We feasted once on dreams. The American Dream served up enough dreams to satisfy every American and had more to spare. We dreamed of having a better life than our parents knew or a bigger house than the one we’d grown up in. We dreamed of living longer than our grandparents could have imagined or working an even better job than the one our father went to every day until they gave him a gold watch and a handshake.
Now our dreams have a sour taste and leave us hungry for something better. America is full of dreams unrealized and people isolated and disappointed. We might not live longer nor any better than our grandparents. We might never own a house, much less one bigger than the one we grew up in. Gold watches are something few wear anymore, and handshakes are rare now too. America is no longer dreaming. America is starving.
Maybe it always was. Maybe those dreams that pushed a people across a continent were illusions and nothing more. Maybe for some they never came true, and maybe if they came true for others, the dream was better than its fulfillment. It could be that there was always something off about those dreams, something that let you gain the whole world and lose your soul.[i] Maybe the soul has had its hunger satisfied. Where were mercy and justice and peace in our dreams? Where were hope and joy and quiet contentment? Souls have always needed more than dreams for food.
When the crowds were hungry, Jesus did not berate them for their shallowness. They came to hear Him preach, and yet they wanted food, as if the preaching wasn’t enough. When they came to Him in the wilderness for bread, He did not despise their desire. He fed the thousands, and there was more than enough for all.[ii] Dreams of a better life and bread to eat are not evil, but they also aren’t enough. Life is more than bread and the soul more than the body.[iii] We must have more. Man cannot live by bread alone.[iv] He hungers for more. The crowds listened for more than the blessing over the meal Jesus gave them.
When the crowds came to Him in the desert, Jesus did not say that their time was past. Their past was so marred by sin and disappointment. Their ancestors had rejected the Lord’s Word, the soul’s food, and had hankered after other gods. They had followed the devices and desires of their own hearts and forgotten the Lord’s heart of love and peace opened up to them in His Word. On the mountainside, Jesus fed them again with wholesome food. He came preaching, and He gave them what they needed. Israel had forsaken their fountain of living waters,[v] but He would quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger for something more than daily bread.
Is our country’s time past? Should God turn to more grateful peoples? It would be arrogant to say either way. We are not God, nor even in our little corner of American Christianity have we reached all of America. Some of the most populous parts of the country have very few Lutheran churches, and where our churches have been for a long time, many struggle to keep the doors open so that the feast of the bread of life can go on. It is not for the servant to decide when the Master’s feast will end. The servant carries out the Master’s command and commission to baptize and to teach all the nations, even Americans. When He tells us to stop, we will stop, and no one will be working.[vi] Until then, we serve the bread of life to the hungry.
Who, then, is hungry in America? Don’t we see emptying churches? How many funerals have you attended at your church where the only churchgoer in the family was the saint who had died? There has never been a more urgent time for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in America. We know people were hungry for the bread of life in the past because they pursued Him into the desert to hear His words, and in our own past we have seen and known amazing things: people building their church and their school before they built their sod houses on the Great Plains, pastors traveling enormous distances on horseback and on foot to lonely settlements to bring the Gospel, churches popping up in the most crowded cities and the most uncrowded prairies.
What changed? The servants of the Gospel should not blame either the Master or the guests. The Master’s Good News has not changed. The guests have changed; that’s for sure. They may think and feel and act and dress and do everything differently than the Master’s guests in the 1850s or 1950s did, but our task has not changed: serving the guests the bread of life. Much has changed, but we can only change our own drive to serve the bread of life. If there is someone somewhere in America without Christ’s peace, why don’t we go to him? If there is someone somewhere in a giant city or an anonymous suburb or a dying small town, why don’t we go to him? Our fathers went to those cities, those suburbs and those small towns, and they preached there, and God blessed their preaching. Will the Master be less gracious with us?
By no means! For the Master does not deal with disappointed dreams. He has no truck with self-recrimination or blaming the brother. He has nothing to do with hardness of heart against the neighbor nor with laziness that keeps us glued to our screens and blind to the hungry soul. When the apostles tried to go back to the fishing business and away from preaching His Gospel, Jesus showed them that all things depended on Him — even catching fish. When they were hungry after a long night, He fed them and turned them to a better way (John 21:1–14). They were in darkness, and when the day came, He was ready to serve them.
Now that dreams are fading, let the day come. We have nothing to fear from the daylight. The unfruitful works of darkness and the sloth of the night are passing away.[vii] The time for distraction and self-obsession is gone now. The church’s slumber in the comfort of big numbers and big money is ending. Now the day is here, and the workers have the one tool they need for the day’s work: the Word of God. The daylight reveals many hungering, many thirsting, many crying out for bread, many unemployed, many addicted, many depressed, many lonely, many whose souls have never been fed anything wholesome, many who once knew Christ and know Him no longer, many who have never known Him. You see how ripe the harvest is! You see how much work there is! The daylight shines, and the worker picks up his tools. He takes in how fresh everything is now, and he goes to work.
[i] Luke 9:25: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”
[ii] Matthew 14:20: “And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” Matthew 15:37: “And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over.”
[iii] Luke 12:23: “For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”
[iv] Deuteronomy 8:3: “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
[v] Jeremiah 2:13: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
[vi] John 9:4: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”
[vii] Ephesians 5:10–11: “And try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”