“Food that Endures”

Last Sunday, we hosted my brother’s family at our new house for the first time. They had seen pictures and taken the Zoom tour. And yet, it was so important to have them in our home, in the flesh. Now they’ve chatted in our kitchen and sat under the shade pergola in the backyard. They know where everyone sleeps, including the cat and the dog. They have felt the marvelous cross breeze. And, they can imagine us doing our favorite things around our neighborhood. As we lingered at the supper table over dessert, my stomach felt pleasantly full, and my spirit deeply satisfied.

Turning to today’s passage from the Gospel of John, we rejoin a story in progress. The crowd hunts for Jesus after they notice he has left the mountainside where the miraculous meal took place. When did you come here? they ask Jesus after finding him on the other side of the lake. I think this is supposed to be funny; after all, a full day has gone by since he fed them. They did not care that Jesus was gone until they got hungry again. It’s clear, Jesus replied that you don’t understand what happened and what it meant. You need food for the spirit as well as food for the body. The loaves we shared were a sign, pointing to God’s sustaining presence. Your relationship with God is like bread – basic, everyday, necessary. I am here, not just to fill your bellies, but also to connect you in nourishing relationship with to God. In her blog post on this text, Debie Thomas puts it this way:

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.[1]

Jesus continues his teaching of the hungry crowd. He contrasts the food that perishes with the food that endures for eternal life. With this distinction, he juxtaposes two different ways to live, just like Paul does when he speaks of life in the spirit versus life in the flesh. The food that endures fills our bodies and satisfies our spirits. On the other hand, the food that perishes leaves us endlessly hungry. When Jesus instructs the crowd to work for the food that endures, the crowd deliberately twists his words, asking what they must do to perform “the works of God.” In other words, what should be on their “to do” list? Jesus replies that God is not concerned with what they can produce or achieve. Their job is to believe, which, in John’s Gospel means to trust. The only work they need to do is to receive what God is offering through Jesus—the gift of a sustaining relationship.

There’s no doubt that First Church is an eating church. Something table-shaped has been missing in our community life all these long pandemic months. In few minutes we’ll share in the communion meal together in the sanctuary for the first time since March of 2020. Soon, I hope we can return to coffee hour and to sacred feasts following memorial services, to in-person dinners at Lexington Commons, and to handing out grocery bags in the basement of St. Paul’s. I’m so happy; however, about our partnership with the Community Kitchen that has grown in the meantime. Produce and other pantry staples that would otherwise be wasted get heaped on the kitchen counters every Sunday. The abundance just keeps coming, and it’s hard to tame. Sometimes the donations are really weird, stumping even the cooks. Here, Jane, they will say, take this deluxe cookie decorating kit or these fancy fresh lasagna noodles home to your family. I do my best to help. Sunday to Tuesday, the kitchen is full of sweaty volunteers and enticing smells. Many people who are new to this community come in to chop veggies, stir pots and pack meals. And a growing cadre of longtime church members are supporting by applying elbow grease to the counters, running the dishwasher, and mopping the floor. Brad is continually working to keep the kitchen running—cleaning, repairing, storing, problem-solving. The building committee and finance committee play their roles behind the scenes. This whole effort is an experiment; it’s one way I believe we are reimagining church. It’s messy, and at times, creates tension and stress. And, with all its imperfection, this work surely is nourishing both body and spirit, for the volunteers as well as for our unsheltered neighbors. Everyone eats—stir fries, tacos, warming sandwiches and soups. And everyone eats—the nourishment of friendship, learning, purpose, and hope for a community of greater equity and justice, a world of shared abundance.

I hope you had a chance to read the excellent piece by Lisa Hubinger about this work in the August Chimes, specifically the interview with one of the lead cooks, Tony Lucien. Asked why he volunteers his time in the kitchen, Tony spoke about how this work nourishes him. He said this:

After losing my job at the Layfayette Club, I was feeling very used and disillusioned. I was frustrated and angry. Why do I keep working so hard for people who don’t care about me or mine, and helping other people pursue profit and luxury? Especially, why am I participating in such things when there are people literally dying in the street for lack of resources like food and shelter? Since starting with the Community Kitchen, I have gained a sense of purpose and balance. I still need to work to pay bills and save for my own future, but I can also try to make a difference in other people’s lives.

What sign will you give us so that we know we can trust you? This is the deeply ironic, almost absurd question the crowd asks Jesus. They bring up Moses, who gave their ancestors manna in the wilderness, totally missing the manna that Jesus distributed to them just a day ago. Jesus reminds the crowd that the manna did not really come from Moses, but from God. Switching to the present tense, he says, “It is our Mother/ Father God who gives you the true bread from heaven.” In other words, the implication that God acted only in the past is a problem. God has never stopped sending manna. God is always feeding and sustaining creation.

Once I felt real hunger, for more than a few hours. It was totally voluntary, which tells you something about the privilege I experience in life. I was involved in a poverty simulation as part of a youth mission trip. I learned, viscerally, in my body and brain, heart and spirit, that hunger is more than a lack of food. Hunger is stress; it is lightheadedness and the inability to concentrate. Hunger is a lack of security. It is self-doubt. It is an instinctual, gnawing fear. I’ve been thinking about this all-consuming experience of hunger . . . as the haze of smoke fills our sky and drought deepens, as Enbridge and the State of Minnesota persist in desecrating treaties and poisoning water, as the Delta variant surges, and we remain bitterly divided about vaccination and masking, as we grapple with the violence in our streets and the brutality of our policing system, as we get in touch with our human need for safety and with the fact that it’s utterly necessary to our humanity that we embrace the risk, uncertainty, and discomfort of transforming white supremacy and bringing forth a multi-racial democracy. In today’s verses from Romans, Paul captures this tumult we’re living through, the threats and the hopes of our times. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Hunger can bring out the worst in us, driving us to hoard the food that perishes. Or hunger can motivate us seek and share the food that endures. Hunger can call us to trust God and receive God’s gift of nourishment. Hunger can be the labor pains that birth a new kind self, a different sort of world.

At the end of today’s conversation in the Gospel of John, the crowd asks Jesus to give them bread. And Jesus declares: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus nourishes us. Just as the en-fleshed presence of my loved ones in our home filled me up, so Jesus’ bodily presence in and through this community, satisfies hungers of all kinds. It’s true; there are many ways connect to the divine, to meet the hungers of body and spirit. Jesus isn’t the only way. However, Jesus is ourbread. Jesus is the manna God provides for each day. Jesus teaches us to do the real work, the work of trusting God. Jesus invites us, again and again, to open our hands and receive our lives as a gift from God. Amen.

[1] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay