Oh Lord uphold thou me, that I may uplift thee. Amen.
You ever get hungry in the late afternoon, or sometime between 9:00 pm and bedtime? You know, those feelings of hunger that tell you, you want something to eat, but you’re not exactly sure what. I always do. I always do. And quite frankly, if you look at me, you can tell. For me, it’s usually a general sort of unspecified hunger. Now, when I was a kid, a growing boy, I used to get this all the time and I would always do the same thing. I would walk into the kitchen, I would open the refrigerator, or the ice box as my dad called it, how many of you all remember the ice box? And I would just stand there. I would stand there looking around inside the fridge, waiting to see something that would say to me, “That’s what you’re hungry for! That’s what you want to eat.”
It became a joke in my family because I guess I would stay in there for quite a bit of time with the refrigerator door wide open. And inevitably my dad would come into the kitchen and say the same thing. “What are you trying to do, son? Cool the entire neighborhood? If you don’t see it in the first 30 seconds, it ain’t in there.”
Our gospel for today speaks to us about the hunger of life. About our craving to find something to satisfy that deep hunger, and about the only thing that can really satiate it. Jesus said, “I am the bread, which came down from heaven. I am the bread of life. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”
It wasn’t an accident that Jesus chose bread as an analogy for himself. Bread in ancient Palestine was a fundamental source of nourishment. If you were poor, it’s often all you had and you had very little of it. And for his followers, bread evoked memories of Jesus’ greatest miracle, the feeding of the 5,000. And his words, “I am the bread of life,” foreshadowed the last supper, when he would teach his disciples to break the bread and pass the cup, knowing that when they did so they were in some mysterious way, consuming his body and blood.
You see, I think Jesus knew that all people share in common, a persistent, often insatiable hunger that goes far beyond the feelings of an empty seat stomach. Rather, it’s a kind of hunger that follows us all our lives. And it’s a hunger that can’t be solved by staring into the refrigerator because it’s not a hunger of the body. It’s a hunger of the soul. And only by filling our lives with God, by filling our lives with the bread of life, can we find satisfaction.
Writers throughout the ages have spoken about this hunger. This feeling inside of us, that we don’t quite have everything we need, that we lack something to fill up this empty place inside of us, that we’re missing some sort of nourishment that we can’t quite identify. Rabbi Harold Kushner has a book entitled, When All You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search For A Life That Matters. Henry Now, the famous Catholic writer has an article entitled, The Filled Yet Unfulfilled Life. And my favorite author, Frederick Buechner has a profound book called, The Hungering Dark. What all these writers point to and write about so eloquently is that much of what we obtain in life is only temporarily satisfying. Like my late-night kitchen raids, the stuff of life only fills us for a short time, and then we find ourselves staring into life’s refrigerator, looking for something more, but not sure what that something is.
We have all at some point or another known the truth of the old saying that wanting is often better than having. We see something in life, we want something, we perhaps even crave, and we set out to get it. When we’re young, it may be dreams of a car or the perfect little house with the white picket fence. As we get older, it may be cravings for wealth or power or social status. We may want to own our own company or run our own practice or create great works of art. We may want financial security or the ability to travel the world or a PhD in English Literature.
Whatever it may be, sometimes it is the wanting of these things that gives us more pleasure than actually having them. We think these things will satisfy us, that these goals once obtained will make us truly happy and fill that empty place inside us. Only, we often discover that once we have obtained them, that they really made no fundamental difference at all. The satisfaction was only fleeting. Sure, they keep us busy, they make life interesting, but if we examine the depths of our soul, for many of us we find it’s not quite enough. You see, I believe we are all born with a hungering dark place in our souls. Call it a result of human sin or the fall of Adam and Eve, but I believe we all have an emptiness inside of us that we spend our lives trying to fill. And the truth of the matter is this is an emptiness that can only be filled by God and God’s love, nothing else seems to fit that space or fill it up for very long. Yet, like small children playing with blocks and learning about shapes, most of us spend majority of our lives trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We seek everything else to fill that empty space, everything that life has to offer, except the only thing that truly satisfies, the only thing that really assuages our hunger – the bread of life.
Perhaps this is what the journey of faith is all about. Perhaps we must walk our own path and make our own decisions and learn what doesn’t satisfy before we can ever really give ourselves and our lives to the one thing that does satisfy. For me, to come to this table during communion, is to begin to look for the bread of life that truly satisfies. To come to this table again and again, over and over, seeking God’s food is the beginning of the end of hunger. Your hunger.
Sometimes we may leave this table, or any other table where the Eucharist is celebrated, being conscious of having only consumed a flat piece of unleavened bread. But sometimes, by God’s grace, we may leave with an inkling of having ingested something else, something wholly, other, something that can sustain us for a length of time in ways we never imagined. And as Paul Strobel wrote in a great piece for the Christian Century, “When our lives are fed by Jesus’s living bread, they begin to look like those lives described by Paul in Ephesians. When our lives are fed by the bread of life, then we attend to our words. We manage our anger. We work not only for our own needs, but are mindful of others’ needs and generous in responding to them. We encourage and forgive one another. We put away those things like bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice. And we pattern our lives on the example of the bread of life, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This morning Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life that sustains us in the wilderness. The Israelites had manna, but we are to feed on Christ, take our nourishment from Christ, sustain ourselves on Christ. His life and his teachings are the source of spiritual food, of food that not only enables us to survive, but gives us the energy and the strength to live in service to others.
So, listen to that hunger in your soul, that hungering dark place within you as Buechner would call it. Its presence reminds us of our humanity, of our fallenness and of our essential need for God. Seek to satisfy that hunger, but know that the God who says, “I am the bread of life,” is the only real nourishment we can ever have. And God’s love is the only real food that will ever be able to fill our souls.