Have you ever been hungry? I mean truly hungry?
Most of us know what it’s like to experience physical hunger for a moment; a frenetic schedule that forces you to miss a breakfast or lunch or a demanding diet that torments you into “carb-lessness.” But relatively few people in our culture know what it is to be physically hungry day after day, week after week; to be exhausted by hunger, numbed by it; to be rendered listless and light-headed by it.
The late Frank McCourt’s masterpiece, Angela’s Ashes, was based on his poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland. The book features a scene where one precious egg is shared among the entire household. The egg, carefully boiled, was sliced into five, even pieces by the elder McCourt so that his wife and four children could savor a small taste of that rare delicacy.
But while relatively few of us have first-hand knowledge of physical hunger in our culture, many more of us are familiar with spiritual hunger. We know about longing for an ineffable connection, about struggling to find a path through a difficult stretch of life, about the hunger that brings us, listless and light-headed, to a holy place like this great cathedral, literally starving to death for one transcendent moment, one small sign, one well, how can I describe it—one inexpressibly holy morsel that might sustain us for the journey.
A funeral to be held after this service will fill this great space with mourners in search of such spiritual sustenance and the answers to life’s unanswerable questions.
Spiritual malnourishment is a fatal affliction. Mother Teresa once said, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” Spiritual hunger, like physical hunger, consumes our best selves, and it’s made all the more confusing in that our spiritual hungers can leave us feeling fat and bloated because we substitute what we truly need for the long haul with what we think we need in the moment.
I was listening to an evangelist on my car radio one morning on my way to church and the preacher said, “You all are buying things you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t even know!”
I instinctively changed the channel. That guy was good! He was just way too close.
Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
It is what we do. We buy stuff. We eat stuff. We consume stuff, including the time and talents of other human beings who temporarily meet our needs and, when they don’t, are tossed away like the rest of the stuff we no longer need.
In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus tries to explain about the bread of God that offers lasting nourishment and gives life to the world. When Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee and go to Capernaum, the crowd follows him and when they find him, they ask him something like, “So, Rabbi, when did you get into town?” Crowds are demanding. The crowd always wants more. Even after an entertainer is dead, a crowd will gather and wait for his encore.
So Jesus, sounding the slightest bit testy, responds, “You’re looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Having been challenged, the exchange begins to evolve, and the crowd asks a more sincere question, a real question like, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” And Jesus answers, “This is the work of God. This is the work of God! That you believe in him whom he has sent.”
And the crowd—the crowd can be so exasperating, and of course you realize that in the Gospels the crowd always represents all of us and all of our exasperating questions. And so the crowd asks him, “So, what signs are going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” And then they presume to tell the rabbi, this learned teacher, the old story of the manna in the wilderness, as if he were a child who’d never heard the foundational stories of his faith.
And so he corrects their account by saying, “It wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it was my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
And this is a truth for which the crowd has been searching their whole lives. “Sir,” they cry, “give us this bread always.”
And then Jesus makes the most profound promise of his earthly ministry when he tells them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Never. Never. Not ever.
Anglican poet Dante Rossetti once wrote, “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.”
This weekend, the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas celebrates its 150th anniversary, and I, along with a group of more than 40 pilgrims, have come from Kansas to this amazing cathedral in our nation’s capital to offer thanks to God for blessing us with the presence of Christ and the strength of the Christian faith within the Anglican tradition.
There is something profound in the Latin motto of the state of Kansas, Ad Astra per Aspera. Translated, it means, “To the stars through difficulty.” As a civic motto, it captures our aspirations perfectly. It’s uplifting, yet grounded; grand, yet practical. It bids its citizens to strive beyond human limitation and reach toward a future beyond the laws of gravity and the natural boundaries that govern our fragile earth.
What the motto doesn’t attempt to minimize is the strain that is inevitably involved in striving for something great. No great thing is ever achieved without struggle. (My mother used to say that all the time and now, after 53 years, I’m beginning to believe her!)
