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The Importance of Hunger (aka - knowing we aren't in control)

A sermon on John 6:1-21

If you have been around Christian churches any significant amount of time, you have probably heard some version of the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes. As a matter of fact, this the only miracle story that is told in all four gospels (and it is told twice in both Mark and Matthew)![1]

This repetition tells us at least two things:

First, this story is important! While the six accounts differ in some of the details and framing, they are always stories of Jesus responding the hunger of the large crowd who is gathered to receive his teaching and healing, always stories in which Jesus multiplies a clearly inadequate supply of food to meet that need; and always stories in which there is an abundance of food left over. Something about this formula of hunger being met with food, and abundance coming from scarcity is important to the gospels.

Second, the story is told so many times, in slightly different ways, because each unique version of this story is highlighting something uniquely instructive for the readers of the story.

In the case of John’s gospel, this story comes at the beginning of a long chapter that we will be hearing for 5 weeks – a string of readings that is known as the “Bread of Life” series in the Lectionary. The other readings all report what Jesus says, expanding on the theme that Jesus is the bread of life, but this week we get a story about physical bread.

This miracle - discussion structure is the organizing pattern of the first twelve chapters of the gospel of John. John’s telling of the Jesus story follows a pattern of Jesus performing a “sign” – a miracle – whose significance for the faith of his followers is then explained in an extended “discourse.” And this story-telling structure helps us to focus in on what John wants us to understand about the revelation of God in Jesus, connecting what Jesus did with what Jesus said.

In the context of today’s reading this structure helps us to recognize that the point of the story of the feeding of the multitude is NOT about the miracle part of it – it’s about the feeding part of it.

So, if you have a scientifically-trained mind that, maybe, boggles a bit at the idea of bending the laws of material physics and multiplying molecules, don’t sweat it. Multiplication is not really the point.

OR, if you have a mystically-oriented imagination that is fired by the display of supernatural power in this miracle, don’t get distracted. Magic is not really the point.

The point is that Jesus saw the hunger of the people, and responded with bread, as a sign of the fundamental truth that Jesus is our bread – the one who meets our deepest need – as we will be exploring for the next 4 weeks.

But, that’s getting ahead of the story.

Before we can appreciate the power of the idea that Jesus is our bread, we have to engage the awareness of our own hunger. And that’s where I get hung up.

Hunger is a loaded word for me, although maybe not for the reasons that you might expect. Given my first career as a social worker, with a focus on anti-poverty work, you might expect me to move this sermon in the direction of the church’s responsibility to fight physical hunger in our society and around the world. And I do think that seeking to ameliorate the effects of hunger, and to address its root causes is an important call of the Christian church.

But that’s not what challenges me about this story of facing the truth about human hunger. My challenge is much more personal. It’s about my own direct, physical experience of hunger. And my experience of physical hunger is not a story of poverty. It’s a story of disordered eating.

In college, I – like so many other young women, and a number of young men as well – developed an eating disorder. I won’t go into all the details because I don’t want that to be a distraction – but please know that you can come talk to me about my story, or about eating disorders in general. It’s important for the church to be a place where we can talk about all manner of mental health concerns.

The one thing I do want to explain about my eating disorder is the way that it warped my experience of hunger. For me, starving myself was not primarily about wanting to be skinny. (Although – to be clear – I have no illusions about the impact of American supermodel culture on my body-image, and my subconscious motivations to get smaller at all costs.) But, at the moment in my life when I started starving myself, that pattern was much more about CONTROL.

There were some pretty traumatic things happening in my family. Things over which I had absolutely no control. I was frightened, and anxious, and vulnerable, and I desperately wanted to protect myself from all of those feelings. To make myself feel like my life wasn’t as out-of-control as I knew it was.

And in that context, I discovered that I COULD CONTROL my body.

When my stomach would send signals to my brain that it needed food, I could say “no.” And I would get a little jolt of power – a sense that I wasn’t as weak and needy as my body wanted me to believe.

Of course – this was a LIE. My body DID need food, and denying myself that food had impacts on my health, and my moods, and my ability to do the things I needed to do.

But I didn’t care, because at least I didn’t feel vulnerable. I didn’t feel needy.

It’s amazing what we will do in order to deny the truth of our need – isn’t it? I see this resistance to the truth of vulnerability in what John tells us about the response of the crowd in today’s gospel. They ate the food, and initially they were satisfied. They were actually full… probably a rare experience for a crowd of 1st century peasants.

But they knew their stomachs wouldn’t stay full. And they started to talk among themselves.

Hey. This man is really special. He must be the prophet – Elisha come again.”

“That’s right. He multiplied bread in just the same way as Elisha! We never have to go hungry again.”

“Well, it’s the same miracle, that’s true. But Elisha didn’t keep on feeding the people every day. We need more than a prophet! We need a king!”

“Yes! If Jesus were our king – he would be responsible for us – for making sure we don’t go hungry. We need to make Jesus our king!”

“Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15). In other words, in response to the inevitability of the return of their hunger, their need, the crowd tried to take control. They tried to FORCE Jesus to take on the role that they thought would protect them from their vulnerability.

It’s how we all instinctively respond to need, isn’t it? We try to deny it, or to find some defense against it. We try to take control and convince ourselves that we are invulnerable. We refuse to accept that need, vulnerability, hunger is part of what it means to be human.

We think that the solution to our hunger is to deny its existence. Just like my eating disorder that caused me to SEEK the emptiness of hunger – as a sign not of my need, but of my ability to deny my fundamental neediness.

But hunger is important! It’s not an enemy to be defeated or supressed. It’s a God-given signal. It tells us the truth about ourselves. The truth that we are made to NEED.

Our bodies need bread – they need nourishment to be strong, and healthy. And our souls need too. They need the bread of life – the nourishment of God who comes near to us to meet our needs in Jesus.

But to experience that nourishment first we have to know that we need it. And that means admitting to ourselves the truth of our vulnerability.

Everything in our culture tells us the opposite:

Our obsession with physical security tells us to arm ourselves with guns, or with gun bans, to make sure that we and our loved ones will never be victims of violence;

And social media tells us to arm ourselves with memes that will dismantle the arguments of the “other side” and vindicate our worldview;

And – yes – beauty culture tells us to arm ourselves with diet products and exercise routines and shapewear to deny the impact of bread on our waistlines.

But those are all LIES.

We can’t make ourselves immune to violent attacks. And we won’t always be right or never need to re-examine our political commitments. And we won’t be 17 and skinny forever.

And none of those things should be our goals anyhow.

Because we weren’t created to be invulnerable. We were created to have needs. And believe it or not that is good news. Because Jesus came to meet our needs. And once we are freed to admit how hungry we are for Jesus… that’s when the feast begins.

We’ll hear more about that in the next four week. But for now I just want you to remember this:

You aren’t invulnerable. You do have needs. And that is what makes you open to God. Hunger is a gift.

Thanks be to God.

[1] See the accounts in: Matthew 14:13-21; 15: 32-39; Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10; Luke 9:10-17; and in today’s text, John 6:1-15.

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