Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
2nd August 2015
Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
For what do you hunger? For what do you crave? How many times have you said, “I wish...” and for what?
“I wish….” Stephen Sondheim built an entire musical around those two words, “I wish.” At the beginning of Into the Woods the narrator tells us, “Once upon a time in a far off kingdom there lay a small village at the edge of the woods.”
And then we are ushered into the story and introduced to the first character, Cinderella, who says, “I wish.” She wants to go to the king’s festival at the palace with her stepmother and stepsisters in the hope of dancing with the prince. And there’s Jack and his cow Milky White; Jack wishes that his cow would produce some milk. There’s the baker and his wife who are childless and wish for a child. “More than anything,” they sing, “more than life, more than jewels, more than riches, more than the moon,” they wish. Jack’s mother sends him to market to sell the cow so that they could buy some bread because they’re starving. She sings, to herself, “I wish my son were not a fool. / I wish my house was not a mess. / I wish the cow was full of milk. / I wish the walls where full of gold- / I wish a lot of things....” Little Red Riding Hood shows up at the baker’s. She wishes to buy a loaf of bread for her grandmother who is home in bed at the mercy of the Big Bad Wolf, who wishes to eat her grandmother. And then there’s the witch who lives beside the baker and his wife, the witch who put a curse on the baker because his father stole some magic beans out of her garden many years ago. The baker’s father and mother wished for something that didn’t belong to them and so the baker’s son was paying the price. He had a curse on him, a curse the baker didn’t know about until the witch showed up and gave them the chance to “reverse the curse.” The witch, too, wishes for something. She wishes for beauty regained, to reverse the curse her mother inflicted on her for losing the magic beans that were planted in her garden. So, now the baker and his wife wish to have the curse reversed and soon all of them—Cinderella, the three stepsisters and stepmother, the prince, Jack, his cow, Little Red Riding Hood, the baker and his wife, the witch—add a giant who lives in the sky at the top of a beanstalk and Rapunzel locked away in a tower (they, too, wish for things)—are implicated in each other’s lives. And all of it is resolved—or not!—in the mysterious woods. And so they go; they journey into the woods.
I think Sondheim offers a brilliant arrangement of Grimms’ so-called "Fairy Tales." The musical first appeared on Broadway in 1987 and the film adaptation was released in 2014. This original, creative telling of these tales by the Brothers Grimm is a searing and profound psychological analysis into the wishes and desires and drives that determine and shape our lives, sometimes consciously, often not; sometimes dictated by our own personal choices; sometimes shaped by external circumstances that we have no control over; sometimes paying the price, as it were, for decisions made, for desires pursued in the lives of the people who have come before us.
The moral of the story, from Sondheim’s perspective, is found in the closing song, “Children Will Listen”:
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen.
Wishes are children.
It’s a cautionary tale that pulls us inward to consider the wishes and desires and hungers of our lives, which sends us into the woods to get the curse reversed.
For what do you hunger? For what do you wish? For yourself, your partner, your spouse? What do you desire for your family? For your children or parents? For what are you searching, craving? Where’s the arrow of desire taking you, moving you? Can you say? What makes you tick?
For some, for many, these are not easy questions to consider. Many move through life unreflectively, giving little thought to what invites them to get up in the morning and propels them into the day and then to do the same tomorrow and the next day and the next. There are some who don’t know what they want because they’ve never been asked. Others cannot acknowledge their own feelings; they haven’t been given permission to say what they want, to honor and value what they desire. Others, still, are afraid to say what they want and wish for because if they do they might somehow jinx it. We’re all a little superstitious at times. Or, maybe, if we say what we wish for then that means we’re responsible for it, that we need to do something about it, to go after it.
Perhaps you know what you desire, what you wish for, what your soul hungers for. But the deeper question, the more important question is why? Why do you wish for the things you wish? Why do you crave the things you crave? Why do you hunger for the things you hunger for? The source of your motivation, that which determines the vector of desire, the direction of your life, that which moves you, flows from how you respond to the why question. Perhaps you know; perhaps you don’t; perhaps you’re afraid to say. But somewhere in your soul, you know.
That’s what Jesus is trying to get the crowds to access, that deeper part of their souls. Desire and hunger are all over John 6. The crowd just witnessed Jesus feed five thousand. He gave them bread. He met one of our most basic needs. Hunger satisfied. But then the crowd goes after him, hunts him down, all the way to the other side of the lake. They ask him, “When did you get here?” Meaning the other side. Jesus gets to the point, “Let’s be honest here, guys, you’re looking for me, not because you saw me demonstrate the power of God but because you ate your fill of the loaves. That’s what you’re really looking for, that’s the hunger that’s motivating you, isn’t it? That’s why you’re following me around, not because of your love for God, but because you want to get something out of me for yourselves.” They reason with him, try to look as if they’re concerned with performing the works of God. They want more proof, more signs. They can’t see it. “How are you different from Moses? He gave manna, food in the wilderness,” they said to him. This coming from the crowd that just witnessed Jesus providing food in their wilderness!
Jesus says, “Let’s be honest again here—Moses didn’t give you the bread from heaven. God gave it to you. And God is still giving you bread from heaven, bread that gives and sustains life, true life, abundant life.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Did they really know what they were asking? Did they know why? Were they ready to be fed by the bread of life—always? Really? Are you? Am I?
God created us with feelings, desires, cravings, and hungers. They come with being human. Sometimes they get the best of us and get us in terrible trouble and lead us far from home. Sometimes they’re holy, when our desires and cravings and hungers of the soul actually help lead us to God, in whom all our desires and cravings and hungers are truly satisfied. That’s what Jesus wants us to see. For what are you hungry? Why? What we wish for, hunger after will be realized, fulfilled in him. Follow the craving, the hunger, the deep desire of your soul, for it will lead you to the One who placed that hunger there in the first place.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). So where do we get this “bread”? How?
Malcolm Guite is a contemporary poet and Anglican priest who lives in Cambridge, England. Over the weekend he shared one of his sonnets in which he asks precisely this question. Where to get bread?
Where to get bread? An ever-pressing question
That trembles on the lips of anxious mothers,
Bread for their families, bread for all these others;
A whole world on the margin of exhaustion.
And where that hunger has been satisfied
Where to get bread? The question still returns
In our abundance something starves and yearns
We crave fulfillment, crave and are denied.
And then comes One who speaks into our needs
Who opens out the secret hopes we cherish
Whose presence calls our hidden hearts to flourish
Whose words unfold in us like living seeds
Come to me, broken, hungry, incomplete,
I Am the Bread of Life, break Me and eat.
 Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine.
 Grimms’ Fairy Tales was first published in 1812 by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It’s often claimed that Into the Woods was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s (1903-1990) The Uses of Enchantment, which offers a Freudian analysis of fairy tales. However, Sondheim says, “Everybody assumes we were influenced by Bruno Bettelheim, but if there’s any outside influence, it’s [Carl] Jung.” Sondheim views fairy tales through lens of Jungian archetypes and the process of individuation. During the composition of the musical Sondheim met with Jungian analysts to access the archetypal dimension of the tales (or Märchen). For a Jungian perspective see Marie-Louise von Franz’s (1915-1998) The Interpretation of Fairy Tales.