Striving and Complaining

Sunday 7th May 2006
The Forth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Exodus 16:4-15
John 6:30-40

There is a scene in Dickens Oliver Twist where the Undertaker Sowerberry's junior apprentice, Noah Claypole, is discovered below stairs helping himself from a barrel of oysters. What, says the modern life experience, was such a lowly person doing making free with his master's oysters? Similarly, I was fascinated to learn on a trip to Boston Massachusetts that there was a sailor's mutiny in the 17th Century because they were told they would have to eat lobster three days per week instead of the customary two because the meat ration was low. The explanation of these jarring notes is, of course, that until industrial fishing for crustacea and modern cattle production methods shellfish were abundant and very cheap to harvest compared with the cost of rearing cattle. Food economics change: when I was a boy, within a decade of the Second World War, the ascending order of protein, pound for Pound was white fish, lamb, pork, beef and ham, with Chicken reserved for Christmas and a handful of little prawns for a summer salad treat. Nowadays, chicken is the cheapest protein and farmed smoke salmon, which did not figure on our nutritional radar 45 years ago, is cheaper than good ham.

Of course, the majority of people on earth never eat meat or only very rarely; their diet is a staple: rice, maize, sorghum, with a little sauce, the occasional vegetable and the even more occasional goat.

Having lived for almost three years on a Caribbean island where potatoes were rare and rice was the staple, I have some sympathy with the wandering Hebrew people, in today's reading from Exodus, who ate manna seven days a week, gathering enough on Friday to last two days. But whatever the Lord did for them they were discontented. They had hardly crossed the Red sea dry shod before they were complaining about the lack of water and saying they would be better off back amid the flesh pots of Egypt.

That discontent demonstrates, to parody Dickens' opening of A Tale of Two Cities, the best of man and the worst of man: at our best, this drive helps us to explore, improvise, develop, grow and know ourselves reflexively; but at its worst it is a restlessness that puts us beyond contentment. I vividly recall an incident during the last Balkan war when hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees were on the verge of disease and death, trapped in an open field on the Macedonian border. The authorities relented, the border was opened, the desperate refugees poured into safety; and within a week they were complaining of the delays to their free flights to Western Europe. This is the best of man and the worst of man.

In the Reading from John's Gospel there are also these twin themes of restlessness and sacred nutrition. Just as the wandering Jews had a very in-and-out relationship with their Lord, so the people of Jerusalem had a very in-and-out relationship with Jesus; the word I like in connection with both instances of discontent is "Whispered"; they could not quite bring themselves to complain openly, so they whispered; and so, of course, do we; we cannot quite bring ourselves to say what we really mean to the person who needs to hear it; so we whisper to somebody else.

What the people wanted was certainty and that certainty, they thought, depended upon signs. For the people wandering in the desert these signs, which brought water and food, were matters of life and death, which gives them some kind of excuse; but for the Jews who listened to Jesus in the Temple they were more a matter of spectacle, as if the people were saying: we are not convinced Jesus, that you really are the Messiah; but if you do something really spectacular - not just curing another leper - then we will believe in you. Yahweh and Jesus were confronting the same phenomenon we recognise today; whatever anybody does, we simply discount it and ask for something bigger or better. This is the best of man and the worst of man.

Yet, as Children of the Easter, as inheritors of the Resurrection, we are not in need of signs. As the children of Yahweh had manna for their daily needs so we have the bread of life, the Holy Eucharist. And, as we wait for the forthcoming Ascension of Our Lord, we know that His departure, in accordance with His promise, will soon be followed by the descent among us of the Holy Spirit. We may be the Church Militant aspiring to membership of the Church Triumphant but we are in much better straits than the Jews wandering in the desert or those who questioned Jesus: we can see the love of the Father through the prism of the incarnation, the Passion and the Resurrection; we can see Jesus' promise of the bread of life in the Sacrament of the Eucharist; and we can feel the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night in our enfolding in the Holy Spirit.

But the self satisfaction which we quite properly feel during the Feast of Easter, after the astringency of Lent and the pain of Holy Week, must be short lived. As we turn towards The Ascension and Pentecost we must get ready to share our good fortune, to proclaim the Good News, to bring the Bread of Life to others; for, as we noted in last Sunday's Anthem, Jesus has no other hands, nor feet nor eyes but ours.

Those hands, our hands, which receive the Bread of life must also be the hands that minister to the poor and the needy; we cannot take the Bread of Life but then not use our hands in the service of Jesus.

The danger for us all is not the brutality of the Directory in A Tale of Two Cities nor the shallowness and venality of Noah Claypole who shared the fate of Fagin, the danger for us is that we imitate the Jews in the desert in taking the Manna for granted, the danger for us is that we imitate the Jews in the Temple who took Jesus for granted. It is easy to grow comfortable in our church, in our prayers, and even in the Eucharist; the Bread of Life sends us into a gentle sleep rather than enlivening us to the world of tormented incompleteness.

Let us then, filled with the Glory of Easter, leave ourselves wide open to the loving fire of the Holy Spirit so that we may be the feet, the eyes, the hands of Our lord so that all the world may enjoy the Bread of Life.