Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
St. Michael and All Angels
One of the dangers of interpreting scripture is the temptation to caricature people and situations as if they were less than they really are. We like to make everyone one-dimensional. I hear the Israelites complaining in Exodus and because I know where this is going, it is easy for me to diminish their complaints. In my head, I hear the voices of Doug and Wendy Whiner from Saturday Night Live many years ago who whined about everything, which alienated everyone around them. The skits are very funny portraits of our ability to whine and complain about almost anything while making little to no effort ourselves. But this text is much more complex than that.
Our tendency to reduce people and situations to one dimension is contributing to the breakdown of our political system. We choose to see candidates as simply pro-this or anti-that and miss the fullness of who they are. We criticize actions without taking the time to educate ourselves about the whole story. Watch out Doug and Wendy Whiner…you have some competition! This kind of thinking and behavior does great damage to our society as we quickly write people off believing they have nothing to offer us. We see it everywhere we turn as if each issue can be reduced to a sound bite or a headline. We have been flooded this week with stories about Chick-Fil-A. We all know that it isn’t about a chicken sandwich, but it is too easy to take a position without doing the deeper work. I felt that as I walked in the gay pride parade this summer past protesters waving signs of judgment. I wished they weren’t there. I didn’t want to engage them in any meaningful way. If we are going to grow as a community, as a society, as a world, we have to take the next steps together and really come to the table in new ways.
All of the readings today invite us to swim in deeper waters, to notice the layers underneath the surface, and to place our trust in a God we simply cannot grasp. Where do we get the idea that we should place people in boxes while elevating our own thinking as superior? The Ephesians text calls us to humility and love so that we can maintain the unity of the Spirit. It goes on to show that diversity is God’s good creation and then circles back to the purpose of the diversity… to build up the body of Christ. Whew! That’s quite a ride! It’s all there and there is nothing one-dimensional about this text. Diversity and unity are part of the same whole.
The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. They led a miserable life and cried out to God to deliver them, but deliverance didn’t prove to be so easy either. First there was the harrowing escape, then there was the long journey through the wilderness and then the reading today describes the next big hurdle. They were hungry with no sign of food on the horizon. After all they had experienced, they wondered if being a slave wasn’t so bad and they wished they could go back to the known misery of being a slave instead of the unknown despair of the wilderness.
We pray “give us this day our daily bread” but I’m not sure that we mean it. We like our pantries full and refrigerators stocked. It makes us feel secure, but here we encounter the truth that security is not found in stuff. Security is in God. I keep hearing the psalmist ask, “from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121: 1b-2) Then I wonder what I can do to be more secure in myself.
I love to camp and do things outdoors, but I also really like to feel safe and secure. It’s a tricky balance and I’m wondering about how I can rely on God for daily bread in each day. Just this week, I completed an assignment for the Soulcraft program I am doing this year. We were supposed to do a daywalk… spend a full day out on the land with no food, no people, and no human shelter. My agenda was to be without an agenda. That was hard. It was scary to spend a whole day trusting God and nothing else. I have a terrible sense of direction and getting lost was a very real possibility. I set out at dawn with the rising sun and setting moon as my companions and began to walk. Over and over, I came across a rock that was layered. Each of the layers was thin and fragile, breaking off easily. Together the layers were strong. I saw deer, rabbits, a coyote, all kinds of birds, and I watched a hawk for a long time. Not one of them had an agenda beyond being present to the moment. They clearly understand their place in the larger world. They take only what they need. In that day, I felt the complete freedom to just be where I was, to notice what was in front of me and to experience the goodness of God’s creation.
I have been fascinated this summer by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. In attempt to deal with profound grief and find a focus for her life that was spiraling into destruction, Cheryl bought a backpack and boots and began to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She had never backpacked before and discovered her own version of “daily bread” as she took step after step into something wildly unpredictable. It’s not as romantic as you would think. Her shoes didn’t fit right, the backpack was WAY too heavy and she found herself in over her head more than once. The piece that amazed me was that she learned to live each day and nothing more.
As a person of faith, I find that exciting! To live each day completely dependent on the one who created us sounds like complete and utter freedom. Does that mean I have to give up my house, my pantry, and my bank account? Clearly we aren’t going to walk away from all security, but there is this larger question about what it means to trust in God. We talk about it, but what does it really look like?
The crowd that Jesus fed in the gospel lesson last week have tracked him down again. They want more. They have been fed and now they understand that there is something they hunger for that can only come from Jesus and they are determined to get it. They have this strange conversation that feels a bit like “Who’s on first?” Jesus is talking about the bread of God that comes down from heaven and they respond, “Give us this bread always.” Jesus’ reply invites them into something deeper than they have language for...they think they are asking for bread and he reframes it for them. He says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Any idea what that means? I know we like to master things by understanding them. But I think we are in over our head here…and that’s a good thing. When asked to explain the Eucharist, John Calvin, a theologian who profoundly shaped the formation of the Presbyterian Church, said he “would rather experience it than to understand it.”
I am not suggesting that we check our brains at the door or give up thinking about faith. Actually, I would say the opposite: we are called to be part of something much greater than ourselves and it requires the fullness of who we are. I do believe that when we simply jump on a position, we miss an opportunity to engage fully in one another’s lives. We need to show up every time with humility and love as Ephesians describes. It is here that we grow… when we are open. We begin with the one who calls himself the “bread of life” and find really following him will take us into places that are unpredictable and uncomfortable.
Our beginning isn’t in our perfection, but in our willingness to make room for God to lead. All of these texts ask us to shift our gaze and trust in God whose steadfast love and faithful provision are beyond our ability to grasp. But it is here as we come in humility and love, offering what we have, that we discover we are indeed the body of Christ.
We live in a fast food world where the answers are available on the Internet. When we are stumped, we grab our smartphones and ask them to enlighten us. We don’t like to live in ambiguity. We choose quick fixes and easy solutions rather than grappling with the depth of a God who calls us into relationship. I am astonished at these scriptures today. I hope you will go home and live with them this week. Don’t take what I say and leave it at that. Listen for the depth of God’s message for you, for us. We are being called to build up this body in love by bringing all that we are and by trusting that the manna we receive each day is enough.