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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
September 2, 2018
A reading from the Gospel of John
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, 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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
I want to tell you a family story. It’s one of those family stories that we recite, almost liturgically, every time the occasion rises. It’s the story of the Thanksgiving guest who didn’t know when to go home. The story goes that my parents were in the early days of their marriage, grad students who had stuck around town for Thanksgiving and invited a few friends over for the holiday. Dinner was at some reasonable Thanksgiving hour, let’s say 5:00 in the afternoon, and so the friends arrive, and the meal is served and presumably a good quantity of food is eaten, and good time is had by all. The meal itself is not the problem. The problem as you might anticipate in the story of the Thanksgiving guest who didn’t know when to go home is that one of the guests doesn’t know when to go home. Dessert comes and goes. Coffee comes and goes. All the dishes are cleaned. All the leftovers are put away. It’s eight o’clock. It’s nine. It’s ten o’clock, and our guests are showing no signs of stopping, though my parents, left to their own devices, would have been long asleep. And now it’s eleven. And now it’s almost midnight.
And my parents are not inhospitable folks; my family is always glad to see you come but also glad to see you leave and by now these guests should have left and so my mother in a tone I cannot imagine to be anything but completely gracious simply runs out of things to say and so instead lobs a sort of conversational Hail Mary into the mix with the phrase “Well, time really has passed. Does anybody need a sandwich?” which I believe in her imagination to be a totally reasonable way to make everybody in the house look at the clock. I mean, I think the only acceptable response to being offered a sandwich of Thanksgiving leftovers seven hours after you have eaten the Thanksgiving meal itself would be a profound epiphany followed by the words “My heavens, look at the time, we must be going.” But that’s not what happened. What happened instead is of course the reason why we tell the story in the first place. What happened is that my mother got up and went to the fridge offered the room a sandwich and one of the men who was there for dinner seven hours previously said “Actually, I’d love a sandwich,” which is how you end up with Thanksgiving guests who really don’t know when to go home.
Now, I was not born in time for this story. I am merely one of its inheritors. But I have participated in its telling enough times to think that I know a bit about what it’s supposed to mean. At one level it’s simply a story about the quantity of food that one eats on Thanksgiving. It is to be told at the Thanksgiving meal, just after everybody has eaten their fill, as an expression of disbelief that anybody could ever be hungry again. At another level of course, it’s a story about social cues. It’s very important that the story not be told over or after dessert lest the current guests begin to wonder whether they too have become the guests who don’t know when to go home. But I also have to admit that the more I hear this story the worse I feel for the poor man who just wants a sandwich. The poor man who just accepts a sandwich freely offered. Because it seems plausible to me that a Thanksgiving dinner guest who says yes to a sandwich at 11:45 at night might not just be hungry for leftover turkey. Maybe what he needs is company. Maybe what he needs is conversation. Maybe what he needs is to not go home. Mission, I suppose, accomplished.
What are you really hungry for? This is the question that haunts the crowd in today’s reading, picking up just a few verses after the end of last week’s story. You’ll remember Jesus feeding the 5,000 with just a few loaves and fishes, the abundance such on display that afterwards there are more leftovers than there were bread and fish to begin with. But a strange consequence of John’s telling of this story is that it doesn’t actually work. The crowd isn’t satisfied. They wake up the next morning, hungover on bread and fish, but they’re still hungry for something. They don’t say it, but they don’t have to; they keep coming after Jesus, which is what you do when you’re still hungry and he can make the food appear on command. So they go looking.
Now, there’s a bit of a joke on the crowd here. In-between these two stories is another miracle story, which is the story of Jesus walking on the water, so by time the crowd sobers up Jesus is actually on the far side of the lakeshore, and you can imagine just how much sense that makes to the folks waking up in a fish coma. But still they’re hungry for something, so the crowd rows over to him — “Rabbi, when did you come here?” but Jesus cuts into them almost immediately. You didn’t just row over here because you missed a miracle. Actually y’all ate so much yesterday that you slept through the miracle. Actually y’all ate so much yesterday and that now I think you can realize the truth. Which is that you were never really hungry for the bread and the fish in the first place. I could have multiplied it another hundred times. A thousand times. We could have eaten our way through a 12-course tasting menu of bread and fish and let’s throw in some cheese and yogurt and nuts and anything else you can imagine. We could have stuffed ourselves to the brim. We did stuff ourselves to the brim and yet here you are. Still hungry. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.
