It all started with a memory and a pair of miracles.
The memory was the story of God providing manna in the wilderness, which was the first miracle. The second miracle was the one we heard five weeks ago, where Jesus took five barley loaves and two fish and turned them into a feast for over five thousand people.
The crowds that have been following Jesus around after he fed that multitude on the grassy shore saw what Jesus did, and immediately thought he was a second Moses. They started talking about manna in the wilderness with a wistfulness that only someone who hadn’t had to eat manna every single day for 40 years could manage. Manna was what God provided when the Israelites complained about their hunger during the Exodus from Egypt. And those crowds were hungry, no doubt about it.
They might have thought twice about eating it if they had acknowledged what it really is. In her book Bread of Angels, renowned Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor described what manna was in one of her sermons. Manna is believed to be basically dried bug spit,
… or something that rhymes with spit.
And I bet some of you are thinking, “I wish I didn’t know what it is, either.”
Sometimes, just like with hot dogs or Slim Jims or pork rinds—all things I grew up eating as a kid-- it’s just better not to know what’s in something, I guess. But, manna was better than nothing. So basically they ate something called “whatchamacallit” for forty long years in the desert.
Yet at the same time, that’s a long time to eat one thing and not grow to hate it. I was only in college for four years, not forty, but my manna was ramen noodles. Ramen noodles were cheap and easy—ten cents and some boiling water, and you keep body and soul together so you can buy $200 art history textbooks you may never open again! And so I ate ramen noodles a fraction of the time that the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness, but for years afterward I would shudder when I thought about it.
Through the beautiful amnesia of time I now can look back at those days fondly—kind of, like with childbirth. And generations later, those crowds following Jesus had heard the stories of their ancestors eating manna often enough that the idea had become wonderful. Manna was transformed from dried bug spit to something magical in their minds. So they have been pestering Jesus for manna for the entire sixth chapter of John.
But Jesus loves them too much to offer them dried bug spit. He offers them—and us-- something better. He offers us himself. He asks us to believe, and through that belief to invite Jesus to abide within each of us. In doing so, we then abide in Jesus.
Yet because he is being honest, the complaints begin, which turns into anger and offense. “Whoa, now Jesus!” the crowds cry out. “All we want is manna—full bellies without thinking about it too much, so we can go on about our lives.” Again and again, Jesus offers himself to us. Yet too often we’d rather have bug spit.
For five weeks now we have been taking a detour into the Gospel of John and the teachings on Jesus as the bread of life. Maybe they thought Jesus was kidding. But now, in John’s gospel for this Sunday, even the disciples are confounded by Jesus’s sayings about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Some of them recoil in bewildered hurt, blinking their eyes as if emerging from a dream into bright sunlight.
For some of them, the dream was that Jesus would be Moses getting God to conjure up manna. For others of them, the dream was that Jesus would be a warrior king like David or Solomon, perhaps; and walking in the footsteps of his royal ancestor he would vanquish all the foes of the Jews and sit once again in splendor upon a throne.
Or the dream was that the Messiah would be a valiant rebel like the Maccabees, that he would swoop down upon the oppressors of Israel like an avenging fire. His glory would be the people’s glory. Some in the crowd now wonder if they haven’t been following a madman rather than a prophet, a healer, a miracle-worker. They asked for manna and Jesus gives them riddles about eating his own body.
That’s what we’ve been puzzling over alongside that crowd for more than a month. We don’t get what we think we want, and so then we are blinded from seeing the good things we DO receive.
God’s good gifts to us come in packages we often may not be ready for or be able to really appreciate, in ways both great and small. In every instant, life changes, and we can either see those changes as challenges or gifts. In the words of my people, as blessin’s, or lessons.
Jesus invites us to share in the real life of God, if only we can open our eyes and really see the signs of God’s love all around us, although it may not be what we though we wanted at the time.
For instance: all summer long, oh, it’s dry and hot, and who can stand it? But just like that, here’s a wonder! Suddenly from leaden skies rain materializes, determinedly tracing a straight path to the ground. Then the trees begin murmuring louder as the raindrops grow larger and more percussive on the leaves, and the hummingbirds dash for shelter under the leaves of the Rose of Sharon that my husband calls weeds, which are exactly the same size as their bodies. The bees tuck themselves inside the pink, white, and lavender blooms or under the broad leaves of hostas that bounce under the weight of fat raindrops. And everything waits. This will pass, but really, aren’t those leaden skies a blessing? And aren’t we dependent upon those birds and bees for our very life?
