In college I was a religion major, and I studied the major world religions.
I learned about a concept in Eastern religion called samsara
which translates, “the endless cycle of woe.”
It was meant to describe the futility of the human condition,
one day after another in constant struggle
and, in a religion where reincarnation was the model, one dreary life after another—
until blessed relief! Nirvana! the end to the cycle, and peace and bliss for eternity.
Samsara was a purely intellectual concept for me at the time,
but I got a firsthand experience years later when I became a parent.
It was the laundry.
My mom had advised me upon the birth of my first child to do a load every day
“so it won’t pile up,” she said.
But I had a kid who projectile vomited every other day
and one load a day wasn’t cutting it.
In fact, every time I thought I had done all the laundry, another item would appear in the laundry basket
or worse, on the bedroom floor.
It’s samsara!! I cried. Release me from this endless cycle of laundry woe!!!
It’s a humorous story now, looking back on it.
But my desire for release from the cycle clued me into a deeper human longing—
a longing for an end of toil and struggle
Like Sisyphus longing to be relieved from having to push the stone up the hill,
only to have it roll down again day after day,
I wished for an end to the futility of doing the same thing over and over again with no change.
It’s the kind of longing that the people of Israel were feeling, two weeks out in their wilderness journey.
Their stores of food were all gone, their rations of water non existent.
If they were able to find food for one meal,
their very next thought was, where will I get the next one?
Their very existence was hanging in the balance
and every 3 or 4 hours, their stomachs growls reminded them of it.
It can be hard to relate to that kind of longing
The gospel of John uses the hunger for food
as a metaphor for a spiritual hunger that only God can fill
People understood the metaphor because physical hunger for these peasants
was a regular feature of their lives.
But many of us in the Farmington Valley do not often experience physical hunger
In fact, our pantries can be so full that we could eat a month without every going to the grocery!
That means we need to think deeper to understand what God was offering the Israelites in the desert
and what Jesus was offering the Jews of his day.
In the wilderness, God gave the manna daily.
Everyone could collect enough for their needs that day.
It was a lesson in trust, because you really couldn’t make the opportunity to create a stock pile
no rainy day fund or insurance here—
just trust in God to provide.
It wasn’t easy for the people of Israel to trust—
think about what it would be like if you had to depend on the weather to eat
Is it going to rain manna today??
But as God provided the manna day by day, a relationship began to grow.
Like a newborn who gradually learns to trust that her needs will be met when she cries,
the people of Israel learned to trust and then love the God who fulfilled their needs.
Jesus took this lesson one step further.
He saw so many people mired in striving after the mere basics
Jesus had just performed the miracle with the loaves, multiplying the bread and feeding 5000.
The people wanted to perform the same work
figure out an end to the cycle of hunger, which always comes around again and again.
It wasn’t a bad idea—working to end chronic hunger is a good thing
But Jesus wanted to give them something more
For one thing we know for sure as relatively affluent people
Is that a full belly does not equal happiness
money can’t buy joy or even security
When it gets right down to it, living beyond fear is a spiritual issue
Freedom and joy comes not from having all your bases covered
but by trusting in God.
Jesus gives them himself to accomplish this goal, saying,
I am the bread of life, those who come to me will not hunger
And who believe in me with never thirst.
So despite our different social location from the people of Israel, or the people who followed Jesus,
I think we can identify with a little of what Jesus was getting at.
Because if you have stood at your laundry basket, or the dishes in the sink
If you have been confronted once again by another round of treatment,
The recurring argument,
or the old habit that seems like it will never change,
Then you know that life can be samsara, an endless cycle of woe.
But God offers spiritual interventions to break the cycle.
God offered it in the manna in the wilderness.
God offered it in Jesus on the Judean hillside.
And God offers it today, in our world where some people have too much to eat
and some people have too little.
God offers a meal in a morsel here at this table of Holy Communion, in it
God offers the opportunity to step out of the cycle of striving and getting
And step into a cycle where multiplication happens.
Around this table we find that in God there is enough
Like the Israelites, we can trust that God will provide for us.
Like the people who followed Jesus, we can trust that in Jesus, we have all we need.
But that is not all.
At this table, we take Jesus into ourselves in bread and wine, and become the Body of Christ.
We often think that our own struggles are separate from that of others.
But like people in recovery know, part of your own healing is accessed
When you get outside yourself
When you connect with someone else and stand with them in their struggles.
As the Body of Christ, we offer ourselves to be bread for the world,
We offer our lives to be broken and shared.
That to me is why God’s feeding, whether manna in Moses’ day, or barley loaves in Jesus’ day
Is always about both physical and spiritual feeding.
The two are connected.
Hunger of both kinds is part of the endless cycle of woe from which God breaks us free.
My parents pray a table prayer:
Oh God, for daily bread we give thanks
To those who hunger, give bread.
To those who have bread, give hunger for justice.
May we be fed and nourished by the Jesus, the Bread of Life.
May we be aware of our neighbors’ hunger.
That we may work for that which truly satisfies, and receive Jesus’ promise:
I am the bread of life
Whoever comes to me shall not hunger
Whoever believes in me will never thirst.