The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
The 2004 French romantic film A Very Long Engagement follows twenty-year-old, polio-stricken Mathilde in her desperate search for her childhood sweetheart and fiancé, Manech. Manech is one of five French soldiers during World War I who have tried mutilating themselves in order to escape military service, and the five, in turn, are exiled to face certain death in the French and German trenches. Mathilde, however, desperately clings to the hope that Manech might still be alive and begins searching for clues to what really happened to him. Mathilde’s yearning for Manech drives her to look for certain synchronicities and signs that he remains alive. If she sees X, or if Y happens—for instance, if the dog comes into her bedroom before supper—then Manech is out there somewhere and will return to her. Mathilde not only looks for signs, but determines which ones are probable so that the signs point to her desired outcome. Ultimately (and apologies for the spoiler), Mathilde is reunited with Manech. She’s granted her heart’s desire. However, it’s not exactly as she expected. Manech doesn’t remember who she is or any of his life before the war. It’s heartbreaking. Yet Manech seems to like her and there’s a slight, subtle glimmer of what they once knew. Mathilde’s eyes well up with tears in that final scene and her smile suggests there’s a chance to start over and maybe rebuild something with Manech in a new iteration. She’s been fed, just not in a way she anticipated.
Our readings this morning also point to hunger and longing and lament and hope and feeding. We begin, in our passage from Exodus, with the Israelites as they lament the provisions they had known in Egypt where they, even under slavery, comfortably ate their fill of meat and bread. They are desperate now in the wilderness, feeling as though God has sent them into exile to face certain death by way of hunger. God “hears their complaining” and sends forth food. However, I’m sure none of the Israelites expected “a fine, flaky substance” to become their “fill of bread.”
I’m also sure none of the crowd in John’s Gospel expects Jesus to say he is “the bread of life.” This discourse happens the day after feeding the five thousand, and the crowd still doesn’t quite understand the nature of this sign Jesus has performed. They see him more as a meal ticket. And when Jesus advises them to focus more on spiritual rather than physical hunger, to work for the “food that endures for eternal life,” they’re not apprehending the whole of what he means. They’re probably still preoccupied with their next fill of bread. So they get a little demanding. Maybe they’re “hangry,” that colloquial term used when one is both hungry and irritable. They not only ask Jesus for another sign, but they name manna as the kind of sign they expect. They aren’t unlike the character Mathilde, expecting a specific sign which points to their desired outcome.
The crowd’s demand, even that of their Israelite ancestors, represents the kind of myopic response many of us have when we feel a hunger for something in our lives. We, like them, might be inclined to say to God, “If you send me this particular sign, then I’ll know you have already granted me my heart’s desire. If you satisfy this want or need of mine, then I’ll believe in you.”
I can’t think of any time when you or I might have asked God for signs, maybe even specific ones, more than during the pandemic. March 2020 began our entry into a different kind of wilderness. We lamented and grieved losses—of people, livelihoods and financial security, health, physical touch and gathering with loved ones, the freedom to be out and about without having to remain hypervigilant. We each whispered or perhaps even bellowed our requests to God for a sign of better days, hungering for news of a vaccine and for a lifting of restrictions and orders to shelter in place. We waited—and we still wait—for life to return to normal.
Thanks to God at work in science, the vaccines are available and we live in an area where the majority have been vaccinated. As a result, we’re regathering and rebuilding. However, it’s not the normal we wanted. The Delta variant is creating a rise in cases across the country and there are reports of rare breakthrough cases among the vaccinated. Terms like “social distancing” or “PPEs” might not ever disappear from our vocabulary. I think it’s safe to say that “normal living” is being redefined and we’ve all been changed by the pandemic. Maybe traumatized. Maybe more grateful and counting our blessings.
What keeps us going, like the character of Mathilde, is hope—hope that despite loss and hunger of all kinds, we will be fed with life, even if in a new iteration. Jesus reveals this truth to us in the giving of his body and blood and in his resurrection.
God does listen. God does send signs. God does provide. And sometimes the way God answers our prayers can surprise us. Wonderful things happen in our midst each and every day if we are open to them. Whenever God feeds us in a way that might not match up exactly with what we envisioned, we might try giving it a chance. It might not be what we wanted, but it just might be what we need.