Healing Our Hungers

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 18
August 1, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: As in other places in scripture, John draws a connection between food and faith. Jesus came as the bread of life, who feeds our spiritual hunger. One way to respond is to heal our relationship to physical food.

Can we be honest? We don't have a good relationship with food. We eat too much. We eat in unhealthy ways. We throw too much food away.

Even if we cut back on the calories and practice portion control, we can't forget the wider world. We can avoid feelings of guilt only by ignoring the starvation around the world. A heartbreaking story arose out of South Sudan on Christmas Day of 2020. Kallayn Keneng watched her two children die of hunger. They both cried and begged her for food, but she had nothing to give them. After her 7-year-old and 5-year-old children died, she had no strength to bury them, so she simply covered their bodies in grass.1

The hunger of the world hangs over us. One pastor friend once tried an experiment in his church. He colluded with the youth, giving them a tambourine to pass around during a church service. Every few seconds, one of the youths struck the tambourine, and then passed it to another youth. The adults in the congregation spoke up and demanded to know what the youth were up to. The pastor cautioned patience and assured the congregation that they would receive an explanation.

At the end of the service, one of the youths went to the microphone to explain that each tambourine strike represented a child dying of hunger. We put out of our minds the hunger of the world and the deaths of children, but the tambourine kept them from sliding off the radar screen.

We can't obsess about stories such as the mother in South Sudan; we would drive ourselves crazy. However, if we ignore them, we become callous. Stories such as that form part of our relationship to food. For most of us, they do not form part of our everyday experience, but they hang over us.

Food and faith in scripture

Do we realize how often a bad relationship with food comes up in scripture? The crowd in today's text mentions the manna in the wilderness. In Exodus 16, the manna represented the care of God for the people. The Israelites cried out in their hunger. God provided enough manna for everyone to have enough. The manna became a test of the faith of the people. The people could gather twice as much on the sixth day, so that they could rest and observe Sabbath on the seventh day. Some of the people went out on the seventh day anyway to look for the manna. Their relationship to food indicated their lack of trust in God. In 1 Kings 17, when God wanted to punish Ahab, the wicked king, he caused a famine. Of course, we all know what happened when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.

Here in our passage, Jesus accuses the crowd of following him for the free food, not for the spiritual blessing. We can see here the connection between spiritual hunger and physical hunger. We hunger spiritually, but physical hunger can feel more immediate, more demanding. Certainly, the story out of South Sudan hammers home the reality of physical hunger. The fact that Jesus fed the crowds indicates to us that Jesus took physical hunger seriously. Yet, Jesus used the physical food to initiate a conversation about spiritual hunger.

During the conversation, Jesus speaks in ways that bring up both kinds of hunger and both understandings of food. The crowd seems not to understand, but we do not know for sure. Jesus tells the crowd not to work for food that perishes, but food that endures for eternal life. In that statement, Jesus pushes the crowd to focus on spiritual hunger and spiritual food. When the crowd later asks Jesus to give them the food that comes down from heaven for always, do they understand how Jesus uses physical food to point towards spiritual food? Do they stay on the level of physical food, or do they begin to understand about spiritual food?

Healing our relationship to God and food

We know our need for physical food. We know our need for spiritual food as well. We can have full bellies and empty hearts. We can have a refrigerator full of food and starve for love. We can have food right at hand and feel as though God stands light years away. Hurts from the past, a failure, a broken relationship, a death and fear of the future can all leave us spiritually empty.

We cannot solve our problems regarding physical hunger or spiritual hunger easily. Famine, drought, war, disease and greed all underlie the problems with physical hunger. If we try to find God's presence, that can elude us as well. What did Jesus mean when he said, "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry"? On the physical level, Christians and churchgoers may experience food insecurity. Hunger does not exempt Christians. On the spiritual level, we cannot just snap our fingers and close the gap between ourselves and God. God is not at our beck and call. Even our spiritual heroes feel distant from God sometimes.

Jesus promises us here that he becomes the first step in healing our spiritual hunger and helping us begin to tackle our problems with physical hunger. God has taken the initiative. Just as God provided manna in the wilderness, so Jesus has come into the world to address both our physical hunger and our spiritual hunger.

If we do not always feel Jesus' presence, if we do not always feast on the bread from heaven, we can know that Jesus will continue to offer us the bread from heaven nonetheless. In our spiritual hunger, we can trust that at the end of every dry spell, every grief, every struggle, the bread from heaven will remain. We can eat our fill again. In the love of the church, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, Jesus offers us the spiritual food. Jesus has come to us. Jesus holds out his hand and offers us the nourishment we need. We claim Jesus's promise that he is the bread of life that has come down from heaven.

In every offer of grace, God calls us to respond. We might think that we first seek to heal our relationship with God, and then we can heal our relationship to food, but maybe it works the other way around. Perhaps we can begin to respond to God's initiative in sending us the bread of life by working on our relationship to food. We can eat less, so that others have more. We can treat our bodies in a healthier way. We can donate to soup kitchens and hunger ministries. We can volunteer to pass out food.

A recent seminary graduate decided to shape up during his internship. He did not like what he saw in the mirror. He recognized the problems in his relationship to food. He already spent time every day in prayer and devotion. He lacked one more thing: how he responded to food, and what he had done to his body. So, the internship provided the impetus to get to work. He counted calories. He exercised every day. The faculty at the seminary and his fellow students encouraged him in his quest. He chronicled his experience on social media. He posted pictures. With each new milestone, he celebrated. During his year-long seminary internship, he lost 150 pounds. He exuded joy in relating his experience. Joy brings us closer to God.

John the gospel writer weaves spiritual hunger and physical hunger together in this passage. We experience both kinds of hunger. God has taken the initiative to fill our spiritual hunger by sending Jesus to us. Jesus is the promise that the time will come when we never again hunger or thirst in any way. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John is Jesus' statement that he has gone to prepare a place for us,2 and I expect we'll find there the two little girls who died in South Sudan. Jesus will welcome them into their dwelling place.

We have the responsibility to work for peace and to heal our relationship to food. Healing our relationship to food, for ourselves and for others, can form part of the way to heal our relationship to God.