In dim memory, I can still walk though Aunt Peggy’s house. She isn’t a real aunt, but my mother’s best friend from childhood. I remember family trips to see her, when my little brother slept in a basket in the backseat of my parents’ Peugeot, not particularly restrained as I recall, or of later trips in the big Ford station wagon that replaced it. My mother took those long trips from Virginia to get back to a place from her childhood, a friend’s house in the Berkshires, in the town that took on all the mystical qualities of Brigadoon in our family lore: New Marlborough, Massachusetts.
My mother made that trek over and over, packing up two little children, enticing young mother’s helpers or her own mother along for the trip, every bit of effort worth it. She made the trip for those people: for Peggy, her friend of 30 years; for Peggy’s father, a tall Englishman with a big mustache who knew how to get all the jam out of a jar; for Mrs. Chris, who ruled the household from the kitchen; even for the positively gigantic Great Danes who made it difficult to walk across the floor. She made the trip for that place, the house called Fairhill with the Catalpa tree by the back door and the chestnuts spreading over the front yard, for the amazing swaths of day lilies and blackberries you could pick right off the bush, for to-the-death games of double solitaire and swims in the pond, for walnut-packed brownies that came out of the oven with comforting regularity.
Of course these are only my memories, not the ones that drove my mother over hill and across rivers, down the 1960s highways and back roads from Portsmouth, Virginia to western Massachusetts. She went back looking for something she did not have, not quite, or something she had lost and hoped to find again. I can’t know, I can only surmise. But I know she pelted toward New Marlborough every summer she could manage it and even once at Christmas time, on a scary, snowy, slippery night, the darkest night I have ever seen.
I hope she got some glimmer of the feeling she sought, some sense of being satisfied by the effort.
Of course we don’t always appreciate what we receive, even when we’ve traveled far to find it. In the wilderness, the Israelites complained, bitterly.
"If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." (Exodus 16:3)
If only. That must have sounded good to Moses and Aaron. Maybe traveling with a smaller crowd would be easier. Maybe starving them off wouldn’t be such a bad idea? But those thoughts flit through our heads only for a moment, or we hope they do, and because of his close relationship with the LORD, Moses soon had something hopeful to relate to the people, something about bread from heaven.
Such a moment! The glory of the LORD appeared in a cloud, and they knew they were not alone, not abandoned, and the LORD explained it all to Moses, how the manna would appear each morning, enough for that day, and in the evening quail would cover the camp, so that there would be meat and bread, and the people would not go hungry.This passage leaves out some things we need to know to understand how God set this up as a test. There were rules associated with the appearance of the manna. They were to gather only enough for one day, and if they gathered too much, it would go bad, except on the day before the Sabbath, when they could gather for two days, and it would not go bad.
The LORD of the Exodus gave a lot of rules to the people, mostly, I think, to see if they had it in them to listen.
My mother loved those walnut-packed brownies, whipped up from scratch, with what we might think of as alarming regularity. If the tin looked low, the preparations for the next batch began. As a brownie-loving child, this ought to have pleased me, but I did not like the nuts. I remember taking a brownie under the trestle table in the kitchen and picking out the nuts, then putting them in a row on the little ledge under the table, no doubt strewing crumbs all around.
I thought no one would notice, but in that house, someone noticed everything, and I never seemed to get the rules right.
It’s easy to make a mistake in a place where “everyone” assumes that “everyone” knows the rules already. It’s easy to find yourself on unfamiliar ground and end up feeling cut off and empty.
And so I invented my own version of New Marlborough, one in which the dogs were scary and the brownies were yucky and the grown-ups were mean because they told you your face would freeze in that expression if you didn’t change it before the clock struck.
And when we’re confused or questioning or aggrieved, we often make a case in our heads for what makes the most sense to us, and the hungry, anxious Israelites did just that, until the LORD came through and provided manna.
That story of the Israelites came to mind for the crowd when they followed Jesus after he fed them in the story you heard last week. An enormous group of people, thousands of them, gathered to hear him speak, and the disciples worried about how to feed them. There is no Last Supper in John’s gospel; instead we have this alternate Communion story, a tale in which Jesus takes five loaves and two fishes and creates enough food for everyone, with abundant leftovers.
Of course they want to know more.
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." (John 6:26-27)
As is so often true when we don’t understand what someone is telling us, the people in the crowd grab on to the phrase that makes some practical sense to them. They ask:"What must we do to perform the works of God?" (John 6:28) They are thinking of the physical bread, the loaves broken and multiplied, the wonder of the miracle they witnessed and the abundance of the bread that filled them.
They want to know how to do these mystical works of material magic. They don’t understand that the form of a sign does not matter. It’s what the sign points to that we need to comprehend.
"This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:29)
The miracle of the loaves and the fishes is not about the food itself. The miracle is God among us in the person of Jesus.
Still they ask him:
"What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?" (John 6:30)
The work of being among us: that is the sign of God’s love, expressed in the life of Jesus.
I suspect the people hoped for something a little more concrete, but the beauty of the living bread is that it never goes bad, can travel with us anywhere and is never in short supply.
What are we really hungry for?
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. (John 6:33)
Like the little girl under the table, picking walnuts out of a brownie, we sometimes miss the message of inclusion. Like the Israelites waxing nostalgic about their life in slavery, we sometimes miss the message of abundance. Like the crowd hoping to learn the secret works of power, we sometimes miss the message of love. These are the things that will fill us. These are the things that we crave. And this is a test not simply of our obedience but of our
understanding.The bread of God comes down from heaven and gives us life—new life—and if we will just believe it, we will not be hungry or thirsty again. We will be filled with the loving presence of God.
“Sir, give us this bread always.” Amen.