August 8, 2021, Are You Hungry? John 6:35,45-51 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
It became kind of a joke during the pandemic lockdown how everybody suddenly seemed to be learning to make sourdough bread – so many people, that stores started running out of flour in a lot of places. It was funny “ha ha”, partly because making sourdough is such a long, smelly, messy process. But people also found it funny, as in odd, because it’s been a while since we’ve been focused on the making and eating of bread in our modern world, and it struck people as a little weird. But I think there was something more than boredom, something real and important going on. And that is, that as people were being forced to live quieter, more solitary lives for a time, they began to be aware of a need in their lives, something wanting that had been pushed to the back burner in the midst of all our overly-full, demanding, loud, chaotic lives.
When things shut down, when life grew kind of quiet, all of a sudden people began to feel the pangs of a hunger they didn’t know they had. And it may be that the making of bread was a symbol for feeding something more than stomachs. I believe that for many people baking bread, along with any number of basic home-grown activities people turned to while they were stuck in the solitude and silence of quarantine, was an attempt to feed a long-neglected hunger of the soul.
We modern people have a complicated relationship with bread, and with hunger. Jesus tells us, “I am the Bread of Life.” And for the people he was speaking to in the Middle East of the first century, that was easy to understand. Hunger was a near neighbor to the people in that crowd. Bread was the thing that satisfied the real pains of hunger. Bread stopped the crying of a hungry child. Beggars held out their hands on the roadsides and street corners asking for a bit of bread, day after day. To have bread was to be safe, for now at least, from the immediate pressures of the world. To lack bread meant suffering and weakness and sickness. To lack bread for a long time meant death.
But for us, living as we do in the modern-day, middle-class America of the 21st century, when Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life,” we have so much less of an immediate, visceral comprehension of what he is telling us. We’ve heard the phrase over and over, since our Sunday School days, so we feel like we understand. As Christians, we connect it with the sacrament of Holy Communion, and that is certainly important for our understanding. But how many of us really understand the connection between bread and life? How many of us have ever known the real physical hunger that was a daily experience for the people Jesus walked with and taught and healed and fed? We don’t often realize it, but we are among the wealthiest people in the world. And that gives us a kind of learning disability in being able to grasp what Jesus is telling us about himself, and about ourselves.
If you’ve ever had teenagers in your house, you have surely had this experience – or maybe you’ve done it yourself. Feeling just a little peckish, your child, or you, go to the refrigerator. It’s packed so full that a jar of mustard rolls out as you open the door, barely missing your toe. And your child (or you) stand there for a long time, surveying the contents, before saying with a sigh, “There’s nothing to eat.” We have twisted and deformed our relationship with food and hunger: with diets and weight obsessions and eating disorders, not to mention fast foods and over-processed foods and junk foods. Most of the bread we bring home from the grocery story is such pale, worthless stuff that the people of Jesus’s day wouldn’t even recognize it as bread.
Our appetites are so over-satisfied, and our senses are so over-stimulated so much of the time that we have lost the ability to appreciate simple, basic nourishment, whether that is nourishment of the body, like bread, or the simple, basic nourishment of nature, and good, productive work, and quiet companionship with God. We live in a world that has programmed us to want more of everything: more and better. But in the process of running after all that we think we want, we have lost the ability to recognize our true hunger. We are starving for the true nourishment Jesus offers us. But we have forgotten what it feels like to be hungry.
There are practices we can use to help us re-learn what we have lost in the constant clamor and pressure of life in our culture. The obvious spiritual discipline to help bring us to a place where we recognize our true hunger is fasting. The people of God, Jews and Christians, and the people of other religious traditions as well, throughout the centuries, have all practiced the discipline of fasting to come closer to God. If we’re people who always keep snacks in our cars and offices just in case we need a little pick-me-up, fasting isn’t necessarily a very appealing discipline. But it can have great value in bringing unity to our physical and spiritual selves. Our dealing-with-the-world selves, and our going-to-church selves are so often separate, unrelated entities, barely on speaking terms really. Fasting gives us the opportunity to feel the real hunger we seldom or never feel in our regular lives, true hunger of the body, so that we can better recognize the hunger of our souls as well, and maybe begin to understand who and what we are as a whole person.
What fasting does NOT do: fasting doesn’t make us super-spiritual. We don’t become wise, dreamy saint-like people when we fast. It’s much more likely that we will become grouchy, distracted people, at least at first. It is certain that our minds will wander, and that our prayer and meditation will wander off to visions of lunch rather than light and peace. But we will feel our weakness, our frailty, our need. We will get an inkling of what the multitudes surrounding Jesus knew in the course of their daily lives. We will begin to understand what it means for us that Jesus is the Bread of our Life. And in addition to that, we’ll hopefully begin to have a solidarity and compassion for the poor, who live with that kind of urgent hunger day in and day out.
There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for fasting. We can give up a certain food for a time – traditionally, people fast by giving up meat, like during Lent. We can just take in liquids – water or juices or broth – during a fast. Or we can abstain from all food for a time. We should always show ourselves grace and take it slow, learning the discipline of fasting gently, at our own pace and as we are able. But we should absolutely give it a try.
Another discipline – or maybe it’s a whole set of disciplines – that we can usefully practice in helping us understand what Jesus is saying to us are the disciplines of silence, simplicity and solitude. Those disciplines were kind of forced on us all during the pandemic, and I think it was probably very good for a lot of people. For many people, the world for a little while was the four walls of our home. The population of our world narrowed down to what we called our “pod,” the few human beings that shared our daily existence with us. Simplicity was somewhat unavoidable, as our options were limited to the confines of our little pandemic world. It was good for us. Some people began to feel a hunger they had been too busy and too full and probably too tired to notice before the world slowed down and almost stopped for that little time. They started to do things to feed their souls as well as their bodies. They learned how to bake sourdough bread. They took up knitting. They read books and made music. They learned how to do home repairs on YouTube.
The pandemic brought with it a kind of hopefulness that I think was surprising to people. I remember seeing a sweet video on Facebook of a father reading a story to his little child, all about how the world was completely changed by the pandemic, when people learned the true meaning of life, and all that. It was a very nice video. But the truth is, that when the world really did start up again, most of the world tucked their hunger right back away unsatisfied, and they went right back to the mad rush of life as usual, never having learned, still not knowing, that there was Bread available that would fill their real longing. In this wealthy, self-absorbed, egotistical, over-fed society we live in, the people around us are dying every day for lack of the true Bread Jesus holds out to the whole world.
Maybe the teenager standing in front of the full refrigerator has something to teach us after all. Though we certainly have a whole world full of tastes and sounds and sights and pleasures and experiences laid out before us, do we understand yet that in the end, there really is nothing there that will satisfy the desperate emptiness, the “God-shaped hole” aching in the depths of our hearts and souls? Then, and maybe only then, we will be able to hear the voice of Jesus, saying to us, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”