Sunday, August 8, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 14:52; sermon starts around 20:48)
When I was growing up, like most kids, I really liked candy. I had a really big sweet tooth. Some of my favorite candies were only available during the Easter season, so I was always really excited when Easter came around. I mean, yeah yeah, Jesus rose from the dead and all, and that was great – but also, they have Cadbury Crème Eggs at the grocery store, yeah!!
As Paul writes, “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, and I reasoned like a child” – and in my childish reasoning, I thought: well, a little candy is really good, but a LOT of candy – that’s got to be even better! And this candy’s only around once a year, so I’ve gotta make it count – so almost every Easter, I would go overboard, eating about as much candy as I could physically stand. There was one year in particular that stands out – I don’t remember how old I was – I was so excited about the candy that I hardly even ate any real, substantial, nourishing food. I just gorged myself on sweets all day – I couldn’t get enough. By the time we got home from my grandma’s house that evening, I was not feeling very well – as you can probably imagine. I vividly remember starting to walk up the steps to go to my room, when all of a sudden I was violently revisited by everything I had eaten that day – 🤮 – all over the stairs.
The really stupid thing is that eating all of that candy didn’t even really feed my hunger. As soon as I came down off the sugar high and got it all out of my system, I was hungry again! But I definitely wasn’t hungry for more candy –I was literally sick of candy – instead I was hungry for something real and solid and nourishing.
It’s a gross story, but I couldn’t help but think about that Easter upchuck when I was reading through our texts for today. In our first reading, we see Elijah being fed with food and rest that sustains him for a forty day journey. And in our gospel reading, we see Jesus dealing with a hungry crowd that has come to him looking to be fed.
This is the the third week out of five that the lectionary spends in John 6 – and this chapter is all about bread, all about the kind of food that really satisfies. You may remember from the week before last that this chapter starts off with John’s telling of the feeding of the 5,000: Jesus miraculously feeds the huge crowds of people following him around the countryside with just five loaves of barley bread and two fish.
Last Sunday, we didn’t read the regular gospel reading, but it’s kind of a funny passage that tells what happens after the feeding of the 5,000. During the night, Jesus and his disciples cross the sea to Capernaum (the disciples in a boat, and Jesus on foot), and in the morning the crowds come looking for them. As John writes, “When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’” – like “Omg, Jesus! Fancy meeting you here! What are the odds??” And Jesus is not fooled for a second. He’s like, “Yeah – you clearly came here looking for me. And it’s not even because I did cool signs and stuff. You just want more bread.”
And so the people are like, “Okay, fine – we want the signs and stuff. You know what was a really cool sign? That time in the wilderness when Moses fed our ancestors with manna! That was literal bread from heaven! So maybe you could give us some of that sweet manna-style bread!”
But Jesus is trying to get them to understand that they are missing the point. He tells them: “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.” Manna is not the food that endures for eternal life – I mean, manna literally goes bad in a day. And so in our gospel reading for today, Jesus says to the people, “Sure, your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness – the bread from heaven – but where are they now? They’re dead! You are dealing with a deeper hunger that manna can’t satisfy – the same hunger your ancestors had – and the solution isn’t just to eat more manna! You could sit down and eat 40 years worth of manna in a single sitting and you’d still be just as hungry again as soon as it passes through your digestive system. It’s just not enough.”
Manna is great – it’s a gift from God – but it isn’t special or life-giving in and of itself. Manna is special because God gave it (not Moses!). Manna is a sign of God’s life-giving abundance and faithfulness and love – but it isn’t a substitute for these things. Manna’s whole power comes from God. And so Jesus tells them, “What you need to eat is the bread of life – the true bread from heaven. It’s the only food that can truly satisfy your hunger and feed you for eternal life. And, surprise!” – says Jesus – “It’s me. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
This conversation that Jesus has with his people about manna really got me thinking this week. It got me wondering about my own life – wondering about the ways that I try to feed myself with things that just don’t satisfy. Of course, one of the things that came to mind was my childhood all-candy Easter diet. But these texts also got me wondering about the “manna” in my life. My life is full of all kinds of good, God-given things: literal food, clothes, possessions, relationships, hobbies, work, and so on. Like manna, these are all wonderful blessings that God has given – and I am very grateful for them – but they are not the food that feeds me for eternal life.
And I’ve especially been realizing that lately. After the last 17 months, I have been feeling really burnt out and depleted and depressed. Trying to be a good pastor during a global pandemic has involved doing a lot of things that I’m not trained for or comfortable with or even very good at – and I have been struggling to find joy or satisfaction in ministry the way that I used to. I’ve just been holding onto the hope that things will get better. Like, when we were worshiping online only, I thought, “Well, when we’ve got some people in worship again, then it will feel better,” and then it changed to, “Well, when we start singing again, it will be better” and then “When we don’t have to wear masks anymore…” and then “When we start having coffee fellowship again…” and on and on – it just feels like the goalposts keep moving. And each time we reach the next goal, I’ve been disappointed, realizing: this ain’t it.
These texts that we read today make me realize that I have been trying to find satisfaction and nourishment from the wrong things. And don’t get me wrong – worshiping in person, singing together, sharing coffee, these are all good things, and I am grateful for them. But they’re like manna – they just aren’t the food that lasts. And I know I’m not the only one struggling with this. I notice it sometimes in the ways I hear people talk about the future of the church – like “if we just had more kids in church, things would be better” or “if giving were just a little higher” or “if we just used those screens we put up in the sanctuary” or whatever it may be. It’s all good, manna-ish stuff. But if these are the things we seek after to feed us, as ends in and of themselves, we are always going to come up empty. We are always going to be hungry again.
Jesus invites us to something better. Just like he invited our ancestors before us, Jesus invites us to seek him, the true bread from heaven. He is the one food that can feed us for eternal life – life which is already ours to live right now. Jesus calls us to feast our hearts and our hungers and find our life in him.
And so I invite each of you to consider:
What is the manna in your life?
Where in your life have you been looking for satisfaction and coming up hungry?
And what is the nourishment you really need for the journey ahead?
I encourage you to take these things to God in prayer, to seek out what really gives life, and to allow yourself to be fed by Christ, the true bread of life.