What are they really hungry for? Of course, we all feed ourselves with that which does not satisfy. There’s a difference between what we consume and what we need. Our old family dog could eat everything. All Henry ever wanted to do was to eat everything. We got him from the pound when he was about a year old and in the ten years we had him there was never more than a crumb on the kitchen floor. Even in the latter years of his life, when his legs had given up and his body was sore beyond belief, even then, Henry wouldn’t let the food in his dish last more than a passing moment. It made a few things easier, but also, you couldn’t help but wonder how hard his life must have been in that year before we brought him home. Ten years after living with us and being fed regularly by us with no reasonable anticipation that he might not be fed by us tomorrow and he would still eat like might be his last chance and it’s terrible to realize that no quantity of food is ever going to make that particular hunger go away. We all feed ourselves with what we think we need. But it doesn’t mean we’re right.
So, what are you really hungry for? And what does your diet actually look like? What do you binge on? And what do you really need? I will confess that one of my dietary choices is to regularly revisit television shows I love — I feast from the Netflix buffet — alongside whatever new thing has caught my imagination invariably there is some old familiar confection that I can’t quite give up. Of late I have fallen into what I think is my third time through with Aaron Sorkin’s dramatic take on the presidency, The West Wing, episodes of which find their way into my day like candy in your desk drawer that you don’t even realize you’re eating. And I will admit that when I started this rewatch I started with a bit of fear and trembling; after all, I hold those characters in high regard; I hunger for the dignity and the intelligence with which that show imagines our national dialog; how would it feel now to reencounter that world as that same dignity seems so profoundly missing from our own? Would it taste sweet like nostalgia? Bitter like tragedy? Acrid like irony? But I have to tell you that to me it tastes like nothing. I wish it were otherwise. I wish it didn’t just evaporate. I wish it had sticking power. I wish it would fill me up. I wish it would suffice to immerse myself in a fictional world of character and virtue. I suppose I must be hungry for the real thing instead.
What are you really hungry for? And what does your diet actually look like? In John’s Gospel this crowd has been bingeing on bread and fish, bread and fish as far as the eye can see. But Jesus sees them too, stuffing themselves with food that perishes. It echoes of the words of Isaiah that we heard just a few weeks ago — why do you labor for that which does not satisfy? Jesus knows that this crowd is hungry for something else, hungry for something more satisfying, hungry instead for the presence of God, hungry for promises of God, hungry for the deliverance of God. It manifests as remembrances of manna in the wilderness, as the crowd says “Well, the last prophet we followed gave us food in the desert, too” but Jesus sees through it again. “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And the crowd recognizes a good meal when they see it. A worthy meal. A healthy meal. A filling meal. “Sir, give us this bread always.”
This is, of course, why we gather. This is why we’re here, you and me and the whole crowd of Jesus-followers this morning or any given morning, this is why we gather with believers wrapped around dining room tables and scattered across auditoriums and wiggling in hard wooden pews and standing in grand cathedrals and walking for the first time across the threshold into some new body of faith. This is why we come. This is why anybody has ever come into a house of worship on a Sunday morning. Because we’re hungry. Because we’re hungry for the promises of God. Because we’re hungry for the feast of the kingdom that overflows with justice. Because we’re hungry for the dawn of a new day that comes with righteousness. Because we’re hungry for the fullness of creation that overflows with abundance. Because we have been through the week gorging on headlines and dieting on stress and snacking on Netflix and after all of it we are still hungry and Sunday morning calls to us with promises of something will truly satisfy.
And so, we come here. And we gather around this table, and we share in this communion feast. As meals go it’s not much — just a little bread and wine. Unto itself it will not fill you up. You will probably still need lunch after worship. But our little table is meant for grander things. It is meant to offer a taste of God’s promises. It is meant to offer a taste of God’s deliverance. It is means to sustain those who hunger for justice and thirst for righteousness. It is meant to be the meal that no other meal can be, the meal that serves that for which we all truly hunger — which of course is the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Which is not to say that any of us ever leave here truly satisfied. I do not imagine that anybody on this side of the curtain knows what it means to be truly full. Nonetheless this table is God’s gift to us that we might be satisfied for a moment and still hungry for the time yet to come. And so, I hope that this meal finds you where you are. I hope it feeds you where you are. I hope it feeds you what you need. And I hope you know you can make yourself at home, and you can stay as long as you like.
We will have leftovers to spare.