s a mutual, symbiotic existence and the more that you and I taste life in this way and internally perceive that we are indeed loved and well-made to give and receive love, the more we become aware of the presence within us and the more we are able to discern between the other foods that the world or others try to feed us that are in fact very unhealthy. So friends, what do you think? What flavor does this talk have for you? What dance style are you currently engaged in?

 

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Bread Is Us, Is Them, Is Life

John 6:35-37; 48-51

So here’s the thing—bread is a universal food.

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Now it varies, of course. Some people eat wheat-based bread of all shapes and sizes. You’ve probably tried that at some point in your life—a flaky croissant, a baguette, an Italian loaf, even a doughnut. And even if you’re gluten intolerant, you have options. In some cultures, like that of Mexico, the staple “bread” is made out of corn masa.

Image result for tortillas de mexico

Any way you look at it, bread is a staple. It is often the thing that we associate having enough to eat with. If someone is going hungry, that person is without bread.

So on this level, bread is universally about filling our stomachs, satisfying our hunger, fulfilling our need to survive physically. And bread is a symbol of our diverse cultures and our uniqueness.

As usual, Jesus of Nazareth would take universal symbols like bread and then use them to illustrate something, to make a point, to bring people to a realization, a transformation.

So Jesus, in John’s Gospel, says that bread is life. He says that he is the bread of life, and this is John’s Gospel, and so remember that any I AM statement [ego eimi in Greek] means “divine presence.”

So in essence, Jesus is saying that the divine is present in him, and this presence provides sustenance to all who embrace it in themselves.

But Jesus, [and John’s writers] were addressing an audience much different than us. It was a different time and culture, and this audience was made up of Jews, Greeks, and others. But they would have known the story about the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness. They would have known the story about manna [bread] being provided but not being enough. Their ancestors couldn’t just live by this type of bread alone. Bread runs out; people get hungry. All you have to do is keep your eyes open to see that in our communities and around the world, people go hungry. We don’t share enough of our bread and so, people are hungry. And even those of us lucky enough to have enough bread to eat, the satisfied feeling doesn’t last.

Eventually, we get hungry again.

So Jesus was taking bread to another level. Eat this new idea of bread, live forever. Eat this new bread, be truly alive.

And yes, it may sound a little weird the way John’s Gospel spells it out. Jesus is the living bread and the bread Jesus gives for the world is flesh. Flesh? Huh? Okay, now these theories about Christians being cannibals don’t sound so crazy, right?

Image result for eat flesh

Of course, some have taken this idea to an extreme. In some religious traditions, the bread used in Communion services becomes Jesus’ flesh. At least, that’s what some people believe. This is also why historically, there were people of other faith traditions [and the original followers of Jesus] who saw this as weird, this whole Jesus-flesh-eating-thing.

I think we’ve overblown this. In fact, I think John’s Gospel is pretty clear. Jesus’ flesh isn’t actual flesh, though Jesus’ presence with people was most certainly real, down to earth. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is logos—word, presence. Jesus is vine, good shepherd, life, love.

Jesus is presence.

So it’s not about some mystical meal where bread turns into human flesh. The metaphor is: Christ is life-bread, this life-bread is in us, and it is freely given to us to share with others.

This Bread reanimates us, shows us our inner beauty. And if we apply this in life, we will also see this bread in others. They will be our family. And if anyone lacks this bread, we will be sure to share it with them, remind them of their beauty, help them to discover the life inside them. In turn, we become the living bread and spread the life all around.

Forming Community

Matthew 14:13-21

rainbowgathering1What does the word/concept of “community” mean to you? It can seem a broad term, community, right? If you move into a suburban neighborhood, does that mean you are in a community? If you to the Community Center Shopping Mall does that mean you are in a community? What if we get more specific and say, as intentional community organizers do, that a community is a network of social and economic relationships and the places where those relationships interact. This means that just living near each other doesn’t mean you’re in community. There’s no economic exchange, and, for most, little social engagement. Community must be tangible and cohesive; it should bring people together in ways that allow them to do things they could not have done on their own. And then, there is such a thing as an “intentional community,” one in which there is a shared purpose and set of values, the people in that IC are entwined to some degree both economically and socially; and that being part of that IC means something.

I don’t think it’s surprising to say that many people in the United States want more community in their lives, because they often feel isolated and dissatisfied with everyday life that tends to be focused on work, consumption, and entertainment. If our interpersonal relationships within a community give us joy, meaning, or satisfaction, we can expect less of a focus on material and superficial things that leave us feeling empty.

