Sermon for August 16, 2009
John 6:48-58 (The Voice)
In the classic 80s film, The Breakfast Club, five teenagers are in the midst of serving an 8-hour Saturday detention in the library of their suburban Chicago high school when uptight Principal Richard Vernon growls that it’s lunch time. Two of the students are sent to retrieve sodas and milk from the vending machine and upon their return, each teen begins to unpack their lunches.
Claire, the popular rich girl, takes her department store gift bag and pulls out a tiny wooden table followed by a small glass pitcher of soy sauce and then a black box with some bland looking food:
“What’s that?” asks Bender, the criminal misfit who wears long hair, an earring and combat boots.
“It’s sushi” replies Claire blushing. “Rice, raw fish and seaweed.”
Bender’s mouth drops wide open while the other two guys in detention, Andrew the intense jock in wrestling sweats, and Brian, the wholesome nerd who wears corduroys and a sweater, stare at Claire’s exotic lunch.
As Claire forks up the first bite, Andrew fishes out his food from a large paper grocery sack. Claire and Bender’s eyes get bigger and bigger as they watch the amount of food that Andrew is putting on the table: three thick ham sandwiches, a large bag of chips, a bag of cookies, a carton of milk, an apple and a banana.
Next, Allison, the weirdo dressed entirely in black, takes a sandwich from the plastic wrap, opens the top and flings the slice of pimento loaf onto a nearby statue. She then rips open two pixie sticks and pours the sugary powder onto both pieces of the white bread, which is already covered in mayonnaise. Then she grabs two handfuls of Captain Crunch cereal and smashes it into the bread, puts the pieces back together and takes a loud crunchy bite. The others look at Allison in disbelief.
None of the students can comprehend the other’s lunch. They can’t fathom why anyone would eat raw fish or consume enough food to feed 3 people or put sugar and cereal on bread. It is beyond their understanding.
In today’s reading from John 6, the crowd is also bewildered by Jesus’ peculiar thoughts on how one should eat:
“I am the life bread”, Jesus tells the people. “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven to rescue those who eat it. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. The bread that I will give breathes life into the cosmos…”
The crowd stares at Jesus for a few seconds, and then they raise their eyebrows and twist their mouths. They look around at each other to see if anyone is getting Jesus’ message.
Umm, did Jesus just say what I think he said, a young scholar asks.
Yup, he wants us to eat ‘em up, can you believe that? an elderly man replies. I don’t remember ole Moses saying anything about that. Anyone got a copy of Leviticus?
I believe I’ll head home to make some sushi-mayonnaise-sugar sandwiches with a nice touch of Captain Crunch cereal, says the midwife shrugging her shoulders.
Then the detractors, the Pharisees and scribes, become angry at the idea that Jesus would offer his flesh to them to eat. It goes against the Jewish health code and God!, they scream.
Jesus quickly clears things up.
“I tell you the truth; unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not know life” he explains. “If you eat My flesh and drink My blood, then you will have eternal life, and I will raise you up at the end of time. My flesh and blood provide true nourishment. If you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you will abide in Me and I will abide in you.”
Okay. Do you understand what he said any better than you did 5 minutes ago? asks a shepherd.
Nope, still don’t make no sense and sounds disgusting which is funny since I catch bottom feeders all day, says a fisherman.
Well, it doesn’t make much sense does it? And let’s be honest, Jesus’ words are pretty strange. Jesus words are always puzzling of course, but this particular message sounds a bit cuckoo and a little gross. “Eat my flesh and drink My blood” sounds especially jarring to our Presbyterian ears because it sounds a bit like Catholic transubstantiation—the strongly held belief that the bread and wine physically become the body of Christ, and therefore must be consumed entirely with not even a crumb touching the ground. It gives shivers to us Reformed Christians who believe that Jesus is spiritually present at the table during communion; and who eat the bread and juice afterwards because we like to be good stewards of food, and it tastes delicious!
So what are we to make of Jesus’ words? Many preachers ignore this passage from John’s gospel when it appears on the lectionary calendar—opting instead for something safer like a Psalm or one of Paul’s letters. I seriously considered avoiding this text when I first read it, but I kept noticing in these past couple of weeks that the flesh and blood discourse recorded by the disciple John is reflected thematically in many movies made by an innovative filmmaker, also named John, who died recently of a heart attack.
That John is writer and director John Hughes, best known for the 80s and early 90s hits like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Buehller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck and Home Alone. These films—which most 30 and 40 year olds grew up with in their teenage and young adult years—all have a common theme or moral that several generations can relate to: the importance of being in loving relationships and community with others.
