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Can We Ever Be Satisfied?

A sermon on John 6:24-35

[for an audio recording of this sermon click here. Photo by Henley Design Studio on Unsplash]

I have a confession to make. Before I became a pastor, I almost never noticed the connections between the words of our liturgies and the teachings of our scriptures on any given Sunday.

I would (hopefully, probably at least half the time, when not distracted by squirming children) pay attention to the words of our prayers with a sincere heart, opening my mind to God as guided by the petitions we would speak together.

But I almost never traced the themes that give such depth and meaning to the liturgical style of worship.

It wasn’t until I was responsible for the liturgy that I began to understand how the specific words of our confessions, and petitions, and blessings link to the challenges and promises that we hear in the readings of the Sunday or the Season.

Which is all to say that I do not blame you in the least if you don’t remember what we just asked God for together in the Prayer of the Day, or if you haven’t already seen how it connects to today’s gospel.

That’s why I want to you to turn back in your bulletins to the prayer we prayed just before the first reading:

O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

“We eat and are satisfied.”

I wonder. Is that true?

I think it can be. I have – at times – experienced such soul-deep satisfaction in worship and connection with God. In fact, I believe that we are only truly satisfied when our souls are united with God, as they are through Christ, because this is the purpose for which we are created.

No other relationship, or experience, or possession can every truly, persistently satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.

But just because we CAN be satisfied it doesn’t mean that we are. I would guess that we are much more likely to be habitually dissatisfied.

For one thing, we have an elaborate commercial culture organized to make us dissatisfied so that we will buy the things that offer the promise of satisfying the longings they create– whether that be mouth-watering foods, or diet products, or things to entertain us, or things to help us relax… I could go on, and I’m sure you could as well.

For another thing, it is very difficult to feel satisfied – even in isolated moments – when we feel anxious about the future. And the last year and a half have offered us enough anxiety to fill a lifetime.

But perhaps the most insidious influence on our ability to be satisfied is our cultural obsession with drive and achievement.

The whole world is watching the Olympics – a global monument to winning. While network coverage does a decent job of sharing athlete and cultural back stories, it’s still the medal count that gets the headlines.

And for every person who is lauding Simone Biles’ courage in protecting her physical and mental health by dropping out of the gymnastics competition, there is another one (or more than one) deriding her as weak or selfish because she didn’t fight through to win the US more golds.

We have a long-standing moral tradition in our country of idolizing those who give up everything in order to be “great.”

It’s a tradition reflected in the song ironically named “Satisfied” from the musical Hamilton.

In the song, Angelica Skuyler sings a toast to Alexander Hamilton and her sister, Eliza at their wedding – a toast in which she wishes them a life in which they are “satisfied.”

But the inner monologue that interrupts the lyric melody makes it clear that she expects no such thing. She recognizes in Hamilton the same thing he saw in her at their first meeting, and that he himself confesses:

“I’m never satisfied.”

The power and poignancy of the song is that we recognize it too. The pulsing, insistent urge to find the thing that will finally ease the longing at our core, but also the secret suspicion that no matter how hard we push, we never will be satisfied.

In Alexander Hamilton’s case, that fear was all too well-founded. His incessant longings drove him his whole life. And his need for his honor to be “satisfied” took first his son’s life and then his own.

But today’s gospel invites us to imagine a different possibility for ourselves: the possibility that – in truth – we CAN be satisfied.

Of course, it doesn’t start that way.

It starts with the longing of unsatisfied people, hunting after Jesus for more signs and fresh feeding to satisfy their unsatiable longings that could not be met by one miraculous meal of multiplied bread.

Jesus recognizes this. He sees the habit and expectation of never being satisfied and he challenges it – not with a moral rebuke, but with an invitation to go deeper, to recognize the deeper longing that lies beneath their incessant sense of hunger.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” (John 6: 27)

In other words, “your real longing isn’t what you think it is. You won’t be satisfied by the things that meet your temporary longings, so don’t put your hope on those things. I have something much better.”

To give them credit, the people believe him. They believe that there is something more.

Deep calls to deep, as the Psalmist[1] declares. Jesus’s challenge opens in their hearts a well of hope that they actually can find the satisfaction for which they long, and so they ask him how: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28)

But here Jesus confronts them with a more pointed challenge:

there’s nothing for them to “do,” no work of achievement that will earn them the satisfaction they crave. Their job is to believe, literally to “trust”[2] in the one God sent. The satisfaction of their deepest longing will only come by leaning into God’s provision and letting go of all their striving.

The great irony of human longing is that the very simplicity of this call to let go of our effort is what makes it so very hard to do.

Whether it sounds too good to be true, or whether it threatens our longing for achievement, we back away from the promise and the call that trust is really all we need.

We can’t believe the possibility that the surrender of simple trust is really all we need to be satisfied, and so we move in the opposite direction.

We question the promise, and we ask for assurances.

“What sign are you going to give us, so that we may see it and believe you?” (John 6:30)

Or we fall back on our pursuit of the longings we think reveal our needs:

“Our ancestors are the manna in the wilderness,” “Sir, give us this bread always.” (John 6:31; 34)

We don’t believe we can really be satisfied. Or, at least, we don’t believe that Jesus – just in himself, in the relationship with God that offers us – can satisfy the deepest hunger in our souls. It’s much easier to trust our own instincts that drive us to feed all the other hungers that intrude on our consciousness.

As commentator Debie Thomas confesses (and I join her in this confession):

“It’s one thing to name our hungers, but quite another to trust that Jesus will satisfy them. After all, we’re so good at finding substitutes for communion with God. Mine include perpetual busyness, social media, books, movies, the 24-hour-news-cycle, exercise, chocolate, and other people. Do I really trust that Jesus is my bread? My essential sustenance? Very often, the answer is no. Very often, Jesus is an abstraction. A creed. A set of Sunday rituals. Why? Maybe because I don’t come to him ravenous. I don’t recognize my daily, hourly dependence on his generosity. In short, I just plain don’t expect to be fed by him. Instead, I hide my hunger, because I’m ashamed to want and need too much.”[3]

The crowds in today’s gospel, and the story of Alexander Hamilton, can teach us one thing, at least.

They can teach us to be hungry: to own the deep, seemingly-insatiable-longing that we can only every mute and muffle through our own efforts, never satisfy.

Because it’s only when we are willing to admit our need for it that the Bread of Life can truly sustain and nourish us. It’s only when we are willing to throw away our own striving and throw ourselves in helpless trust at the feet of Jesus that we can ever, truly, be satisfied.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Psalm 42:7 [2] The Greek word (πιστεύω, pisteúō) translated as believe means to trust or put your faith in another. [3]


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