Congregations, churches, communities of faith, are at their core, supposed to be intentional communities in which people find meaningful relationships, interact socially, share resources, and accomplish things they could have otherwise. Of course, just because someone puts up a steeple with a cross and places a sign that says “church” does not mean that it will be a community. I’ve spent significant time in my career visiting various churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious communities. Not all of them were communities. Some were merely buildings with signs; others were institutions. Forming and nurturing an intentional community takes time, cooperation, and the acceptance of the commitment community requires—active listening and sharing.

The type of community Jesus of Nazareth was intending to form and build was focused on gathering those who were marginalized in society and left out of communities. It is easy for us to forget that Jesus did not create nor establish a religion or even a church. Jesus was building community. And in Matthew’s Gospel there are various stories that illustrate what Jesus meant by community. In this particular story Jesus and his small community of followers came upon large crowds of people who were in need. After some healing and caring for them, Jesus’ followers were ready to leave. After all, there was not enough food for these people to eat. So they suggested to Jesus that he send the crowds away into the villages to get their own food. In other words, go to the market and leave us alone. But Jesus refused. Instead, Jesus told his followers to give the crowds something to eat.

But the followers of Jesus only had food rations—bread and fish that would most likely feed only 13 people. Jesus took those rations and gathered the crowds in a field of green grass, though it was a wilderness, far off, isolated. The fish then seem to disappear. Only the bread is divided among everyone. This is Matthew’s storyteller changing the story a bit from the original version in Mark, to make a point. The bread, offered to the crowds, was the sign of Jesus’ presence and the sign of the new community—one which would continue long after Jesus’ death. Because this feast was egalitarian. It was for all. It was a feast started because of compassion. It was a feast that created community intentionally. And in that community all were filled—people were made whole.

And let’s briefly mention the number 5000. Is it important? I think it is, because if we skip ahead a chapter in Matthew’s Gospel to chapter 15, we find another story about a feast where there is not enough food but suddenly there is. But this time, only 4000 are fed; Mark’s Gospel contains the 4000 story as well. This is the clue. The story about 4000 being fed takes place on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, Gentile country. But the feeding of the 5000 occurs near the Jewish villages of Galilee. So the 4000 feeding story is about non-Jews. The 5000 feeding story is about Jews. And it’s clear by the 5 loaves and the 5000 fed that the number 5 is important. That number happens to be the number of books in the Torah, called the Pentateuch. And the 12 baskets left over signify the 12 tribes of Israel. The feeding stories are inclusive.

One last detail to mention. In the culture and time of the people of this area, being unclean or touching unclean things was bad news. So people tried to avoid eating or touching anything that might render them unclean according to the law, food included. How were the 5000 to know that the food would be clean? They couldn’t really know. They couldn’t guess if Jesus and his followers kept up with the dietary restrictions. They couldn’t really prove that Jesus and co were clean because they had certainly touched and been with lepers and others who were unclean.

But they still ate anyway. And they were made whole.

They decided to eat together.

They decided to form this inclusive, intentional community. They made a choice. So we have this choice before us. Will we intentionally form and build an inclusive community where anyone can eat and be safe and belong and participate? This doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen on its own. We must make that choice. We must make that commitment. May it be so.

 

Consumed by Life

John 6:35-44; 48-51

Bienaventurado el que no cambia el sueño de su vida por el pan de cada día.

Blessed are those who do not exchange the dreams of their lives for their daily bread.

Facundo-Cabral―Facundo Cabral, Argentina

Daily bread is the thing we all need to survive.

We need to eat. Sadly, because we’re still not good at sharing, some people don’t always get their daily bread. But even for those of us who do, that daily bread doesn’t last long. The very next day, we’re asking for it again. So it’s important to differentiate between “daily bread” and “living bread.”

To be frank, I’m wondering just how many times we need to talk about bread before we can move on to another metaphor. I get it, though, why the author of John’s Gospel has to have Jesus reiterate it again and again. The crowds in Capernaum or wherever he goes take time to “get” what’s going on. And Jesus’ disciples usually don’t get it either. And we often don’t get it.

So here we go again with bread.

This time, though, John’s Gospel makes sure that we as readers are not confused. He has Jesus say:

Ego Eimi.

Yes, it’s Greek, and it means I AM.

You may be familiar with I AM from the story of the burning bush and Moses encountering G-d. I AM is a “G-d” declaration.

So in essence, Jesus is saying: I AM G-d, and G-d is the bread of life.

The twist is that the divine name of God is now linked to something earthly, i.e. bread.
It’s an inflammatory statement, to be sure. And John wants us to think as much. There’s high drama and conflict here, but not as some paint it, i.e. a battle between “Jews” and “Jesus followers.”

