The Rev. Betsy Tesi
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
God’s people know wilderness well. Our stories today center on God’s people experiencing wilderness and receiving bread from heaven. In Exodus, the people grumble against Moses. Somewhere after the Red Sea, with the lands of Goshen that once harbored Jacob’s family a distant memory, and long, long before they’d even imagined the green lands of Canaan, the people had started to grumble, wishing that the easy eating of slavery was still available. Considering what we know of slavery, I imagine that your current existence has to be pretty bleak indeed to wish to return to a life as a slave. Yet God speaks, promising bread and meat to feed these people. And in the evening, the first quails come. And as the dew lifts in the morning, the first manna is left behind. In the midst of wilderness, there is provision enough.
It would seem that the easy answer to the story is that God desires good things for God’s people. Or that God will provide. Pick your own answer, I suppose. It’s what I would want to hear from the pulpit on a sleepy summer Sunday- easy and comfortable. Yet one of the hardest and most frequent questions that I’ve gotten in my career is “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” Certainly, it is easy and it feels good to believe that God wants good things for God’s people, like a benevolent genie in the sky, and it seems much of our scripture supports that thesis on a lovely summer Sunday morning in this amazing land of Oregon, but how well does that hold up during our weekday lives? I want as much as anyone else to believe that God wants good things for God’s people, but all I have to do is click on the Washington Post website to know that our soldiers still struggle in unstable war zones that won’t contribute to world peace, that a significant drought threatens our food supply and prices and security, that our congress is so deadlocked they couldn’t agree on where to order a pizza, and that madmen break into the safety of our lives and gun down theatres full of unsuspecting people. Sunday afternoon through Saturday night, we are bombarded by the reality that good people suffer. If God wants good things for God’s people, why does he allow his people to suffer in the wilderness?
No, instead, to make this story flexible enough to exist in our reality today, I have to look forward to Jesus, standing on the other side of the lake, where the crowds followed after he’d slipped away in the night. The people followed him because many were fed and satisfied. They wanted that again. Yet Jesus assures them that they really desire the satisfaction of being filled, with more than simple bread. He offers a relationship with God as the food that does not perish. Jesus, using himself as a conduit, stands in for that manna and promises that knowing him means that we will have provision enough.
Does that answer the question of why God allows wilderness? Things continue to go wrong in life. How do we know we are doing God’s work? The people ask this exact question of Jesus. When we walk in wilderness, how do we know we are following God’s will? It is one of the most honest and most painful questions we can ask God- indeed, that many great prophets have asked God. After all we have done, all the rules we have followed, all the prayers we have prayed, still we suffer. How do we know we are following your ways? Jesus’ answer is belief. “This is God’s work. Believe in the one who has been sent. I am that bread of life.”
God’s work, our work to do, is to believe that God sends good. I admit that is a tricky turn of phrase. It is easy to hear that in a very Christocentric way- believe in our version of Christianity, and you will be fine. I certainly saw that this summer when Martin and I ended up stranded for a whole weekend in Kellogg, Idaho with a blown engine. The town was run by members of a fundamentalist Baptist sect. I could have gotten any number of rides to “fundamentalist evangelical Bible-believing KJV” churches or called someone day or night for Bible study, but all the ads were prefaced with this idea that I had done something wrong, and that was why I was in trouble. That train of thought does not help me. Instead, I hear the story of God and humanity as a relationship in which God desires good at all times for all God’s people. What I can tell you is that I am an Episcopal priest because I hear this story through the lens of Jesus blessing bread and wine, and offering himself as sustenance enough. It does not mean that everyone will hear the story that way- you yourself might not- and I am OK with that. In my mind, the larger story of God’s interaction with human kind shows us a people in trouble- escaped slaves starving in the desert, hungry people on a hillside searching for the messiah, a couple far from home in Idaho with a broken car, and God sorrows for his suffering people and seeks their good. God sends bread to prevent starvation of the body. God sends Christ to save us from starvation of the soul. God doesn’t wish for our suffering or test us to see how much suffering we can endure. Rather, our job as God’s people is to believe that the good we do find comes from God. For us, as a Christian people, we can hear that good in the form of Jesus.
To me, that is what makes sense of those wilderness times. When we are in the wilderness, it is hard to feel that presence of God. When the grief punches us in the face. When the labor pains are at their worst and the doctors are talking about emergency C-sections. When the war rages on and the protest feels hopeless. When the car is broken down in Idaho and the dealer’s quote is far too expensive to repair. When your brother’s unit loses a helicopter on their tour in the Middle East. God seeks to comfort us with shelter, sustenance, hope. Jesus offers himself for those who come seeking, even as we fail again and again and again to live up to the best of what human beings could potentially be.
Today, we baptize Bingham and Christine’s daughter, as her sister stands at her side and her godparents from across the country swear to guide her faith. Bingham truly hoped I could pull a baptism sermon out of these readings, and I do apologize that I just couldn’t find a way to focus on the eternal waters. But it’s okay. Because we aren’t just washing this child in the waters of life, we are bringing her into the community of a faith that forever hopes and forever loves and forever seeks a God who forever seeks our good, and who never drives away those who seek to love him. And isn’t that itself a miracle? That we, failed humanity in the middle of our many wildernesses, can return to God’s house again and again. We stand in God’s presence renewed and restored, looking with wide eyes onto the mystery of the waters and the reality of the bread of life itself.