For Sunday August 1, 2021
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78: 23-29
I spent last week helping my elderly parents move into their new home. While I unpacked boxes and organized kitchen cabinets, my father shared early childhood stories I’d never heard before. He described a time when he was five years old, when his village in South India suffered a food shortage. The rains didn’t come, crops and supply chains failed, and farming families like my grandfather’s faced the prospect of starvation.
My father told me candidly what it felt like to go to bed hungry at such a young age. How physically painful and frightening it was for him and his siblings. How wretched it was to wake up each morning and face the prospect of another day with little or no nourishment.
Of course the story broke my heart. But it also helped me to connect some dots I’d never connected before. When I was growing up, my father obsessed about keeping everyone within his sphere of influence well-fed. Our refrigerators and freezers were perpetually jam-packed. Dad loved taking us out to all-you-can-eat buffets. He and my mom spent hours cooking for our friends and extended family members, feeding them until they were stuffed. It was an obsession I found bewildering as a child, because I didn’t understand its origins. We were not a farming family living in a drought-stricken South Asian village; we were a comfortably middle-class family living in suburban America. But it didn’t matter. My dad was haunted — I understand now — by a primal fear. A primal deprivation. Old hungers die hard.
Every three years, the lectionary asks us to spend five long weeks in John’s Gospel, contemplating emptiness and fullness, hunger and nourishment, Christ and bread. We’re asked to contemplate Jesus’s self-description as “the bread of life,” or “the bread which comes down from heaven.” We watch as he feeds people. We listen as their scarcity mindset drives them to clamor for more. And we hear the challenge of his words when he invites the grasping crowds to probe the hungers beneath their hungers. The unspoken deprivations that fuel their desires. The needs they carry in secret places.
I’ll be honest: these five “bread weeks” are challenging for me, because they pull me out of my head, and force me to seek Jesus with my heart. Or, more accurately, with my gut. It’s easy to look at Jesus and see a wisdom teacher or a moral exemplar. Like many of you, I admire the fact that he speaks with wisdom and authority, and I know that his compassionate way of life is worthy of emulation.
But there’s a problem with reducing Jesus to a clever guru or a generic Good Guy — a problem Jesus articulates very carefully in the lectionary readings we’re lingering over this summer. He doesn’t stop at telling the crowds to learn from him, believe in him, or even follow him. Jesus issues an invitation that is far more intimate and provocative when he calls himself our bread. He invites us to eat him. Eat him, and never be hungry again.
What’s at stake for me in this strange invitation is whether or not I will move past religion and into intimacy. Past abstraction and into communion. Past self-sufficiency and into radical, whole-life dependence on a God I can taste but never control. We become what we eat, don’t we? So what are we becoming?
In her beautiful meditation on Jesus as bread, theologian and Episcopal priest, Lauren Winner writes: “In calling himself ‘the bread of life,’ — and not, say, crème caramel or caviar — Jesus is identifying with basic food, with sustenance, with the food that, for centuries afterward, would figure in the protest efforts of poor and marginalized people. No one holds caviar riots; people riot for bread. So to speak of God as bread is to speak of God’s most elemental provision for us.”
Which raises all sorts of questions: Am I hungry? If yes, what am I hungry for? If no, what has made me full? Am I ashamed of my hunger? Does fullness scare me? What kinds of bread do I substitute for Jesus? Do I feel in my gut that Jesus is “elemental provision?” Not appetizer, not dessert, not occasional-dietary-supplement, but essential, everyday food without which I will starve and die?
When my father shared the grueling story of his childhood hunger, I understood something about what has driven him for decades as an immigrant to the United States. His experience as a five-year-old in India was about far more than literal food. It was about security. Safety. Provision. Protection. It was about whether the world he occupies is an abundant, generous, hospitable place — or a barren, empty, dangerous one.
Jesus invites the crowds to recognize the deep hungers beneath their surface hungers. Of course they’re hungry for literal bread; they’re poor, food is scarce, and they need to feed themselves and their families. There’s nothing wrong, substandard, or “unspiritual” about their physical hunger — remember, Jesus tends to their bodily needs first, without reservation or pre-conditions. But he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he asks the crowds to probe the soul hungers that drive them restlessly into his presence — hungers that only the “bread of heaven” can satisfy.
What are those hungers? A hunger for security and belonging? Meaning and purpose? A longing for connection, communion, intimacy, and love? A desire to know and be known? A hunger for delight, for joy, and for creative engagement with the world in all of its complexity, mystery, and beauty? An ongoing hunger for wholeness, redemption, and courage? A craving for the healing of old wounds?
What would you add to this list?
It’s one thing to name our hungers, but quite another to trust that Jesus will satisfy them. After all, we’re so good at finding substitutes for communion with God. Mine include perpetual busyness, social media, books, movies, the 24-hour-news-cycle, exercise, chocolate, and other people. Do I really trust that Jesus is my bread? My essential sustenance? Very often, the answer is no. Very often, Jesus is an abstraction. A creed. A set of Sunday rituals. Why? Maybe because I don’t come to him ravenous. I don’t recognize my daily, hourly dependence on his generosity. In short, I just plain don’t expect to be fed by him. Instead, I hide my hunger, because I'm ashamed to want and need too much.
In a powerful sermon on God’s generosity, Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber describes the shame that often keeps us from feasting on Jesus: “It’s hard to accept not just that God welcomes all, but that God welcomes all of me, all of you. Even that within us we wish to hide: the part that cursed at our children this week, or drank alone, or has a problem with lying, or hates our body. That part within us that suffers from depression and can’t admit it, or is too fearful to give our money away, or is riddled with shame over our sexuality, or cheats on taxes. All these parts of us we wish Jesus had the good sense to not welcome to his table are invited to taste and see that the Lord is good."
I’ll readily admit that I am still a novice in the presence of this challenging gospel text. I want to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” But I recognize too well the shame and hesitation that Bolz-Weber describes.
So where should I — or we — go from here? Once we’ve named and probed our deep hungers, once we’ve moved an inch closer to trusting God with the scariest desires of our hearts, where do we head next? Into contemplation, I think. Into silence, openness, and vulnerability. Into a willingness to truly “eat” Jesus — to take him into ourselves day after day after day, through whatever spiritual practices work best for us. Prayer? Meditation? Lectio Divina? Song? Jesus wants to be so much more than a creed, a good example, or a teacher in our lives. He wants to be food. He is food. Are we hungry for him? Will we allow his substance to become ours? The bread of heaven is ours for the tasting.
May we absorb it. May we share it. May we desire it above all things. May its nourishment permeate us through and through until we, like Jesus, become life-saving bread for the whole world.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org