“What is it?”
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 1 August 2021 [Proper 13]:
Exodus 16:2-4,9; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
One of the ways that I have tried to provide you with confidence in knowing the Bible and how scripture functions in our life of faith is to teach that there are five, big, organizing stories that focus scripture’s purpose and meaning. These organizing, headline stories act like lenses, through which all the other scripture entries need to be seen and clarified. So, in preparation for the test that will be administered at summer’s end and to make sure that everyone receives a passing grade, here are the five, big, organizing biblical stories: Creation; Covenant; Exodus; Exile; and Return.
Don Hewitt, the creator of the award-winning, television news program, “Sixty Minutes”, was asked for the reason this television news program was so successful. Without missing a beat, Hewitt responded that the secret to the show’s unprecedented success lay in four, simple words: “Tell - me - a - story”. So it is with the Bible and its purpose and meaning. The Holy Scriptures contain the stories of what it means and what it takes to belong to God and to one another, which brings me back to the one overriding biblical story in which today’s Old Testament and gospel lessons are thoroughly rooted. That big story is Exodus.
As its name conveys, Exodus is a story that describes what it means to belong to God and to one another in the context and reality that the God-life is about deliverance from captivity and oppression and into restoring the creative freedom God intends life to be like. Our Old Testament lesson for today is an episode in this great story of liberation and new life.
(Allow me a quick interjection in this regard: This is the reason that in our Anglican liturgical tradition the scriptures that are present in our worship are often referred to as “lessons”. They are much more than “readings”. That they are frequently called “lessons” conveys that these “reading” contain something important for us to learn.)
Now, back to the task at hand. In this lesson’s reading, we find ourselves in the midst of God’s people, as they live into their Exodus. Specifically, the Hebrews are discovering that facing the hard reality of freedom’s deliverance is no walk in the park. For forty years, the people of Israel walked through the harsh wilderness in hopes of entering the “Promised Land”, but this journey contained many severe trials, not to mention that the journey took two generations to complete.
In today’s episode of the Exodus story, we confront the issues of what many families experience on a trip with young children. Cries of “are we there yet?” portend trouble that flares up into rebellion. In the case of the Hebrews, they first began to murmur about the lack of water in the wilderness, which is completely understandable. So, God told Moses to strike the rock, from which a fire hydrant of water shot out. But (as we hear in today’s installment) then hunger struck the wanderers, and they began to engage in nostalgic illusions of the “good old days”, when in Egypt they had jobs, three meals a day, and a place to sleep – conveniently forgetting that they were expendable human property – slaves of owners.
These hunger-driven complaints were levied against the leadership of Moses and his brother, Aaron; but in actuality they were indictments of God by the people of God. So, the story goes, God gave them what they wanted and needed and soon craved. It was, as the reading mentions, God’s way of testing his people.
And here again it behooves us to acknowledge what for many of us is an emotional objection to a notion of God who tests his people’s commitment. How can we trust and sincerely love such testing figure? Except as every good teacher knows, tests – good tests – are meant to register what has been learned and to what extent what has been learned is willingly lived. The test of faith for the Hebrews in the wilderness and for all of us when our faith comes to push or shove is this: Is God truly our God? To answer this faith question and its doubts, it befits us to recall our stories, our God-stories.
When we were hopelessly enslaved, did God rescue and liberate? When we were thirsty and in dire straits in the wilderness, did God deliver us? And now, when our own provisions have been exhausted to the point where starvation is imminent, can we trust the Holy One again? There are stories, God-stories, that provide us with an important track record, one that allows us to trust an unknown future to a known God.
In this part of the Exodus story, God is indignant at the people’s obtuseness and the thinness of their faith. Responding to what is in essence a complaint of “What have you done for us lately?”, God told Moses that he would supply the people with meat in the evening and bread for the morning. Perhaps then, the holy One reasoned, the people would know that God is God – faithful and true.
Responding to Israel’s frightening hunger, God caused quail to flock in the people’s camp, until the air was filled with the smell of barbequed bird from the grilling fires. And in the morning, on the ground’s surface, there was a fine, flaky substance, as if a light frost had come during the night. Yet, it did not melt when the sun arose. Tellingly, at the sight of this frosting, the people asked Moses, “What is it?” His answer was, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
“What is it?” The Hebrew for the question of “What is it?” is man-hu“, manna”. It is a double entendre in Hebrew, as if to say, “What is it?” and answering declaratively, “it is what!” “Manna”, the “What”, the “Stuff,” the Lord’s Bread.
Now keep this part of the Exodus story in mind, as we turn to the gospel.
John tells us that in the wake of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, there came a point in the festivities when the great crowd suddenly realized that the Lord and his disciples were nowhere to be seen. They had left and moved on. Evidently, someone had seen or heard a report of Jesus and the Twelve heading out in a boat in the general direction of Capernaum. So, the crowd did the same and sailed off to find the wonderworking Jesus. When they arrived at the other end of the lake, the crowed surrounded Jesus as if he were some kind of rock star. “Rabbi, when did you get here?” But Jesus knew that how he had made his way was not the important question. Pivoting with his usual adroitness, the Lord got right to the point: “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free.” [Message. 6:26]
And then Jesus supplied the clarifying lesson: “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.”
When the people defensively react to this news by saying that they have Moses, who gave the people bread from heaven to eat, implicitly saying, “can you do better than that?”
If Jesus’ response not to waste our energy on food that perishes is a clarifying lesson, then his answer to this second question is the punch line. “Moses gave you bread from heaven, but my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.”
Jesus paused, allowing the crowd to buzz and clamor for the Bread that lasts, as if it were something that could be gathered and collected. Then, finally, he dropped the mike. “I am the Bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Mann -hu. Manna. “What is it?” “I am it…”
In the next three Sundays, our gospel lesson will continue to come from this same sixth chapter of John, and the narrative will continue to ratchet up in increasing intensity precisely over the reality and the consequences of Jesus’ proclamation that he is God’s true Bread. Nowhere this side of the story of the cross itself is there more heartache and suffering than in what will be the rejection by most of the crowd over Jesus being God’s true Exodus Bread.
As it turns out, giving us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves proves to be too threatening to our sense of control and to our imaginations. We would rather continue to be insatiably hungry and helplessly driven by that hunger than risk receiving what God alone gives in Christ. This is so because deliverance (Exodus) and its attending freedom transform us and move us beyond our craving.
I end with some questions; questions I hope we can touch upon in the next three weeks as we move through John’s sixth chapter and continue to focus on the reality of God’s heavenly Bread. The first question is: What is your deepest hunger really about? Another question is: What have you used to try and satisfy that hunger? The third question is: How’s that going?
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Stay tuned. Amen.