Sunday, August 5, 2012
Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78.23-29; John 6.24-35
+ For those of you who know me, you know I don’t complain a lot. I really don’t. In fact, I think, to some extent, that I have perfected the art of putting on the professional mask when things go awry. Some of you have mentioned lately that you were surprised by some of my latest Facebook updates in which I confessed to be dealing with a lot of physical pain recently following my car accident in June. I’ve learned that I can fake it very well and I have perfected that art of making sure no one knows what’s going on inside me, especially during the liturgies. It’s a good thing to master for a priest.
But, let me tell you, privately, I do complain a lot. And to my inner circle of friends and colleagues, I complain more than I should. Not about any of you, of course. Now about St. Stephen’s. But about my physical aches and pains, which have increased tremendously these past few weeks. And, of course, some of issues with the larger church as well.
I do have to admit, it has been a very difficult summer—for many reasons. Which of course is simply the capstone on two of the most difficult years of my life. These difficult times are what you have heard me call “fast years.” I don’t mean “fast” as in speed. I mean fast as in fasting. As in lean years. As in years of hunger. And I’m not talking about physical hunger. But spiritual hunger. Maybe emotional hunger.
These have been years of my own personal “wandering about in the wilderness,” so to speak. And we all have to have these fast years. Because as we all know, as Christians, we have fasting in our lives and we have feasting. That’s just the way life works.
So, I hope the few people who have actually heard me complain during these past few “fast years”, will forgive me. But complaining is not necessarily a bad thing.
Certainly today, we get some complaining in our scripture readings. In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures—from Exodus—we find the Israelites, in their hunger, complaining and grumbling. In some translations, we find the word “murmuring.” Over and over again in the Exodus story they seem to complain and grumble and murmur.
To be fair, complaining and grumbling would be expected from people who are hungry. We, in their place, would be doing the same thing no doubt. But in their hunger, God provides for them. God provides them this mysterious manna—this strange bread from heaven.
Nbody’s real clear what this mysterious manna actually was. It’s often described as flakes, or a dew-like substance. But it was miraculous.
In our psalm, we find the story of the Israelites in the wilderness echoed in song and poetry. We find the psalmist proclaiming that
“God satisfied their greed”
In the Prayer Book’s version of the Psalm, that phrase if translated. “God gave them what they craved.” I love that phrase.
“[God] gave them what they craved.”
It also adds an other word to our “lexicon of the day”—craving. Craving is a great word to use. Craving seems to truly convey the gnawing aspect of hunger. And again, not necessarily physical hunger from lack of food. If were to ask ourselves what is it we are craving in our own lives, few of would probably say it is food. But many of us would say things like, love, or acceptance or peace of mind. Or maybe we’re just craving the fact that a nation-wide restaurant chain like Chick-Fil-A will just close. Or at least turn their hearts and minds away from their weird homophobia.
Finally, in our Gospel, we find the story of the Israelites and their hunger has been turned around entirely. As our Liturgy of the Word for today begins with hunger and all the complaining and murmuring and grumbling and craving that goes along with it, it ends with fulfillment. We find that the hungers now are truly the hungers and the cravings we have just discussed—the hungers and the cravings of our souls, of our hearts. Now, this kind of spiritual hunger is just as real and just as all-encompassing as physical hunger. It, like physical hunger, can gnaw at us.
We too crave after spiritual fulfillment. We mumble and complain and murmur when we are spiritually unfulfilled. We too feel that gaping emptiness within us when we hunger from a place that no physical food or drink can quench. In a sense, we too are, like the Israelites, wandering about in our own wilderness—our own spiritual wilderness. Most of us know what is like to be out there—in that spiritual wasteland—grumbling and complaining, shaking our fists at the skies and at God. We, like them, cry and lament. We feel sorry for ourselves and for the predicaments we’re in. And we, like them, say to ourselves and to God, “If only I hadn’t followed God out here—if only I had stayed put or followed the easier route, I wouldn’t be here.”
We’ve all been in that place. We’ve all been in that desert, to that place we thought God had led us. We went so self-assuredly. We went certain this was what God wanted for us. We had read all the signs. We had listened to that subtle voice of the Spirit within us. We had gauged our calling from God through the discernment of others. And them, suddenly, there we were. What began as a concentrated stepping forward, had become an aimless wandering. And, in that moment, we found ourselves questioning everything—we questioned ourselves, we questioned the others who discerned our journey, we questioned the Spirit who spoke within us. And, in our emptiness, in our frustration, we questioned God. And we complain. And we lament.
Lamenting is a word that seems kind of outdated for most of us. We think of lamenting being some overly dramatic complaining. Which is exactly what it is. It was what we do when we feel things like desolation. Like hunger, few of us, again I hope, have felt utter desolation. But when we do, we know, as followers of Jesus, that we will find our strength and consolation in the midst of that spiritual wilderness. We know that manna will come to us in that spiritual desert. And that manna, for us, is the Eucharist. The Eucharist sustains us and holds us up during those times. All we have to do, when we can’t seem to do anything else, is partake of it. And when we do, we know that Jesus will be present for us.
Jesus is very present in the Bread we share and the wine we drink. This is what Eucharist is all about. This is why the Eucharist is so important to us. Here, we truly do eat the Bread of angels. Here, we do partake of the grain of heaven. In this Eucharist, at this altar, we find Jesus, present to us in just the way we need him to present to us. In our hunger, he feeds us with himself. In our grumbling and complaining, he quiets us, for when we are eating and drinking, we can’t complain and grumble. And unlike the food we eat day by day, the food we eat at this altar will not perish.
In this Eucharist, in the Presence of Jesus we find in this bread and this wine, we find that our grumbling and murmuring and complaining have been silenced with that quiet but sure statement that comes to us from that Presence we encounter here:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In the echo of that statement, we are silenced. In the wake of those powerful words, we find our emptiness fulfilled. We find the strength to make our way out of the wilderness to the promised land Jesus proclaims to us.
“I am the bread of life,” he says to us.
This is the bread of life, here at this altar.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
So, let us come to the bread of life Let us him take from us our gnawing hunger and our craving thirst. And when does, he will have given what we have been craving all along.