This week the Bible passage are all about food again, just like last week. The central story this time is the miraculous provision of manna in the desert. God hears the complaints of the people, their growling stomachs, and sends bread. The Psalmist turns the memory into a prayer, a song, a hymn for the people: “God commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven… and gave them the grain of heaven” (Ps 78:23-24).
After all these years of reading the Bible, this theme of God’s care sticks out to me more and more—God’s care as a plot line for the Bible, the Scriptures as bearing witness to the God who cares for people, the God who can’t help but love, because that’s who God is. To talk about care seems to be a way to get more specific about the nature of God’s love. God’s care is what God’s love looks like, care is what God’s love feels like in our lives. God sends manna because God can’t help but provide for the needs of the people.
And food is a sign of God’s care. We know that in our own lives. The way that I want to bake cookies for someone who I know is having a tough time. Or when I bake cookies for myself when I’m having a hard time. There’s some kind of link between a desire to care and the offer of food. Perhaps as a way of saying that we’re committed to each other’s survival, something we can do with our hands, when we can’t think of anything else to do—a gesture of care that returns us to our fundamental needs, that we are creatures, that we rely on each other, that all of us are bundles of neediness.
Every meal is an acknowledgment of our dependence on a world beyond us, every breathe a reminder that we aren’t self-sufficient, that we can’t manage our lives without the support of a whole community around us, an environment. This pandemic has been a reminder that we live by shared breath, our everyday communion in the air.
The story about manna in Exodus reveals that God cares for our bodily needs, that God is committed to our survival, that God is the God of life. In the passage we heard from John’s Gospel, Jesus expands the story about manna to include intangible care, spiritual care, the life of the body and soul. “Jesus said to them—[this is verse 35]—‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:35).
We are more than what we eat. We are more profoundly needy than we’d like to admit—our reliance on relationships, on conversation, on play and work, on joy. To cry with a friend, to laugh. I think Dorothee Soelle, the German activist and theologian, had a good way to say all of this. Death by Bread Alone—that was the title of one of her books in the 1970s. We need more than food to live, we need a life that includes others, a life that includes God’s care for body and soul, our emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Jesus holds all of this together in his offer of the gospel. He provides food for the body and the soul. He preaches a salvation that holds the physical and spiritual as inseparable. Our love for God is bound up with our love for one another. To worship God has everything to do with our devotion to each other’s lives.
Church is all about how we get ourselves all mixed up in each other’s lives, which can get really annoying and exhausting because we’re all a mess in our own ways. I know that frustrate myself, so I’m sure that I frustrate you. Church is for the wounded in need of healing, for sinners in need of grace, for all of us who are holding our lives together the best we can.
We show up for one another because we know that we don’t have the best grasp on this world on our own, that we confuse ourselves when left to our own thoughts, that we get lost when we wander in this world alone. To do this thing called church is to acknowledge our need for God’s help, to turn to another for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to trust that God arrives when we gather, that Christ is present when we are present to each other.
That’s why we pray, that’s why we fellowship, that’s why we argue, that’s why we read the Bible. All of this is our reliance on a community to learn what God’s voices sounds like, to listen together for the whisperings of the Spirit.
Our care for each other, and for our neighbors, during this pandemic has meant that we’ve had to piece all of this together at a distance, which has been difficult, perhaps impossible. It’s so hard to know how to offer care when we haven’t been able to depend on our usual routines, our regular patterns for community life.
But there has been manna, and there will be manna—God’s provision, for body and soul, in our experiences of wilderness. I think the calling for us in this passage is not only to acknowledge and give thanks for the manna we’ve received, but to figure out how we can be like manna for each other—how we can offer someone the bread of heaven, God’s spiritual care. To become a miracle of sustaining grace for another.
For the people of God in the story of Exodus, there was no roadmap for getting through the wilderness. And we’re right there with them. There’s no map that tells us how to get our community through this pandemic. We’re trying to figure it out month by month, one CDC guideline change at a time, as we watch for variant, while we experiment with new ways to look out for each other, to become God’s provision, manna in the wilderness.