Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bread and Circuses

Sermon from August 5, 2012

There were a lot of reasons Jonathan and I named our son “Nathan”. It is the Hebrew word for “gift,” and it is related to “Jo-Nathan”, “Gift of God,” and it was very obvious to both of us that Nathan was the greatest gift either of us had ever been given. Jonathan would also tell you that the key archbishop in the Swedish church is Nathan Soderblom, but he didn’t really make that connection until after our Nathan was born, so I don’t think it counts.  

But for me, the most important reason for Nathan’s name, is the prophet Nathan, and particularly in today’s story from 2 Samuel. Nathan is the only historical prophet who is successful in all of scripture at getting the monarch to change course. (Jonah gets the people of Nineveh to repent, but his story is self-consciously fictional…) But Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and all the rest of them end up completely frustrated and foiled by human actions contrary to God. The way Nathan does it is by getting David to convict himself—if Nathan had just gone to David and said, “Your majesty, killing Uriah and taking Bathsheba as your wife was wrong and you need to repent,” David would never have responded—we might have had a story more like that of John the Baptist and Herod that we heard a few weeks ago. Nathan has the humility and the creativity and the courage to tell a story… about a poor man with only a single lamb, and a rich man who was greedy and took what did not belong to him. David gets caught up in the story, and is passionate about the conclusion—and then Nathan turns the tables on him and reveals how David himself is the greedy rich man who has stolen what did not belong to him. And David—to his credit—repents.  

And that’s what I’d pray for for my Nathan. That he’d be able to speak truth to power in a way that those in power can hear. Because it’s one thing to be to be hungry for justice and truth and God and Jesus and want to change the world. It’s a more substantive gift to be a passionate person of faith AND one who is able to negotiate power structures in an effective way. We’re called to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” and Nathan—the prophet—embodies that to me. He hungers for—and gets—a converted heart out of his ruler.  

And it’s the heart that is at issue today in the Gospel. Jesus discovers that by feeding the 5000, he has converted their stomachs, and not their hearts, so when they chase after him across the Sea of Galilee and say, in effect, “Why did you leave us and when is the next meal?” he is sorely disappointed. He wants followers with hungry hearts, and instead he’s being pursued by their stomachs.  

Last week we began a series of readings from John’s Gospel about bread, and the theme will continue with lessons about Jesus as the living bread and Jesus as the bread of life throughout August. If you’re on an Atkins diet, August may not be the best month for you, metaphorically. Today Jesus is pursued by that hungry crowd—and remember, that in the first century, hunger was not reserved for a few people, but something most people endured. At the feeding of the 5000, everyone was able to eat as much as they wanted—some of them, perhaps, for the first time in their lives. So now they’re looking for the next meal, and Jesus upbraids them because they’re driven not by faith in him but by their physical hunger—which is not to discount the very real message of Jesus about caring for and feeding the poor in a literal sense. But Jesus is saying that food for the body is only that—and there is more on offer today. Don’t get distracted by the miracle of the five loaves and two fish and miss the point of the whole endeavor. 

And therein might be an interesting link to the recent book and movie, The Hunger Games, which has some connections to both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings today. 

The dystopian nation in which the Hunger Games takes place is known as Panem—the Latin word for bread. The author, Suzanne Collins, named it as such to relate it to the Roman practice of giving the masses “bread and circuses” to keep them docile. Distract the crowds with just enough free bread and some gladiatorial games, and they won’t notice that they’re being oppressed and rise up in rebellion. Panem is made of 13 districts suffering varying degrees of oppression that supply the necessities for a life of ease for residents of the Capital. Each of the districts must annually supply two teenagers, chosen by lottery and known as “tributes”, to participate in the Hunger Games—a bloodbath where the contestants must kill each other until there is only one winner, one survivor, which is compulsory TV viewing for every resident of Panem. It’s the circus, where districts cheer for their representatives, mourn with them when they lose, and celebrate if they win. It’s a wildly disturbing idea for a story… but in the books, the main character, Katniss Everdeen, reflects beautifully about how horrific and unjust it is. And she—as one of the contestants—finds a way to break the cycle of exploitation.  

Katniss and Peeta, the other “tribute” from her district are the last two standing in their Hunger Games… according to the rules of the game, one of them must kill the other. But Katniss doesn’t like the rules of the game—she doesn’t like the very idea of the game—and so to break out of it and refuse to participate the way the Gamemakers insist, she takes the poisonous berries they have already used to dispatch another contestant, and divides them between herself and Peeta and they eat them simultaneously. She decides that it’s better for the citizens of Panem if there is no winner rather than giving them the circus that they want. Rather than having only one of them live, neither of them will live.  

The Gamemakers of the capital can’t afford that—the circus won’t work if there isn’t a victor. So they intrude on the game, and rescue both Peeta and Katniss, beginning a chain of events that will ultimately result in the downfall of the Capital’s regime. 

And it’s that which reminds me of the prophet Nathan. The forces of this world can be oppressive and dark and dangerous; and it is risky to challenge them. But with courage and faith and creativity it is possible. As I read in a little piece on Facebook recently, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, then you’ve never spent a night in a room with a mosquito.” Even the smallest person can bring the powers and principalities of this world to their knees with the right creativity and willingness to sacrifice. Just look at Rosa Parks, at that girl who just got Seventeen magazine to change their policy on airbrushing photos of models, the Tunisian who set himself on fire in desperation and ignited a revolution that has brought about democracy in that country. 

And all that is doubly true for Jesus in the gospels—Jesus does not conform to the expectations that surround him, whether they’re the expectation of the temple authorities or the Roman authorities or even the very crowds that are following him. Jesus is saying very clearly today that the bread he is offering is not the bread of bread and circuses; and the signs he is doing are not glamorous circus-like entertainments to distract people from their misery. Jesus is offering something beyond measure: never being spiritually hungry or thirsty again. Follow Jesus and earthly bread and circuses will have no appeal, because you will have the Gospel. And Jesus has the most creative way of escaping from the violence of this world that there can be: to allow himself to be killed and then to be raised up and deny earthly authority the victory.  

Can we be as wise and creative and brave as Nathan—and Katniss—and Jesus--in dealing with the world? If we’re hungry for God, come and sit and eat and be filled. No games needed. No circuses. No false handouts of bread that will only temporarily satisfy us. The bread of life is never intended to keep us docile or distract us from the misery and oppression in the world; the bread of life makes us ever hungier and more attentive to those things so that we can share the Gospel and bring food to the hungry; to bring clothing to the naked; to console those who are weeping; to liberate those who are oppressed. As Jesus says in the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be satisfied.”

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