- Parish House
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B – John 12:20-33
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
In the wilderness, after the muddy flats of the parted sea; after all of the spoils of Egypt began to tarnish and the food ran out, God provided something new and yet old for the people of Israel. Each morning they found manna.
“What is it?” was the question asked in the literal translation of the word. They didn’t know, but they understood that each day it came and each day they would gather it from the land and each day they would be satisfied.
Manna was not like the food of Egypt, the food of Empire. It was not grown and stored like grain, hoarded away by Pharaoh and dolled out to the slaves according to the whims of power.
Manna was not cultivated at all, it could not be kept and so it could not be centralized or controlled. In its gathering manna returned the people of Israel to an older and deeper economy–an economy that trusted in the provision of God through creation, an economy of gifts that circulated and moved. Each day they gathered. Each day they shared. They lived, for a time, like the birds “who do not sow” or “store up in barns.”
This economy of manna was an economy that relied on relationship. Since nothing could be kept, all abundance had to be passed on. To gather and eat manna was to be in direct relationship with the God who was its source and with the people with whom one shared the abundance. To keep manna for tomorrow would only attract maggots and flies–to play host to the forces of death.
The history of Israel could be read as a history of manna. Even when Israel settled the land and took up agriculture, their laws of sabbath cycles and rules allowing the poor to glean from any field, were meant to preserve the manna character of their life.. The threat, always, was that this economy that was rooted in shared abundance would turn into an imperial economy of centralized and controlled scarcity. If only Pharoah, or any other king, has the grain then everyone else ends up in slavery.
The prophets with their warnings were always challenging the tendency to hoard, the tendency to hold onto abundance and turn it into scarcity with some people having enough excess to live on for years while others didn’t have enough for today.
Jesus was a prophet in this manna tradition, calling it foolish to build extra barns and store grains. He taught his followers to live in the pattern of the creation, to receive their daily bread each day as a gift and to make that gift available to others. And nowhere is Jesus’ teaching on manna more explicit than it is in the Gospel of John.
Just a few chapters before our reading today, after Jesus had performed the manna like miracle of feeding the five thousand we come to an incident in which the people ask for a miraculous sign to prove that Jesus is, indeed, the anointed one. Jesus replies that: “Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, H e gave them bread from heaven to eat …I assure you, it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven to you, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:31-33)
In this statement Jesus extends the idea of manna, this food that feeds an economy of relationship, to a person. Jesus calls himself the bread of life.
And now we come to our reading today, where Jesus explains how this manna economy works, how this abundant sharing gets out into the world: it comes through risking our lives for others, it comes by living in a vulnerable openness that might just get us killed. That is the only way, Jesus tells us, that one grain becomes the abundance of a hundred; that is the only way that everyone gets fed.
In this teaching of Jesus, I was reminded of a short story by Anthony Doerr, called “The Deep.” The story follows a boy named Tom who lives in a blue collar town, built around salt mines. Tom has a heart condition, one that causes him to faint when he is excited. The boy’s mother owns a boarding house and she is constantly worried about his heart, keeping him as close to home as possible so that he doesn’t exhaust his life. In school Tom meets Ruby, a red-headed girl who longs for adventure. They become friends and Ruby draws him out into a world he’d never imagined, even if he faints sometimes along the way.
They reconnect after years of being apart andn that meeting Tom tells Ruby the realizations he’s had as each year ticked by defying the doctors expections. It is an insight that has echoed within me ever since I first read the story; an insight that I think could easily be drawn from our Gospel reading:
“I used to think, Tom says, that I had to be careful with how much I lived. As if life was a pocketful of coins. You only got so much and you didn’t want to spend it all in one place…
But now I know life is the one thing in the world that never runs out. I might run out of mine, and you might run out of yours but the world will never run out of life. And we’re all very lucky to be part of something like that.”
And so it is with manna, so it is with the Bread of God who gives life to the world. When we begin to find our life in Jesus, joining in the great dance of this economy of abundance, we leave behind the scarcity that drives the politics of Empire and instead we begin to share in the life that never runs out.
This is a powerful and poetic vision, and it would be easy to simply stay with its beauty. But this vision is also a prophetic one and we cannot really experience its beauty in the world if we do not also answer the prophetic challenge within it. As commentator Benjamin Dueholm says, our Gospel gives us “an image of dying—to the world, to security, even to the power to see and understand—that opens into an image of life greater than any individual fate.”
It is a life that we find in Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was assasinated by a United States trained paramilitary group moments after he’d preached on this passage in John, saying:
“..you have just heard in Christ’s gospel that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others, will live, live like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about only because it dies, allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by undoing itself does it produce the harvest.”
Moments later Romero was shot because of the stands he’d made for the justice of his people. He died, but only apparently, because his life joined the greater life that Jesus is bringing into the world and the harvest has indeed been great.
So don’t be timid, hiding behind the false security of the Pharaohs who will trade you bread for your freedom. Instead, go with Jesus who bids you to take up your cross and come die on whatever cross the forces of coercion, control, and violence will set up for you. It is the only way that our lives can join in that greater, abundant life, that has no end.