John’s Gospel was reaching out to a variety of people, including Jews, non-Jews, and Jews who were Hellenized or outside of typical Jewish circles. It’s an unfortunate translation to assume that “the Jews” rejected Jesus’ message. It’s better to say that the Temple Authorities of Judea weren’t too happy about it.

Keep in mind that John’s Gospel was most likely written by a Jewish person, about Jewish disciples, and of course, written to promote the message and life of a Jewish Jesus of Nazareth. John was written about the conflicts within Judaism itself and how people saw Jesus. So, yeah—put away the anti-Semitism, please.

Anyhoo….the Judeans, probably overly emotional, got the message wrong. They claimed that Jesus himself said that he was “the bread that came down out of heaven” but actually, Jesus said earlier: “the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven” (6:33), and then: “I am the bread of life” (6:35).

It happens to all of us. Sometimes we let our emotions take over, and we push aside common sense.

sassJesus’ statements were only inflammatory because the temple authorities were looking for something inflammatory. He probably could have said:

I’m Jesus, and I make things out of wood. That’s what carpenters do. How cool is that, Judeans?

And they still would have found fault with it.

Often people [including us] don’t like to wake up to a new reality. We prefer the status quo, even if it’s false. Jesus was trying to help people [including the Judeans] to see a new reality. Jesus uses the phrase “truly, truly” to grab their attention, and what follows is oft-misinterpreted/mistranslated:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever ­­­______ has eternal life.

Yes, believe is inserted in the blank as an English translation for a Greek word that really means faith in or trust.

This isn’t about believing in something [like a doctrine or dogma] in order to obtain eternal life.
This is about reorienting one’s thinking in order to live differently and more fully.

So I thought about that, and what that might mean today.

In this life, with all the distractions and all the things that people tell us we should do or think or believe, it’s easy to feel down about it all sometimes, isn’t it? Depression, fear, and loneliness can soon become our realities.

Now, they are real emotions and I’m not discounting that.

But rather than saying “I am depressed, fearful, or lonely” what if we limit them to what they are?
They are feelings.
And if so, perhaps we might be able to see depression or fear or loneliness as mere distractions from what is real.

You see, so much of what we think and do in this world today is not actually what we WANT to do; or even what we feel is right, healthy, wonderful, and life-giving.

We often feel depressed, fearful, or lonely because our behaviors and our lifestyle don’t bring us any joy or fulfillment. We go about daily routines without blinking, even if those routines are killing us little by little.

We are so distracted away from what is truly life.

If you feel depressed, perhaps it is because of something or someone you feel that you have lost. Consider this, however: can we really lose someone or something? Isn’t it true that everything you have was given to you? How can you lose that which was never yours?

Fernando Cabral wrote:

Life does not subtract things, it liberates you from them. It makes you lighter so that you can fly higher and reach the fullness. From cradle to grave, it is a school, and that is why those predicaments that you call problems are lessons, indeed. You lost nobody; the one who died is just going ahead, because we all are going there. Besides this, the best of him/her, his/her love, is still in your heart. 

If you feel fearful, perhaps this is because the unknown is out of your control and so even the very thought of tomorrow becomes something to be afraid of. And yet, tomorrow does not exist. Only this moment does. You are absolutely able to be aware of the present moment, and entirely capable of embracing it as it is. And in doing so, tomorrow becomes less important, because honestly, none of us can know if we will even wake up tomorrow.

And if you feel lonely, first of all, consider that time by yourself is a treasure. Don’t let others tell you that being by yourself is bad. Many people never experience it, because we’re so conditioned to think that being alone is weird or unhealthy. But there is so much you can learn about yourself and the world by spending time alone! You are the only one who truly knows what you feel and what you think; embrace that. And keep in mind that there are billions of others on this planet—not to mention the billions of living creatures all around you. We are not alone.

For me, reorientation and waking up means recognizing feelings for what they are and then allowing myself to be consumed by life itself. It means doing what we love with reckless abandon. It means letting things come to you naturally, and moving with the flow of the world around you. It means being free of shame, guilt, obligation, and grudges—things which only cause harm and separate us. Reorientation means caring for yourself so that you are freer to be your whole self and freer to love others.

In my view, this is what the metaphor of bread of life is about.

Each one of us chooses whether to see this bread [which is life] as freedom, or as limitation.

I choose freedom, and I hope you will, too.

I choose life and fulfillment, and pursuing the things and the relationships that make me happy, challenge me to be a better person, and encourage me to be fully me.

