Today I want to talk about food. What we eat says a lot about where we are coming from, what our background is, how affluent we are. Food is culture. One of the great things being in the Bay Area is that we have the chance to taste so many different foods from so many different cultures.
Now the thing is that we all grow up with certain kinds of food. For most of us, this is probably the German / Northern European / Northern American fare, you know, meats and potatoes and casseroles. This is our comfort food, food that is familiar, food that triggers something in our brains that says, yes, I know this, this feels like home. We know what we like, and we like what we know.
Most of us know how hard it is to expose our kids or grandkids to any new foods, how suspicious they are of anything they don’t know, and how we often have to convince them, try just one bite, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it. Who hasn’t heard the question, ‘What is this?’, while kids carefully examine the strange food on their plates, poking around.
But this is not necessarily something that’s limited to kids. When I came to California, all of a sudden I was exposed to all new kinds of food that I had previously not encountered in Germany; when I got taken out to an authentic sushi place for the first time, and the host merrily ordered the most exotic dishes for all, I looked warily at all those jiggly raw pieces of something and was wondering, What is this? What am I eating here?
And isn’t it funny that I never ask this question when eating a sausage with who-knows-what in it?
No matter how old we get, we may remain suspicious of strange foods or decide we don’t like certain things. We may ask, how in the world can people eat this stuff, let alone like it? But we should always remember: for some, this is the daily bread. We may not be crazy about it, but this is what God so graciously provides as nourishment for the body.
The people of Israel soon have enough of their life in the wilderness. They soon realize that, though they may have lived in slavery while in Egypt, at least they lived in a civilized environment, and there was enough to eat. Freedom comes at the prize of uncertainty and hardships. The new life God has led them into is strange, unfamiliar, maybe even scary. One of the first needs that becomes obvious is the need for food. The general attitude among the newly liberated is: so, you led us out of Egypt, just to let us die of starvation?
God listens to the complaint and provides a mysterious substance. And, like many who are confronted with unfamiliar food for the first time, the Israelites ask, “What is this?” In the original Hebrew text, we actually have a humorous play on words here, because the Israelites ask, “Man hu?” Man hu? Manna! And ‘manna’ is best translated as: it is what it is, or: this is it.
Now isn’t it interesting that the people in the wilderness see the manna, see that it is the promised food from God, and still don’t recognize it as such? I sometimes wonder what those folks were expecting: fresh baked loaves of pita bread? It seems they were waiting for something familiar, something they know; and yet, God totally catches them off guard and surprises them by providing what is needed in an unexpected way. It almost seems as if the Israelites are blind to the gift of God, because they are just too narrow-minded to see God at work in their lives.
Makes you wonder how often we neglect to see God at work in our lives, doesn’t it? How often do we think our prayers go unanswered, when God just might be at work in a way we don’t expect it? How often do we think we don’t get what we need, when God is actually providing it, and we just don’t recognize it as the thing we need? How often do we reject what God has to offer, because we have choices, there is an overabundance of everything, like activities and spiritual choices. How often do we reject what God has to offer, because it is not what we want?
Last Sunday’s gospel from John talked about Jesus miraculously feeding the 5,000. Today’s gospel is closely connected to that; the people in the Galilean countryside are still following Jesus; they were fed once, and, as Jesus realizes, they’ve come for more. They are still hungry. They probably don’t quite know themselves what they are hungry for, or what they truly need.
How often do we hear in the gospels this question about Jesus, “Who is this?” Which reminds us a lot of the question of the Israelites, ‘Man hu’, what is this? People see Jesus as a teacher, a healer, someone who is different, someone who has authority, a leader, a prophet, someone with amazing powers. But they don’t see that Jesus is ‘it’ – ‘manna’.
They, just like those Israelites in the wilderness, don’t realize that God has set before them exactly what they need, what the world needs: Jesus himself, the bread from heaven, the bread of life. They don’t see that there, right in front of their eyes, is God who models compassion, grace, solidarity, true community – true communion -, and self-sacrifice for the sake of the world, for the sake of the larger good.
They – and not only they, but we as well – have a hard time understanding that we are called to partake in this God with all our heart and all our mind and all our soul, to make all that Christ embodies part of us – you are, what you eat, after all – and allow our lives be transformed. And that we are called to become bread ourselves, sharing ourselves with a hungry world.
This post is also available in: German