“Do not work for the food that perishes” Jesus says.
“Then what should we work for?” the crowd asks.
For the past six years my kids attended a year-round school. This meant that their summer break was only six weeks long. To some – especially those under the age of 18 – that might seem like a short summer break. For us, the break was perfect, because for five of those six years I worked at the boy’s school, and we were able to share our summer breaks together.
This summer, however, has been slightly different.
In just a few short weeks, my boys will start their new school, in our new town, which means that, this summer, for the first time in their memory, they have been experiencing a typical summer break. It is also the first time in their lifetime that I have worked full-time throughout the summer months.
Lord, have mercy on us all.
To say that we were unprepared for this new adventure would be an understatement. This summer has been – and continues to be – challenging for us, as we navigate this unfamiliar terrain.
There have been days when I have felt a bit like Jesus in Capernaum.
Days when I look at my boys and asked, “Why are you still here? Why are you not at school yet? And why are you still asking for food? Didn’t I just feed you? Go play!”
This brings me to the one particular challenge that I really did not anticipate this summer: the challenge of hunger.
My boys are now in their pre-teen/teen years, and it is no great secret that growing boys have growing appetites. It is also no great revelation that when one is home all day long, for days on end, with no discernible schedule, meals become an indefinite thing. On more than one occasion I have arrived home from work, ready to make dinner, to discover that both the boys have just eaten lunch. Or that key ingredients for the meal I planned on serving for dinner were used to make a mid-morning snack. These discoveries did not go over well. At one point, slightly on edge, I even threatened to make a list of how many servings of each item in our pantry they could have each day. My grocery bill was struggling under the demand of a self-serve kitchen that was apparently open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
But it wasn’t just the hunger of grumbling stomachs that took me by surprise this summer. It was also their hunger for something to do. Their hunger for purpose, and my hunger for relationship.
This year – inexperienced as we were with long summers – we were all completely unprepared for the amount of downtime that a longer break would provide. Just a few weeks into our break, boredom and apathy began to set in. Often I would come home from work to find the boys eyes glazed over from the amount of time they had spent in front of a screen. I was reminded of an old Shel Silverstein poem in which a young boy, Jimmy Jet, turns into a TV set, after watching television for hours on end.
“You are turning into an iPad!” I would half-tease, half-scold when I got home from work each day, feeling that all-too-familiar weight of mother-guilt for not having planned the summer better and for not being home with them like all the summers previously.
I was simultaneously frustrated and sad: frustrated that they were gorging themselves on too much media, and sad that I wasn’t with them more.
I had been spoiled by the slow routines and rhythms of our past summers, and I missed the uninterrupted time I had been able to spend with them in those days without something always waiting in the wings for my attention. So, I admit that we was unprepared. But how could I have known the hunger we would all experience?
The spiritual, soul-hunger for meaning, for relationships, and the hunger to do something worthwhile.
I am pretty confident that the things we struggled with this summer are just a small example of the sorts of struggles that we, as a culture, deal with every day.
We all struggle with hunger in our own ways.
In Maslow’s pyramid, the Hierarchy of Needs, physical hunger is given as one of the very first human needs that must be met before growth or transformation can happen. It is one of the most basic needs a human can have, one felt at a primal level. Anyone who has been woken by a hungry (and angry) baby at three a.m. can attest to this.
But once this need is met, once our bellies are full and we have the security of knowing that we will not perish from hunger, our needs begin to change, we grow, and as each level of need is satisfied we move onto another level.
But as happens in any growth process, there are often plateaus. Places where our growth gets stuck. Changes in our lives that cause us to experience this pyramid of needs like a game of Chutes and Ladders, instead of just a steady incline.
I would venture to guess that for most of us here, the levels we find ourselves visiting, time and time again, are the levels that deal with belonging, relationships, purpose, and meaning.
These are the levels that my boys and I found ourselves languishing in, these were our cravings. And I believe that these are the things that we as a culture are craving for as well.
The problem for all of us though, is that all too often we are using the wrong things to feed ourselves.
