A Sermon for Thanksgiving Day
28 November 2013
John Edward Miller, Rector
When the crowd found Jesus 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.”
– John 6:25-35
Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“I am the bread of life,” said Jesus. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
There is little danger that any of us will go hungry today. Indeed, most of us will have to summon the discipline to pace ourselves as we participate in the Thanksgiving feast. Some of us have gauges that register “full” on a delayed basis well after we have overdone it. That is a sign of our land’s abundance, and a reflection of our own ease of access to the breadbasket. Other cultures and peoples do not have the luxury of overindulgence. They subsist with chronic malnutrition and periods of starvation. For the world’s poor bread is not regarded as a complement to a succulent entrée. It is the staff of life. In those settings bread – baked on primitive ovens or unloaded from CARE packages – is often the only link to continued life. On this national feast day we would do well to remember those who live on the edge. Their quest for daily bread is not only a need to which we must respond, but it is also a picture of an even greater hunger that God alone can satisfy.
Today’s lesson from the Gospel of John gives voice to the people’s hunger for sustenance. It is a hunger that everyone feels. Growling stomachs need to be filled. Jesus was well aware of that, and he responded to the people’s famished bodies by feeding them en masse. He provided bread for their immediate need. Five thousand of his followers ate their fill by the Sea of Tiberias. But this sign of his power wasn’t sufficient to stave off their hunger. When they looked to him again, and realized that he had withdrawn into the hills, the people followed Jesus to get another free lunch. They caught up with him in Capernaum, and it was clear what they expected of him.
So Jesus called them out, saying that he understood why they had pursued him. They wanted more. Jesus recognized their emptiness, but he was not focusing on physical hunger alone when he said: “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.”
Jesus knew that even with full bellies we can still be hungry. What we crave is the question. Food and drink satisfy in the moment, but that satisfaction doesn’t last. Meals such as Thanksgiving dinner are joyous celebrations that warm the heart and uplift the spirit because they are familiar feasts. They are literally family traditions. All of us eagerly await our time of delicious togetherness. However, after the dishes are done, and the silver and crystal is safely ensconced in the cupboard, and following the nap encouraged by intake of turkey and all the trimmings, as well as the pies and the wine, there can be an emptiness that we still feel. It is a real sense of absence, a space that yearns to be filled. But we can misidentify that urgency for something more as a biological thing, a call to quell a physical appetite, unless we pay attention to the voice of God’s Spirit that dwells in us.
Jesus’ followers weren’t tuned-in to anything that spiritual. Their desire blocked their perception. Thus they returned to the matter of eating, asking Jesus to do what they wanted, namely to feed their stomachs. They said: “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.’” In short, why can’t you be like that? Then you’d be the kind of Christ we need, and want.
It’s not hard to imagine Jesus’ frustration with their obtuse remarks. We can see him grimacing as he corrected them about the source of the manna. He understood that his followers were no more enlightened than the Hebrews who kept grumbling about Moses’ failings as a leader. No, he told them, it was God, not Moses who provided the true bread from heaven. That bread is more than flour and water; it is what God showers upon his people, giving life to the world. At that the people shouted, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Once again, they didn’t get it. The hungry crowd was demanding a divine welfare plan – an everlasting entitlement. Sighing deeply Jesus looked at them and told them plainly, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Hunger and thirst are signs. They point beyond the physical to a common spiritual need. What they indicate is a deeper hunger and a deeper thirst than that which is staved off and slaked at mealtime. It is the profound longing for meaning in a world that deals out hard knocks and disappointments and sorrows as well as contentment, pleasure, and happiness. Jesus addressed these signs, comparing himself to the true bread from heaven. “I am the bread of life,” he said. He was not talking about food and drink when he coined that metaphor. The words he used are precursors to the words he used at the Last Supper. Given this bread, he said, you no longer hunger and thirst for fulfillment.
But the people – we the people – seem always to cry, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Our appetite is voracious; it is not within our means to achieve satisfaction.
The Roman satirist Juvenal once remarked that the people want two things – “bread and circuses.” He made that remark to decry the low standards of his fellow citizens and to skewer the politicians of Rome who manipulated the voting public by pandering to their base desires, which can be fleshed out as cheap food and entertainment. Today that charge still rings true, but those who play to, and manipulate, our insatiable desires are now manifold and far more powerful than anything that the Romans had to deal with. We are bombarded by so many media, and the promises conveyed to us – the ones that guarantee youth, beauty, vigor, excitement, satisfaction of every longing, and the quenching of every appetite imaginable – are as seductive as the mythical Sirens that lured unsuspecting sailors onto the rocks of destruction. The persistent, relentless blasts that beckon us to follow the messiahs of merchandizing and the con artists of consumerism are tremendously influential. The sources of these broadcasts that jam our airwaves are legion. They stem from every realm of our culture, religion included. They all beckon us to fasten our attention on them, and they encourage us to ask, “What’s in this for me?” as the guiding principle. And when we follow that path, we are turning a deaf ear to the one who challenges us to come to him and receive bread for living a godly life.
Fifty years ago this past week, our nation lost John F. Kennedy to an assassin’s warped sense of reality. The President’s death was a tragedy, reflecting the devices and desires of a human heart gone terribly wrong. As one pundit opined, we have never been the same since that day. One of the great losses that we incurred was the dream of a new frontier – a generation that took seriously the maxim, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Those words are about service, about giving, and about self-sacrifice for the sake of others. They are at loggerheads with the me-first, uncivil, what am I going to get out of this atmosphere that darkens our vision.
When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” he was offering us a gift – not a handout, but a gift that can transform our priorities, our agenda, our whole life. He was offering us himself; he is our sustenance, our bread for living. But what fills our deepest hunger is not a temporary appetite fix with something perishable. The bread he gives is compassionate love. It is his presence – his willingness to feel what we feel, to experience what we experience, to cry as we cry, and to suffer as we suffer. His presence is God with us. And when we sense his presence, we are fed fully. We become the person we have been created to be: grateful servants of God, and ministers of God’s grace. We become givers instead of takers, attentive instead of insensitive, patient rather than impatient. Jesus bread is the only bread that fills the space inside, the place that longs for wholesomeness. That is the menu he offers. Our task is to receive what we gives, that we might offer his grace to others.
Rowan Williams, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, declared in his inaugural sermon that “the one great purpose of the Church’s existence is to share that bread of life; to hold open in its words and actions a place where we can be with Jesus and to be channels for his free, unanxious, utterly demanding, grown-up love. The Church exists to pass on the promise of Jesus – ‘You can live in the presence of God without fear; you can receive from his fullness and set others free from fear and guilt.’”
We have gathered this day as a family – God’s family – to celebrate God’s bountiful grace, to give thanks for the miracle of life, and to respond to the call to share what we have been given. May we, who have been fed by Christ, feed others with his bread of life. In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.