August 5th, 2018
Exodus 16:2-4; 9-15
“The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness,” our Exodus reading begins. It can be helpful for us to remember these moments—both the Old Testament and the New show us suspicious people, untrusting people. Perhaps there was an earlier instantiation of QAnon amongst our ancient brethren, disseminating cryptic messages amongst the people. “Moses lived in Pharaoh’s house—what does that mean about our journey? Why does Aaron do all the talking? Figure it out and see the legacy of the deep state!” The providence of God often seems suspicious. Or, perhaps more likely, people are so often disappointed by promises, they are suspicious of any good thing, any good possibility. “If only God had killed us in Egypt!” the people say. “What sign are you performing, Jesus—sure you gave us bread from five loaves and two fish. But God gave our ancestors bread from heaven! Are you who you really say you are? Can’t you do something better?” Underneath these questions is a simpler one: how can we trust you? We like to find dark and evil motives, because we will never be disappointed if we look for them in human beings. Suspicion always finds what it seeks, because the world is full of failed human beings. When trust reaches out, it finds only slippery hands at best, and more often empty air.
Notice that in Exodus and in John, the congregations want some evidence. In Exodus, they could compare the fleshpots of Egypt to their empty bellies in God’s wilderness; in John they could compare the humble, albeit miraculous, bread and fish with the much more miraculous manna, bread from heaven. One’s pretty good, but it was just normal bread. The other’s so amazing, they didn’t even know it was bread when they first saw it. What is it, they ask Moses. “It’s the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.” In the same way, when the people speak to Jesus they don’t know they are looking at bread—the bread of life. Of course neither the manna, a fine flaky substance, or Jesus, a walking talking man, look much like bread. I imagine Moses himself probably had to reach down, grab some manna flakes, and chew it and swallow it down before anyone else even touched it. And I can’t imagine anyone looked at Jesus and he looked like a solid, crusty, slice of bread. So you can understand the desire of the people for a little evidence, and little purchase for their trust.
Suspicion is so much more reliable than trust. If you seek the bread that does not satisfy, the crumbs of death, you will not have to look long or far. You will always find sin, if you even just look a little bit. Twitter’s greatest achievement, you could argue, is that it keeps everything you’ve ever tweeted—so if you’ve screwed up and said something dumb, or ended up believing something false, you’ll be found out. And it will be easy to find things someone else said. It is suspicion’s playground. There are no clean users. Nothing can change what you’ve tweeted—someone has saved what you’ve deleted. All our ids and egos fall, eventually. So, in our new social media ecosystem, we have become trapped in a cycle of shouting and shame, a recipe for a maelstrom. And after suspicion’s very important and revealing crusade, all we can ask is—who can we trust? What can we trust? Suspicion’s answer: nobody. Nothing.
Do any of you remember Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney? He’s got a wonderful podcast called Stay Tuned with Preet. He examines a lot of the interesting legal issues we work on today and often interviews very interesting people. But he often ends his show with something that struck him in the news or something that meant a lot to him in his non-news related life. And this last podcast he talked about his daughter’s music camp. They have an end of camp recital at a New England church on a Sunday morning. It’s a plain New England church, and that Sunday they make the service ecumenical. Bharara said they talked about the beauty of nature, made beautiful music, enjoyed families enjoying themselves. He said, “Sometimes it’s good to remember there is more to this world than politics, than the news. There is nature, there is music, there is family. It’s good to remember these things.”
At night, I take my dog out, and I hear the air conditioners rumble. They echo on the walls of the buildings. Walking at night, when it’s quiet except for the air conditioners roaring away, I remember walking in mountain valleys, following the sound of a creek or the noise of a waterfall. The brooks and creeks calm me, the waterfalls restore my soul. But the noise of the air conditioners scare me. It is the tireless and pitiless sound of global climate change, and when Preet Bharara mentions nature and its beauty, all I can think of is the hot, hellish future that awaits us. And when I think of family, I imagine my own daughters being ripped from me, separated, traumatized, as thousands are under the zero tolerance immigration policy. Bharara spoke of the refuge he found sitting in that church, with his mind on good things, unarguably good things, and I can’t tell if I, who have much less acquaintance with evil than Bharara, am just so infected by the world I can’t stop worrying, or if I just can’t trust God enough to let those things go when I come to church. I have struggled, I’ll admit, ever since 2016, to strike the right balance between speaking out against injustice and speaking about the spiritual content of the gospel, the balance between exhortation and comfort, confrontation and perseverance. But at night the air conditioners rumble on, the cars idle on the pavement, the planes fly overhead, and out beyond my vision, the power plants burn coal, the pipelines keep up their steady supply of poison, and our public places of refuge, our natural beauties guarded from exploitation, suffer the indignity of oil and gas company drooling over them and drilling into them. So when I think about nature I think about the old spiritual that says, “God sent Noah a rainbow sign; no more water but the fire next time.” I think about nature and I smell smoke. Am I faithless?
Trust. God is asking us to trust God. God is asking us to take a risk, to look at a human being and think that he is bread. But trust asks something of us. It asks us to give up our own power, and to open ourselves to something else. Trusting means changing. The question for the people is—are they ready to change? About this passage, Luther wrote: “They love God as lice love a tramp; far from being interested in his welfare, their one concern is to feed on him and suck his blood. Our love for the Gospel is like that. We seek nothing but gluttony and our own selfish interest. The Gospel is loved on account of greed, not on account of righteousness.” He means that we want repentance without change; affirmation without judgment; grace without consequence. We want the fleshpots of Egypt, which will us with warm food, the bread on the mountain which can be gathered in baskets and counted and itemized. We want nature without understanding how we affect it and change it, family without acknowledging the ways we break its bonds. We want peace, peace, but there is no peace in the maelstrom. So we trade peace for suspicion, because at least suspicion is successful. We want whatever will sustain us in the way we are.
But God wants something more for us than we want for ourselves. What is it? How can we know what it is? God wants our trust, because trust transforms us. God wants us to grow, to come to the living bread. Once God shouted out of the whirlwind to Job—now God comes right to our side, right into our lives in Jesus Christ. Do you want to get out of this sinking ship? Take my hand and trust that I am God.
Christ knows that it isn’t just our bellies that are hungry, but our hearts. We need the food that satisfies our hunger. We need the food that satisfies our hearts. God has made us physical beings, embodied, but also with yearning and needs no feast can fill. No feast, that is, except the feast of the living bread from heaven, Jesus Christ, who comes to us to feed us with truth.
In this maelstrom, in this chaos, Christ is the sure hand that grasps our groping one. Christ leads us from satisfaction of our bellies to the satisfaction of our souls. Christ does not merely give food, but gives life. We can trust that. It’s a life worth dying for. We know because Christ died and lived and lives among us, and still gives us bread to eat. Amen.
The Reverend John Flack