Wednesday, August 16

Sermon: Proper 14, Year B

August 13, Year B, Proper 14
Gospel: John 6:35, 41-51 “I am the Bread of Life”
Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell

After Larry’s sermon last week here at Reconciler, we had a very fruitful, meaty discussion about food. Today’s gospel is one in a series Tripp calls the “summer barbecue” series. There are wonderful stories about food in these summer gospels. We have the story of the loaves and fishes, followed by Jesus’ “I am the Bread of Life” discourse. This rich, complex discourse started in last week’s gospel, as Jesus addresses the crowd he’s just fed miraculously with the loaves and fishes.

Larry, fleshing out last week’s gospel, told us there is a relationship between doubt, faith, and eating. The crowd wants Jesus to keep producing miraculous food. They want more signs that he’s really the Messiah. But Jesus keeps challenging them to go deeper, to see that being fed is a spiritual as well as physical matter. And that sometimes, as St. Mary of Egypt shows us, our faith can be our sustenance.

So I’m eager to continue the conversation about food tonight, and hungry to hear your thoughts. Food is a huge subject, so I’m going to try to preach just one sermon tonight, not three. I want to whet your appetite for discussion, give you something to chew on. I definitely don’t want to make you feel overfed or fed up.

Personally, I’ve concluded that as a species we’re all screwed up about food. The human race, collectively, has an eating disorder. On the one hand, there are people starving for a piece of bread, even a tiny fragment that’s stale and moldy. There are children dying to the tune of one child every three seconds, from hunger and disease.1 According to an organization called the Hunger Project, most of the world’s hungry people live in Africa and South Asia.

On the other hand, here in the US, childhood obesity levels continue to skyrocket. Although clearly there are hungry kids here too, many American children are eating too many empty calories. These kids have way too much bread in them. And it’s not the bread of life. American restaurants tend to serve huge portions. We supersize this, venti that. Meanwhile as a culture we’re paradoxically obsessed with thinness. In this land of worrisome obesity rates, we hold up waiflike, often anorexic, models as icons of feminine beauty. This level of thinness is neither healthy nor obtainable for most females. These mixed messages are very extreme and out of balance. Yes, my friends, as a culture and a species I’m afraid we’re messed up about food. And about consuming, in general.

I believe our gospel lessons these past few weeks show us that God wants to feed us both spiritually and materially. Not just spiritually, not just materially.

We’ve got to get that balance right as a species. That spiritual and physical balance. Those who are over-consuming – and in general we are a nation of over-consumers -- need to learn moderation, whether that’s with food, fossil fuels, clothes, cars, houses, whatever. And we need to learn sharing, learn a deeper love for neighbor as well as self. Over-consuming not only uses up more than our share of resources, it paradoxically impoverishes us.

As a species, we’ve got to get this crazy world in balance. These extremes are bad for all of us. Too much bread kills as surely as too little. Overeating can lead to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. It takes a death toll just as surely as malnutrition. There is a spiritual cost as well.

And those who have too little bread need to be given access to the table. They need to be empowered, not just given handouts or scraps, but also enabled to do their own fishing, bread-earning, and bread-baking. There is a fence around the lake that prevents many of them from fishing. That fence is oppression, lack of access to the resources they need to be fruitful.

We talked last week about false dichotomies between spiritual and physical, religious and political. I think we can’t just spiritualize the plight of the hungry in our world. We can’t simply say, “They have Jesus, the bread of heaven. That’s enough. We’ll give them love but no earthly bread.” As Christians we need to feed the poor, and help the poor feed themselves.

So what’s the root problem here, what’s the solution? Is there a shared causal link between over-consumption and starvation? A friend of mine in college, responding to the question: “What is the greatest problem facing the world today” answered: “Lack of loving vibes.” “OK,” I pressed her, “but what about world hunger? “If there was enough love in the world, hunger wouldn’t be a problem.” she answered, without hesitating, “People would freely share resources, not let each other starve.” I can’t dispute her point.

When a lavish meal at an expensive restaurant or a new Mercedes convertible means more to us, stirs more passion within us, than the suffering and death of other human beings, we are not living a life based in God’s love. We live in doubt, not faith. We doubt that those who are starving are worth more than gratifying our own desires. We doubt that our efforts on their behalf could make a difference for them. And while many in the developing world physically hunger, many here in the land of plenty suffer from spiritual hunger. We long for a life replete with love and meaning. We lack loving vibes. Our spirits slowly wither from a disease called Affluenza. We live in danger of being poor little rich kids: rich in things, poor in spirit.

If we ingest Jesus, not just through the Eucharist, not just by obeying his laws, but also by accepting his life-giving love on a deep level, we can be truly nourished. Then the quality of our lives can change. Then we can refrain from over-indulging. We can feel full, instead of paradoxically stuffed and empty at the same time.

