a Homily for Proper 14B
Text: John 6:35, 41-51
In our gospel story, Jesus turns his attention from the crowd to the Jewish leadership. He has been talking about bread—the bread from heaven. He makes reference to the story told in Exodus. It goes a little like this.
The Hebrew people, living in Egypt for generations, are promised liberty by GOD through the power of GOD and the leadership of two brothers, Moses and Aaron. Aaron is the trained leader and Moses is the stutterer called by GOD to lead them. Plague after plague, Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrew people leave. Until finally, in a horrifying act of destruction, celebrated for thousands of years as the Passover, the Hebrews are liberated. Yet, Pharaoh changes his mind and chases the Hebrews out into the wilderness. And in a final awesome act, the people cross the parted sea and Pharaoh’s soldiers chasing after them are drowned in it.
The people aren’t in the wilderness very long before they start to grumble. After such shocking displays of power, being left silently in the wilderness would get us confused, too. However, they give more than just a collective sigh of “now what?” They start attacking Moses. They miss their creature comforts. This whole endeavor is taking too long. They aren’t sure it is actually going anywhere. I can’t help but wonder if GOD hears this grumbling the way I hear my daughter ask from the back seat “are we there yet?” When we are only 5 minutes out from the driveway. And when I tell her, “well, we’ll be driving awhile, so no” she responds with a shout of exasperation “it’s taking too long!”
The people grumble out of confusion, but the grumble is angry, aggressive, and scapegoating. They are angry with GOD, but they yell at Moses.
What follows the liberation in Exodus are the Three Grumblings. In chapters 15-17, the people grumble three times about their conditions. Each time, they take it out on Moses and wish they could just go back to Egypt. Each time, GOD hears their request, and each time, they are surprisingly given what they ask for. First, it is for the swampy water they find to be made clean. Then it is about food. And finally, it is about drinking water again.
This is the story that Jesus is referencing. Specifically, He is making reference to the means of feeding that GOD offers the Hebrew people in Exodus 16. He gives them Manna in the morning and quails in the evening. The manna is a sort of sticky bread flakes that is scraped from the grass that appears each morning when they get up. But GOD gives them specific instructions: collect the manna, distribute it, and eat all that you can. Don’t save it. And on the sixth day, collect a double portion so you won’t collect it on the Sabbath.
Many in the group push the envelope, both on the first morning and on the seventh. They first try to save some, and it goes bad quickly. And then they try to collect some on the Sabbath and find the fields empty. After both cases, GOD holds Moses and Aaron accountable for this rule-breaking, and yet he still shows mercy on the people anyway, even though they broke GOD’s primary condition of trust.
We’ve long taken this story as an exceptional story of trust. That GOD provides, even in the midst of the desert wanderings. And one of the primary teachings is not just the goodness and mercy shown the people by GOD, but as a lesson about trusting GOD. That attempts to squirrel away blessings for a rainy day are an act of distrust. This has a profound impact on the way we talk about stewardship, by the way.
It is just as important that we take it in the whole context. The context of mighty, visible acts of liberation, and then the testing of the community through silent trust. I’m entirely certain we would do the same. We’d grumble after a few days, maybe a few hours, of being liberated. We’d be those small children wondering how long it was going to take and grumbling that it is taking too long. Because we do this already.
This is all of the stuff that Jesus is bringing up with the people when he talks about bread from heaven. Trust and distrust, liberation and confusion, patience and impatience. And He takes it upon Himself and says that He is that bread from heaven. He is the matter of trust and liberation and patience. That they must feed on Him. But He flips it over, doesn’t He? He says:
Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.
The Hebrew people didn’t die because they ate the manna, but because they never learned to trust GOD. This happens later in the Torah, but in effect, GOD kept them in the wilderness for 40 years because they failed to trust GOD for all of 40 days. They didn’t learn the lesson of the Manna. Just like the disciples didn’t learn the lesson about the bread during the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus is now saying that Jesus is the new manna. And unlike the original, simply eating is your display of trust.
It may be hard for us to feel this level of trust or recognize what Jesus is talking about. We are often so busy trying to figure out what Jesus means by His being the bread and how that gives us eternal life. The metaphorical gets mixed up in the literal. Especially if we treat this as Jesus talking about Holy Communion and the “bread”. Many of us were taught to let the wafer dissolve on our tongues so that “we don’t chew Jesus”! And yet Jesus uses the language of eating the bread! How easily we could get confused!
This is our wilderness. Our theological disagreements, church politics, arguing over how we use GOD’s money, how to be Christ for all of the people around us—that is wilderness. And in the middle of it, Jesus directs us to see that He is our food. He is our lifeline. He is our direction. He is our guide. He is our Way through the wilderness. Like the disciples earlier in this chapter, just 2 weeks ago, we just need to want Him in the boat and we arrive at the other shore.
Jesus brings up this story of trust to tell the people that they don’t yet trust enough. And we receive it this morning because we don’t yet trust enough. We trust by doing the work GOD gives us, not the stuff that preserves our prestige. We trust by loving GOD and our neighbor. We trust by gathering in blessed community and sharing in a common meal. We trust by praying and singing. We trust by moving over to the co-pilot’s seat. We trust by wanting Jesus in the boat.
We trust by doing what we’ve been called to do. Feed, evangelize, trust, praise, welcome. The rest is not our job. Doing only what we are called to do and none of the other stuff: that is our best expression of trust.