Just like that: your heart beats a steady rhythm in your chest, you breathe in and out thousands of times each day, air scented with the slightest tinge of wet grass and jasmine and crushed marigold and maybe even wet, adoring dog if you’re lucky. Just for a moment you KNOW the beating of that heart, the miracle that drives it steadily on, bringing you each precious moment working in tandem with each precious breath.
And just for a moment, instead of motoring through the mad scramble of your day, maybe as you sit at yet another interminable stoplight on Manchester Road, or are held like a hostage at yet another rotten meeting that could have been an email, or as you soothe a fretful toddler who has refused to fall asleep unless sweatily sprawled across your lap clutching your finger at 1 am, you feel the wonder of that heartbeat that has brought you to this moment and made it precious rather than something to be endured.
Suddenly everything shifts in your perception, what was unclear comes into focus, and you feel a spark within you catch and begin to grow into a hopeful flame that there is wonder all around us.
It was all good when Jesus was passing around the bread and sardines. But just like that, Jesus’s teachings HAVE proven too hard for some of his followers. They have not signed on for this. To drink blood and to eat flesh is unimaginable. They asked for bread, and Jesus seems to be giving them stones. Worse than stones, actually, they think. Jesus speaks matter-of-factly to them about bewildering mysteries when they were asking for another miraculous sign. “Moses,” they said, “laid out feasts in the wilderness. We want bread just like that.” They wanted manna, which they called the bread of angels, but Jesus instead gives them riddles. And so, many leave.
But a few remain—then and now. "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." The ones who leave and the ones who stay do not yet understand that, better than loaves and crumbs, Jesus is offering himself to them—and to us.
Too often, we fall into the silken trap that undergirds our modern world—the stubborn insistent voice that insists that each person is in control of his or her own destiny. Other people will get there first, and there won’t be enough to go around. We are driven by fear of scarcity, fear of the Other. We scramble after manna and ignore the feast Christ offers us.
Jesus, however, reveals a different standard for defining reality. Jesus comes into the world as part of God’s proclamation “God loves, therefore we are.” God freely sends God’s Son into the world as the Incarnate Word through love. There it is in John 3:16—“ For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus is the sign and representation, the icon of God’s love for the world, love that feeds and sustains real life, not just existence.
Oh, that’s hard for us to believe, I know. Too often, we too, bustle about and want things NOW, and we miss the blessings laid before us. God’s Son becomes human flesh and lives alongside us to remind us of how we all are created in the likeness of God. When we choose to abide in Jesus and invite him to abide in us, we change just like that into who God has called us to be: truly one. Truly alive. Truly human.
The miracle of God’s love is bound up in the ordinary. We offer up bread and wine and water, ordinary stuff from the Earth, formed and shaped by human hands, and God uses that ordinary stuff to remind us that we ARE the body of Christ in the world. That we are not separate doubting minds, but each one of us is part of a community of disciples gathered together by the love Christ himself embodies in the world.
Jesus, the Holy One of God, who was and is and ever shall be, stands before us in every moment, even when we are scared or anxious or joyful, asking to be allowed in, to feed us in a way that sustains us. To see that all we have that really lasts is made not of flour or rice or grape, but of the wondrous, self-giving love revealed to us throughout creation. Jesus is calling us to the table not just so that we can be fed but so that we can love and know that we are loved ourselves and then take that out in the world and LIVE it where it is so desperately needed. This love is what brings life to the world-- a true banquet spread before us in the wilderness.
All that we need is here. Let us taste, and not just see, but believe and know and become. There is wonder all around. And it starts with being fed by love.
Preached at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO, at the 505 on August 25, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on August 26, 2018.
1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43
1) Barbara Brown Taylor, "Bread of Angels," in Bread of Angels, pp. 6-11. This sermon was a godsend to helping me reorganize my thoughts as I tried to bring the sermons of the last few weeks together.
1) Medieval painting of Israelites gathering manna falling from heaven. Check out the freakishly disproportionate fingers pointing toward heaven.
2) Secretions from plant lice on a tamarisk tree, from http://flora.org.il/books/plant-stories-2/chapter-e/useful_plants_e7/.
3) Bee pollinating a Rose of Sharon flower in our backyard.
4) Communion bread baked by my dear friend Pamela Dolan for my and my friends Andrew and Maria's ordination to the priesthood on Jun 29, 2017.