What will you choose? Friends, every day can be a waking up and reorientation day for you. Each moment you can be consumed by life itself.

wakeupLive

Bread of Love

John 6:24-35

breadLOVEPreviously, in this chapter of John’s story, something like 5000 people were fed when there seemed to be a scarcity of food. A handful of loaves and fishes proved to be enough to feed everyone. After the event, Jesus and his disciples took a boat over to Capernaum, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And this is where we pick up in the story. The crowds of people who were fed followed them to Capernaum. And then when they found Jesus, they asked him:

Teacher, when did you come here?

Notice that they say teacher and not prophet or lord. Seems like after they ate their fill, they forgot that earlier they called Jesus prophet.

This is not lost on Jesus. He knows that the right question to ask isn’t when he arrived in Capernaum. The right question to ask is why are these people still looking for him? The answer to that question was pretty simple: the people were looking for Jesus because they ran out of food.

They were hungry.

hungry

The “signs” they had seen during the great feeding has faded away into a distant memory. The crowds no longer saw signs, which I will define as “aha moments” or “time to stop and pay attention,” but instead they heard only their growling stomachs.

That is why the seemingly amazing event of the feeding of the 5000 was now a mere afterthought. So Jesus contrasts the food that perishes with the food that lasts. Of course, the food that perishes was and is the actual food they ate. The bread and the fish was great while it lasted, but once it ran out—everyone got hungry again. This is just true. If you’ve ever eaten a great meal–one that you thoroughly enjoyed—in spite of its greatness, that meal will eventually fade away. Your stomach will process the food. Chemicals and acids will break it down. And then, it will be released from your body. It’s temporary.

But not the food that lasts, according to Jesus. So what is this food? Is it some kind of magical energy bar that your body cannot break down, constantly providing nutrients, vitamins, and sustenance? Is it the miracle bar we’ve all been waiting for?

ML_MiracleReds_Berri_BARNo, it’s not. Jesus isn’t talking about food. He’s talking about presence.

At other times in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the vine and the people the branches.
Abide in me, just as I abide in the vinegrower.

Once again, this Gospel is reiterating that Jesus’ presence [called logos in chapter one] is a divine presence that doesn’t go away—one not limited to ritual, religion, or social construct. The divine presence is constantly fulfilling.

But the people in the crowds want more nutritional information. Like how many carbs? And what kinds of religious things must they do to perform works of God? Rather than embracing the divine presence as something that just is, they still want to figure it out and to limit it to certain rituals or moral standards.

Jesus, talking on another level, tells them:
This is the work of God, that you trust in the one whom God has sent.

Now I changed the wording for a reason. I’ve mentioned before that “believing” things about Jesus is not really what John’s Gospel focuses on. It’s a language issue. In Greek, this text should be translated: faith into the one sent. But faith is not a verb in English. So many translators unfortunately change faith to believe.

What the original language says is that the people are to orient themselves towards the divine presence, and to trust in it. So this is not a passage appropriate for any bully pulpit, to claim that people need to believe this or that about Jesus.

This is about trust and re-orientation.

But the crowds still aren’t convinced. In order for them to “trust” and “reorient” themselves, they will need some proof. So they ask for signs, which to them are miracles. They cite Moses, of course. Bread from heaven [manna] came down and the Israelites ate. So, Jesus, what ya got, huh? You better than Moses?

But Jesus is ready for their superficial request. He tells them that manna from heaven didn’t come from Moses, but from the Creator. Likewise, the true bread from heaven comes from the Creator. And this true bread gives life to the world.

The crowds finally seem to understand and so they respond much like the Samaritan woman at the well, who when told about living water, said to Jesus: Lord, give me this water always. In this case, the crowds say: Lord, give us this bread always. All of a sudden, Jesus is no longer just a teacher, but now a lord.

I think that the more we honestly examine John’s Gospel, the more we find out how just how much of our thinking about G-d [theology] and Jesus [Christology] is based on “going backwards.” What I mean by that is the fact that most of us are taught some interpretation or theological view as kids or youth in a church or at home, and we start there. Eventually, we may make it to the scripture itself, but by that time, we are already reading the scripture with a set perspective and interpretation. Rarely do we read a scripture story coldly without some agenda or bias leading. That’s why I argue that it is important and worthwhile to reread scripture stories that you think you know so well.

Because a typical interpretation of all this is that Jesus is the bread of life, and so it follow that those who “believe” in Jesus are fed and those who don’t go hungry. Also, this story is often a basis for the institution of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist/Communion, which uses the symbol of bread to represent Jesus’ body.

But John’s Gospel isn’t establishing any institution of this sort. Instead of the so-called “last supper” that the other three Gospels include, John includes the foot washing story.

What if we read this story without thinking about Communion or some church sacrament? What if the story is about presence and trust and moving past the superficial? What if the story is about bringing people together—those who are hungry for something more than they see in the world and in society, people who crave much more than conventions or the status quo?

