Does God get hungry?

Logo for the organization, Bread for the World

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2012.  The lectionary readings are
2 Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 145: 10-19, Ephesians 3:14-21, and John 6:1-21.

At today’s adult forum, we concluded our discussion of the book, Take this Bread, by Sara Miles.  Some of you have been reading along with us.  Some who are linked to our church through email, newsletter, or website have also been reading with us.  And others have told me that they’ve packed the book with them to read on vacation.  It’s a good book.  We’ve had good discussions.  Every person who has read it probably has difficulty with some aspect of the author’s story, or her theology, or her perspective on the church, but the book has made us think.  And especially, the book has helped us to think more deeply about food. 

Take this Bread is a personal story about a secular, cynical, worldly, rebel-rouser of a journalist who one day walks into an Episcopal Church, takes Communion, and everything changes for her.  “Something outrageous and terrifying happened.”  She says, “Jesus happened to me” (p. 58).

It turns out that God uses that moment to integrate Sara Miles’ life, to bring it into a form that began to make sense if a whole new way. And all of this centers around the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.  She writes,

Food was a lot of what had grounded me before, shaping my family, my work, my relationships.  It had meant a five-gallon plastic bucket full of broken eggs.  It had meant a generously offered bowl of rice porridge in the jungle.  It had meant the thin blue milk leaking from my own breasts.  Now food, in the form of communion, was collecting all of those experiences in one place and adding a new layer of meaning—not on my time but on God’s. (p. 72)

“Jesus happened to me,” she says.  When she was hungry, Jesus happened to her, which is to say, God happened to her.  God came to her and began to feed her, began to fulfill her, began to transform her.  A morsel of bread was multiplied. 

That seems to happen a lot in today’s scripture readings.

In the Second Book of the Kings, Elisha the prophet appears almost as the Iron Chef.  He’s the sort of person who can take a couple of things out of the cabinet and the refrigerator, you turn your head for a moment, and Elisha has whipped up something amazing.  Just before the reading that we heard, there’s another food story with Elisha.  There’s a famine in the land, so people are desperate and they throw everything they can find (which isn’t much) into a stew.  But then someone notices that there’s something in the stew they can’t eat.  Elisha is called in.  He throws a little flour into it, something changes, and the stew becomes good, and there’s plenty for everyone. 

In today’s reading, a man approaches with just a little bit of food.  Again, Elisha does his thing—he blesses it, he invites God into the mix and the recipe somehow quadruples so that a hundred can be fed. This old story of Elisha sets up the main act in Kitchen Stadium (another reference to Iron Chef) which happens with Jesus.

This is one of the most famous of all miracles:  the feeding of the thousands.  It appears in all four Gospels.  Jesus sees a large crowd of people and Jesus asks Philip, “Where will we get enough food to feed all of these people?”  Andrew speaks up and says there’s someone who might be able to help, there’s a boy with five barley loaves and two fish.  Jesus takes what the boy offers, prays and gives thanks to God, and the food is multiplied.  There is enough for everyone. 

Many are fed from very little. Some scriptural commentators through the years have been careful to dodge the miraculous aspects of the tale. Some have suggested that perhaps the people really had food with them, but it was only with the promptings of Jesus that they were moved to share their food with one another. Some suggest that people went nearby and got food. Others, though, cling to the miraculous in the story.  Perhaps if you’ve ever been really hungry, have not known where the next meal might come from (whether physically or spiritually); you’ve been hungry and then have suddenly and miraculously been FED; then you recognize the miraculous in this story and know its truth.  The crowd of people that day is not only fed with food to eat, but also with what scripture calls “the fullness of God.”  They get spiritual strength too.  They get psychological sustenance and emotional nurture.  They get what they need and even what they did not know they needed.

Psalm 145 sums up it all up nicely when it says, “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season.  You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”   Our choir sometimes sings a setting of this psalm that brings to life the beauty of that idea, the idea that no matter what, no matter where, God “gives them food,” God gives us food.

But that’s not always true, is it?

I would love to be the pious preacher who might leave the sermon there, and say, “Just have faith.  God will provide.”  But life proves different.  The drought in the Midwest reminds us that this is not always necessarily the case. The current famine in West Africa raises the question.  The number of people waking up hungry today in this country and elsewhere calls the psalm into question.  The eyes of all wait …

Earlier this year, Save the Children published a report on world hunger (A Life Free from Hunger) that estimate 2.6 million children are dying every year from causes that stem from hunger.  The head of Save the Children says that every hour of everyday 300 children die from malnutrition-related causes.  To put that into context, think about to the Oyster-Adams School in Woodley Park:  about 600 kids go there.  If world hunger were concentrated in our neighborhood, the school would be wiped out in two hours.

Where is Elisha the biblical Iron Chef when you need him?  Where is Jesus the miracle-maker ? Where is God “happening” (to use Sara Miles’ phrase) in a world that is hungry?  Do we, as people of faith, dare to suggest that God is feeding us in Holy Communion, and yet God is not showing up for hungry children?  And what about those who suffer from spiritual hunger in our country, in our city, in our parish—how is God with them?

Well I believe God with them.  God IS in the bread and the wine of the altar. And more radically, I believe God even shares in our hunger. 

For some, it is heresy to suggest that God can even feel, much less God can feel things that we might feel.  This offends the idea of an all-knowing, all-doing, all-being God.  But if we look and listen carefully through the scriptures, if we listen through our own experiences of God, and if we pause to pray at the cross of Christ, I think it makes perfect sense to imagine that God, too gets hungry. 

God hungered for companionship and created the world.  God hungered to feel and know and life like us, and so became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.  

In the Beatitudes Jesus says ‘Blessed are those who hungerand thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)  Jesus shares in the hunger of the prophets and of the poor.  We could say that on the cross, Jesus hungers for God. 

One of the earliest stories of Jesus after the Resurrection is that he appears to the disciples on the beach, cooks fish for them.  Jesus calls the disciples to join him.  “Come and have breakfast,” he says, and then he eats (John 21:12).
God can hunger, because God can feel.  God knows what suffering is.  The theologian Jurgen Moltmann argues for the centrality of the cross, the cross on which Christ died.  Moltmann argues that Jesus the Son suffers abandonment by the Father as he dies; but God the Father suffers in grief the death of the Son. For Moltmann (and for us) “the grief of the Father is just as important as the death of the Son.”  (The Crucified God, p. 243). But the painful gulf of separation between Father and Son is still spanned by their love—love which is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the powerful love which flows out of the suffering on the cross, and flows into our own suffering, whether that be hunger spiritual or physical. 

The idea that God hungers does at least three things, I think.  First, it tells us that we are never alone.  No matter how hard, how hungry, how thirsty, how low—God has been there.

That God hungers also calls us to do all we can to relieve the hunger of the world, as scripture reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  As Jesus says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:34-35).

And finally, the idea that God hungers gives us the promise that one day, just as it was with Jesus after the Resurrection, our hunger, too, will be satisfied.   
In the Resurrection, all things find their completion, “the eyes of all look to God, and God does indeed satisfy the needs of every living creature.”  All are fed, all are satiated, all are invited to the feast with God in glory to that table, where with “Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we sing and praise God’s name… saying, Holy, holy, holy…”  Revelation describes the scene where

We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
   the sun will not strike us,
   nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
   and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17)

Even in the midst of hunger, may we live into the promise of Christ.  Come and eat, for the banquet is ready, the table wide, and there’s plenty for everyone, for ever.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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