Texts: Exodus 16:2-4,9-15 + Psalm 78:23-29 + Ephesians 4:1-16 + John 6:24-35
How might we describe those who woke up the day after the feeding of the five thousand? Those who’d had the experience of being provided for completely, who’d gone from a fear of scarcity to astonishment at an abundance that filled them entirely with leftovers to spare. Can we imagine how well they slept that night, the kind of sleep that follows a day of feasting? Can we guess at how their bodies felt as they woke up that morning, not to the pangs of hunger that were their daily reality, but to bellies still filled by their last meal? I imagine children who were used to going to bed hungry slept through the night. I suspect parents got a better night’s sleep as well, and families woke up with a sense of energy and hope that can’t be taken for granted. I hear people humming fragments of the songs they’d shared around the campfires the night before. I see children from different households playing together in the lake as mothers and fathers recounted the powerful words and deeds of Jesus, who … wait, where was Jesus?
Do you think they expected Jesus to stay put? Even if they suspected it was unlikely, how could they have helped but to hope that yesterday’s miracle would become a daily occurrence? In fact, hadn’t they suggested, hadn’t they insisted on making Jesus their new king before he withdrew from them? (John 6:15) Perhaps they hoped that, like King David, Jesus would propose to build a house for the Lord where their sacrifices could be exchanged for God’s providence (2 Sam. 7:2). Do you remember how God responded to David’s proposal? “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (2 Sam. 7:5-6) So Jesus has moved on as well, and even those who have experienced first hand the satiating miracle of God’s amazing grace have to keep moving, keep looking for him.
This really runs counter to everything we know about efficiency and productivity. Many mornings on my way to work I stop to pick up a cup of coffee. There’s a ritual to the whole transaction: first I pull into the parking lot and pray for a space to park my car, then I wait patiently in line pretending to consider my many options (though I already know I’m going to order an iced coffee with room for cream), finally the barista greets me with a smile and a look of recognition asking me what I’d like. What I’d like is always available, and it’s always delivered as efficiently as possible, so that I can get back in my car and on with my life.
The same pattern is repeated again and again throughout my day. The shelves of the grocery store are stocked with food, the wireless network automatically brings me my emails, the water flows from my taps at work and at home. It is the function of the marketplace to bring us our wants and our needs, regardless of whether or not we can tell the difference, on demand. In exchange for this exacting regularity, we trade hours of our lives represented by dollars paid for services rendered. Except we don’t all get the same exchange rate for our lives, leading some to believe that their lives are worth more than others. This leads to additional forms of violence of every sort as the market colludes with the state to make sure that the wants of a very few are privileged over the needs of so very many.
Yet even knowing all this, it’s still so alluring, the promise of life on demand.
When they find Jesus on the other side of the lake, in Capernaum, he confronts their desire directly. “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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.” (6:26-27)
Just like God’s reply to King David, Jesus’ reply to the crowd points them back to the foundational story of the people of Israel, the story of the exodus from slavery. If we remember that story, then we recall that the manna from heaven came with an expiration date. God provided enough food for the people each day as they journeyed from slavery to freedom, but if they tried to store it up it would become foul and perish. It was a lesson in trust. The people could put their faith in an economy of hoarding, which was precisely what they’d just been delivered from, an economy of slavery, or they could practice reliance on a God who is trustworthy and who has already provided more than enough for each day.
The difficulty with that second option, the choice to practice faith in the God of abundance is that this God is not a commodity. This God is not stocked on the shelves, or carried steadily on the network, or flowing from the tap on demand. This God is not waiting to fill your order on the way to work, or each Sunday morning if and when you decide to come to worship. This God is a subject, not an object. This God is a relationship, not a transaction. This God is free, not captive.
And thank God this is the case! Because, really, has “on demand” life been working that well for us? Has the on demand economy really produced the kind of prosperity we can trust? Has the system of hoarding which assigns surplus value to some lives and deficit value to other lives really left us feeling safe in one another’s company? Has the collusion of the market with the state produced a trustworthy society? Are our neighbors really getting fed? Are our children really getting educated? Are our elders really being cared for? Are our families really being supported? Are our communities really being protected and served? Are our cities really being rebuilt? Are our nations really seeking peace? Is this system really working for us?
Or have we settled for routine and regularity over relationships and the hard work of faith in a God who has already provided more than enough, who has already given us example after example, sign after sign, miracle after miracle, as proof that God’s love is abundant, unconditional, and unmerited. It is free, like the manna that appeared each morning in the wilderness, but it is also on the move because it comes from the God of the tent and the tabernacle, the God who is always ahead of us making all things new.
Like the crowd that woke up that morning after the miracle, it is time for us to break camp. It is time for us to come to grips with our silent hope that God would allow us to stay put and pay lip service to the God of freedom while paying dues to the idol of life on demand. It is time for us to unmask our deadly reliance on systems of wealth that create hierarchies of worth, that create the need for hashtags like #blacklivesmatter because they set up walls between people based on race and class and nationality and then police those walls with deadly force.
It is time for us to break camp and start looking for Jesus, who is not a commodity to be picked up on the way to brunch, but the visible face given to us by the God whose deep longing for relationship took on flesh and bone and blood. To look for Jesus, who meets us where we are but refuses to be tied down to our notions of comfort. To look for Jesus, which means to read the stories for ourselves, to ask the questions for ourselves, to pray the prayers of our own hearts, to sing the freedom songs of our own liberation, to chew on, to feast on, the God who is irreducible to a set of beliefs, who can only be believed in by being loved.
It is time for us to break camp and start looking for Jesus. We, who have been fed well in this place and in many places like this, are now called to get in the boat and cross the lake. We are heading into the wilderness, not just our congregation, but our whole society. Don’t you feel it? The illusory promise of life on demand has failed us, as it always does, and now is the moment of our liberation. We are disencamping from the economy of scarcity, from the politics of fear, from the policies of segregation, from the spirituality of hoarding. We must if we are going to live. We must if we are going to be free. We must if there is to be any future at all. We must leave what we have known, the idol of security, for the promise of real prosperity.
I believe this is “the work of God,” that Jesus speaks of: the commitment to practice a faith that follows instead of the faith that stays put. Our present circumstances as a congregation, ultimately, are not that important. Racism will not end, nor will economic exploitation, when we disencamp from this place. But this moment is an opportunity for each of us to examine what fears tie us down, what hopes have the power to propel us forward. This is our chance to practice together what we hope to see more of throughout the world — a willingness to leave behind the securities of the known-but-broken for the sake of a living, daring faith in the God of the future who provides for us day by day more than we even know we need. This is what it means for us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread” — not to be given the bread we expect or think we’ve earned, but the bread that is sufficient for this day with trust that there will be bread for us all tomorrow as well.