2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33
John 6:35, 41-51
This sermon was preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley CA on August 12, 2012.
One day in Sunday school, the teacher was sharing the story of creation with the children, specifically the creation of the first human beings. Little Johnny paid close attention when the teacher explained how Adam’s wife, Eve, was created out of Adam’s side. Later in the week, little Johnny was lying down, moaning, groaning and complaining. And when his mom asked him what was wrong, Johnny said, “My side really hurts. I think I’m having a wife.”
This morning’s Gospel is also about complaining and misunderstanding. After Jesus declares himself to be the “Bread of Life” his listeners begin to complain because they do not understand how this local carpenter could be bread from heaven. The other readings this morning also include complaining. In 2 Samuel, Absalom rises to power because he complains that his father, King David, is not listening well enough to his people’s complaints. We just read about Absalom’s fall and King David’s subsequent lament. In fact, King David continues to moan and groan for his son well into the next chapter, until his commander Joab begins to complain that David’s moaning and groaning is hurting the morale of the troops. The Psalmist of Psalm 130 cries out and complains from the depths (“de profundis”), urging God to hear his supplication. In the Epistle, Paul complains to the Ephesians who appear to be complaining too much. So as we can see from these readings, the Bible contains a hefty amount of complaint.
About a year ago, I preached my first sermon here on complaining in the Bible. I referred to it then as kvetching. I preached specifically on the Israelites kvetching in the wilderness for bread. And God responded to all of the kvetching in Exodus with grace, compassion and nourishment. And Moses himself summed up the passage by saying, “Draw near to the Lord for he has heard your complaining.” There clearly is a time for complaining, for honestly wrestling with our dissatisfactions, disappointments, fears, and sorrows. Many of the examples of profound complaining and lamenting in this morning’s readings are completely valid, especially the lament of King David. Throughout my time here at St. Clement’s I have been a strong advocate for bringing our questions, concerns and frustrations before the throne of God in prayer because God hears our complaining and God responds with loving compassion and care-giving nourishment.
There is also a time, however, to stop complaining.
Scholars agree that the Gospel passage this morning is clearly a New Testament commentary on the very same Old Testament passage that I preached on a year ago, about the hungry Israelites kvetching in the wilderness. The Gospel invites us to read that story in light of the Christ. And the first thing that Jesus says in response to all the complaining is “Stop it! Do not complain among yourselves” or, in another translation, “Stop your murmuring and grumbling.” Now the Greek word for “complain” in John is “gonguzo” which is the same word used for “complain” in the Old Testament account of the Israelites complaining for bread (in the Septuagint). So any Jewish reader of John would know that this Gospel is meant to be read with the Old Testament passage in mind.
The Israelites in the wilderness complain because they are hungry and then receive bread from God as a result. The Judeans in John complain as they fail to recognize Jesus, who is the bread from God, standing right in front of them. Jesus tells them to stop complaining because he knows that what they really desire and hunger for is right in front of them. It’s as if I were to complain about not having any good food while being served a fresh meal at Chez Panisse. Or as if someone were to say to his greatest admirer or lover, “I feel like no one likes me.” And we can imagine how painful it must be for the lover or for the meal (if the meal had feelings) to be so sorely overlooked. Jesus is that fresh meal and Jesus is that lover. And when he says, “Do not complain,” he is saying to the Judeans, “The Israelites in the wilderness were complaining because they were hungry and had no bread, but you have the bread of life right in front of you, so stop complaining! I am here to satisfy all your deepest needs and desires. And if you keep complaining you will fail to see it.”
In the Gospel, we have an invitation to let go of our habits of grumbling and criticizing to experience the abundance that is right in front of us. I shared this Sufi saying in my Thanksgiving sermon that is relevant and bears repeating: “Abundance can be had simply by consciously receiving what already has been given.” The Judeans had already been given the Christ (the One who came to bring abundant life), but they failed to receive what had already been given because they got stuck in their complaining.
These last few weeks, I had the enormous privilege of traveling through Spain, Monaco, France and the Netherlands, everyday surrounded by new beauty, fresh sights, and delicious food. And I’ll admit that there were some times when I found myself complaining about silly and trivial things. And whenever I did, I would lose sight of the abundance that was all around me. Sometimes it would help me to put things into perspective by ironically saying to myself, “Oh poor Daniel! His life is so hard. He can’t get a free refill on his soda while he finishes his salmon dinner overlooking the Mediterranean in Monaco. What a tragedy!” It’s absurd, but that’s often what I do. And that’s when I need to hear Jesus say, “Stop complaining and recognize the abundance that is right in front of you.”
The abundance that the Gospel calls us to recognize right in front of us is the Bread of Life, which satisfies us beyond any other meal or relationship or trip to Europe. And what is the Bread of Life? It is appropriate that the lectionary devotes five Sundays in a row to this stupendously rich symbol because one sermon can only scratch the surface (or the crust) of its multi-layered meaning. Even the church fathers could not agree on one meaning but offered a variety of meanings and interpretations. However, there are two primary meanings that the church fathers described, which, I believe, are relevant to us this morning: The Bread of Life as God’s Word to us and as God’s Meal for us.
When Satan tempted Jesus to turn stone into bread in the desert, Jesus responded, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God.” The Word of God is God’s message of unconditional and unending love for each of us. And it is this Word that Christ embodied and incarnated. And it is this Word that we hear every time we gather together for the Liturgy of the Word. And it is this Word that feeds us and nourishes us and transforms us.
And the Bread of Life is God’s Meal for us. And God’s Meal for us is God’s self-giving love offered to us so that we too can embody and incarnate his love in the world. It is this meal that we will share in a few minutes. And it is this meal that feeds us and nourishes us and transforms us.
And so the Bread of Life is right in front of us, here and now, in the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Table. It is the abundance that is already given, right in front of us. The very same Presence that stood in front of the Judeans and said, “Do not complain. What you are craving is right here.”
And finally, Jesus does not reiterate Moses by saying, “Draw near to the Lord for he has heard your complaining.” Instead Jesus says, “Let yourself be drawn to me.” (“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”) Let yourself be drawn to Christ, the Bread of Life in the Word and in the Eucharist, the Abundance that is right in front of us today. And let us let go of complaining, which prevents us from seeing and receiving the Abundant Presence of Christ in front of us. And let us allow ourselves to be drawn to the nourishment that will satisfy our deepest hunger so that, in the end, all we can really say is “Thanks be to God!”
And, in the end, that’s the best thing I can say as I conclude my season here at St. Clement’s: “Thanks be to God!” and thanks be to all of you. (I am glad to be ending on a note of thanks and not a note of complaint.) I have been wonderfully blessed by the abundance of this community. You have shown me new ways to recognize and receive the Bread of Life in the Word and in the Eucharist through your use of the 1928 prayer book and Rite 1. And so many of you (either through longer conversations or brief encounters) have made lasting impressions on me that will continue to inform and enrich my ministry. Thank you all so much for your encouragement, your questions, your challenges and affirmations. Even though I somehow managed to find things to complain about in Monaco, I really cannot think of anything to complain about regarding my time here, so thank you. And thanks be to God! Amen.