At our last Vestry meeting we had an interesting discussion centering on the boundaries of helping people asking for a handout. I am sure you have been here on a Sunday when a person has come in looking for “work”. They come to my front door as early at 7:00 in the morning and as late at 10:30 at night. If you live in downtown Suffolk you probably have similar experiences. And if you help a person he is likely to return sooner rather than later to ask for more.
I have mentioned before the “Bee Sting” theory of poverty. Being poor in our country is akin to being attacked by a nest of bees. A social program may take care a bee or two. A church food pantry takes care of another bee. A private handout takes care of another. So a handful of bees have been swatted away, but there is still a swarm attacking. If you help people in this position, their understandable response will be two-fold: gratitude and a request to take out another bee. Take out a second bee and you will be asked to take out a third. And on it goes until you come to a point where you have to say no more.
Jesus feeds 5,000 people, many of whom are poor and all of whom are hungry. Suddenly he is the solution to all their worldly problems. They want to make him king, but Jesus did not come to be a discount grocery store manager. He slips into hiding. By nightfall, his disciples decide to sail back to Capernaum, their base of operations. A few hours later Jesus walks to them on the water. In the morning the crowd recognizes they are gone and sets out to discover where they are. They look for Jesus because he has been healing the sick and now feeding people. He is the answer to their most basic needs. He is making the bees go away.
Over the next four Sundays our gospel readings are drawn from the chapter in John where Jesus teaches about the meaning of the feeding. Throughout the chapter different groups and people ask him questions. The first question they ask when they find him in Capernaum is this: “Rabbi, when did you get here?” For good reason Jesus does not describe for them his curious method of transportation.
“You are following me not because you saw a sign, but because you ate your fill,” Jesus says to them. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Jesus is speaking to people who have been beaten down by life and overwhelmed by its challenges. Yes, he took away their hunger for a day, but even more important he lifted up their spirits. Now they face a critical moment. Either they can come alive or they can become dependent. Jesus is willing to support them in the struggle to take responsibility for themselves, but he is not able to be responsible for them. He is not going to be a daily source of perishable bread sustaining the body. Rather, he is going to give them eternal bread to nourish the spirit.
Craig Satterlee, a Lutheran Bishop from Michigan, writes, “I do not think Jesus was scolding the crowd for seeking bread because they were hungry. I think Jesus was disappointed that the crowd did not expect more, not more bread but something more.” Sam Keen, in his book To a Dancing God, writes about why expecting something more is so challenging:
Awareness of what presents itself to me involves a double movement of attention: silencing the familiar and welcoming the strange. Each time I approach a strange object, person, or event, I have a tendency to let my present needs, past experience, or expectations for the future determine what I will see. If I am to appreciate the uniqueness of any datum, I must be sufficiently aware of my preconceived ideas and characteristic emotional distortions to bracket them long enough to welcome strangeness and novelty into my perceptual world… Without this discipline each present moment is only the reception of something already seen or experienced.
It is a very human tendency to see only what you are looking for while missing entirely something readily available. This, I think, is why Jesus answers the second question as he does. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” His answer, while appearing to be simple, is in reality incredibly complex: “Believe in the one whom God has sent.” By this he means, “You must see me for who I am, not for who you want me to be. You must look with eyes of faith in order to see what this moment truly is and can be.”
They ask Jesus “What work are you performing?” and remind him how God fed their ancestors in the wilderness. One of the real challenges we religious folks face is a temptation to think God only acted back then. The big stories of the bible are so big it is difficult to think anything we experience is on par with them. I have never walked on water or seen it parted. I have never tasted water turned to wine or sat down with 4,999 other people and eaten my fill of a meal consisting of five barley loaves and two fish. It is easy to think God did spectacular things back in the day and our job today is to believe they happened and to be filled with awe.
Jesus shreds this notion by saying to the people then and to us right now his work is to provide the bread of heaven which gives life to the world. It is a work God is doing here and is doing now. Each person Jesus is speaking to and each one of us is invited to receive spiritual nourishment. It is not intended to solve your problems, but to give you the spiritual resources you need to face them.
I think about the people who come to my door looking for help. I try not to judge them. I don’t know their entire stories, but what I do know is at points horrifying. I don’t believe I could overcome all they have been through. I invite them to come to our Food Pantry on Monday evenings. It is just one meal, but we also provide information about where food or meals are available in downtown Suffolk every day of the week. Sadly, my most frequent visitors do not take advantage of my offer. I suspect, to use Sam Keen’s phrase, they struggle to silence the familiar in order to welcome the strange. They do not sense how these efforts can meet their most basic needs and become a Living Bread allowing them to move forward in life.
They are not alone in this struggle. Although it manifests in different ways, I too struggle to silence the familiar in order to welcome the strange. I suspect often times I fail to see the wonder and grace right in front of me because I am so locked in to what I know, I experience, and I understand. If I take Jesus at his word, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” – if I take Jesus at his word – then I must conclude I am missing something because there are times when I am famished and there are times when I am parched. God has not failed me. I have failed to perceive what God is offering to me and to receive it.
This morning’s reading encourages us to ponder when, where, and how we approach God looking for a morsel when God is offering us a banquet.