‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery’ was preached by Keith Trivasse at St John with St Mark’s Church on 5th August 2018. It’s based on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John 6:24-35.
Slavery and Food
One of the effects of being a prisoner in the long-term is that you become used to prison. Prison, in effect becomes a security blanket around you. Hence you do not need to think, prison does it for you. Now long-term prisoners coming up to release should be going through a programme of partial release to get them used to the outside again, and to learn how to think again. As Bob Marley sang, ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery’.
Our story from Exodus is a story about mental slavery and the problems of freedom. It is also a story about food. The Israelites are being led through the wilderness. The Israelites complain to Aaron and Moses: ‘If only we had died in Egypt. We could have eaten at the fleshpots and have had plenty of bread to eat’. Death in slavery was preferable to being free in the wilderness, at least they would have plenty of food. The Israelites have yet to shed their mental slavery. The years of being slaves to the Egyptians led the Israelites to take on the thinking of their Egyptian overseers and masters. Now they were being asked to take responsibility for themselves and learn again about their God. Truly they were being asked to emancipate themselves from mental slavery.
Bob Marley, singing his Redemption Song, sang the line, ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery’. He sang this to Black audiences who had become used to thinking as if they were White and had cooperated with their enslavement by the White folk. He sang the line to wake up his people and to break the bonds of habit and thought that imprisoned them. For Bob Marley, as a Black prophet, Exodus and its story of a faltering grasp of freedom became the story of Black liberation.
The Israelites do not grasp that to be free must mean living in the wilderness, the place where they might meet God. Aaron and Moses receive the command from God. God has heard the complaint of the Israelites and God will provide food in the wilderness. God will cause to come down food which the Israelites will gather in daily amounts and, in another story gather double the amount on the Sabbath-eve so that they do not work on the Sabbath. They are to be tested to see if they will be obedient to God. This means that they really must only gather enough for the day. They must learn to live on the bounty of God. They are to live purely on God’s will and not their own.
The story has it that a cloud came down and left a deposit on the ground. This, said Moses, was bread from God. We might call it manna from heaven. God did not give up on the rag-tag group of escaped slaves. God heard their complaint and responded. The people came very close to giving up but learned to trust God-in-the-wilderness as being their God and accepted the manna from heaven. They were learning, very slowly, to handle the issue of freedom, they were learning to make simple requests of the God who loved them and who had achieved their freedom, not for death but for life. A later prophet, Hosea, would summon a sinful Israel to find again God in the wilderness.
Our reading from John’s gospel also has the feeling of taking place in the wilderness. The reading takes us through part of a dialogue between Jesus and the people and ends with Jesus claiming to be the bread of life. We need to remember that just before today’s reading Jesus had performed the miracle of feeding the 5000. The people wish to seize Jesus and make him king; a position which would have prematurely brought him into conflict with Rome. Jesus departs….and the people catch up with him and then comes today’s dialogue. Firstly, Jesus states that they saw a sign and misinterpreted it.
Signs in John’s gospel are crucially important. Signs point away from the person and towards God. The wedding at Cana in Galilee with the miraculous turning water into wine is the sign of the abundance and grace of God. The feeding of the 5000 in the wilderness is the constitution of a new Israel brought into being by the abundant grace of God. This was wrought by the messianic figure of Jesus. To crown him king would be to fail to realise that he is already the anointed Son of God. He is the Christ.
That the people misinterpreted the feeding is a sign of their need to be emancipated from mental slavery. They, too, like the Israelites of old, need to wrestle with the issues of freedom.
Bread of life
Our reading from John ends with Jesus declaring himself to be the bread of life, that came down from heaven. Jesus is deliberately using the text we heard from Exodus to sharpen what he is saying. This is the bread of life. That life will go into the mouth of death by dying but in that death he will be raised up into new life and be seen to be the King of Kings. Crucifixion becomes enthronement as the Bread of Life feeds the living and the dead and raises us up into new life.
We are called to live with the issues of freedom and we are called to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. We are being called to learn the ways of the freedom of God.
School for freedom
Church is actually a school for freedom. We are free to do as we will, but we have to do that in community. So we have to learn to be free and love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Church is the community where we learn this. This means that sometimes church is boring, tedious, other times it is bursting with excitement. It all depends…on each other and how we are. But all the time we are wrestling with how to live freely and in community.
The Bread of Life which we have at the altar is the heart of our worship. It constitutes the Church as Jesus constituted the new Israel in the feeding of the 5000. As we come to Communion we are coming before the one who is the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. And we are, as a community, being taken, blessed, broken and shared out, out of love for the world. If we read the signs right, and lay aside our slavery to sin, we, too, become the Bread of Life. Alleluia. Amen.