Then we can think creatively about allocating resources, about how to break bread with our sisters and brothers who are in want. Organizations like the Hunger Project, The Millennium Project, Oxfam International, and The One Campaign are valiantly taking action to defeat hunger, extreme poverty, and disease in our lifetime. Perhaps you are already involved with these organizations, or others that are equally valiant. If so, I commend you. If not, I commend them to you.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Jesus didn’t come that we might have Lexuses and learjets. He came so that we could realize we are God’s beloved children, and learn to give that love to one another. And love leads to action, to using resources wisely and fairly, to breaking bread with neighbors far and near.

So as a global community, the trick seems to be to get everyone to the table, and have everyone consume just enough, not too much. The trick is balance.

A friend recommends a book called To Love as God Loves by Roberta Bondi.2 Bondi writes on “the passions,” also know as the Seven Deadly Sins (gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, lust etc.) and how they affect our ability to love. For Bondi, the root issue is this: will we use our God-given resources to create or destroy? Hunger can be a gift that reminds us we need to replenish our bodies. Or food can become an addiction. Anger can be an energizing force, a necessary way to set boundaries. Or we can become addicted to rage. And so on with all of the passions. The challenge is to sanctify our human desires, bring them under God’s care and guidance, and not let them consume us.

Jesus says men and women don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God. We need to be spiritually nourished, not materially stuffed to the gills. Jesus asks the crowd who ate the loaves and fishes to go deeper, to see that their needs are not just physical. Everyone who seeks recovery from addiction comes to realize this. What we truly hunger for can’t be put in a shopping cart, baked in an oven, fished from a lake, bought at a liquor store, or dealt on a street corner. What we long for is the bread of life, a deeper, more abundant life. Not substances that consume us if we ingest too much of them. Not the bread of death.

Overeaters Anonymous, a 12-step group, offers people a new lease on life. Folks in O.A. turn their lives over to a higher power, form a community, help each other abstain, one day at a time. They learn to supplant their desire for too much bread with what they truly hunger for. They learn to eat moderately, face reality, feel their feelings, accept and give affection. From my own experience on this journey, it is not an easy path, but it is life-giving. It is life living.

In her book Holy Hunger, Episcopal priest Margaret Bullitt-Jonas writes about her recovery from overeating. She writes: “So who knows what I was really longing for, when as a child I would secretly slip a piece of bread into my pocket after lunch…I had no idea what it was – a compulsion, a need, a desire, an unspoken something or other – that caused my small hand to dart out, reach for an extra slice of bread, then slip it quietly, unseen, into my pocket. A secret known only to myself but not even to me. Certainly I was not hungry for food. Perhaps it was human contact that I missed. “Perhaps there moved within me a hidden yearning to speak my grief about my sad mother, a desire to express my confusion about my volatile and sometimes frightening father, a longing to share a child’s anger, wonder, sadness, and joy with another human being…But I could find no one to hear me. None of these longings could even be named. I could not have said what it was that I wanted. All I knew was that I was starving.

...One day I’d come to understand that I was longing to encounter the One who promises to accompany and sustain us in our suffering and fear, in our dying, in our very death. One day I’d see that I was longing to believe that all my confusion, all my stubborn willfulness, all my anguish and distress, could be gathered up within the heart of God. That all my suffering could be taken up by the cross of Christ and there transformed, so that at last I’d be set free.”3

Jesus says he is the bread come down from heaven, and if we eat this bread, we’ll have eternal life. Eternal life is not just quantity, not just numbers of years. It’s also quality of life. Eternal life can begin now. If we believe in Jesus and take him into ourselves, we are a new creation; we can have a different kind of life here and now. We can be free.

The word “companion” at its Latin roots, means “one with whom we break bread.” In O.A., a sponsor, a fellow member, becomes the bread of life when feelings threaten to overwhelm, temptation arises, when the going gets tough. Don’t we all need companions from time to time, no matter what our challenges, when life feels out of balance?

Both overeating and starvation keep people isolated. When we in this land of plenty refrain from over-consuming, and help those under-consuming come to the table, we companion one another in a way that reflects the love of God. When it comes to using the resources God gives us, we all need to live lives that are in balance. We need to companion with others to end our global eating disorder.

Larry is right: food is connected to doubt and faith. When I have faith in life and feel securely loved, I don’t have to over-consume. I can let go and let God. But when I doubt, I may reach for that extra piece of bread. And bread, eaten for those reasons, is not life-giving. It numbs me, prevents me from fully feeling my feelings and letting them be transformed. It is insulating and isolating. But there is a way out.

Instead, can I, can we, trust God? Do we believe there is enough love in this world to meet our needs? Can we pray “Give us today our daily bread” and believe God will do just that? Can we trust today’s bread is sufficient and that we don’t have to hoard it, or eat tomorrow’s share today? Can we go ahead and eat that bread without excessive fear or guilt? Can we ask for God’s grace to sanctify our passions, whatever they may be?

Tonight let us eat the bread and drink the cup of new and unending life, letting it nourish us but taking only our fill. Let us then pass it on to our companions, here and across the world, who likewise hunger… for the bread of life.

1 Source: The One Campaign’s website,

2 Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church.

3 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Holy Hunger, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, pp. 11, 105.