Good morning, Good Shepherd! What an exciting day.
I am glad to see so many of you and I am glad to see so many backpacks in your laps. Does anyone have one of those R2-D2 satchels? Man, that’s a good-looking unit. Near the end of this service we will ask for God to bless you – R2-D2s, students, and educators – and all your backpacks for your returns to school. Then, after church, we will meet in The Common to stuff additional backpacks for those in our greater community who, otherwise, might begin their classes empty-handed.
For, indeed, the floaties have been deflated and tucked into their corner of the garage, and the goggles have been returned to their perch in the hall closet. Yes, #2 pencils have replaced margarita mix on our grocery lists, and (perhaps blessedly) the grandkids have been safely returned to their parents – as one of my high-school teachers, Mrs. Flanagan, once said, to me, “I love you, baby, but you got to go.”
See, that contemporary, American, renewal ritual of “Back-to-School” is underway, and thanks be to God that it is, for today, everybody’s favorite football team remains undefeated! Today every report card is a clean slate – last year’s shortcomings are, ahh, but a memory. Today all things are new, and we greet this new season with the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.
You may recall, that Chapter Six begins with Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, after which, “When the people saw the [miracle that he had performed], they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ [And] when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew.”[i]
There following, Jesus walks on water, frightening the disciples during a storm on the lake. “But [Jesus] said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ [Again,] they wanted to take him into the boat, [but the boat immediately] reached the land towards which they were going.”[ii]
Despite Jesus’ and the disciples’ crossing of the sea, though, the crowds continue their pursuit of this miracle-working teacher, and when they catch up to him on the other side, they ask, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”[iii] Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”[iv]
As foreshadowed in the Evangelist’s note regarding the crowd’s intention “to take” Jesus and make him a king and then reiterated in the disciples’ effort “to take” Jesus into the boat and make his “magic” their own, Jesus employs the “bread of life” metaphor to challenge the peoples’ desires: Don’t be caught up in the earthly shimmer of our time together: recognize the opportunity to receive this, the greater gift, “that you believe in [me,] whom [God] has sent.”[v]
However (and not unexpectedly) the people reject Jesus’ appeal. His hometown friends who have come to see Jesus choose a different means to discredit the prophet, grumbling, “Is not this … the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’”[vi] Jesus responds to them with the declaration introducing this morning’s appointment, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”[vii]
The Temple leaders then work yet another angle, protesting, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” and rather than retreating from his metaphor, Jesus pushes the image further toward the absurd – even to the brink of seeming cannibalism – announcing, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”[viii] With these graphic descriptions, Jesus intends to clarify his presentation of his life and teaching as allegory – rooted in the corporal, of course, that mortal experience we all share, but not to be boundaried or burdened by literalism.
Two verses after this morning’s pericope concludes, the flustered disciples announce, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”[ix]
Now, before we self-righteously come down too hard on these dim-witted disciples, let us consider the many ways that we, too, choose meager, worldly reassurances, while God offers us eternal life.
May I see a show of hands of just how many of you will head back to school this week or who have already begun the new year? Well, especially to you all, I want to tell you a story about my own return to school the summer before my fifth-grade year.
That June, my family moved 92 miles west, from Monroe, to Shreveport, Louisiana, and while I was looking forward to my first day in a brand-new school, I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers, as we might have said then. Look, I was so nervous walking onto that campus where I did not know one single, solitary soul my age, I even hoped to see my younger sisters in the hallways.
Fortunately, my mother had mercy on me, and she allowed me to pick out a new, special pair of shoes for my first day. She took me to the J.C. Penney’s at South Park Mall – the entrance right across from Morrow’s Nut House – and I chose a pair of fire-truck red, Converse, Chuck Taylor high-tops. Now, I gotta tell you, these were the finest shoes either you or anyone has ever seen: the classic star on each ankle, the white rubber toe, that perfect black stripe outlining the soles.