Which is why I find Jesus’ exchange with the crowd in today’s Gospel reading so interesting. Do not work for the food that perishes he says.
And I wonder… what is the food that parishes that we are feeding ourselves?
What is it that we are using to try and quench our spiritual soul-hunger? You know the hunger I am talking about, the one that wakes you up at 2 A.M. That taunts you in the car ride home for work, causing you to turn the radio up louder. The nagging sense that something is missing, that seems to always be there, tap, tap, tapping, at the back of our minds while we are folding laundry, bathing the kids, mowing the lawn…
What is it that we are using to hush that nagging hunger? Is it our work? Our hobbies? Do we look to our phones, our games, our apps, our favorite television shows? Do we look to shopping, cooking, organizing, drinking, gossip, or sleeping? Do we look to other people, demanding more of our relationships than is possible?
What are the things we use to plug up all the leaky places in our hearts?
What is it that we use to feed our loneliness, our fear, our boredom?
For me it is often more work. More projects. More busy-ness. When things are really bad it is more sleeping, more shopping.
For my boys this summer it was more video games.
I once asked a therapist why video game playing -especially violent video game playing – was such a popular hobby for grown men. His answer made perfect sense and was intriguing. He said that video games, through the stimulation of their high-def graphics and intense challenges, were providing men with adrenaline stimulation that mimicked – but did not replace – the sort of adrenaline and stimulation that people experience when they engaged in meaningful, purposeful, and challenging work. The problem that arises is that this sensation is temporary. It has no lasting value. This creates a bottomless pit of need to replicate the experience, which means that more video games must be played. To keep the adrenaline pumping, the games must become increasingly more risky, more violent, etc.
Now, I am not a video-game naysayer, I don’t think there is anything wrong with playing video games in moderation, any more than I think there is anything awful about eating cake, or going shopping, or visiting Facebook, or enjoying a good pinot noir.
But none of these things will sustain us. None of these things will fill up our spirit and satisfy our soul-hunger.
And this is an important distinction to be aware of.
Chances are that whatever we are trying to fill ourselves up with isn’t filled with the rich spiritual life-giving nutrients needed to sustain us. Just as our bodies crave and need certain nutrients, so do our souls and our hearts.
This is what Jesus was saying to the crowd that day in John 6:24-35.
He was telling them that they didn’t need more signs and wonders. They didn’t need the newest, most shiny, exciting thing. They didn’t need a new car or a new house or a new job to be filled. They needed to stop looking for what they thought they needed, and to instead be open to what God is giving them – the presence of Christ.
But the crowd isn’t getting this; they want some more signs, more proof, more entertainment, more distractions, and an easy fix. “Moses gave us manna in the wilderness” they counter, trying to prod Jesus into giving them what they want, trying to goad him into preforming just one more sign or wonder.
But Jesus knows the game they are playing and he isn’t taking the bait.
He counters their challenge by reminding them that it was God that gave them manna in the wilderness, not Moses. And it is God, who, through the presence of Christ, is providing the manna that they now need.
You are not hungry and you do not need any more distractions, he is saying to them. What you need to is to open your eyes and see the manna all around you; God’s presence, the food you are hunger for is here, right in front of you.
What the crowd needed then and what we need now is manna. And there is nothing shiny, new, or sparkly about manna. Often manna requires work on our part – after all it did not fall from heaven and land on the Israelites tables. It fell on the ground in their camp and around their dwellings, and each morning they had to get out of bed and go look for it again. Every day they had to get out of bed, go into the world, and gather it. And so do we.
God’s presence, God’s manna, will satisfy our hunger for meaning, our hunger for purpose, our hunger to be useful and wanted, our hunger know and be known. It will fulfill our deepest hunger to live as we were uniquely created to be – and to live out the image of God in us. Manna is the sustaining, fulfilling, and enriching presence of God in our lives. It is the gift of grace and love and wholeness that feeds us our deepest hungers.
But how do we access this manna? How do we see and experience the presence of God in our lives?
Well, first I think we have to start by correctly identifying our hunger. We have to find the places in our lives where we are gorging ourselves on things that will not fill us up in misguided attempts to quench our spiritual soul-hunger.