What if this story is about the Creator raining down this lasting bread of presence on all people out of love, with the desired result of it being an awakening and re-orienting of life?

It can be easy to react like the crowds and to view Jesus as some kind of delicious, glutinous bread that we crave, only to fill our stomachs for a short while. It’s easier to make a list of things we need to do in order to perform the works of G-d or to profess certain beliefs that we think punch our ticket to salvation.

It’s a challenge to seek more than just sandwich bread and black-and-white theology. Instead, it’s a wonder and sign, I think, when people at odds come together out of passion for a cause; when warring factions make peace because they love their future generations more than their anger; when someone chooses to make unpopular decisions because she feels it’s right; when people don’t just buy into the easy, conventional way of life, because they seek something deeper and more inclusive; when the symbol of bread becomes more than just a ritualistic item in worship or a temporary fix for hunger; when bread truly becomes life, and love, and humanity, and cooperation, and connection, and the divine presence.

Like the Samaritan woman at the well and the people in Capernaum, we are meant to wake up and re-orient ourselves. We are meant to go after more than just the quick fix or easy out. So may we listen more to our beautiful minds and hearts. May we feed them with love, compassion, and community.

May we not try to fill ourselves with the superficial and the easy, cookie-cutter answers.

May we be awakened by life, filled with it, and therefore full of life in this way.

Signs in All of Life

John 6:1-21

signsThere is a good quote from the movie Signs, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. This is said during a scene in which a Pennsylvania family has just learned that creatures from another planet have started descending on earth. Their spaceships light up the sky all over the world. The father in the family, speaking to his brother, says:

People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance.

I’m sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?

signs2Do you believe in signs?

Or is life just a day-to-day routine of cause and effect?

I’m not arguing for or against either view; I think both are needed in the world, for sure. But I will say that in my experience, there have been signs that I felt I was supposed to notice. Sometimes it was as simple as an unexpected phone call; or a text; or an email. Other times it was a subtle change in a friend’s or family member’s behavior. A couple of times, it was a sign that seemed to scream out:

PAY ATTENTION TO ME!!!!!!

I’m always curious as I walk through this life to see how much people pay attention to stoplights and traffic signs and other signs that they obediently follow. Think about how much we pay attention to those types of signs.

And then think about how little we may pay attention to the other types of signs, like the signs that whisper to us:

Slow down.

Or:

You know that this relationship is unhealthy. Time to change.

Or:

Is this life of routine really living?

Or:

You’re not ugly, you’re beautiful. You’re not stupid, you’re wise.

Or:

I think that person needs my help.

This story in the Gospel of John is a sign story.

In this Gospel, scholars identify seven signs before Jesus dies. Seven, of course, is a number with significance. It is about wholeness, and so, it would follow that the seven signs of Jesus are meant by John to give the reader a “whole” picture of Jesus. The feeding of the 5000 happens to be the fourth sign.

Now any “sign” or “miracle” story always depends on the reader to make up his/her mind about how to interpret the story. Is the feeding of 5000 a literal miracle that actually happened, or is it merely a symbolic story to illustrate something else? Like always, you get to choose which type of reader you will be.

I will say, however, that there may be another way to read these stories. Rather than taking the hard right [literal] or the hard left [symbolic], what if we consider the writer’s perspective? Why did this person write this story, and what were signs in the author’s perspective?

So let’s give it a try.

John’s Gospel is trying to prove a point. More than any of the other Gospels, John is trying to say to its audience that Jesus was with God from the very beginning of time and therefore was God from the very beginning, as opposed to becoming divine at his resurrection. This is key for John’s Gospel.

But in order to prove that, John has work to do.

You see, the audience reading this Gospel would have been a mix of Greeks and Jews and Hellenistic Jews, etc. So many of them were well aware of the great religious prophets of old.

Moses? Yeah, pretty miraculous. Um, he talked to a burning bush that was G-D!!!!
And…the parting of the red sea? Come on….and there’s much more with Moses.
Man, maybe we should make a movie about that. Or two, or three, or a hundred….

mosescoolSo John’s Gospel wants to prove that Jesus was a great prophet like Moses, and even better. So the signs keep coming in the Gospel. And Jesus goes up on mountaintops just like Moses, but Jesus doesn’t need to wear a veil to hide his face from God like Moses did. Jesus doesn’t have to remove his sandals to talk with God.

And then there’s the prophet Elisha.

elishaIn 2 Kings 4 of the Hebrew Scriptures, Elisha performs a miracle! He feeds 100 people with only twenty barley loaves of bread. Wow! Elisha rocks!

So John has Jesus feed 5000 with some little kid’s loaves and fishes.

