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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

What We Crave-Remix - 08/01/2021

“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 spiritual ancestors of us Jesus followers gathered here as Church today.

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 overlords 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, a city overtaken in turn 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)

How quickly 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 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.

In a way this story reminds me of raising kids. As they grow up and mature, they want to be more independent, make their own decisions and choices, and boy can that get messy for the entire household. And sometimes, I noticed when my kids pushed hard into that new and eventual territory of “freedom” from parents and rules, they would unnerve themselves and quickly get back into the nest to feel safe and begin looking for that next chance to push again.

I wish I had this more holistic, more mature understanding of human behavior at the time my kids were still home. In those moments of their overconfidence turned to insecurity and back and forth again … in those moments of their insistence on independence and resistance to household responsibility … well, in those moments, my response was too often frustration, anger, impatience.

It was very different than God’s response to Moses & Co. 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 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 – this second week in five 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: That God’s reign, their eternal lives had come. He was bringing it and they were freed of their oppressive overlords – like empire, corrupted people, even disease, death and sin. If only they would believe.

Jesus' words to the people who followed him back across the sea – “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) – those words would not have enticed people if he had 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 school and devote funding to school food 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, wondering where the next meal would 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 of him ... in search of more.

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

“What must we do to perform the works of God?” they asked. Were there rituals to perform? Or words to say, ways to behave, things they could do to gain this food that endures forever? They were probably expecting much sacrifice, something hard. Hoops of fire.  

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

Simple, not easy.

Like the Hebrews in the wilderness experienced …

Like we all experience in the paths we travel to maturity, some independence and wisdom…

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 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 multiplied loaves and fishes, love and generosity for 5,000, with a basket of leftovers for anyone who showed up later.

“Show us a sign, so that we may see it and believe you,” they demanded. It was so hard for our Galilean friends to simply believe.

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 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 it says we crave to answer that hunger. And 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 generosity, 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, journeying through waters, feeling hungry, wandering in the wilderness and growing and maturing into a radical trust in a God who has and continues to provide just what we need to push on. 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 – what we really crave – the bread and the life the Jesus has given us, which is always enough. 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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