This same weekend way-back-then – that is, the weekend before school started – my family returned to Monroe to visit my grandparents, and I was so proud of my new shoes, that I brought them with me. Understand: I did not wear these new shoes, because my mother would not allow me to risk ruining them before that first day. [A quick digression: Friends, how many of you are suffering right now because your parents will not allow you to wear your awesome new clothes before your first day of school? Yes! This is a terrible injustice. Young people, I want you to know that I am on your side.]
No, like you might have done, I brought my new Chucks in their shoe box to display like a trophy for my grandmother. Then, on the way back to Shreveport that Sunday afternoon, just before we made it home, I realized that I had left that shoebox on Granny’s kitchen counter, and – Lord, have mercy! – I unraveled, crying and blaming everybody:
“If only you had let me wear them! They would be on feet right now!” I told my mother.
“Why didn’t you pick them up! I’m but a child! I can’t remember so many things!” I said to my father.
Despite my ridiculous, blubbering accusations, when we got home my mother called Granny, and the two conspired to have my grandmother put the shoes on the next Greyhound bus out of Monroe. I remember going with my dad to the downtown station well after dark to pick up a stapled-shut, brown-paper bag with my Chuck Taylor’s inside. I fell asleep with them in my arms during the truckride home.
See, standing at the crossroads of my Monroe identity and this new Shreveport person I hoped to become – you know, for a kid from Monroe, Shreveport was very cosmopolitan, I mean, it was almost Dallas – standing at these crossroads, I wanted to get off on the right foot, as it were. Seeing myself through my new classmates’ eyes, I did not have complete confidence in who I was, and I was banking on those new shoes making the difference … shoes.
Empathizing with our long-ago brothers and sisters who followed Jesus – those who resisted and argued with him – consider that they, too, suffered for insecurities. Certainly, some were hungry and homeless and, therefore, carried urgent and consequential concerns about whether they had enough food to live even through the week. Others among the elite in their faith community were hungry, but for something they could not identify. This restlessness made them feel marginalized from their peers, like everybody else had it all together, and only they felt isolated and alone. And, carrying these anxieties, maybe they went down to the Penney’s at the Jerusalem Mall and, believing that they were not enough, invested in the idea that a new pair of sandals might bring them comfort, might finally make the difference.
At the core of our reluctance to choose the life that Jesus offers is not necessarily a doubt in Jesus’ capacity to deliver on his promise – after all, he did feed five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish … after all, he walked on water. Rather, we choose bread and shoes and a hundred other fleeting reassurances because we doubt our own sufficiency.
Like the disciples and the temple leadership; like the crowds and Jesus’ hometown friends; I have deployed many different strategies to argue with God’s gift and to make myself feel more comfortable in my own skin. Friends, as you begin school, I tell you that I wish I knew then, what, in my most faithful moments I manage to remember now: if there is a secret to surviving childhood, adolescence, and your teenaged years – listen to me! –I believe the secret is this: be who you are … be who you are. And let me tell you who you are.
You who stand at the crossroads of summer’s end and the first day of school: do you know who you are? You are a child of the Living God.
You who stand at the crossroads of Elementary School and Junior High, of Junior High and High School, of High School and college: do you know who you are? You are loved, from before time and forever.
You who stand at the crossroads of competing desires, of wanting to feel superior to your peers and yet feeling inadequate: do you know who you are? You are enough.
Now, I am sure it’s only the students among us who stand at these crossroads. We whose school years are in our rearview mirror, we have aged far beyond such worries and anxieties. Surely no more do we grown-ups stand at the crossroads of our personal and professional lives and struggle for balance between the two … at the crossroads of competing desires, for status and yet for faith … Good Shepherd, do we know who you are?
Beloved, you are the bread of life! For no matter your color or your constitution; your hopes or your worries; your shape or your size; your love or you leisure; your gifts or your graces; your age or your occupation – you are the bread of life! Abiding in God, and God in you, and you – as you are – are enough.
Receiving the gift of life and being blessed on this day – back to school! – may we become the blessing that God intends.