Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
I went to an all-girl Catholic high school, which was a blessing sometimes and a challenge others. One of the blessings was Mrs. Slater, who taught Shakespeare by intention, and spirituality by example. She had a gift for nurturing her students’ varied talents, and her classes were often a lesson in organized chaos.
“Now, girls,” Mrs. Slater would say sometimes to our class, “the Dean of Students is coming to observe our class today, so I want you to use your best acting skills and pretend that I’m in charge.”
Mrs. Slater began every class with a prayer, as did most of the classes I took at that high school. But while French class would always begin with the “Glory Be” in French, and History would begin with a “Hail Mary,” Mrs. Slater went a different route. “Dear God,” she would say. “You said, ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened unto you. So in the name of Jesus, we ask, we seek, we knock….”
It took a few rounds of saying this prayer for me to begin to think: “Are we sure this is a good idea?” After all, at the same time I learned this prayer in Shakespeare class I was learning about original sin in religion class, and I recognized in the doctrine something that seemed fundamentally true: that humanity seems to be pre-set to want what it shouldn’t have.
To take Jesus at his word, and ask, seek, and knock in the full and confident faith that we will receive whatever we ask for is at the same time both beautiful and risky. It assumes that God will take seriously whatever our answer is this very dangerous question: what do you desire?
And when God asks us to name our desire, it’s not like God’s asking, “Would you like some fries with that?” or “Would you like to win the lottery this week?” or “Would you like to me to excuse you from rush hour this Monday and give you a miraculously fast ride to the office?” The question what do you desire requires us to be vulnerable, to look inside ourselves and name the thing that maybe we are afraid to speak out loud.
I desire…to make her better.
I desire…that he would love me back.
I desire…to look like, feel like, be a different person.
What do you desire?
To answer the question means giving an answer we sometimes know is wrong, but is nonetheless true.
I think the same thing happens to the Israelites in today’s Old Testament reading. The story of the manna in the wilderness is often told as a wonderful tale of God’s provision, but it has a dark underbelly, and the psalmist captures it in this small but alarming verse: “So the people ate and were well filled, for God gave them what they craved.”
“God gave them what they craved.” It’s worth taking a closer look at that.
The people complain against Moses because they desire the food that they had, sitting by the fleshpots in Egypt and eating their fill of bread. When this story is told a second time in the book of Numbers, they get even more specific. They want leeks and onions and cucumbers and melons and fish—juicy food, food from the Nile delta. The food they ate as slaves.
So God gives them what they crave.
In Exodus, manna is described as tasting like wafers made with honey. In Numbers, it’s compared to cakes baked in oil. Rabbis of old account for this discrepancy by saying that God made the manna doubly miraculous: it not only came down from heaven, but it tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste like—like a chocolate bar, or macaroni and cheese, or roasted mushrooms—anything you desire.
And what did the people desire? The food they ate in Egypt.
God desires the trust and love of the people God had chosen. The people desire what they had before God rescued them. God is hurt.
And yet, thousands of years later, God took on human form, and gave us this prayer about asking, seeking, knocking. Generations later, God still really wants to know what we desire.
I think the first part of the answer is that God’s relationship with us has evolved. This story comes at the beginning of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. At this point in the relationship, here’s what the Israelites know about God: He’s really good at turning rivers into blood, sending swarms of locusts, parting seas, killing the Egyptian firstborn…all the big, heroic, intimidating stuff.
God cared for them like a warrior, winning the battle, but can a God like that also care for them like a mother, with tenderness and table-setting and good food every day?
God, on the other hand, comes across like an overeager lover. After rescuing her beloved people from Egypt, God finally gets them alone in the desert and seems so excited to begin this next phase of the relationship. But the people just aren’t in the same place She is. They just got out of a bad relationship with Pharaoh. They’re not ready to jump into anything serious.
In the meantime, God wonders if the Israelites love him and much as he does them, so God sets tests for the Israelites that the Israelites fail, and the Israelites complain at every possible opportunity, and all the while, there’s poor Moses, running back and forth as the go-between, interpreting God’s actions to the people, and the people’s actions to God, trying to smooth things over and keep this whole ship from going up in flames.
There’s a breaking point just a few weeks later when the people of Israel arrive at the promised land—which is already occupied by hostile tribes—and express doubt that God will indeed give it into their hands like God promised.
And God, fed up, says, “That’s it. I’m turning this tribe around, and you will wander in the desert until this whole generation has nearly died off. Your children will inherit the land I promised to you.”
And that’s what happened. For forty years, the Israelites wandered in the desert wilderness, relying on God’s daily providence, until the older generation had nearly died off, and all that was left were the children who had grown up never knowing anything other than the God who made bitter water sweet for them, and blew quails in on the wind for the them, and every day except the seventh, for forty years, let manna fall with the dew. They wandered until they could trust.
Despite deep disappointment, God stayed in relationship with the people She had chosen. This is the lesson of the 79th psalm, of which we read just a small portion today. The much longer psalm tells the story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, in which God’s faithfulness becomes the common denominator, wooing and winning the people of Israel.
And throughout that process, something changed about the way God heard the desires of God’s people. When God invites us to knock, to seek, to ask, God is very serious. Because God knows that when we answer that question honestly, we make ourselves vulnerable before God, and in that place of vulnerability, in that place of desert wondering, God can reach us, and shape our desires.
We can see this playing out in the gospel as well. In this encounter between Jesus and the huge crowd that comes looking for him, Jesus compares daily bread to the bread of everlasting life. “You came here looking for the food that perishes,” he tells the crowd. They came looking for manna, for a feast like the one that fed five thousand. That bread is what they desire, but it’s not what God longs to give them. God wants them to desire more! God longed to give them the food that would feed them forever, and glory be, that Bread was standing right in front of them.
And at first, the response of the crowd is right on the money. “Sir, give us this bread always.” Yes! Brownie points for everyone! But as we continue to read through this chapter, and Jesus says more and more about what this Bread of Life is and means, people begin to drift away. And little by little, the crowd slims down until just 12 are left. And Jesus says to them, “What do you desire? Do you also wish to go away?”
And Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The disciples didn’t get everything Jesus was saying. But they trusted him. And they knew that no words but the ones he had to offer were going to get them through the wilderness.
God invites us to name our desire honestly, but He also doesn’t leave it alone. God is always at work in us, wooing us, shaping us until when we ask, and seek, and knock, we are praying for that which is God’s very own will for the world.
But that process begins with a question, one which each of us must answer both for ourselves, and which we answer together, as a community of faith:
What do you desire?
Let us pray. Dear God, you said, ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened unto you. So in the name of Jesus, we ask, we seek, we knock. Give us the courage and the trust to name honestly the deep desires of our heart. Give us the imagination to desire boldly: the bread of angels instead of the bread of slavery; the bread of life instead of the bread that spoils. Grant that our cravings may be abundant and for abundance. Transform the desires that need to be transformed, O God, and for the rest: Answer. Let us find. Open the door.