August 5, 2018 – The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; John 6:24-35
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
I imagine that everyone here has at one time or another indulged in something which we might safely label “spiritually unhealthy.” I am thinking of how we learn about a behavior of another person – someone we know or a stranger we observe or hear about or read about or watch on television – and think or say, “I would never have done that! I wouldn’t have made that decision! I wouldn’t have reacted that way! I wouldn’t live that way! How stupid/mean/wicked/selfish – you name it – that was!” A satisfying process, isn’t it? We can criticize someone else and congratulate ourselves. The problem is that we keep safely away from looking at our own real faults while we take pride in the fantasy of how wise/kindly/saintly/selfless, etc. we are or would have been. Of course, we don’t actually know what we would have done in the other person’s circumstances. And in our attitude of criticism we miss a chance to learn compassion.
As we read and hear scripture there are many opportunities for us to do this very thing. What do you think when you hear this morning’s reading from the Book of Exodus? The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. One of the greatest events in Jewish history was Moses leading the people out of slavery into the wilderness on their way to the land promised by God. After Moses led the people across the Red Sea on dry ground and the Egyptians who were chasing them were drowned as the waters returned, the people sang to the Lord: “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:1). All through the leadership of the Lord’s servant Moses.
Three days’ journey away from Egypt and no water had been found to drink. The people grumbled against Moses and through Moses the Lord provided the people with water. At the time of the reading we heard this morning the people had been traveling for a month and food was running low. They complain bitterly to Moses: ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots [which are pots for cooking meat] and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’ (Exodus 16:3). Would we have been so ungrateful so soon after being delivered from hopeless slavery in a foreign land? Would we have grumbled against the man who rescued us? It seems outrageous to me. But I have never been thirsty for three days or hungry for a month. Perhaps I would have been just as angry.
Let’s look now at our reading from John’s gospel. Last Sunday we heard the account of Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. In today’s lesson the people so miraculously fed by Jesus follow after him across the Sea of Galilee the next day. Jesus challenges their motives: “you are looking for me … because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). He tries to tell them to focus on God who gives not merely bread for the body but eternal life. They reply, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” If you were Jesus wouldn’t you have wanted to say to them, “Where were you yesterday? Wasn’t that a sign? What does it take to convince you?”
What lesson can we learn from these two passages of scripture? In each case we may be tempted to criticize the people for their short memories of what God had provided for them, through Moses and through Jesus. It would be comfortable to leave it there, but much more profitable for our souls to take the next step and look at how we might be doing just what those people had done. Let’s think back on our own lives. Haven’t we all prayed fervently and often for God’s help with our problems and the problems of the people we love as well as problems in our communities and the world? We pray for help in every area of life, but this morning think about your own physical health. Have you ever been ill or injured or in long-term pain? Have you ever been given a life-threatening diagnosis? Have you had surgery? In any of those circumstances have you prayed for God’s help and healing? Have you recovered your health? Have you been healed? We don’t always receive the help and healing we pray for, of course, but often we do. We may be extremely thankful for our recovery at the time, but as time passes our gratitude for that particular blessing may fade. Yesterday’s answered prayers are forgotten as we ask for today’s needs. It isn’t wrong to ask for today’s needs. Jesus instructs us to ask for our “daily bread” in the one prayer we know he taught his disciples, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. But I doubt that it is good for us and for our souls to forget the blessings we have already received from God.
I began by speaking of one approach – a critical approach – to viewing other people, their characters and behavior. We have another, more spiritually healthy option. We may learn from others’ mistakes by thinking about what could have served to keep them from making poor choices and from becoming less than they might have become as persons. Our opportunities for doing this are constantly around us, not only in the people we know or know about, but also through great literature and scripture. And the lessons we learn from others we may profitably apply to ourselves.
When I look at others this way, I often see how an abiding habit of gratitude to God for blessings already given and received might have served as a corrective and protective force against crippling envy, a grumbling and sour disposition, the constant striving for more wealth or status or power, from excessive pride and self-centeredness.
The secular world is giving us the message that gratitude is good for us. I Googled “gratitude” and instantly found an article that summarized forty research studies on gratitude. The article listed thirty-one benefits of gratitude for all areas of life – health, social relationships, emotional well-being, even career productivity. Most of the conclusions were about how gratitude is good for the grateful person. The message boiled down to this: be grateful because it’s good for you. I don’t doubt the fact that gratitude is good for us, but as Christians we see a deeper reality behind the habit of gratitude. Gratitude is a humble acknowledgment that we did not make ourselves or give ourselves the gifts we have. God is our creator and provider, the giver of life and life’s many blessings, given to us not only for ourselves but to share with all God’s creatures.
In this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus tells the crowds explicitly that it was his Father in heaven who provided the Israelites with the manna. But he goes on to suggest that even that work of God was relatively insignificant compared to God’s gift of “the true bread from heaven.” Jesus is the “bread of life.” You and I have received a gift from God that is our foundation and our future, our beginning and our end – the Lord Jesus Christ. Our life’s picture is so much greater than this life we know now. It is a picture of God’s shalom, where there is no hunger or thirst but endless grateful praise to God for abundant life with God and God’s people.
Now, with grateful hearts let us together pray all the words of “A Litany for Thanksgiving” found on page 837 in The Book of Common Prayer.