Can’t I Just Take Care of Myself?

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – August 5, 2018

Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Psalm 78:3-4, 23-25, 54; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35

I don’t know if you have ever read through the first several chapters of the Book of Exodus, but if you haven’t, I would encourage you to do so. For one, the Exodus is a central motif throughout Scripture, and it’s essential to our interpretation of the work of salvation accomplished in and through Jesus Christ. But it’s also a source of hope because we can really sympathize with the people. The Israelites miss the point over and over and over again; they are constantly complaining, constantly losing faith when the slightest thing goes wrong, constantly forgetting that the LORD is indeed taking care of them. Over and over again, the Israelites show us how easy it is to doubt that the LORD is indeed faithful to the promises he makes, that the LORD is always upholding and sustaining his people.

For example, in our reading today—which is dripping with sarcasm—they say, “Moses, being freed from the control of the Egyptians is great. But come on! When the LORD was taking care of us in Egypt, at least we died eating bread and meat. But now that you’re taking care of us, we’re going to die of starvation!” (c.f., Exodus 16:3). Or just a few chapters before this passage the Israelites—who were just freed from the control of the Egyptians—cry out to Moses, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (c.f., Exodus 14:11). In other words, “Moses, if you just wanted us to die, we could have stayed in Egypt and done that! There were plenty of graves there.” Tough crowd.

I think what lies at the root of it, though, is the simple but difficult truth that we are more comfortable with what is familiar than we are with something new; more comfortable with tough situations that are familiar to us than a situation which could be much easier or leading to something much better but is unfamiliar. Or, as the old saying goes, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” This is the story of the people of Israel, and consequently, our story too. Over and over again, the people doubt—we doubt that the new situation we are in is good for us, we doubt that the LORD is with us even in our deserts. Because life has gotten a little difficult, we immediately want to go back to our old way of living, even if that means giving up our newfound freedom and living under the control of the Egyptians yet again.

This is what Saint Paul is getting at in our second reading. He urges the people of Ephesus—he urges us—“to put away the old self of your former way of life,” and instead, “put on the new self” (c.f., Ephesians 4:22-24). “It’s very easy to just live how everyone else is living,” he’s saying, “to continue your old patterns, to remain in your comfort zone, because that’s all you have ever known.” However, this is not the life of the baptized! Through Baptism we have begun a new life, a life in the Spirit, a life which is defined by our complete and utter dependence on the Father, complete and utter abandonment to the constant newness the LORD is working in our lives. And yet, like the Israelites, how easily we miss the point, lose faith, forget that the LORD is taking care of us; how easily we doubt that the LORD will indeed be faithful to the promises he has made, or always uphold and sustain us through His Spirit, the Spirit of Christ.

We constantly turn back to the “old self” mentality of, “I have to take care of myself,” or, “I am the only one I can depend on to make sure that I’m happy,” or, “I’m going to do what I’m comfortable with, because trying something new is too much.” I mean—and I’m guilty of this as much as the next guy—take binge watching a TV show on Netflix: that need to sit and watch nine season of The Office in a week, or to watch two seasons of Stranger Things in a day, because that is what we think will make us happy and satisfied. Or how about buying the newest car, or the newest smartphone: that need to have the latest and greatest. Social media (Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram): the need to always be in contact with everyone all the time because we’re afraid we may miss out on something. And we could think of many more examples, but suffice to say that we have a deep-seated need to be in control of our lives, of our happiness. And the LORD? Well, he’s just there in case we need to discipline our kids, or in case we need a huge favor; but really, he’s just up there in the clouds. We don’t really believe that he’s taking care of us, or that he could possibly be involved in our lives in any real way.

In our Gospel today, though, we see people who have begun to grow tired of this mentality, and have begun to believe that, “perhaps someone else is taking care of me, perhaps I can depend on someone else. In the the Gospel last Sunday, the people were satisfied not through their own power but by Jesus. Today, they continue to seek out the one they feel they can depend on. And Jesus immediately points out what is going on within them. He says, “You are seeking me, not because of some miracle, but because you were satisfied” (c.f., John 6:36). He tells them, “Don’t stop at the miracle! There is something more! Seek the ‘food’ which endures for eternal life.” In other words, “Do not stop with your hunger! Don’t stop with that familiar feeling of hunger but let it be a sign of the ultimate satisfaction you desire, the satisfaction which the Son of Man can give to you!” (c.f., John 6:27).

And so what do they do? They reference that story of Moses and the Israelites in the desert. They say, “We want to believe you, Jesus. We want to believe that you can offer us this complete satisfaction. But prove it. Moses gave our ancestors bread from heaven, what can you do?” And so Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give them bread. The LORD, my Father, gave them bread; the LORD himself fed the people. And now, the LORD, my Father, wants to show you yet again that he has never abandoned you, that he has always remained faithful to you, that he will take care of you.” And people are excited and say, “All right! So new bread! We’ll take it! Give it to us always!” At which point Jesus puts the pieces together for them and makes the profound declaration: “I am the bread of life. I am the bread the Father has sent. I am the one sent from heaven by the Father as a sign and sacrament of his never-ending love and care for you. I am that which can satisfy.”

My dear brothers and sisters, this is the truth that we hold most dear as Baptized Christians: the LORD cares for us so much and is so faithful to the promise he made to never abandon us and to always sustain us, that he even became man and died for us. Yet, because we are so prone to doubt and lose faith, he left us an eternal memorial of this, a sign which will endure through all the ages: he has given us the bread of life, food for our hungry humanity, a foretaste of what is to come, the Eucharist. He has given us himself.

Each Sunday when we come to this place—each and every Sunday—we come acknowledging that we ourselves cannot be what satisfies, we cannot be enough for ourselves, we cannot make ourselves happy, we cannot satisfy ourselves. And so in this simple act of worship which is the Mass, we come, like the people in the Gospel today, begging the LORD to be that for us. We beg him to satisfy us, to give us this bread always.

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