As a film critic from the Cleveland Plain Dealer put it: “Hughes will probably be tagged as an ’80s phenomenon, but there was a touching humanity about his characters that transcends decades.”
The touching humanity in John Hughes’ films, the character’s journey from a place of isolation and shame to a place of inclusion and self-worth, can help us understand what it means to eat the “bread of life” that is Jesus.
Let’s start with the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles where Steve Martin stars as an anxiety-riddled businessman named Neal Page who is trying desperately to get home for Thanksgiving after his flight is cancelled due to bad weather. Neal is quickly befriended by another traveler, Del Griffith—played by the late John Candy—a shower curtain ring salesman and, although well-intentioned, an all-around blabbermouth who is never short of advice, conversation, bad jokes or company. Since both men are heading to Chicago, Del insists they travel together so they can share expenses and ideas for the best way to get home.
Neal agrees but soon regrets his decision to travel with Del. The guy is driving Neal crazy with his numerous quirks! And Neal just can’t get rid of Del no matter the amount of mean words he shouts at him or how many times he tries to escape his predicament and travel alone. Neal eventually admits to himself that he needs Del’s help to get home. Neal needs Del’s confidence, encouragement, sense of humor and genuine ability to make friends and connections to accomplish his goal.
And by the end of the journey, Neal discovers something about Del that makes this obnoxious shower ring salesman more human. Throughout the trip home, Del often talks about his wonderful wife Marie. But it is not till they reach Chicago, after Neal and Del have parted ways at the train station, that Neal realizes his mistake: he had always and incorrectly assumed that Del’s wife was alive.
Del, his beloved Marie dead and his business drying up for some time now, is living a lonely existence as is Neal, who despite having a successful career and a loving wife and kids, thinks only of himself. Del, quirks aside, is good-hearted man who is sincerely trying to connect to another human being—even one that finds him repulsive like Neal.
Recognizing his own selfishness and misjudgment of Del, Neal races back to catch Del before he disappears from his life forever. Neal finds a somber Del sitting alone on a bench at the station. And in that moment Neal invites Del to come home with him for Thanksgiving dinner and then reaches down to help carry Del’s luggage. When they arrive to Neal’s house, Neal smiles and says to his family, “I’d like you to meet my friend Del Griffith, he’s going to share Thanksgiving with us.”
Another Hughes film that reveals some insight on the importance of being in relationship and community (and one of my personal favorites) is Ferris Buehller’s Day Off.
The movie is about high school senior Ferris Buehller who, along with his best friend Cameron and girlfriend Sloane, play hooky for the day through the streets of Chicago. It’s a funny adventure and coming-of-age story with several memorable scenes and characters. Ferris is a genius who excels in wisdom and wit and becomes friends with everyone he meets, regardless of their status in school or life. As Grace, the school secretary, explains to the sleazy principal Ed Rooney:
“Oh, well, he’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, the geeks, …bloods, waistoids, and dweebies… —they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.”
In an effort to get his friend Cameron to stop brooding and enjoy life more, Ferris intervenes in a parade in downtown Chicago. Jumping on a float with beautiful dancing ladies, Ferris mimics Wayne Newton’s crooning version of the song Danke Schoen before launching into a lip-synched version of the Beatle’s Twist and Shout. As soon as Ferris’ belts out “C’mon baby now!” the entire crowd is twisting and shouting. It’s quite a celebration. All types of folks —blacks, whites, young, old, poor and rich—are sharing the experience, connecting to one another and creating a joy-filled community.
Connecting with another person, trying to build relationships with people we hardly know, is difficult. And no group of characters struggles with it more than the high school students in The Breakfast Club. Throughout the film, the five teens chip away at the stereotypes that define them as the brain, athlete, basket case, princess and criminal. Over the course of their detention, they slowly begin to pour out their hearts to one another—their fears, their hopes, their secrets, their emotions and problems. They see the other apart from their stereotype and learn that each of them has something in common. Brian, the brain, describes this beautifully, as the film ends:
“Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…and an athlete…and a basket case…a princess…and a criminal. Does that answer your question?
The Breakfast Club.”
Connecting and being in relationship and community is necessary for survival, for living day-in-and-out. We are created by God to be together with others, to share the experiences we encounter in life, to find the common threads that make up humanity.
