The recent heavy rains that caused such damage in parts of the UK and Europe reminds me of the story of a man who believed he would be saved from an impeding flood because he prayed to God to save him. When the rains flooded his basement and the whole street where he lived, he declined to get into a rescue boat, telling the crew that God would save him. When the flood reached his bedroom, he refused another offer of help, telling the crew God would save him. When the flood reached so high that he had to climb out onto the roof and cling to the chimney, he turned down an offer of rescue from a helicopter crew. Some hours later and as things got even worse, he vented his anger and complained bitterly that God had failed to answer his prayer. When he was finished, God said to him: ‘what are you complaining about? Didn’t I send you two boats and a helicopter?’
Forty-six years ago today I arrived from Ireland by aeroplane to serve as a priest, first in Hartlepool and then in parishes at Gosforth, Darlington, South Shields, St Mary’s Cathedral, Newton Aycliffe and here at the Holy Name. In all, I have moved house eight times in what is for all priests something of a transient existence, just like life itself.
Looking back over those 46 years, it’s only now that I am able to make some sense of things that happened to me along the way. In times of difficulty, when I felt very alone, it’s now in later years I can see that God was supporting me, not in dramatic divine interventions but mostly through the people God had placed in my life at the time. I was not aware then of God’s help but now, in hindsight and reflection, I know now I was not alone, but that those people were the lifeboats and helicopters God sent to help them.
Some, if not many, of you may, may feel the same as you now look back on events in your particular journey. In what were moments of danger or crisis at the time, when you wondered how you would cope, you may sense now that you were not abandoned by God, even if you felt it at the time. Like me, you might see that the people who supported you were, one might say, ‘angels’ sent by God. Just think of all the things that could have happened but did not and how, in spite of everything, you managed to cope. So was it just pure luck that got you through? Or was the invisible hand of God in some mysterious way sending you a lifeboat and steering you through all the time?
This experience of looking back and reflecting on troublesome past events underpins the account in the First Reading of the Israelites wandering in the Middle East before taking possession of a land of their own. In those 40 years, as we have heard, they regretted leaving Egypt – even though they were slaves there – because life had become so hard for them. They grumbled about the leadership of Moses and complained that that God was not helping them. It was only many years later, when their story came to be written, that their ancestors came to the belief that, far from it, there were events at times of distress when God actually did provide for them.
The Reading today tells how during a time of famine, food miraculously appeared for them in the form of quail (fowl) and ‘manna’. To this day, quail migrating between Africa and Europe are frequently forced to rest in the Sinai Peninsula and can be easily caught. Some just collapse from exhaustion. And there are desert bushes which emit a white, honey-like substance known as manna. In time, Israelites came to believe that the miraculous appearance of these foods was not just coincidence but a moment when God reached out and helped them.
That Reading is chosen for us because it forms the background to the dispute between Jesus and other Jews following his feeding of the 5,000 (last Sunday’s Gospel). Jesus teaches that perishable food, such as fowl and manna, will satisfy only a physical hunger, whereas he offers a lasting food or ‘manna’ to satisfy the deepest hunger in all of us – so he says “don’t work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life”. And he argues that the God who provided the manna for their ancestors in the desert is now offering, through him, a far more substantial ‘food’. He says that he alone can satisfy the deepest hungers of our hearts and souls.
Like those Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert, we also are on a journey. For nourishment and sustenance, God provides us with what Jesus calls the ‘Bread of Life’. But God also provides for us in other ways which may not be so obvious until we take time to reflect. So who are the people through whom God has supported you in the past and will be doing so now, those lifeboats, helicopters and ‘angels’ sent from heaven?
Holy Name, Jesmond
1 August 2021