Aug 21 | “You taught me hunger,” (Sermon, August 15th 2021)

It’s hard to preach on this series of bread of life passages from the Gospel of John in the best of times, but this year it’s particularly hard. I’m feeling some real kinship with the wandering Israelites complaining to Moses about how there’s no food in the wilderness. They didn’t know how long they’d have to go without bread either.

I’ve been privileged to receive communion a couple times since March 2020 – I went to a funeral last summer, I’ve brought reserved sacrament to some people at St. Jude’s, and a couple weeks ago I visited the Cathedral, but none of these things really filled the void, because I wasn’t with you. I wasn’t standing in a circle singing, with my hands out, in the same physical space, hearing your voices, feeling you in that invisible way that humans sense each other. And to be perfectly frank, that made those few small moments of receiving over the last year feel more like crumbs than real living bread.

And yet maybe as we wait with baited breath for the day we can be physically together again, we should wonder and reflect, for when again will we know and share, with such bone deep intimacy, on a worldwide scale, the feeling that made the crowd around Jesus say, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Now we’re not going to get into a big debate about transubstantiation, or consubstantiation, or Real Presence, or what metaphysically happens to the bread during the Eucharist. For the theology nerds, I’m sorry to disappoint. For those trying to manage the weird elasticity of time and pandemic exhaustion, I don’t wanna think about that stuff right now either. Not because I don’t think it’s important or interesting, but because I suspect high-minded theology isn’t what any of us need right now in the thick of it. Never before have any of us experienced something so utterly human and devastating as a worldwide long-term crisis. Individual, yes. National, sure. But not like this. We know in a new way how fragile our lives are, and of course in the last week we have been shown that anew not only in the pandemic but in the news from the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change.

That infamous quote from the site of the Hindenburg disaster never really made sense to me until now. “Oh, the humanity!”

We are mortal, and we sink or swim together, and some of us refuse to even try, and how do we reckon with that?

Some of us reach out to God and say, “Um, are you like, busy or something? ‘Cause we’re kind of freaking out down here.”

The crowd following Jesus after the amazing Sign of multiplying loaves and fish wants to be beside him. He gave them food from something as small and insignificant as five barley loaves, bread of the poor, and two fish, prehistoric-looking tilapia with way too many bones that you can pay too much to pick at if you take a tour of the Sea of Galilee today! He sanctified and multiplied the food of the people, showing them their lives were precious and their food was nothing to scorn. And the whole reason they followed him to end up fed in the first place was because they first saw him healing people. This person, sent by God, heals and feeds. He transforms our fragility.

But the catch here is that he doesn’t transform it by turning us into superheroes. Quite the opposite. He transforms our fragility by taking it on himself, putting it on like clothes.

Image description: A white plate with a homemade loaf of Eucharistic bread, etched with a cross, sits on a dark wood table, with a wine glass painted with grapes and leaves at right.

And that’s where we often, like the crowd, get confused. What do you mean, we have to eat you? It all sounds kind of gross! And like so many of our ancestors we may find ourselves twisting up into knots to understand the metaphor, and complaining about how this abstract language is difficult, while Jesus is standing there telling us, “There is no metaphor. I’m being literal here.”

And then, for just a moment, we get it, and it’s too much.

It’s the same struggle, over and over. He is our Messiah, our Beloved, and Messiahs are supposed to liberate us through power and revolution. Our Beloveds are supposed to stay at our side forever. But this Messiah is not like that. This Messiah is betrayed and convicted by an unjust system and led away to die on a cross. What kind of Messiah is broken and poured out by trauma and Empire? What kind of Beloved leaves us alone to be broken in the same way?

The writer of John tells us what kind of Messiah and Beloved this is: the kind who sought to annihilate the gap between God and humans, not as an avenging angel, but as a lover or friend: by learning, listening, and embodying as deeply as one possibly could, by coming to live among us, in our own flesh. Jesus doesn’t feed us the way we feed our pets, handing down something we didn’t make ourselves from on high to a grateful creature who cannot help but love us. Jesus feeds us the way a good mother does, at great personal cost, with food that is fully human, from her own body, and with nothing expected in return, with the conviction that we deserve the freedom to turn away and grow on our own, if that’s what we need to flourish.

In coming to be among us, Jesus learns what it means to be human, what it means to feel hunger, thirst, exhaustion, annoyance, rejection, pain, and death. And, having learned all of that, it is returned to us, sanctified.

We cry out to God in the midst of our hunger, exhaustion, grief, and fear, saying, “You’ll never understand how hard it is to deal with all of this!” And the response is, “I do. You taught me about hunger. So I will feed you, with myself.

Every time we gather, we remember this scandalous truth. As much as we miss being together with our hands held out, that ritual, like multiplying the bread of the poor, is a Sign pointing to something far greater.

That truth can be distilled down to something very simple, which I found beautifully illustrated in a story shared by Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, the first African American and first woman to serve as senior pastor to Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.

Rev. Jacqui says, “I fell in love for the first time when I was eight years old. I was sitting in the pews at a little Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s South Side. My aunt played the organ there; my dad and uncle were elders and my mom sang in the choir. I was taking communion for the first time, and while the little bread cubes were coming my way, Mom said, “This bread means God will always love you.” The bread was the sticky-honey kind that you scoop out the center to put that amazing vegetable dip in. Without dip, it was amazing! When the little cups of grape juice came by, Mom whispered, “This cup means, “God will never leave you.” What?!?  Bread this sweet, grape juice making my tongue purple like Kool Aid?? With the help of children’s choir and barn dances, Christmas pageants and Sunday School teachers—I was totally in love with God!!”

God loves us so recklessly and majestically that despite ignorance, stubbornness, despair, and refusal to change, at the cost of our neighbours or even our own planet, it will not separate us from that love.

God will never leave us, whether we turn our backs or get lost or deconstruct or rage and scream at the injustices of mortality and hubris. God will be with us whether we are crying in the hospital or singing with tears in church with our hands held out, whenever that may come.

God is waiting for us at our little church, and God wants us to return and be together, singing with hands held out.

But whatever happens, God is also already here.

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