Boom!

And it all adds up when you see the crowds say after the meal:
This is indeed the prophet who has come into the world!

I think listening to John’s perspective about signs and miracles can help us find some meaning in this story, because to be frank, a literal reading doesn’t work for me and here’s why.

5000 people are fed, and Jesus is portrayed in John’s Gospel as the bread of life, and that people will never go hungry. But hello? If Jesus were some magical Harry Potter prophet who could multiply food in the blink of an eye, why not do it for all the poor people? Jesus talked about the poor and cared for them deeply. If he really was so magical, why not feed everybody? Same goes for today. Not everyone in the world is fed. People are hungry–starving even. Some don’t have access to drinking water. Where’s God and Jesus in all of that?

But I also think that trying to explain away the miracle of the 5000 doesn’t so the story either. Often people react to literal readings of the Bible and go in the other direction. They try to explain every sign and miracle. So in this case, when the boy offered to share his food, then everyone else in the crowds realized that they also had a little bit, and if they pooled their food together, everyone could eat. I am not sure about that. Sounds like the children’s story Stone Soup to me.

So let’s return to the author of John. What was he thinking?

Well, I’m guessing, but the number 5000 is a bit arbitrary and not tied to any important numerology. 5000 is a significant number, though, and as the story states, a number like 5000 would mean that many people are now following Jesus. A crowd that size just might equal the size of a Roman legion. And that’s John for sure, because this Gospel is keen on that contrast between Jesus’ band of followers and Caesar’s band of soldiers. The Jesus way vs. the Roman occupation and the religious elites.

Secondly, in John, whenever people are fed, it’s not just about people getting food they can chew on. If Jesus is the bread of life and the shepherd who feeds his sheep, and the giver of living water—then we’re definitely talking about spiritual food.

I think that changes the story for me a bit.

I feel like Jesus is teaching his disciples [and the others gathered]. He is illustrating provision and sharing. Provision, because actually, there IS enough food and water for everyone in the world to eat. Yes, today we are overpopulated, but we still [via the land and water] have enough to eat. So Jesus tests Philip by asking him where they are going to find enough bread for all to eat. Jesus knows there’s already enough! Provision. It’s there. But without sharing, we don’t see that sign of provision. I don’t need to reiterate, do I, that the Western world is eating WAY more than we ever should? It’s insane. We don’t share well. We’re like a two-year-old who won’t share her toy with her brother. So the signs I see in this story are that we have been provided with all we need, and not just food. All we need to be whole and healthy people. And second, that we have a responsibility to share. If not, not everyone will be fed.

Now, to the end of the story. Did Jesus really walk on water?

Take that, Moses and Elisha!!!

Well….

The disciples were rowing in their boat, trying to cross over to the other side, and a strong wind comes. They are not afraid yet, even though they are alone.

But then, they see [don’t miss this word!] a sign: Jesus is walking on the sea and coming near the boat. Well, at this point they are a hot mess and freaking out. What Jesus says is so important:

Ego eimi.

This is the Greek form of the Hebrew name for G-d [YHWH].
This is the assurance of the divine presence–that they are not alone in their little boat.

He tells them not to fear.

John’s author, writing to a mix of people who weren’t sure about Jesus, and actually, weren’t sure about tomorrow, were encouraged to not be afraid.

Walking on water? A sign, but not of magic. A sign of encouragement, presence, and confidence.

I think that too often we look for the Hollywood Jesus stuff—supernatural miracles that are fit for 3D or IMAX. We want God to be an in-your-face action hero that blows us away with thunder and lightning, high mountaintops, raging seas, feeding of 5000, walking on water, and massive miracles. But the reality is that most of our lives we are walking on the ground, living day to day. Most of the time we’re not on high mountaintops or surrounded by raging seas or experiencing massive miracles.

Many days we’re trying to figure out how to pay our bills, send a kid to college, keep our job or find a new job; get through school, and sometimes, we’re just hoping to wake up in the morning and get out of bed.

So where are the signs in real life?

This is where the John story does speak to me. I argue that we overthink the signs. We want something miraculous and overwhelming; supernatural, maybe. But why?

Signs are everywhere, and we don’t have to look far.

It is about how much we decide to pay attention, and usually that means that we’ll have to slow down. Signs don’t come easy to those whose lives are one multi-task moment after another. The entire natural world around us is full of signs. But you won’t notice them if you speed past them or just consider them background noise.

Your feelings are signs. They are trying to tell you something. Are you listening?

Your physical body gives you signs every day. Are you paying attention?

Your dearest friends say and do things that are signs for you to notice. Are you noticing?