After seeing The Breakfast Club upon its theatrical release in 1985, Allison Byrne Fields, who was 15 at the time and living in a suburb of Connecticut, was feeling a strong desire to connect to another. Filled with great emotion in her heart, Allison wanted to express appreciation for how John Hughes’ film made her “feel like he got what it was like to be a teenager and to feel misunderstood.” So she poured out herself in a letter to the filmmaker.
A month later, she received in the mail a form letter and some Breakfast Club memorabilia. Allison was angry at the apathetic response so she wrote Hughes another letter chastising him for not taking her seriously.
Hughes wrote back: “This is not a form letter. The other one was. Sorry. Lots of requests. You know what I mean. I did sign it.” Hughes also apologized for his initial response to Allison’s letter which he said “meant a great deal to him.”
Allison wrote Hughes back and asked him if he would be her pen pal, and he responded with a letter saying: “I’d be honored to be your pen pal. You must understand at times I won’t be able to get back to you as quickly as I might want to. If you’ll agree to be patient, I’ll be your pen pal.” The two then exchanged handwritten letters once a month for two years, between 1985 and 1987.
Hughes even told her that her critiques of his films were the best feedback he ever received:
“I can’t tell you how much I like your comments about my movies. Nor can I tell you how helpful they are to me for future projects. I listen. Not to Hollywood. I listen to you. I make these movies for you. Really. No lie. There’s a difference I think you understand.”
In one letter, Allison shared that she saw the Hughes’ movie Pretty in Pink with her dad, “who was touched by the strong father-daughter relationship” in the story. Hughes responded that he “was happy to have made a movie that brought people together. With teenagers, that’s not an easy thing to do.”
Hughes later gave this piece of encouragement and advice to Allison, “I truly hope all is well with you and high school isn’t as painful as I portray it. Believe in yourself. Think about the future once a day and keep doing what you’re doing. Because I’m impressed. My regards to the family. Don’t let a day pass without a kind thought about them.”
I don’t know whether John Hughes was a Christian or to what faith he subscribed. Not much is known about his personal beliefs. He stopped making films and left Hollywood in 1992 for the privacy of family on a piece of farmland in a small town in northern Illinois. Afraid that movie making politics would eventually corrupt him and his family (a wife and two sons) Hughes left the glitz, glamour and big bucks behind. He never did another interview or pose for another photograph. He remained a celebrity recluse for 17 years until his death on August 7.
What seems to be clear though is that John Hughes truly understood the meaning of flesh and blood, of family, of community. He valued the importance of relationships over everything else. He listened and respected those who the rest of society didn’t listen to—like teenagers. Hughes had great empathy and respect for the angst, fears, anger and self-doubt of the average teenager. In his films as well as his personal relationships, he offered glimpses of hope that life wouldn’t always be mundane and suffocating. He seemed to believe that teens along with numerous other eccentric characters made the world a better place just by being in it.
I hope that each and every one of the children, youth and adults of this church know how special they are, how they are unique creations made by God to build loving community in the world.
We celebrate this sacred truth today (with as much enthusiasm as a parade of people singing Twist and Shout) by kicking-off a new year of Church school and Youth Groups. We celebrate a fresh opportunity to be the family of God, the flesh and blood of Christ. We celebrate the chance to see beyond stereotypes and the things that annoy us about others. We celebrate the prospect of discovering humanity by listening to and caring deeply for another person who may be completely different from us.
We celebrate the potential of God’s unconditional love by eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood. Doing so is not some weird cannibalistic ritual or a rote act of Holy Communion every month. No, eating of the bread of life is about constantly consuming in our hearts, minds and souls the Christ who frees us to share a life of love and mercy with others.
This bread of life that is Christ breathes life into the cosmos, provides true nourishment to every part of creation and sanctifies each life as an amazing gift of God.
“Because each one of us is a brain…and an athlete…and a basket case…a princess…and a criminal” …a freak…a dweeb…a liar…a cheater…a manipulator…a blabbermouth…a jerk…a prude…a hater…a sinner…a saint…a lover…a friend…a righteous dude…a child of God…a consumer of the bread of life.
• The Breakfast Club, 1985
• Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 1987
• Ferris Buehller’s Day Off, 1986
• “Writer-director John Hughes: An Appreciation” by Clint O’Connor, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Thursday August 6, 2009
• “Sincerely, John Hughes” from We’ll Know When We Get There (The Blog of Allison Byrne Fields pen-pal of John Hughes), Thursday August 6, 2009
• “John Hughes’ High School Pen Pal” by Claire Suddath, TIME, Monday August 10, 2009