By The Rev. Lindsey Altvater Clifton
A number of years ago, there was a fascinating national survey conducted by a research group. The question they asked participants was simply: “What word or phrase do you most long to hear?” Unsurprisingly, the top response was “I love you.” The second was “I forgive you.” And the third was…you ready for this?…“Supper’s ready.” (Tod Bolsinger; Canoeing The Mountains)
Apparently, the core of what we long for is love, reconciliation, and dinner. I know that speaks to me and to the pull I feel toward kinship and shared meals, especially communion. In today’s texts, we get two important bread stories, the first of which comes from our favorite bunch of whiny, wilderness-wandering Israelites.
Hungry and quick to complain, Moses doesn’t hear the end of his people’s grumbling, so God steps in and provides manna for them each day. With the second bread story of the day, John positions [us] readers to ask the question, “What does it mean for Jesus to be manna?” (Working Preacher). In my mind, it means that manna isn’t just a story of Israel’s past, but a continuing gift to us in the present. Both of these stories help us explore just what “enough” means.
The Israelites experienced God’s saving presence when they crossed the Red Sea, but they still failed to trust God to feed them in the dessert wilderness. Faced with hunger, they immediately thought to turn back to Egypt. In a similar way, the just-fed crowd in John’s gospel fails to understand the full extent of what Jesus has offered them.
You see, in John’s gospel, several times Jesus says “I am” something. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. And in today’s text, “I am the Bread of Life.” As one scholar explains, “The other gospel writers tell us about the stories that Jesus told, stories with ordinary things like lost coins or small seeds or people on journeys. The author of John’s gospel takes an entirely different approach. In John’s gospel, Jesus identifies himself with those objects from human experience or religious symbols. For John, there are always layers of meaning.” One basic idea seems to be that both people’s religious needs and human longings are met in the person of Jesus (Gail O’Day).
Just before today’s reading, we encounter the story of Jesus feeding of a huge crowd of people with five loaves and two fish. At the end, they had more than enough. Seemingly, today’s crowd was present for that miraculous meal, because they’ve crossed the lake looking for him.
Along with another preacher, “I wonder about the makeup of this crowd – Who exactly was Jesus serving? What kinds of people made up the 5000 that afternoon? How many, for instance, were single, or married, or divorced? How many had children with them, or were estranged from their own parents? How many were foreigners looking to make a new life in a new place, and looking to be accepted? How many were getting sidelong glances by others in the crowd because they were of a different ethnicity, or living with an incurable illness, or living a frowned-upon lifestyle? How many were pre-approved to receive the bread because they’d recited the proper statement of faith beforehand?” (Jeffrey A. Nelson)
But we’re not told any of those things, of course, mostly because Jesus didn’t seem to care too much about it. He simply broke the bread and passed it out: “Take and eat. Wherever you’re from, whatever you’ve been through, whoever you are, you are enough.”
In all likelihood, it’s a crowd of poor people, people who too often go hungry. Jesus knows that they need food, but he also seems to say that food is not enough. You might know the name of Abraham Maslow. He was an American psychologist best known for his hierarchy of needs. His pyramid of human needs was an essential component for us teachers to learn in preparing to lead in a classroom; how can you expect students to grow if their foundational needs aren’t being met at home?
Maslow’s pyramid categorizes human needs at various levels, and the general premise is that people’s lower level basic needs must typically be met before they can move up to the higher levels. For example, food and water and shelter and safety are essential for and pre-requisites to meeting one’s needs for relationship and love, all of which are precursors to fulfillment at the very highest levels, including spirituality and transcendence. The pyramid of needs cannot be climbed without sufficient provision at each foundational point. The levels build on one another. There is no shortcut way; do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
Or so Maslow believed. But Jesus seems to think otherwise. He seems to think that even physically hungry people are hungry for God. Because when some from this same crowd follow him a few days later, they say, “Do it again. Provide food for us. Show us another sign like when Moses provided manna for the Israelites.” And Jesus responds by basically saying, “It’s not just about food, you know.” Jesus says that bread, physical bread, is not enough. He says, in essence, “You came back so that I would feed you again, but you need more than bread.” In the words of that great lyrical theologian, Bruce Springsteen, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”
Does God care if people’s stomachs are full? Does God care if our bodies are nourished for the here and now? Yes, of course. I think that’s why Jesus feeds the 5,000 before laying down this more challenging wisdom: that even with an abundance of physical things, we’ll still be hungry. We’ll still be hungry for real sustenance – for faith that nourishes us even through the absolute darkest parts of the night.
During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. Even once safe, many of these children who had lost so much couldn’t sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children would finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.” There was enough.
That story and powerful image comes from a book called Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. For me it captures the essence of how a daily-bread faith can enable us to be at peace in the midst of life’s sometimes overwhelming uncertainty and our deep fears.
A few years ago, I was stopped in my tracks and a little punched-in-the-gut by this nugget of truth from Richard Rohr, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since: “The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control.” In so many ways, we resist letting go in faith, insisting instead on our anxiety-filled we-don’t-have-enough way or focusing instead on the world’s shiny, more-is-enough way. And when we get fixated on the lists of things that we think will make us happy and keep us safe and meet our needs and satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst, we miss God’s daily abundance.
Too often, we are like the Israelites who see the manna that God has provided, but can’t identify what it is. We are already holding the bread we need for this day, but we are too focused on what we used to have yesterday and what we think we need for tomorrow or a year from now or a decade from now that we fail to see that today, there is enough. Today, God is enough.
Dear ones, I know that so many of you who saw this congregation through its most turbulent years often feel the tug of grief and longing about what used to be or the pang of anxious uncertainty about what will be in the future. But may we be reminded that God’s response to our deep hunger is in daily provision. Today, there is enough for today. To be filled, we simply eat and give thanks, trusting that tomorrow there will be enough for tomorrow and sharing freely what is not ours to begin with. It is a letting go of control and a leaning into trust in God’s faithfulness and provision. It is a shift in perspective from not-enough and scarcity to more-than-enough and abundance.
This there-is-enough, daily-bread faith calls us to the spiritual practices of attention and gratitude. As one preacher describes it, “When we are paying attention to God’s abundance, we can clearly see that in the wilderness places of our lives, God feeds us with the manna of healing and hope. And, in the lonely places God provides us with the rich meats of compassion and community. In the midst of struggles, God sets forth a banquet of meaning and dignity. Even in the presence of enemies, God sets a table of reconciliation and peace. This is the bread that endures…These are the things that can satisfy our hunger” (Dana Ferguson).
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.”
Friends, as we seek to grow in gratitude and change our perspective, I invite you to spend time at the end of each day reflecting on the bread of life God has provided for that day. For what moment in the day are you most grateful? When did you give and receive the most love today? When did you feel the most alive today? When today, did you have the greatest sense of belonging to yourself, others, God and the universe? When were you most joyful today?
When we are consistently attentive to our daily-bread with gratitude, we can more readily let go of control and trust the faithful, loving care of God’s enough-ness.
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.” May we believe it. And may we live it. This day and each day. Amen.