John 6 | The Bread of Heaven 1996
Our canticle this morning is from a truly wise and wonderful book called The Wisdom of Solomon. I can remember as a child going to my friend Mickey's church. My friend Mickey was a Roman Catholic, and my parents apparently saw no harm in letting me go to Mass just once with his family on a Saturday evening. When the time came for the Old Testament reading the text was--and I remember this very clearly--from a strange book I had never heard of called Wisdom. At eleven years old I was already ripe for a fundamentalist religious conniption fit. "Hey!" I objected to Mickey's mother, "That's not in the Bible!" I was immediately shushed, and unfortunately no further information was given.
A couple of years later, however, after I had felt God's call to preach when I was sixteen, I was given a wonderful gift: my great-grandfather's library. Now my great grandfather was a Baptist minister, and his books were an enormous source of mystery and wonder for me. I learned about the Baptist succession, tracing the "true Baptist faith" through Scandinavia straight back to the time of Jesus. I had visions of lonely Baptist holdouts dipping each other into the frigid waters near some icy fjord, just waiting for their turn in human history.
But the greatest treasure was a beat up old leather bound book titled simply "Apocrypha." Inside, to my inestimable delight was, as I called it then, "more of the Bible." Now I had already read the Bible through at least twice by this point, and I was hungry for more. I simply ate it up: the first detective stories in the additions to Daniel, the beautiful hymns of praise in the additions to Esther, the wisdom of the seemingly endless proverbs of Sirach, and especially the grand adventure of Tobias in the book of Tobit.
Now for those of you who are scratching your heads wondering "what the heck is he talking about," the Apocrypha is a collection of Jewish religious literature, most of which was written after the Old Testament and before the New. These were very popular books in Jesus' time, and St. Paul quotes it extensively, especially from the Wisdom of Solomon. They were so highly regarded that when a group of seventy Jewish scholars met in Alexandria just before Jesus was born to translate the Bible into Greek, they included these books.
Throughout the church's history, these books have been revered, but not considered scripture. St. Jerome said that they should be used "for instruction and reproof, but not for the establishment of doctrine." It wasn't until the Counter-Reformation that Roman Catholic Church declared them to be a part of the canon of scripture, in effect schisming herself once again from the historical witness of the church.
So what do we find when we open these ancient pages? We find that God did not grow silent after the final sentence of the Old Testament. In the drama of the Maccabean revolt and the apocalyptic visions of Esdras, we see a portrait of a holy people wrestling with deep issues of what it means to be human and even more, what it means to be people of faith in difficult times. Most importantly we see the hand of God continuing to guide this chosen people, Israel.
Which is something that the King of Syria in today's Old Testament reading obviously couldn't do. Now the story we read here is talking about God imposing physical blindness, but that's just the surface of this tale. The story is really about spiritual blindness. About an arrogant King who was so blinded by his greed and lust for power that he could not see the hand of God upon the Israelites, and most especially upon the prophet, Elisha.
This is of course, not a unique situation. The Old Testament is filled with gentile despots who falsely believe that they can enslave and attack God's people with impunity. Unfortunately, as Solomon wisely says in another book, "There is nothing new under the Sun." For the way of the despot is a recurring theme in our history. Our ancestors have been equally blind to God's will. Like the king of Syria, the conquistadors and explorers of our great European cultures were blind to the hand of God upon the indigenous peoples they subjugated, and you and I, friends, are the inheritors of their shame.
Fortunately we have the advantage of hindsight, as well as the testimony of scripture to guide us. The real propagator of hatred is fear, and the progenitor of fear is ignorance. We are fortunate to be able in our day and age to study the great and ancient wisdom of not just the Jewish people, but of every peoples. We are doubly fortunate if we are able to listen closely, to see through the filters of mythology and culture, to discern the gentle whisper of the Spirit. To every people, in every time, in every nation, God has not been idle, nor his purposes thwarted in any ultimate way by our blindness or hubris.
For as Isaiah says, God has prepared a feast for every people from the foundation of the world. To the children of Abraham and Sarah, God came in manna, the life-giving bread that appeared as dew upon the ground, nourishing and giving witness to his faithfulness day after day.
To the disciples, God came in Jesus, the Bread of Life, feeding the souls of all who have ears to hear; To Christians God comes to us in the bread of Eucharist, uniting a family of faith, now and forevermore; and to people of compassion everywhere, God comes in his life-giving Spirit, providing a soulful feast for the whole of the earth.
One of my favorite memories of my college days (that some of you may have heard before) was the beginning of my New Testament class at Cal Baptist. In order to set the political stage for the New Testament events, my professor began with the story of the Maccabean revolt. Of course, he was intending to read from the Apocryphal book of First Maccabees. No sooner had he opened his book than one of the students in my class leaped to his feet. "What do you think you're doing??!!" the student cried incredulously. "The Apocrypha is heresy! What, are you going to read to us from the Book of Mormon next???"
He raised such a ruckus that my teacher found it impossible to continue with the class, and had to scrap his plans of setting the stage with Jacob Maccabeus. I was so horrified! The student was speaking out of ignorance, out of Protestant hubris, out of spiritual blindness that assumed that his understanding of God and scripture were the ultimate truth. So I went out and had a t-shirt made, and I wore it to my next New Testament class. It said simply, "The Apocrypha is your friend."
Now the shirt didn't make me a lot of friends among the fundamentalists
in my New Testament class. But just think what they could have
learned if they have believed that. Just think what embarrassment
the king of Syria could have avoided had he been able to cherish
the gifts and wisdom of the Jews. Just think what Europe could
have gained by an attitude of mutual respect towards the native
peoples of this and many another continent. Just think what we
have to gain by removing OUR blinders, and being willing to see
God in unlikely places. Perhaps next week, we'll pick our reading
from the Book of Mormon. And really, folks, would that be so bad?
We might learn something after all. Amen.