What gives life? What sustains us? In the Bible reading today it’s suggested that it’s not bread. Not the stuff with flour and yeast that we eat. Not that which goes into our mouths and stomachs and bodies. Rather there is something else that is life-giving and sustaining.
Earlier in the chapter, as I mentioned last week, there’s the story of a boy who offered all his lunch – 5 loaves and 2 fish - to feed 5000 people. It was somewhat foolish gesture. Crazy mathematics. Yet it’s this foolish gesture that inspired the author of John to reflect on what gives and sustains life.
You could say it is faith. But that’s like answering a question with a question. For what is faith? John’s Jesus calls it ‘true bread’ and this is what it looks like:
+ Being aware of the needs of the many. Empathy.
+ Being aware of the voice that says your contribution won’t make any difference. And deciding to ignore that voice.
+ Being aware that materially you are okay [you have your lunch]; and yet you are still dissatisfied. Your wellbeing is reliant on others’ wellbeing
+ Being aware that someone[s] and circumstances has created an opening, an opportunity if you wish to respond.
+ Being aware that you want to give all you can. And you know your parents, your family, will be cross with you for being irresponsible. But you do it anyway.
+ Being aware that this feels foolish. But you do it anyway.
+ Being aware that it won’t feed 5000, or even 50. But you do it anyway.
‘True bread’ – the stuff that endures [v.27], the stuff that gives life to the world [v.33] – is not a policy, a mission plan, a church programme, a passage from the Bible, or a revelation from God. It’s much simpler than that. It’s attitude.
‘True bread’ is a small act of courage. It’s an action, not really a belief. It’s about stepping up and saying “I will”, even and especially when everyone else is saying “that’s crazy”. It’s about seeing the world differently from others, and audaciously saying “I don’t want to be like everyone else”. It’s that attitude.
‘True bread’ also requires others – maybe who have done crazy things themselves in the past – recognizing the audacious act for what it is. In the John story Andrew brings the boy to Jesus. Both Andrew and Jesus recognize the child’s courage and gift, and by their actions affirm him.
We need to create environments where the faithful crazy acts of children and adults will be recognized and affirmed. We also need to do faithful crazy acts ourselves, for how else will children learn to think outside the squares of ‘normal’ in order to find solutions to the big challenges of our time? How else can we act our way into a future that is committed to eradicating poverty, violence, and ecologically unsustainable economies?
‘True bread’ is about attitude.
There's a story told by Robert Fulghum[i] about attitude. He tells of a kindergarten class who were to put on the play "Cinderella” - the classic old ‘rags to riches’ story. The moral of the story being that someday you may get what you think you deserve.
There were lots of parts in the play, including the ravishing Cinderella, the evil stepmother, the two wicked and dumb step-sisters, the wise fairy godmother, the pumpkin, the mice, horses, the king, all the people at the ball, and of course, the ultimate object of fabled desire, the prince.
The children were allowed to choose roles for themselves. As the parts were allocated, the children were sent to stand over the other side of the room while casting was completed. Finally, every child had a part.
One small boy. Who had remained quiet and disengaged from the selection process. A somewhat ‘different’ child who was often teased by the other children.
"Well, Norman," said the teacher, "who are you going to be?"
"Well," replied Norman, "I am going to be the pig."
"Pig? There's no pig in this story."
"Well, there is now."
[This is what I mean about attitude. Norman is ‘true bread’]
Wisdom was fortunately included in the teacher's tool bag. She looked carefully at Norman. What harm? Norman was declared the pig in the story of Cinderella. Nobody else wanted to be the pig, anyhow, so it was quite fine with the class. And since there was nothing in the script explaining what the pig was supposed to do, the action was left up to Norman.
As it turned out, Norman gave himself a walk-on part. The pig walked along with Cinderella wherever she went, ambling along on all fours in a piggy way, in a costume of his own devising - pink long-johns, pipe-cleaner tail, and a paper cup for a nose. He made no sound. He simply sat on his back haunches and observed what was going on. The expressions on his face reflected the details of the dramatic action - looking worried, sad, hopeful, mad, bored, pleased - whatever the moment required. There was no doubt about what was going on. One look at the pig and you knew.
At the climax, when the Prince finally placed the glass slipper on the Princess's foot and the ecstatic couple rode off to live happily ever after, the pig went wild with joy, danced round on his hind legs, and broke his silence by barking.
In rehearsal the teacher had tried to explain to Norman that even if there was a pig in the Cinderella story, pigs don't bark. But as she expected, Norman explained that this pig barked.
The presentation at the parent's night was a hit. At the curtain call guess who received a standing ovation? Of course. Norman the barking pig. Who was, after all, the real Cinderella in the story.
The American version of the Cinderella story differs somewhat from the European version. In the American version Cinderella is a victim of bad luck: Mum dies, and Dad remarries to a wicked woman. Cinderella is relegated to the role of mistreated servant. There's nothing she can do but accept her fate. About all Cinderella does is wish for luck, even though she doesn't expect any. She's waiting for something to happen to her.
For no particular reason, the fairy godmother shows up so Cinderella can go dancing. Cinderella doesn't ask, "Where've you been, lady, and how about a Subway Chicken and Bacon Ranch Melt instead of some see-through slippers and a ride in a jazzed up pumpkin?" Oh no, none of that. Cinderella just does what she's told and goes off to dance.
Well you know what happened next - she meets you know who, they dance, the clock strikes twelve, and Cinderella rushes home leaving her slipper behind.
At home she sits and waits. ‘Maybe something will happen’ is Cinderella's motto. She waits some more until the Prince shows up. Him with the foot fetish. He doesn't look in the door and see two ugly sisters and one pretty one. Oh no, not him. He doesn't care about beauty or character or cleanliness. It’s the right foot he's looking for. And Cinderella doesn't care either. If it’s what the Prince wants, then she's going to go along with it.
"And they lived happily ever after," says the story. Yeah, right.
The European versions on the other hand are quite different. They have an active heroine, who takes the initiative and works for her release from bondage. She knows she's got class and she understands that the relatives she's living with are scumbags, and she isn't counting on anybody else to do something about her situation. Cinderella looks for a way out by being clever. It's true she has good luck, but it’s also true that she deserves it. She goes for the slipper in the end - "Here that's mine, let me try it on." She even forgives her two stepsisters and finds a couple of dukes for them to marry.
The passive, waiting version of Cinderella is a ‘stale bread’ myth. Norman, the barking pig, is my idea of Cinderella. The teacher who recognized him is my idea of royalty. And those who help people who are different, who don’t fit in – whether due to health, circumstances, or disposition are my idea of fairy godmothers.
‘True bread’ is the attitude of insisting on insisting on one's place in the scheme of things and living up to that place – doing the foolish, crazy thing for the right reasons. ‘True bread’ is the attitude of seeing someone trying to do the foolish, crazy thing for the right reasons and standing alongside them, by your presence and few words empowering them, as they strive for their place in the scheme of things. To do these things is to make fairy tales come true. To do these things is to brighten our world with hope.
[i] Adapted from p.35ff. Robert Fulghum, Uh-oh, Glasgow, Harper and Collins, 1991.