Reliance on God

Manna from Heaven, Maciejowski Bible, 13th Century

A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Psalm 78:23-29, Ephesians 4:1-16, and John 6:24-35.

I have a friend who plans her meals in a fairly complicated way. It all depends upon leftovers. Her husband only recently died, but even while he was living, he never liked to go out at night. She, on the other hand, volunteers, meets friends, and goes to all kinds of musical and cultural events. And so she eats out a lot, and is always thinking ahead. She’ll order just a little more than she needs with the idea that she’ll take the rest home and use it as lunch for another day. A few years ago, she was with friends at a new, very fancy, New York restaurant. At the end of her meal, just as the waiter was about to remove her plate, she asked him if he could please wrap up what was left. He looked at her snootily and said, “Ma’am, we don’t “do” leftovers.” She didn’t miss a beat. She smiled at the waiter, and said, “Oh, of course not. Just leave it here then, and I’ll nibble a bit more, but do bring the check.” After her table paid the check, she stood up and ceremoniously carried her plate—food and all—through restaurant, out the door, and into the night.

I’ve always admired my friend’s ability to plan ahead. But planning for tomorrow doesn’t always work so easily. It didn’t work easily for the Israelites. We hear about this in our Old Testament Lesson as it recalls the time when the people of Israel had been wandering in the wilderness for some time. They became tired and irritable. They got hungry. And God fed them with manna, this mysterious, odd, flaky-like substance. In the words of the psalmist, “So mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough.” (Psalm 78:24-25).

But the manna was only for the day. It was daily manna and needed to be consumed or it would spoil. If they left it out it became wormy. If it remained in the sun, it melted. This is because the manna was food, but it was more than food. Manna was meant to be consumed with faith. It took faith to rely upon the Lord to lead through the wilderness. It took faith to go to sleep each night trusting that there would be manna for the morrow. Perhaps it’s from that old, ancient story that the prayer began to be formed that would pray for daily manna, or daily bread. When we pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” this is a part of what we’re praying for. Not just bread for right now, but bread for tomorrow, bread of promise, bread of hope.

Biblical scholars like to point out that the grammar of the Lord’s Prayer actually conveys this sense of praying for tomorrow, for bread of the future. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on this in a meditation where he writes about this phrase

“…At least some people in the early church understood [this phrase from the Lord’s Prayer] it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow; “give us today tomorrow’s bread”. And they’ve thought that might mean give us now a taste of the bread we shall eat in the Kingdom of God. Give us a foretaste of that great banquet and celebration where the universe is drawn together by Christ in the presence of God the Father. And so … Holy Communion is, at one level, bread for today, it’s very much our daily bread, it’s the food we need to keep going; but it’s also a foretaste of the bread of heaven, a foretaste of enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven, at his table, at his banquet… Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer

Today’s Gospel picks up just after Jesus’ miracle with the loaves and fishes, his feeding of the five thousand. But people are still hungry, in a sense. It’s not so much that they want to eat more, but they want to see more, to see more magic, to see more signs, to see more proof that Jesus is God, come to meet them. Jesus tells them, “don’t look to me to feed you. Look for the food that endures for eternal life.”

But the people want more signs. They remind Jesus that God gave the people of Israel that sign of the manna in the wilderness, so can’t Jesus give them something miraculous like that, something really convincing?

But Jesus says, “Look to God for the true bread from heaven. Look to God for the bread that comes down and gives life to the world.” And then Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

If we stay in relationship with Christ, we are fed, spiritually and in every other way. But often we forget. We drift away. It’s often like with an old friend, we forget to return the call, to send the note, to respond to the email. And so time passes, and we get disconnected. We’re surprised when big news happens to our friend and we haven’t been a part of it, until we stop to realize that we’ve drifted, we’ve lost touch.

On this morning’s coverage of the Olympics, the women’s marathon was being shown. As one runner stopped for water, the commentator pointed out how important it is for the runner to drink water before she’s thirsty. “If you’re running a marathon and wait until you’re thirsty to drink water, it’s too late.” Isn’t the spiritual life a little like a marathon, in that way? If we wait until we notice the absence of Christ, if we wait until we feel God’s distance, then it can be too late to feel the strength, the consolation, the encouragement, the faith, we may need. And so we eat and drink regularly, at this table, in this kind of worship.

By taking into ourselves the Body of Christ, we become one with Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. Communion happens to us. Communion overtakes us. Communion is God moving toward us and inviting us closer. Communion is our reaching out toward one another and even reaching beyond the church into the world.

Christ in us gives us the strength we need to fulfill all those ministries Paul writes about in today’s Epistle. It’s Christ’s feeding us that allows us to be those who teach the faith, those who follow in practical ways, those who tell others about faith, those to teach, those who offer care, prayer, and healing, and those who in any way “build up the body of Christ.” “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…” But we eat and drink, of the Body and Blood, so that we might grow up into Christ.

Bread for today is a gift. Bread for tomorrow is our prayer. We are called to live with hope and with faith for whatever is ahead. We have challenges in our personal lives and we may have worries. God invites us to have faith that when tomorrow comes, God will give us the resources we need. We have problems that seem unsolvable, but with tomorrow’s bread, perhaps God will also give us new answers, creative solutions, and deeper insight.

Late summer is a good time for us to think about what it means to live by faith. There is still time for vacation, but plans are already being made for a new year at school, a new program year at church, a new season for business or work of any kind. In what ways, might God invite us to look for “bread for tomorrow?” In what ways are we invited to clear out the cupboards, the hiding places, the storage areas that build up our confidence, and rely on God for strength, for nourishment, for sustenance? Might God be calling us to a new place of faith? Might God be calling us to live a little more closely in touch with him, listening more closely for the new word, looking for intently for that which will feed and sustain and grow the Body of Christ into the future?

Jesus reminds us of the Communion that matters more than any other—the union with him, through his Body and Blood. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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