A reflection on the readings for Sunday, August 1, 2021 — the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
What can we do to accomplish the works of God? (John 6:28)
This question is posed by the growing crowds who have been journeying with Jesus as he makes his way around Cana and Capernaum, turning water into wine, healing, feeding the thousands, calming the sea.
Today their question is ours as well. It’s a question that can quickly become fraught. I personally tend to complicate and add layers, rather than simplify. Two thousand years of witness can mean we come to the question thinking we already have the answer (go to Mass, practice the works of mercy, follow what the pope has to say)—and it’s not that those responses would be wrong, but we might recover the freshness of encounter with the living Word of God when we consider the true desire inside this question.
The desire to actively participate in (what can we do?) the life of God that is being revealed through Jesus’ life, and through the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us—revealing it is possible to follow him—and in doing so, become more of who we are meant to be.
We are invited to look back to the origin stories. As it is the God of Exodus who sent Jesus and it is the God of Exodus in whom we are to place our belief.
So we turn to the grumbling people of God—still very much neophytes on their path to become a people. And while the memories of the miraculous signs and wonders that led to their freedom may very well be fresh in their minds—the reality is that today, they are hungry. So while God split the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh’s army—what is on people’s minds is:
Did we really just do all that to now starve to death in the desert?
They are grumbling. I would be too. It’s not unreasonable or even “complain-y”—the fact is they need food. And God doesn’t begrudge them their grumbles. Their hunger pangs are not cast as sinful or evoking wrath in response.
I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. (Ex 16:12)
The Lord heard their grumbling. Just as the Lord heard the cries of their struggle in Egypt.
And then God delivers. As if delivering for people’s needs is constitutively innate to who God is: Quail in the morning, manna in the evening. And God gives some additional direction for just how much to gather: double ahead of Sabbath, no more than what you actually need in your own house so none goes to waste.
What does this have to do with the question of the crowds? Jesus encounters their eagerness, their curiosity, their immense hunger—and doesn’t condemn it. Jesus does call it like it is.
Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal. (John 6:23-24)
He knows their tendency—our tendency—to work for the food that perishes. It’s practically hardwired into us and is getting re-wired into us daily. Our hunger can get turned towards that which doesn’t sustain us. Our brains turn on with the adrenaline that scrolling gives.
How often am I drawn to controversy, rather than channeling my energy towards creative, life-giving works of mercy?
Jesus makes it plain: work for the food that endures.
Sometimes as Catholics we jump straight to the Eucharist as the answer to every question (and that’s not to say that it isn’t). Except that we don’t actually work for the Eucharist. It’s a gift we receive, one we can never actually deserve or repay, but that nourishes us to respond with a return gift of neighbor love and care for this gift of creation God has gifted us with.
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
Believe in the God who does not begrudge our hunger but who feeds, who does not begrudge our questions but listens and sets us free. Believe in the one who claims to be Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, Light, Living Waters.
What is the work born from such belief?
I’m pointed to art. In a time of division and hunger, I look for what can draw together and nourish. “Meek Squad” is a rad little band of friends (and fellow parishioners) who live in community as folks with various intellectual and physical ability or disability. They like to spend time making music together. Their album I Am for You: Songs of Prayer and Peace dropped right as COVID life ramped up. Their songs are well produced and not cheesy. They got me through the valleys and turns in COVID life—a way to pray and turn the heart back to the essential simplicity of our faith.
The cover track sings it out and makes the old verse seem new again. Simple. True.
“I am the bread of life. When you’re hungry, I will feed you.”
Here we are: all of us grumbling, aching, all of us easily distracted from our truer purpose—but like the Meek Squad, occasionally hitting on a work that is born of belief in the one God sent. To remember a God who is so for us, always eager to deliver us, to turn us back towards life. To point the way for others through the complexity back to the truth.
God does not judge us our grumblings. Knows in our creatureliness exactly what we need.
So more than my own words might offer—I invite you to rest in the good fruits of fellow disciples and pilgrims who have offered up their art for fellow hungry seekers. May it inspire your own work this week—rooted in this salvific work of feeding, healing, freeing—in the God who is FOR US.
Image: Meek Squad
Casey Stanton is the co-director of Discerning Deacons, a project fueled by love and fidelity to the Catholic Church with a mission to engage Catholics in the active discernment of our Church about women and the diaconate. Casey has spent over a decade working in the field of social concerns ministries within parish life and as part of broader, faith-based coalitions. A Boston native, Casey is makes her home in Durham NC with her husband Felipe and their two children, Micaela and Teddy.
You can contact Casey at firstname.lastname@example.org