This summer my boys tried desperately to fill their hunger for meaning and purpose, their need to Do Something, by playing unforetold hours of video games and watching countless hours of videos on YouTube. And each day when, home from work, I declared screen time was over; they would emerge from their rooms looking like zombies. Then they would walk straight to the refrigerator, open the doors and stare into the void, looking for the next thing they could try and fill themselves up with. Because they were famished.
Because, despite all the freedom to do what they wanted, to fill themselves up all day with as much screen time as they could cram in, they were still starving. They were dying of hunger for something real, something meaningful.
They were starving – whether they realized it or not – for manna. They had spent their day gorging themselves on the “food that perishes” and now they were famished.
So we have to ask ourselves, what is it we are hungry for? Is it meaning? Is it purpose? Is it a deep hunger to belong? To be known? To create? To be useful? And we have to ask God to help reveal this hunger to us.
That is the first prayer: Lord, what am I hungry for?
Once we have identified our hunger, that is when our prayer becomes: Lord, show me your manna. Help me be aware of your presence and help me get up each morning looking for it. Help me to do the work of gathering when I find it, despite what it might cost me.
What are the things of God that sustain? What does manna look like? In John, Jesus is saying that He, Christ, is manna. That we when follow Him, then we are fed with life everlasting.
So how do we find Christ? How do we see Christ and access His presence?
We all find Christ and His manna in ways both unique and common. My husband finds manna working on our property, Teri finds manna when she gets to engage in rich theological discussions, and Pansy finds manna in the kitchen or in her garden.
For me I find manna when I put down my phone, turn off the computer, give the to-do list a break, get out of my head, and say to Christ, “Show me your manna.” I find manna when my house and table is filled with people I love. I find manna holding my grandmother’s hand, sitting on the couch here in the lobby talking with whoever joins me, and laughing with youth on Wednesday nights when the ball gets stuck in a tree. Again. I find manna when I make myself stay in my chair and write instead of shopping on Amazon, I find manna when I visit the nursing home, or take a friend with two sprained ankles grocery shopping. I find manna serving at the altar.
Perhaps, for some, manna looks like finding purpose through service – serving in the Food Pantry, working at Bethlehem House, volunteering in the nursery, or collecting clean socks for the homeless. Perhaps it looks like going to Guatemala, or raising money for Camp Mitchell.
Perhaps God’s manna lives in your neighborhood or works in the cubicle next to you. Perhaps you will find the sense of belonging you have been craving by getting to know and be known through authentic relationships with someone different than yourself – someone of a different religion, or skin color, or political ideology.
Perhaps God’s manna is waiting for you in your home. Perhaps you are overcommitted and working for food that perishes, which is taking you away from the food that sustains – your home life.
Perhaps, God’s manna is waiting for you in your garden, on your trampoline, at the park, on the lake. Perhaps what you are hungry for is the awe, wonder, and deep contentment that comes from enjoying creation.
I believe that, just like in the time of Moses, Manna is falling all around us, but we have to be intentional to look for it, to notice it, to gather it. And just like the israelites in the desert, we have to keep looking for it, day after day. And this requires us to be present to our lives. This requires us to put down the things that we use to distract ourselves, the things we use to try and fill up the leaky places in our hearts, and to say “God, where is your presence today? Where is the manna?”
Because manna is unique in that it cannot be stored up. You cannot save manna for another day. Manna is only good in the present. Manna is the present.
Manna is the presence of God, in our lives, in the moment.
And to experience this, we will have to put aside the rotting food that parishes, and instead feast on the food of heaven.
So he commanded the clouds above
and opened the doors of heaven.
He rained down manna upon them to eat
and gave them grain from heaven.
So mortals ate the bread of angels;
he provided for them food enough.
He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens
and led out the south wind by his might.
He rained down flesh upon them like dust
and winged birds like the sand of the sea.
He let it fall in the midst of their camp
and round about their dwellings.
So they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.
Jerusalem Jackson Greer, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Conway Arkansas, August 2, 2015
Listen to the Podcast of this sermon HERE