Sunday, August 12, 2018
Many of you may remember the popular Irish Dance production of the late 1990’s, Riverdance. It familiarized a whole generation with the sound and movement of Celtic dance. It also introduced the dancer and choreographer, Michael Flatley, to the world. While Flatley’s choreography delighted crowds from Dublin to New York to Los Angeles, his personality was one that became, well, infamous. Flatley’s love for the spotlight was so excessive that he quickly outgrew Riverdance and moved onto individual projects, chiefly Lord of the Dance. However, the split with Riverdance was so public and, clearly, Flatley’s excesses so well known that a British review of the new Lord of the Dance production led with the headline: The Ego has Landed.
It may come as a surprise, but the same reaction is probably the experience of those around Jesus in today’s gospel text. While we may easily accept Jesus’ words, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” they were received by his local community in the same way that the British reviewer saw Michael Flatley: The Ego has Landed. The writer of John confirms this, “They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Or translated: Someone’s gotten a bit too big for his britches.
Now, some of this may be a byproduct of the old truism that familiarity breeds contempt. As one commentator aptly notes:
In other words, they know him, just like they know all the kids from their old neighborhood. And for this reason, you see – because he is just like them, because he is common –he can’t be all that special, and he certainly can’t be the one God sent for redemption.
Indeed, such an interpretation makes good sense, I suspect, in our own time and to our own ears. Why, we may feel a little bit of what those around Jesus felt. How can that which is normal, common, regular, everyday possess the presence and the action of God? We live in a world and culture obsessed with status, spectacle, and stars. All of those things which exist beyond most of our reach and transcend most of our experiences. While they can inspire, they also may devalue the normal.
Even when we reside within one of the most wealthy locations in the world, I imagine many feel rather plain compared to the really, really rich who reside nearby. The grand and the glamourous are markers of greatness. How could the mundane and normal signal the very presence of the Holy, God?
Thus, we fall into the same trap that captured the imagination of the audience around Jesus in today’s gospel text. We struggle to see and recognize the divine who comes to us not in power, wonder, glory, and might but in the common and everyday. Part of the ministry of Jesus and his very life itself is the invitation to begin to train our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds to perceive the holy in what we experience in each moment, precisely in that which we know. Richard Rohr offers a wonderful example of this type of awareness that comes in a most surprising vehicle. He writes:
In 1969 when I was a young deacon in Acoma Pueblo, one of my jobs was to take the census. Because it was summer and hot, I would start early in the morning, driving my little orange truck to each residence. Invariably at sunrise, I would see a mother outside the door of her home, with her children standing beside her. She and the children would be reaching out with both hands uplifted to “scoop” up the new day and then “pour” it over their heads and bodies as if in blessing. I would sit in my truck until they were finished, thinking how silly it was of us Franciscans to think we brought religion to New Mexico 400 years ago!
How many of us scoop up the new day and pour the blessing of it over our head? How many of us pause long enough each day to give thanks? How many of us allow the myriad normal–even boring–moments to remind us of this gift, our blessing, and God’s love? Indeed, we need only consider the simpleness of our sacraments to recognize that God, within Native American tradition and our own, often comes to us in the guise of the commonplace. Water, bread, and wine–the very basic and simplest of elements–are the the vehicles that continually present themselves to us, and remind us of God’s love and mercy. The ordinary as an occasion to recognize the extraordinary surrounding, enfolding, and within us.
While all of this certainly resonates from the story of Jesus and the people, there is most certainly something else going on. Familiarity breeding contempt is not the only problem. Indeed, one could argue that it is not the problem at all. Remember: the Ego has Landed! And that is the problem. Jesus is familiar. However, Jesus goes far beyond claiming he can provide manna from heaven. He claims he is the manna from heaven. Indeed, the language that he uses identifies himself with the Holy One of Israel. God. We hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life,” and we hear this as a description of who he is. However, what we miss is the Greek phrase embedded in this statement, Ego Eimi,or I am. When the people around Jesus hear Ego Eimi they probably let out a gasp. For Jesus claims in that moment the very self-identification of God.Unquestionably, Jesus’ use of the term Ego Eimi or I am references God’s engagement with Moses prior to the Exodus. At that time, Moses wants to run away from the responsibility of leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. After putting up excuse after excuse, he challenges God by saying that nobody will believe him, and who should Moses say it is that has sent him? God’s classic response is: Tell them that I am has sent you. God says, “Tell them that Ego Eimi has sent you. Tell them that I am has sent you.” Thus, Jesus’ words to the people are not simply descriptive. In that moment, in Ego Eimi, in I am he claims that he is not just a prophet or representative of God. He is God.
Which brings us back to the very commonplace that God resides in. We claim Jesus as hero, Lord, Messiah, divine, and we are right to worship him as such. However, our tradition also holds up the paradox of his commonness, his humanity in the midst of it all as well. The tradition does not recognize one or the other. Both–divine and human–are essential. And if this is so, if the human part is critical, then it means that the very banal, mundane, everyday, familiar, ordinary, average, and even unremarkable that mark all our lives and our humanity are all caught up in the mystery of the Holy. Jesus’ humanity blesses our humanity with the divine presence. However, it does not make us something other. Rather, his presence invites us to live into who we are. Indeed, one of the great traits of Jesus is that he may be the most human human. He does not deny the realities of this life but enters fully into them, gracing each moment because he lives each moment. Thus, he invites us to live each moment as well. Not to try and transcend ourselves or be something we are not. Rather, Jesus invites us to keep our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds open to the endless ways he continues to come to us. The ordinary as extraordinary. Receive the blessing. Scoop it up. Pour it over you. And say, “Thank you.”