"Mahna Mahna" – John 8:31-36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free'?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
In an effort to help my oldest son with all the tricky words on his weekly spelling tests, I’m teaching him some memory techniques. Often it involves honing in on the part of the word that he finds tricky and making a simple but somewhat absurd story out of it. The theory goes, if he remembers the simple absurd story, he remembers how to spell the word.
For example, last week a word that proved difficult was Wednesday, with it’s odd “nes” middle that isn’t even pronounced. I pointed out to him that the word Wednesday has three parts. I told him in the beginning two birds get married at a wed-ding. Next, they build a nest; but they don’t want the “t” from a nest (because birds never ever drink nest-tea), so you drop the “t” from nest. So, the birds have the wed-ding, a nest without the ’t', and finish with a normal day. Wed-Nes-Day.
It sounds silly and it is a lot of work to put into memorizing one word, but he learned it. Once he learns the technique and starts creating his own stories, the technique will prove even more effective.
I wasn’t taught this memory technique until later in my education, and I credit it with helping me succeed in seminary. My first seminary course was Biblical Greek language. Vocabulary memorization was a big part of the course. One of the first words I memorized was the Greek root meno, meaning “to remain, continue, or abide.” I remember writing the word meno on a blank flashcard and a song immediately popped into my head – a song from my childhood that I certainly hadn’t thought about or heard in over a decade – a simple silly song that seemed to go on forever, as if it could continue indefinitely – a song that had only one lyric, which sounded enough like the word meno for me to remember it:
Whenever I’d encounter a variation of the word meno, the song "Mahna Mahna" immediately started playing in my head and I knew that it meant “to remain, continue, or abide” because the song did just that – it remained stuck in my head and continued on and on and on.
As I was reflecting on the appointed gospel text for today I noticed Jesus’ phrase, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Continue. Meno. "Mahna Mahna."
The concept of meno – remain, continue, abide – is an important term in John’s gospel, showing up throughout the gospel in Jesus’ sayings including, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56); “You know [the Spirit of Truth] because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (14:17); “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (15:5); and even shows up again in today’s lesson, although most English translations don’t make this clear. “The slave does not abide in the household; the son abides there forever” (8:35).
We can map out important words that John uses alongside his meno-mentions and start to get an understanding of the term’s importance: Word, flesh, blood, truth, disciples, freedom, the Son, forever, the Spirit of Truth, bearing fruit, “he will be in you.”
Meno – remaining, abiding, and continuing – is an important concept because it permeates every aspect of faith in God, most notably, the incarnation, communion, discipleship, truth, freedom, and the nature of the Trinity.
As theologian Gilberto Ruiz succinctly puts it, “The true disciple ‘remains’ in a faith relationship with Jesus, and it is this disciple who will be set free by knowing the truth revealed by Jesus.”*
Now, all that’s well and good and important. After all, we all want in on the truth; we want to be authentic disciples; we want to be free. But, what exactly does this mean for us in our daily lives? What difference does it make for us to know that God has set us free from sin and promises to lead us in truth as we remain/abide/continue in God’s word? How then are we to act in light of this truth?
The answer to these questions brings us back to that song, “Mahna Mahna" from the Muppets. This time, I’m going to play the song in its entirety, along with its original visual context – the very first episode of The Muppet Show from 1976.
Allow me to set the scene. You’ll find two pink Snowths (snout-mouths; that is the official name, I did my research) singing a simple song in unison, when along comes a new character whose name is Mahna Mahna. The Snowths would prefer for him to sing along to their song, but, as you’ll see, Mahna Mahna has his own song to sing.
At its heart, this Muppets song is about non-conformity and the value of the unrestrained expression of the authentic self. It’s a message about freedom.
The pink Snowths are the symbols of oppression; while Mahna Mahna is the symbol of freedom. If you think I’m reaching a bit too far to make this point, I’ll point out that the first version of this musical skit appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, in the context of the Civil Rights Movement., the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and Woodstock.
This musical skit is all about remaining true to the source of your freedom, which, for Christians, is Jesus Christ – the Son of God who abides in freedom forever and invites us to do the same.
This musical skit invites us to consider whether we are dutifully lock-step with the status quo, or whether we are allowing our freedom through Christ to liberate us to sing a new song, blaze a new path, and break free from the forces that seek to keep us in line.
The Snwoths are everywhere. Politicians tell us what to believe. Partisan news channels and inflammatory radio shows tell us what to believe. Our bosses tell us what to believe. Our inner monologue tells us what to believe. Our customized and unchecked social media feeds tell us what to believe. And each forces us further away from true freedom and liberation, which can be found only by continuing, abiding, remaining, meno-ing, in the truth of Jesus Christ.
Remaining, abiding, and continuing means allowing the word of God to cut through the muck and mire of our lives; it mean allowing the word of God to penetrate our heart and proclaim the truth that God loves us not because of what we’ve done or not done, but simply because God has chosen to love us and will do so forever.
This musical skit, with its focus on non-conformity also makes me think of our theological heritage, in light of the fact that today is a day set aside to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation of the church started 499 years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the wall of the Wittenberg Castle church. Luther advocated for an approach of Christian life in line with "semper reformanda" – "always reforming." Luther blazed his own path in light of the truth of Jesus as revealed to his in the pages of scripture and tradition. This put him at odds with the powers of his day and is a spiritual legacy we inherit today.
So next time you hear the words continue, remain, or abide; next time you encounter them in scripture, I hope this song and musical skit plays on repeat in your mind, reminding you to be true to yourself and the God who loves you above all.