I encourage you to spend less time waiting for some miraculous event or a supernatural sign. Instead, expect to see signs in your day-to-day life.

Pay attention to them.

And this will feed you in an unexpected way.

Hmmm…Bread

John 6:35-51

NYE Reflection #4: Imitating Bread

 

VIDEO/STORY: JR Martinez: you have a voice: you want to make a change?

JR Martinez’s story is inspiring. In the blink of an eye he went from a confident nineteen-year-old in Iraq cruising in the desert in a Humvee to a helpless, burning soul trapped inside a military truck torn apart by a landmine. Then, a bitter, painful recovery in a hospital bed. 34% of his body burned, lacerated liver, broken ribs. A glimpse into a mirror to see that his face and body would never be the same. He shouldn’t have survived. Even when he did make it to a hospital, he almost didn’t survive. How could he recapture his will to live? What was the point? But something clicked in JR after his mom strongly told him that it didn’t matter what he looked like on the outside. He started to realize that no matter how dark the place was that he was in, it mattered more how we he would choose to live his life. What mattered most was who he was and how he lived. So seven months later as an outpatient he visited another injured, depressed patient and shared his story with him. JR found that this helped that individual hope. He started visiting other patients. He started encouraging people with his story. He started to uphold a new philosophy by keeping 2 words in his back pocket: adapt and overcome. JR moved from imagining to happening. Rather than being paralyzed by the tragedies and struggles of life, he chose to act, and his voice and his story continue to bless people and inspire them to make positive changes in their lives.

Katie Britt, one of the participants from UCCW, was inspired and moved by the whole experience of NYE. Katie has a unique perspective and reflection that she will share with you now.

As I hear Katie tell her story–as I remember JR Martinez’s story—I am inspired and encouraged by how their experiences, but good and bad, moved them to do something positive. I know that Katie will take these experiences with her to college and find ways to bless others and accept all people for who they are. She will encounter obstacles, but like JR, Katie will find ways to adapt and overcome. But I admit to you that this week most of my thoughts have stayed in the dark place that JR talked about, as I continue to think about the events of last Sunday. I’m sure most of you know of what happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, at the Sikh Gurudwara, the place of prayer, worship, and community for members of the Sikh religious community. A peaceful and well-established community of Sikhs in that part of Wisconsin is devastated by the loss of six human beings at the hands of a gunman. There is no explanation, no appropriate words to say. It’s just tragedy, loss, anger, sadness, and pain. When I heard about the shooting, my mind raced back to our visit to the Sikh Gurudwara in West Philadelphia. It was only last December 4th that members of this church—youth and adults—experienced the hospitality of the Sikh community in Philly. We experienced their prayer service, wore head scarves, and shared food with them. And now this. One of over more than 700 attacks on Sikh communities in the United States since the events of September 11th, 2001. Why Sikhs? What have they done? Have they prayed too much? Have they been too peaceful? Why?

The answer lies on the outside. Many, many people in this country see turbans and headscarves and think one thing: Muslim. Still others move much further to: terrorist. Suddenly, what’s on the outside seems to matter so much more than what’s on the inside. I spent a few days talking with my friends and colleagues in the Philadelphia interfaith community. There was candlelight vigil in Philadelphia. There were letters, phone calls, and emails to the Wisconsin Sikhs, but also to the Philly Sikhs. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus–people of various faiths wanted to show their support and express their great sadness. But I sat in emptiness wondering why it always takes something as horrific as this for us to wake up. I questioned why especially in our Christian churches we choose to remain so ignorant of our neighbors—how they live, practice their faith, who they are as people. I just wondered if we actually lived what we say we believe on Sundays—how would that change our world, or at least the little corners of the world we live in? Instead of being silent, what if we used our voices loudly to speak out against discrimination and prejudice? What if we believed that the men, women, children, and youth of the Sikh community were part of our family?

And then my thoughts turned to bread—the delicious bread that the Sikh people shared with us on that December afternoon. We dipped it in the curry and the yogurt sauce. We laughed. We learned as they taught us. We asked questions. We sat on the floor together. I left the Sikh Gurudwara filled. Why? Was it the bread, or was it something else, something way more significant and important? And why now, after the violent event of last Sunday, did I feel so empty? I felt hollow and with a bad taste in my mouth, because I don’t understand how we as human beings can hate, hurt, and kill simply because of someone’s appearance, or simply because we don’t know anything about them and they are different, so we assume that they are a threat to us. And my emptiness deepens when I think about my own Christian community—that often we are silent when it comes to injustices, persecutions, prejudices, and hate. I watch the NYE videos and remember how accepting and passionate about justice the youth were for those 5 days in Indiana, and I wonder why we don’t keep that going.

