If you grew up in the 1950s and 60s as I did, and if you watched The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, then you probably saw a lot of tap dancing. Performers have their own lingo, and one of my favorite phrases that tap dancers use is “the B.S. Chorus,” their name for that easy, repetitive dance step that never fails to get sustained response from an audience. It is the easiest step that dancers ever do, but for some reason the audience always seems to fall for it. Hence the term “B.S.” which, we’re told, does not stand for “Boy Scout”.
In some sense, miracles are the “B.S. Chorus” of Jesus’s ministry. In today’s Gospel, we hear tell of two of them: in the first, Jesus feeds five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish. In the second, he walks on the water, crossing a rough lake to calm the fears of his companions in a boat.
It must have really rankled Jesus that, for all the time he spent talking about love, faith, compassion, and justice, the crowds always loved those big miracles. In fact we know it rankled him, because a little later in this sixth chapter of John we hear him say, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”[John 6:26] “Do it again, Jesus!” However much we preachers want to be appreciated for the nuanced subtleties of our ministries, the crowd always seems to hanker for another rendition of the B.S. Chorus.
The two miracle stories we heard today are separated in John’s gospel by this intriguing verse:
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. [John 6:15]
I will bet that walking on water and feeding five thousand people with mere scraps were real crowd-pleasers. Some biblical scholars assert that many in the crowds followed Jesus not so much because of his teaching and healing but because he appeared to be something of a first-century magician.
John 6:15 suggests that Jesus himself was aware of this problem. “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” He knew that, as much as his vision of life offered a new way to live as compassionate comrades in a community of liberation and justice, the crowds would be happier if he dropped the philosophy and just kept on doing the old B.S. Chorus. In this intriguing moment we see Jesus going apart to recover himself and remember what he came out to do in the first place. Lots of folks will love you when you hand out free food and entertain them with magic in the bargain. But playing to the adulation of the crowd only takes one so far; and when your fans pull you away from your core reason for being, then it is time to take stock and move on.
I know a great priest in Boston named Ed Rodman—a man who has lived his life as both activist and seminary professor. After a lifetime of social justice work and teaching, Ed formulated some sayings he codified as “Rodman’s Rules.” My favorite is the first one: “Never believe your own propaganda.”
Never believe your own propaganda. You could say that this morning’s Gospel—with its brief glimpse into the interior life of Jesus—exemplifies the wisdom of Ed Rodman’s first rule. Never believe your own propaganda. Just because you project an image outward to the world, there’s no reason that you have to fall for it yourself.
This year I’ve been reading and studying a lot about the great Roman Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. Merton was a brilliant and complex man who wrote about many issues, but I am most deeply engaged by his reflections on what it means to be an authentic human being. Following many Jungian thinkers, Merton believed that in childhood and adolescence one develops a “false self”—an identity that will please our various authority figures. That false self helps us leave home and enter adulthood, but there comes a time when it is no longer adequate to the challenges of our situation. What we often call the “mid-life crisis” is, for Merton and others, a time when our false self breaks up, and we receive the opportunity to discover and live out of our true one. In Merton’s words,
It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself and for you sanctity consists in being your self and that, in the last analysis, your sanctity will never be mine and mine will never be yours, except in the communism of charity and grace.
FOR me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. [“Things in Their Identity,” New Seeds of Contemplation]
Following Thomas Merton’s analysis, we might think of Jesus’s withdrawal to the mountain as an attempt to reconnect with his true, authentic self. Jesus knew who he was, and in the Gospels we repeatedly see him behaving not as a traditional holy man is expected to act but as a grounded, compassionate human being would. In the face of human need, Jesus breaks rules. In spite of a restrictive purity code, he embraces those who are ritually unclean. Faced with spiritual practices that pretend in themselves to guarantee sanctity, Jesus points us instead to examine the state of our own hearts.
Jesus lived coherently and transparently, and he invites us into the same kind of living. The way Thomas Merton frames this is as a choice between our true or false selves. A priest friend of mine who is also a therapist puts the alternatives this way: are we going to persist in the actions that satisfy our ego—that projection of who we are to others; or are we going to engage in work that grows and nurtures our self? The columnist David Brooks has framed this choice as between the résumé self—the version of me that I list on my résumé—and “eulogy self”—the version of me I would like the preacher to expound on at my funeral. However you understand this tension—true versus false self, ego versus self, résumé versus eulogy—it’s clear that human life is always lived under the opportunity to choose between projecting an identity outward and living an identity from within.
And what we see in the Gospel this morning is how Jesus—an authentic, grounded human being—navigates this tension. The crowds loved the first, loaves and fishes, trick—in fact they loved it so much they wanted to make him king. They are hungry for another big event. Jesus withdraws, regroups, and then comes back for an encore—this time walking on the water. So it’s not as if he totally abandons his public persona. He bows to the ego’s demands and satisfies the crowd’s hunger for a holy magician. But we are led to believe that, in that centering pause between miraculous feeding and magical walking, Jesus went apart long enough to remember and rediscover who he actually was. And as the gospel story plays itself out for the rest of his ministry, we see Jesus letting the crowd-pleasing side of him decline so that his deeper, more authentic aspects might emerge.
You and I—especially the older ones among us—are familiar with this ongoing struggle between ego and self. The rewards of the ego—power, status, money, fame—may satisfy in youth, but later in life they pall. As we age, life invites us to let go of the transitory pleasures of the ego and seek the satisfactions that abide. As we shed the false self, the true one begins to emerge. One might say that moving out of ego and into self is the primary work of old age. The career-topping achievement that meant so much to you at thirty means less when you’re sixty-five. Those relationships you took for granted when younger now seem to be the only things deserving your time and attention. The world rewards the ego. There are no public celebrations for the virtues of the true self. But who we are matters, and these are the choices always on offer for us human beings. In this as in so many life areas, the Gospel shows us how Jesus himself could make them. And his making them empowers us to make them, too.
Never believe your own propaganda. For you to be a saint means to be yourself. Jesus withdrew to the mountain by himself. As we face into the challenges of any given moment, it is always tempting just to give them another version of the old B.S. Chorus. But life is not a tap dance; and when you’re honest with yourself you know the difference between what is bogus about you from what is real. So let go of your false self. Encourage your true one. Join Jesus on life’s journey into peace and wholeness and authenticity. As we gather this morning at God’s table, may the bread and wine of this sacred meal strengthen us to go forward on that journey, to move away from the claims of ego and toward the growth of the self, and to discover—with Jesus and each other—who we really are. Amen.