Homily for Sunday, August 5, 2018
Writing in the third century, Origen of Alexandria compared the Scriptures to a mansion filled with rooms, but with a twist: the key to unlock to the door to one room was often kept in another. So, for example, the key to unlock the room that is I Corinthians might be in the room that is Hosea. Or the key to unlock Matthew might be in Deuteronomy, and so forth. I think the key to unlock John chapter 6—from which we’ve just heard—is found in not one, but two, other places. The first is the book of the prophet Amos, in which Amos writes:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord…
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
The second is The Tonight Show. Back in 1983, in an episode hosted by Joan Rivers, the guest was the late Fred Rogers—perhaps better known as “Mr. Rogers.” After some polite banter (“How did you get into children’s television?” “Why do you always put on your sweater and shoes?” “Do you get hate mail?”) Joan asked Fred: “So, do you write all your own songs?” “I do,” he replied.
Joan: My daughter loved the one that goes, “I like you.”
Fred: Oh. OK. I’ll sing that to you.
Joan: Oh, don’t—you’ll make me die.
But the music had already cued; so Fred looked Joan in the eye and sang:
It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair. But it’s you I like. The way you are right now, way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your jokes; they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue. That it’s you I like. It’s you yourself. It’s you. It’s you I like.
Rivers started to cry—who wouldn’t?—and pulled up her blazer to cover her head.
Just as Joan Rivers shed tears on The Tonight Show in 1983, so was the theatre filled with Kleenex and sniffles when, two weeks ago, Ashley and I went to see the recent Fred Rogers documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Through interviews with Rogers’ family and former co-workers, and with many excerpts from his show, the documentary highlighted the gentle kindness, the care, the respect that Mr. Rogers not only embodied but accorded each child he met.
Those who grew up with Mr. Rogers or raised children with Mr Rogers may remember, for example, the episode from the Civil Rights Era—during a time when black kids were thrown out of swimming pools—in which Mr. Rogers invited Officer Klemmons, an African-American character, to bathe their feet together in a wading pool. Or perhaps you saw the episode from just after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in which Rogers patiently explained to children what an assassination was and that, no, they were not in danger of being assassinated. Rogers spent a week’s worth of episodes gently yet directly addressing the issue of divorce, helping children to make sense of what they might be feeling and that, yes, they were still loved and would be cared for. He asked a 14 year-old with cerebral palsy—to whom so many had said that they would pray for him—[he asked a 14 year-old with cerebral palsy] to pray for him, Mr. Rogers. “I asked him because anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God,” Rogers said. “I wanted his intercession.” Or perhaps you recall the episode in which Daniel Striped Tiger (one of the puppet characters), because he had never met anyone else like him, and because he sometimes cried and felt afraid and was not strong as he thought tigers should be, wondered, “Am I a mistake?” Lady Aberlin, an adult character, joined Daniel in a duet to try to reassure him that, no, he was not a mistake and that he was her friend.
The tears that Joan Rivers shed and that filled the theatre that day were not tears of sadness; nor were they of gladness. I dare say that the tears that Joan shed on The Tonight Show and the sniffles that filled the theatre that day were tears of hunger—famine, even—[famine] that had glimpsed the possibility of being satisfied. In today’s world so many are famished to experience the kindness that Rogers showed, to hear such a message of respect, to be treated with dignity and loved simply because we are.
David Brooks, the New York Times writer, last month wrote a column about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (He, too, experienced a theatre filled with Kleenex and sniffles)—“There is nothing obviously moving here,” he writes, “and yet the audience is moved… The power is in Roger’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce.” (When there is a famine for public kindness, if you will.) “It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours,” he continues, “gets released in that theatre as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.”
I wonder if the crowd that sought Jesus that day so long ago in John 6 was likewise famished. For them as for us, kindness may have been in short supply. Respect for the dignity of every human being, in an occupied territory of the Roman empire, was probably in short supply. A message of being loved just the way they were—was there anybody preaching such a message either among the Romans or among the Pharisees (with their focus on the Law?) Was there anybody else saying “It’s you I like?” And so the crowd followed Jesus because in Jesus they found the “bread” they perhaps didn’t even know they were looking for. They followed because in Jesus the hunger they didn’t even know they had was satisfied: “Oh yes, that’s how people can be.” “Oh yes, that’s how life can be.”
Jesus, the consummate pastor, recognizes the crowd’s hunger: “You are looking for me… because you ate your fill of the loaves.” But Jesus takes them deeper. Even if they didn’t know that they were looking for it, he knows that they were looking for—yes—kindness and respect, dignity and love. But Jesus knows that what they ultimately sought, what they were famished for, was “the true bread from heaven,” “the bread of God,” “the bread of life,” that Jesus not only offered but that Jesus himself is.
We will be hearing from John chapter 6 and its so-called “Bread of Life” discourse for the remainder of August. I invite us, in the coming days and weeks, to take a closer look within. To schedule time—to put it in your calendar!—to be quiet, to be still, and to invite Jesus close. And then to ask him, “What am I looking for?” And maybe ask him to show you what you are looking for. (It is he, after all, who made us. Who better to know what we truly want than Jesus?)
It is no mistake that each Sunday we eat and drink in the Eucharist. We are hungry, and Jesus has what we’re looking for; Jesus is what we’re looking for. We are hungry not just for kindness, for respect, love, and dignity. But on an even deeper level our souls are hungry for “the bread of life” himself. Who, if we let him, will come and sit next to us. Who, if we let him, will look us in the eye. Who, if we are listening, will tell us “It’s you I like.” And who will give to us even himself, the only “food” that truly satisfies.