And I continue to think about bread—and this time, I wonder about the bread that Jesus talked about. We’re reading John’s Gospel again, and once again, we find Jesus using that famous I AM statement. Should bring us back to the Moses and the burning bush story. The I AM, ego eimi in Greek, appears 24 times in John’s Gospel. It’s Jesus taking on a prophetic role, being the voice and human embodiment of the Still-Speaking God. This time, I AM the bread of life. The divine name of God is linked with earthly, natural things. It makes sense if you think about it. The dust had settled after such an amazing event involving fish and bread [again] when 5000+ people were fed. People were in awe. Jesus wasn’t impressed, though. He tried to move the people to think differently about what had happened. They were thinking about wheat, white, rye, or pumpernickel. Jesus was thinking about life. The people remembered manna from heaven—all the things from their past. Jesus called them to the here and now.

So of course there was resistance to Jesus’ message, but it wasn’t as we often paint it. It wasn’t resistance from the Jews in general. Keep in mind that Jesus himself and the majority of his disciples were Jews. No, this resistance and argument came from within Judaism itself. The Jews of the temple aristocracy were not ready to accept this new perspective that seemed to feed so many with radical ideas. Again in John’s story, our author reminds us that Jesus wanted the people to “see” with new eyes. In order to understand living bread the people needed to see a new way.

It’s at this point that Jesus brings his message home. He uses the phrase “truly, truly,” what we call the double amen saying. The double amen is meant to grab our attention, to let us know that something important comes next. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. But the English translation of whosoever believes sells the Greek short. This isn’t about believing in something [like a doctrine or dogma] and then obtaining eternal life. It’s a verb in Greek that is less related to the head and more about action. Truly, truly, I say to you, whosoever lives faith has eternal life. Consistently, Jesus’ message was that faith involved an action. People were not healed simply because they “believed” in their heads. They were healed because they reached out to touch a cloak, put down their mats to walk, ripped off bandages, climbed trees, and physically changed direction. The eternal life, the living bread, was not some sort of heavenly goal that you waited for your whole life, but was instead a way of day-to-day living in the now of God’s loving presence.

As people sought to live out this idea, the concept got practical. Be Imitators of God, Paul said. Don’t just talk about Jesus and living bread, but live it out in the world. Don’t just say you love God, but show it by loving another person. Don’t just talk about justice, but make it happen in your community. Don’t just quote scriptures, prayers, and songs, but walk, run, jump, and move to do works of compassion and mercy. Bread that lives. A message grounded in action. It’s like Mahatma Gandhi once said: my life is my message. Jesus of Nazareth modeled this. As bread of life, he gave his life for the service and love of others. He became nourishment for those who were hungry, refreshment for those who were thirsty. He embodied this. Then he mentored others to do the same. We, imitators of God, are to be bread for the world. We are to embody this love, grace, compassion, and life-giving service in the world. But we must remember that we are not perfect—not superhuman bread, not puffed up about it, not pious, not overly proud or sure that we’re better because we’re bread. Otherwise, we will not be nourishment or refreshment to those around us. But if we’re ourselves, admitting that we don’t have all the answers, that we fall, too; that we struggle with faith, money, family, behavior, and life—we humbly become the bread that truly feeds people. Those who encounter us will find a friend or an advocate. Those who are oppressed or pushed down will find safety in our standing with them and for them.

Friends, as people of faith who follow this Jesus Christ, we are supposed to believe that our lives are active participation in the work of God that feeds the world. We’re called to embody a God who gives of self without reward in mind. We’re meant to eat of the living bread that fills our souls with compassion, honesty, mercy, and love. But if we claim this bread, this Jesus Christ, we do so at our own peril. As fellow preacher Rev. Juan Huertas says:

We cannot eat of this bread and forget.
We cannot eat of this bread and walk away.
We cannot eat of this bread and go on with life as usual.[1]

My empty feeling this week stem from this disappointment—that in the church we often pay little attention to being “feeding people,” we spend less energy seeking to be a community of the “living bread for the world.” Sadly, we often spend more energy fighting over the things that separate us, the things that exclude others, that close our doors. We even start to question whether certain people are created equally in God’s image. And yet, we’re offered this living bread. What will we do with it? Will we replace hate with love, ignorance with understanding? Will we decide that being a follower of Christ means living as a follower of Christ, being bread of life for whosoever needs it? I hope and pray that it doesn’t take tragedies for us to really do this. May we use our voices to encourage, bless, and stand for justice. May our hands and feet move to acts of compassion. May we be living bread in all places and times. May we see with new eyes that this kind of living is God’s loving presence in the world. Amen.

 


[1] Rev. Juan Huertas pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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