Nothing great comes without difficulty, and no one understood this better than the tough pioneers who journeyed westward and established the Episcopal Church where the wide prairie meets the Great Plains.
Those early pioneers went to ensure a moral imperative, that Kansas would not be a slave state, but a free state, a state where every human being would have the opportunity to live into God’s purpose for their life. Of course, recent historians remind us that high-mindedness was not a universal attribute among these first pioneers. Racism, greed, petty rivalries, savagery, and selfish individualism—all the sins you would expect to find in any human settlement—were all present in abundance. Even the taking of the land itself from the Native Americans, who saw the earth as holy and beyond human possession, is a reminder that our sins are never far from us.
But at the root of it, at its very base, there was this incredible hope, a holy hunger, that embedded itself in the dreams of those Christian pioneers who believed that if they worked hard, very hard, and lived lives of honesty and purpose, if they tried to become the people God created them to be, then God would bless them abundantly.
Well, God kept God’s end of the bargain. And out of the wilderness, churches, schools, hospitals, and orphanages—helping organizations of every kind—grew and flourished. These extraordinary people and we who are their legacy, were extraordinarily blessed with crops and businesses, scientific and educational advances, and economic gains that have never been paralleled in the history of all the world.
The United States of America, with Kansas at its heart, has become the richest and most powerful nation ever in the history of the world. Not ancient Greece or Rome at their apex, not the British Empire at the height of its power, nor any Middle Eastern entity, nor any power from the Far East, exceeds the height and depth and breath of this modern empire.
But to what end? To what end? “To whom much has been given, much is required.” We who have been so amazingly blessed are to be reminded that we are called to be good and generous stewards of these gifts. To provide food for the poor, care for the sick, compassion for the elderly and justice for the weakest among us is the minimal standard against which we will be judged. A national health care plan is actually too small an accomplishment for people who have been so richly blessed.
But if we were to provide all these things and fail to offer Christ to those desperate for the true bread of life, we would have failed our forefathers and mothers who knew dearly the preciousness of that bread come down from heaven.
For 150 years, Episcopalians in Kansas have endured droughts and pestilence, tornadoes and floods, searing heat and freezing cold, economic depression and recessions great and small. We’ve overcome indifference, endured scandal, triumphed over enemies foreign and domestic, risen above theological disagreement, outlasted mediocre leadership, bridged racial and political divides, and struggled against fundamentalisms of all every sort, any one of which could have bested us and thwarted our work for Christ at the heart of our nation. But God had a purpose for us! God had a reason for us to be. And I believe God has a purpose for all of us, for every single one of us!
Just after I had been elected the bishop of Kansas, I was in a small coffee shop outside of Coffeyville, Kansas. Well, there I was in my full episcopal glory, wearing a dark suit, purple shirt and a very large cross given to me by my former parishioners from Dallas, Texas. (If I tell you it’s a Texas sized cross, perhaps you will know what I mean.) The waitress came up to ask me for my order, and she looked at me and said, “My, that is some kind of cross!” And I said, “Well, thank you, ma’am. And then, trying to offer some kind of explanation, I added, “You see, I’m the Episcopal Bishop of Kansas.” To which she looked over her glasses and said, “Well, la-dee-da!”
There haven’t been a lot of “la-dee-da” moments in the Episcopal Church in recent years, not in Kansas and not in Washington, D.C. In recent years, our critics have been more vociferous than our defenders. But I believe the best years of this Church are not behind us but in front of us, and this tradition is too precious, and too important, to let it go.
Yes, our appetites can betray us. That we tend to fill our holy hungers with bread that perishes while starving for the true bread of life is one of the great paradoxes of this life. But in the end our appetites can save us, too, because in them we’ve been given a desire for the sacred things that are essential for our life and our salvation. God endows us with a hunger for the holy, and through God’s Son, we are truly fed.
Have you ever been hungry? Truly hungry? Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”