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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

What We Crave - August 02, 2015

“So the people ate
          and were well filled,
for God gave them what they craved,”
(Ps. 78:29) our psalmist proclaims.

This is a very old story in our biblical tradition – the feeding of God's people. It goes back to Moses, among other places, which is where the Old Testament transports us  today. This reading from Exodus is part of the foundational story of the Israelites, or the Hebrew people – the ancestors of Jesus and the Galileans … and the religious ancestors of us Jesus followers gathered here in this room.

It's the story of a time when the Hebrew people groaned under the oppression of slavery in Egypt – a place where they were of no human value. They were an expendable and regularly replenished resource used by Pharaoh and their Egyptian overloads to make bricks and build monumental structures ... to the gods of others.

Those groans rose to the ears of God as prayers of lament. God heard and responded. Moses was sent to deliver them … and just think of the strange and incredible things these people witnessed! Waters turned to blood, the city was overtaken by frogs, gnats and flies, locusts, boils, darkness. And then there were the bone-chilling screams in the night when all the first-born males were killed, except for the first-born males of the Hebrews.

And it worked. Pharaoh's hardened heart began to fear the Hebrew God and he finally set them free. But just after they left, he changed his mind and his troops pursued them to where Moses parted the Red Sea and led them to safety on the other side while the Egyptians met their demise in the rocky bottom of the sea.

The Hebrews, led by Moses' sister, the prophet Miriam, danced and sang on the shore, praising God for the amazing things done to bring them up out of Egypt.

‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”
(Exodus 15:1b-2a)

But that joyous and care-free mood changed. Where we pick up the story today, they are only about a month into this journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land and this isn't even the first time they've complained. Just before this account of manna and quail is the story of how the people cried out when there was no water fit to drink. God heard their complaints and worked through Moses to make the bitter waters of Marah sweet and sustaining. And now just after that response from God… “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 

The Hebrews were in crisis. They were hungry and in foreign land following these prophets Moses and Aaron and Miriam. And they were going … somewhere, they didn’t know where, God only knew where. And to get to this unknown place in some unknown span of time, they were in traveling through some of the most inhospitable land on the planet.

And so they cried out in their hunger and fear. As much as they wanted to be out from under slavery in Egypt, they still had to learn how to live in that freedom and, more importantly, how to have radical trust that God would provide for them in this wilderness.

God's response … was to hear and answer their complaints. It's as simple as that.

The complaints didn't kindle God's anger. They had water, bread and protein. Their bellies and minds were soothed enough to continue on the trek through the wilderness to the Promised Land with only God to sustain them. After generations of being enslaved, it was not a level of trust that came easily or naturally, but God coaxed and nurtured that trust slowly and with steadfast love.

It is very much like what Jesus is doing in our gospel lesson – the second week in five all centering on hunger and bread.

It might be hard for many of us comfortable Americans to really comprehend famine and hunger – but physical hunger was an everyday issue for the Galileans Jesus was trying to reach with his rather unlikely message.

Jesus' words to these people today – “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (27) – would not have been heard by many, let alone pique their curiosity, if he not first heard their cries of hunger and fear and responded by feeding the 5,000 – the part of this story we heard last week.

We know this is true. It is why we encourage our children to eat before they go to school and devote funding to school breakfast programs – children can't learn well on empty stomachs and the Galileans can't worry about food for eternal life when they are preoccupied, day after day, with their growling bellies and where the next meal will come from.

So Jesus fed them first – only then could they begin to hear what he had to say to them – only then could they respond by climbing into boats and traveling across the waters in search for him ... in search for more.

Jesus removed the distraction of hunger so they could see and feel what they were really craving – salvation … the bread of eternal life.

“What must we do to perform the works of God? … to gain this food that endures forever? … they asked.

And Jesus answered. “Believe.” It's a simple as that. Believe.

But just because it's a simple answer doesn't mean it's an easy one.

Like the Hebrews in the wilderness experienced …

Like we experience still today as citizens of the 21st century following the teachings of a first century wandering rabbi … “simple” does not necessarily come easily or naturally. Perhaps that is why John gives us this long discourse on Jesus as the Bread of Life and why we devote five weeks of the lectionary to the topic. It gives Jesus the chance to coax and nurture the Galileans – and us – slowly and with steadfast love.

The Galileans needed that patience and steadfast love, to be sure. Many of them witnessed for themselves what Jesus was doing in his ministry and the news was fast spreading throughout the region. Miracle workers and traveling preachers were a dime a dozen in Jesus' day, but unlike the others, he was doing it all for free. He was healing the sick, powerfully opening the scriptures and challenging the Jewish leaders who had gotten so cozy with the Roman occupiers. He had walked on water and just the day before fed thousands with five loaves of bread and two fishes. And just look at how they responded to Jesus simple answer to believe. “Show us a sign, so that we may see it and believe you,” they demanded.

For us, even if we've never had to worry about where our next meal was coming from, this simple answer … That the work of God is that we believe in him whom God has sent – is just as difficult. We are not all that different than the Hebrews learning to trust that God would lead them to the Promised Land. We have a lot in common with the the Galileans struggling to believe what Jesus was telling them.

We live in a world that has a million different ways to explain the hungers we feel and then a million fixes for what we crave to answer that hunger. But all too often we find that we are laboring day after day for the food that perishes. Suddenly we find that we are enslaved by the trappings of our world and building monumental structures to the gods of others.

Simple is not easy.

So we gather here, where in God's abundant economy of manna and quail, and bread and fishes, steadfast love and live-giving blessings, a great equalization takes place over and over at our Font and our Table. At both places we re-enact the behavior of our ancient Hebrew ancestors, wandering in the wilderness and growing a radical trust in a God who has and continues to do amazing things for us. We witness signs in the water and the bread and the wine. We catch glimpses of the truth Jesus offers us and respond like the Galileans … “Sir, give us this bread always.” 

And from our very human places we are encouraged to complain and demand and offer up all manner of prayer to our God who will not write us off as ungrateful, world weary and hungry children, but who will hear those complaints and doubts and respond in ways only imaginable to God, and always with exactly what we need.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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