Craving Whatzits

sermon on John 6:24-35 Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29

Fun Nick fact: I’m a big fan of The Little Mermaid. When my sister used to watch it, I’d be singing along with Ariel: “I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty / I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore / You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty! / But who cares? No big deal / I want more.”

In the movie the little mermaid has a collection of items that humans use on land. She doesn’t really know what these things are, so she has names like snarfblatt or dinglehopper, whozits and whatzits. In spite of being oblivious, she still obsesses over and craves them so much she wishes she could be a human instead of a mermaid, though we know that this desire will make her a fish out of water, so to speak.

Well, that’s the mixed up mess we have today, too. People who don’t even really understand what they’re after, still wishing and yearning, begging and complaining for something else.

In Exodus, the crazy people of God are griping that they want to be back in slavery, thinking at least in Egypt they sat by fleshpots and ate bread. They don’t remember that they groaned in suffering and that just a month and a half before, to rescue them God had sent plagues and Passover and a pillar of cloud and fire and parted the Red Sea and “Pharaoh’s army got drownded.” It would seem memorable, but somehow they forgot and can’t hear over their grumbling bellies.

So they murmur and complain against their leaders and against God. And God sends them bread, or something sort of like bread. They aren’t too sure what it is or what to call it; our word “manna” is actually the Hebrew word for “whatzit.” So each morning, they would go out to gather this bready whatzit, sort of like fine flakey frost, or like gum resin it says in another spot (Numbers11:7).

Actually in that spot, it says that even though God was sending them daily bread, still the people were grousing that they wanted grouse, or actually quail. They wanted some meat, so God rained fowl down on them. (It’s tough to be a carnivore, eh?)

At any rate, this has to be about the biggest miracle in the Bible, aside from resurrection and creation itself. See, this whatzit scattered on the ground each morning sustained them for 40 years. The ration was about a gallon per person each day. That’s quite a bit of sustenance. But they kept on complaining, even wishing to be dead instead of receiving this miracle from God, claiming it was better back under Pharaoh’s heavy yoke because at least then they had fish and cucumbers and melons and leeks and garlic.

That sense of abundance brings us to the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey,” as it’s described, growing with fruit trees and vineyards. If nothing else, after the tedium of manna, they had variety. So you’d think that was the good life, that after being in slavery for hundreds of years and then a whole generation dying out while they wandered the wilderness that—at last—this would be the fulfillment of their hopes.

But just as their ancestors wished to be back in slavery, in our Gospel reading the people wish they could be back in the wilderness. “Hey Jesus,” they say, “Moses used to give out bread every day. How come we can’t just eat that whatzit manna like they used to?” They plead to go back to exactly what their ancestors wanted to get away from, just as their ancestors wanted to go back to what got away from.

Now, we could say that people are stubborn whiners or just kind of dumb or never satisfied. We could blame wandering eyes and jealous hearts, that the grass always seems greener and hindsight…yadda-yadda. Yet we, too, keep wishing that a new job or different house or shnazzier hairdo or the latest health regimen will change things. So another part of this isn’t just satisfaction but that we claim to know better as our own authorities, declaring what’s best for us and what we want.

We’re so adept at it that we even try answering other people’s problems. In this peculiar reversal, instead of begging for our own desires, we can turn it into a lecturing accusation against others, if not out loud all too often thinking we know better. To the woman facing abuse, we say, Why does she keep going back? To the man and his addiction to alcohol, we ask, Why doesn’t he just stop? To the one who’s lacking a job, we accuse, Why don’t they get off their lazy butts? To the one with an unwanted pregnancy, it’s, Why did they have sex in the first place? To the one in trouble with the law, Why didn’t he just behave himself? To the one with bad grades and a bleak future, Why doesn’t she try harder? To the one who can’t afford rent, Why do they waste their money on other things? To the critical, why can’t they find some compassion? We feel like we can assess all these fates, which then goes on to treat the people in these situations as if they had neither sense in their heads nor hopes in their hearts.

This week, a woman named Cheryl came in in tears. Her energy assistance was cut off because she got funding help from a church. She had no power to run fans to cool her grandchildren living with her or her CPAP machine or the refrigerator with her diabetes medicine. She’s trying to balance where money goes—to a broken car so she can get to her caregiver job or to the electrical bill. What’s our answer for Cheryl? Try harder? Buck up? Work more? Get smarter? Don’t worry about the grandkids? Find better assistance programs? Win the lottery? Vote differently? Change society so that this issue isn’t there in the first place? Pray?

We try to name these solutions, wanting answers, to be authorities on meeting desires and having everything go right. We grumble and yearn and pursue all our own whatzits. It leaves us gasping like fish out of water.

It would be plenty easy to declare here in church you’re choosing the wrong things, that if you’re after grand acclaim or a fancier car or easier life or more relaxation, then you’re selfish and doing it wrong, that Jesus called those the “food that perishes,” and instead you need to focus on God to satisfy your desires. One of our Boundary Waters devotions used this passage to pronounce that instead of trying to fill our spiritual hunger with worldly things we “need to feed on [God’s] word each day” (Pedersen, 180).

I’m sure not going to say that’s a poor idea compared to wishing for more stuff or trying to solve the world’s problems from the comfort of your own self-justifications.
But neither is that what Jesus is about. You don’t need a new lecturing accusation that you should be more godly. Rather, we’re just plain not very godly people. God was working the biggest miracle in sending daily bread, and the people of Exodus complained. Jesus was standing in the midst of the people, feeding their need, and they asked for more of exactly the wrong thing. It isn’t that we need more. It isn’t that we’re to refine our wishlist or our sense of directions. We’re just broken enough that we don’t know what to ask, don’t know what is good.

But here’s the turning point. Here’s Jesus. He’s not about directions or spiritual satisfaction. He’s not a waiter for placing all of your prayerful orders for another round. His method isn’t to believe just-right and firmly-enough so you’ll get all the best stuff. His authority is as the author of life.

In Jesus, God is for you, wants what’s best for you, even striving to satisfy the whiners and complainers, all the selfish, the do-gooders and those looking down their noses, the hungry and the grossly overfed, the greedy and the needy, those who don’t know their right hand from their left, who wander around looking for every new whatzit, for all of us ridiculous and incredulous fish out of water.

The proclamation is not, “I could be your bread of life” or “I should be” or “it would be best if I were.” Jesus declares flat-out, “I am the bread of life.” Your creation and existence, your sustenance, your ongoing life is never outside of his care, never neglected or overlooked or mishandled. Before you can even think to ask, to pray, to beg, to complain, he is giving you himself for your daily bread. Your life is in his keeping, from this time forth and forevermore.

This is a hard proclamation, because we want to make it into a program, an explanation, another lecture that can form an accusation, either against our doubting selves or the hungry hordes. We’d actually prefer to keep looking instead of settling in trust. Jesus says that we’ll never be hungry. So why do we need to have a Food Pantry, or write letters to our elected officials with Bread for the World? What does this have to do with Cheryl’s electric bill or your brokenness? We want special words to ask for pretty-please, or bonus points for being insistent, or re-evaluation of our needs. Or we demand signs and proofs. Or we go on to ignore Jesus since he doesn’t work like a spiritual vending machine for our appetites and hasn’t fixed our wishlist of the world’s problems.

And yet, there he is, abiding in that promise that spreads out through each moment of your life and across our world like the sticky dew just waiting outside of Exodus tents, the promise: “I am the bread of God that gives life to the world.” He’s for you, and that’s plenty.

Hymn: By Your Hand You Feed Your People (ELW #469)

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