sermonizing on hunger

I preached the following sermon today. Perhaps a little long for a blog post, but I liked it, so I’m sharing it. HA.

Also, for beautiful insight into this week’s lectionary reading from John, see Jan Richardson’s latest entry in her blog, “The Painted Prayerbook”. The entry is entitled “The Gastronomical Jesus” and was a huge inspiration for me this week:

Today’s theme, “Come to me and never be hungry” comes from a scripture in the book of John.

John 6:35, 41–51

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ 43Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

More than any of the other gospels, John is more theological treatise than narrative story. Repeatedly the writer expounds in metaphors on who Jesus is, and doesn’t just tell us what Jesus does. Jesus, says John’s author, is a vine, a door, the bread of life. These metaphors are rich and varied, and one could possibly argue that who Jesus is, is a pretty locked-down notion in John. In fact, a common understanding of the book is that it was written by a very exclusive Christian community that was very concerned with who were insiders and outsiders. The book is riddled with extreme opposites: life and death, light and dark, up and down, and the positioning of those opposites in contestation with each other. The book of John served as a theological explanation of who the community saw themselves to be, and who Jesus was for them.

So although the book may seem to have a fixed interpretation, the beauty of scripture is that it takes on new meaning and new interpretation all the time. Each time someone new picks up the Bible, each time we read a passage, new understandings and meanings unfold before us. This can be a dangerously wonderful thing! Metaphors especially have the potential to bring forth multiple meanings. And so even though this scripture is very didactic and fixed, because it uses these beautiful, rich metaphors of bread and hunger, it means that many possibilities for understanding lie inside of it. In fact, all of the metaphors in John (light, bread, vine, door) actually, I would argue, can be used to free and release the interpretations of who Jesus is, rather than locking those interpretations down. Poetry has an amazing gift for opening multiple, new, unfolding understandings of things, and can rarely be solidified into singular meanings. And the book of John, I would argue, with its plethora of metaphor, is more poetic prose than it is narrative.

And so, since it is poetry, it means we can play with it, it means we can tease new understandings out of it, and it means we can let it loose on our own minds, hearts, spirits, and bodies to transform us, inside and out. So let’s turn loose this lovely food-centric, metaphor-rich passage about bread and hunger and see what happens.

‘I am the bread of life.’ says Jesus, ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’

Let’s first talk about bread. Bread is one of the most universal metaphors in human language and understanding. In many different cultures bread is used poetically and narratively to point to something that is totally and completely ordinary and yet also without which we would not survive, something extraordinarily important. Our lives depend on bread, on daily bread, in fact. To live, we must eat, to eat is to live. This is not a complicated thing to understand. I’m certain that all of us, at one time or another, for whatever reason, have experienced the physical pain that hunger for food creates in our bodies. I can think of mornings when I’ve woken up with a stomach growling for sustenance, or times when I’ve been so busy that I’ve forgotten to eat until eventually my body screams “HEY!!! SHANNON!!! TIME FOR FOOOOD!!” Though I will admit that those times when I’ve felt those hunger pangs, food was never more than a few hours away.

There was only one time when that was not the case, and that was when I participated in a fast-a-thon at camp last year. We went for 36 hours without food (though there were, unfortunately, still food smells to tempt us!) but this too was a case where the end was definitely in sight, we knew that at the end of that timeframe we would be eating. That experience was intended as a mere brief glimpse into the life of hunger experienced by so many, too many, in fact, people around the world. For too many people, the satiation of their physical hunger is not hours, but days, or even an indefinite timeline away. And satisfaction is not guaranteed for those individuals, but is subject, often, to factors beyond their control.

And, though purely spiritual interpretations of this scripture are possible, I would say that when we contemplate what the other gospels teach about real food and real physical hunger, and the needs of the least, the poor, a physical, literal interpretation of hunger as being what is satisfied through Jesus, is possible. For who, today, is Jesus, is Christ for us? We, the church, are now Christ’s body (which is what our Ephesians scripture in the call to worship today taught us, that we are members of one another’s body, and that we ought to be doing what we can to build up the body), it is we who are called to do the feeding, to be the bread of life, to serve the poor, to be the flesh that gives life, just as Jesus’ flesh gave life. And this is not just for those who are among us, but for all, for neighbour and stranger alike.

Bread becomes a living, life-giving metaphor for the physical needs of the world that God calls us to be a part of bringing justice for. Bread can also be an important reminder of our own physical needs as well. We are not merely spiritual beings (as the gospel of John would perhaps sometimes appear to be telling us), but physical beings with physical needs, physical hungers. Our bodies are the body of Christ in this world and ought to be fed accordingly! We also know that physical and spiritual hunger can intertwine and are deeply linked. Anyone who has deliberately eaten or not eaten in times of deep emotional turmoil can attest to this (and I’d guess that most, if not all of us have had such experiences of physical hunger and spiritual hunger being linked).

Let’s turn even more towards this hunger metaphor, slightly away from bread. For hunger is an interesting thing. There are lots of types of hunger, and lots of things we can be hungry for. Depending on who we are, where we are in the world, and what stage of life we’re in, we are probably, all of us, hungry for something. Whether it is our next meal, a good stimulating conversation, the touch of a person who cares for us, or the voice of God in the wilderness of our chaotic lives, we all hunger. Hunger for that which will feed us spiritually, not just physically, is perhaps an even more complicated hunger than our physical ones. And even physical hungers outside of food, for the touch of another person, for rest and relaxation, for fresh air and sunlight, these too are profoundly intertwined with our spiritual lives. As Auntie Gwyn and I strolled through some wetlands yesterday we talked about how spending time in quiet, beautiful, natural places is so refreshing for our souls.

I believe that all human souls long, hunger, desire something more, something bigger than themselves. I believe that longing is for union with God, and I believe that that union is always a lot closer than we think. It doesn’t take a complicated spiritual or meditation practice to discover that each of our bodies are rooted in God’s body, that each of our hearts are part of God’s heart, that each of our minds are a part of the divine wisdom that helps to shape the universe. When we discover that we are part of the divine, that we are steeped in the burning layers of the divine, I think we can find that, as Jesus says in this scripture, we are no longer hungry, for we have tasted the bread of life, the divine sustenance.