Proper 13B Sermon (2000)

Proper 13 (July 31-Aug. 6)
Texts: John 6:24-35;
Ex 16; Eph 4:1-16

BREAD THAT SATISFIES

In his acceptance speech this Thursday, George W. Bush said that, ‘Good times require great goals.’ I have to say that I like that tactic. It’s unexpected, too. One of the TV commentators later Thursday night made the observation that most candidates from the challenging party have to find a way to say how terrible things are in our country and how they are going to change them. Bush, however, is admitting that we are in the midst of good economic times, but that that means it’s even more important for us to set worthy goals. I very much like that approach.

Now, what Bush’s “great goals” will be, I can’t say if I will agree with him or not. And a sermon isn’t necessarily the place to comment on that, anyway. But today’s gospel reading raises the issue of bread that satisfies, the bread that gives life. I think this relates to Bush’s approach in that good economic times means that most folks are doing relatively well with their ‘daily bread.’ Most of us in this country (with the notable exception of children in poverty!) have enough to eat. But is that the bread that satisfies us? Do we crave for something more? Is there a bread — are there great goals we can set — by which we can ultimately satisfy our hunger? What is the bread that most truly gives life?

Last week, we took a look at our human economics, more specifically, our own system of capitalism. We noted that, in contrast to Jesus believing in a God of abundance, we tend to believe in a God of scarcity. Our economics are built on that premise, that there’s a scarcity.

This week I’d like to begin with some positive things about capitalism. I think that capitalism names the wrong problem — namely, that there’s a scarcity — but we can get back to that. What we can begin by noticing is that capitalism has come up with the most creative solutions to this (false) problem to date. It has created economies that are more productive of goods and resources than any other human economy that has come before it. And, as Bush’s approach begins by noticing, we are in the midst of particularly “good times” for economic production. We have lots of bread. This is not something to put down or take lightly. Capitalism has helped produce our daily bread better than anything before it in history. These are good times.

But these good times can be the occasion of great goals. We can afford to ask questions about what is the bread that ultimately satisfies and set our goals for that bread.

So here we need to notice once again the ironies, and even shortcomings, of capitalism. The irony of capitalism is that it has given us solutions for the problem of scarcity by providing us with an unparalleled abundance! Its very success itself raises the question of the possible faultiness of its assumption. Perhaps, we begin by noticing scarcity, but isn’t there potential to find an actual abundance? And so wouldn’t we need to begin instead with the assumption that we can achieve and find abundance? And, then, what we do with that abundance makes the difference on what truly satisfies.

For example: American farming. Our agricultural industry has become so efficient that just our country alone has been able to produce enough food now to feed the entire world. In other words, we have achieved the abundance that God created for us on this earth. But what do we do with that abundance? Because capitalism assumes scarcity, we don’t know how to deal with such abundance, do we? We burn crops and let them rot in silos to confirm our scarcity principals. We pay farmers to let fields go fallow. And, worst of all, we underinflate the prices for farmers selling food, putting the dedicated farm families of this nation at risk to survive. Do you see? Even when we achieve abundance, our capitalist assumptions about scarcity don’t know how to deal with it.

What we do with the abundance makes the difference. Good times require great goals. We need to discover that there is a bread which truly and ultimately satisfies. Can capitalism itself provide such guidance? I think that it has more recently led us into a consumerism that is the epitome of a bread that does not satisfy us. In recent years, we have talked about this in terms of the PBS show of several years ago entitled “Affluenza.” Here’s the first two questions from the Affluenza quiz (1):

1. Which of the following is comparable to the size of a typical three-car garage?
a. a basketball court
b. a McDonald’s restaurant
c. an “RV” (recreational vehicle)
d. the average home in the 1950s.Answer: d. Many of today’s three-car garages occupy 900 square feet, just about the average size of an entire home in the 1950s. Many people use the extra garage space to store things they own and seldom use. Often we hear that Americans have lost ground economically and have less purchasing power. But Americans are buying more luxurious items, partly by working more and going deeply into debt. The homes they live in and the cars they drive today are often bigger and more technologically advanced than those purchased by their parents.

