Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78.23-29; John 6.24-35
+ Have you seen those wonderful Snickers commercials from a couple of years ago? You know the ones. One of my favorites is the one in we see Betty White playing football with a bunch of young guys. At one point, poor Betty gets tackled. One of the guys then comes up to Betty, and says, “Mike, you’re playing like Betty White out there.” A young woman—Mike’s girlfriend, we presume— then comes over to Betty and gives her a Snickers bar. She eats it and magically she turns back into—Mike. We then see Abe Vigoda gets tackled.
I love that commercial! Actually my favorite one is the one with Aretha Franklin and Liza Minella in which the punch line is, “Jeff, every times you get hungry you turn into a diva.”
Been there, been that. Let me tell you.
But we all know that feeling. We are not us when we’re hungry. We do get grouchy and snippy when we’re hungry. We mumble and we complain. And we’re unpleasant to be around. We are not “us” when we’re hungry. We too do it when we’re hungry. Which explains my attitude all the time. After all, the jokes goes, all I live off is grass and twigs—ah, vegans!
Those commercials and that line could very well have been used on some of the people in our scriptures readings for today. 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.
But in their hunger, God provides for them. God provides them this mysterious manna—this strange bread from heaven. Nobody’s real clear what this mysterious manna actually was. It’s often described as flakes, or a dew-like substance. But it was miraculous.
Now, in our Gospel, we find the same story of the Israelites and their hunger, but it 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 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. When we are spiritually hungry we also are not “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, hungry, shaking our fists at the skies and at God. We, like them, cry and complain 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.
I know that in my case, I went so self-assuredly. I went certain that this was what God wanted for me. I was sure I had read all the signs. I had listened to that subtle voice of the Spirit within me. I had gauged my calling from God through the discernment of others. And then, suddenly, there I was. What began as a concentrated stepping forward, had become an aimless wandering. And, in that moment, I found myself questioning everything—I questioned myself, I questioned the others who discerned my journey, I questioned the Spirit who I was so certain spoke within me. And, in that emptiness, in that frustration, I questioned God.
And guess what I did then? I turned into Betty White. Actually I turned into Maria Callas. The Diva. I complained. And I lamented.
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, there is no real reason to despair.
As followers of Jesus, 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 desolate times. All we have to do, when we can’t seem to do anything else, is partake of the Eucharist. And when we do, we know that God’s presence in this “bread of God” will be there for us.
This Bread we share and the wine we drink is the very “bread of God.” This is what Eucharist is all about. This is why the Eucharist is so important to us.
I have been recently downsizing a bit at the Rectory. I have way too many books and, every so often, I have to sort them out. This past week, as I was going through my books, I came across a book I bought years ago and never read. It was Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell.
Now, I love Rob Bell. So, I don’t know why I never read this book. I think, for some reason, I just didn’t like the title. But I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading through the book, that it is about the Eucharist. And there was a wonderful passage Bell shares. He posts several difficult questions, any one of which we have no doubt asked at some point in our journey.
“Where was God when I tested positive?
Where was God when I was suffering?
Where was God when I lost my job?
Where was God when I was hungry?
Where was God when I was alone?”
“The Eucharist,” Bell says, “is the answer to the questions.”
Where was God? God was right here. Right here, with us. And continues to be. No longer can we accuse God of being distant. Because, God has come to us. God came to us in Jesus. And continues to come to us in this meal. Again and again.
Here, we truly do eat the Bread of angels. Here, we do partake of the grain of heaven. This is our manna in our spiritual wilderness. In this Eucharist, at this altar, we find God, present to us in just exactly the way we need God to present to us.
In our hunger, God feeds us.
In our grumbling and complaining, God quiets us. After all, 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.
When we are hungry, we not really “us.” But in this meal—in this Eucharist—we truly do become us. The real us. The us we are meant to be.
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,” Jesus says. “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. Our grumbling spiritual stomachs are silenced. Our spiritual loneliness is vanquished. Our cravings are fulfilled. 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. And, in turn, we become the bread of life to others because we embody the One whom we follow.
“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 the One we encounter in this Bread and wine take from us our gnawing hunger and our craving thirst. And when he does, he will have given us what we have been truly craving all along.