2. The percentage of Americans calling themselves “very happy” reached its highest point in what year?
a. 1957
b. 1967
c. 1977
d. 1987

Answer: a. The number of “very happy” people peaked in 1957, and has remained fairly stable or declined ever since. Even though we consume twice as much as we did in the 1950s, people were just as happy when they had less.

Put these two together: we now typically have garages as big as our houses were in the 1950’s, but we were happier, more satisfied in the 1950’s. We are much wealthier, our resources much more abundant, but less happy, less satisfied.

What capitalism does not help us to understand is why we find ourselves working so hard for bread that does not satisfy. For all its complexities of being a modern science, I don’t think that capitalism has matched the insight of Genesis 3, that incredible story of the first man and woman and our fall into sin. What this story helps us to understand is where our desire comes from. The woman found the forbidden fruit to be desirable and gave some to her husband. Where did that desire come from? Did it just pop up in them? They suddenly had a craving for the fruit from that one forbidden tree among many? No, as we said last week [see last week’s sermon, “The God of Abundance“], the serpent convinced the woman of a scarcity of knowledge. He suggested the desire to her, and she bit. And the woman suggested the desire to her husband. In other words, we get our desires from each other, which creates a craving that we can’t seem to satisfy because we want the same things that the Other wants.

Think again about the example I’ve used often: children playing in the nursery and fighting over a teddy bear. Even if there is an abundance of teddy bears in that nursery, the children suggest the desire for that one teddy bear to each other, so that it appears scarce to them and they fight over it. We don’t grow out of this childish behavior, either, otherwise Madison Avenue wouldn’t be so successful in suggesting desires to us. The advertising and marketing branches of capitalist economics have come to learn this well. But I’m afraid they play more the role of the serpent, suggesting desires to us that will never satisfy us. And we fall into the game of “keeping up with the Joneses,” suggesting those same desires to each other. As long as the only “great goal” of capitalism is profits, it will continue to feed us with an abundance of bread that doesn’t satisfy. Will Mr. Bush be able to convince business that there are other goals greater and more worthy than profits?

The crowd came to Jesus that day and asked him, ‘Where do we get this bread that satisfies?’ Notice Jesus’ answer. He knows that the problem is that we get our desires from each other and that that is the problem. But does he tell them this directly? No, he simply answers, “I am the bread of life.’ In other words, if the problem is catching our desires from each other, then the only way out of this loop of stumbling into unsatisfied desire is to finally find some person who can suggest God’s desires to us. Jesus is that person. He came to do his Father’s will, to do his Father’s desire. He is the bread of life that can finally satisfy us. He came to show us the desires of love and compassion that we might finally follow. Mr. Bush has that part right, too, in naming compassion as one of his great goals — though I’m not sure what a “compassionate conservatism” means. Jesus came to show us a risky, extravagant compassion, when he went to the cross for us and broke his body for us in the fashion of breaking bread.

We come again today to receive that bread of life, the wine of compassion. Our high school youth are returning even now from a trip of following in Jesus’ footsteps and reaching out in compassion. Our middle school youth returned several weeks ago. The motto of the Youthworks mission trips is, “Be Like Jesus.” That’s obviously reminiscent of a prominent Madison Avenue campaign. The Nike’s of Michael Jordan (and the “Be Like Mike” campaign) will never ultimately satisfy us. God’s desire for the world will. So we need to be like Jesus, catching his desire, which is God’s desire. Our youth learn it from Jesus, but they also learn it from us. So let’s go to the table once again and partake of the bread which satisfies, so that it becomes part of our family lives, our church lives, and, yes, even our business and political lives.

Let me share a verse from my favorite hymn in closing:

Here we will take the wine and the water,
here we will take the bread of new birth,
here you shall call your sons and your daughters,
call us anew to be salt for the earth.
Give us to drink the wine of compassion,
give us to eat the bread that is you;
nourish us well, and teach us to fashion
lives that are holy and hearts that are true. (2)

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 5-6, 2000

Notes

1. See the quiz at the Affluenza website:

http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/diag/what.html

2. Verse 3 of “Gather Us In,” Marty Haugen, © 1982 GIA Publications, Inc., as appears in With One Voice: A Lutheran Resource for Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 1995, hymn #718.

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