All who hunger, gather gladly

Pentecost 9, Proper 12B
John 6:1-21 

In the name of God: our source, our sustenance, and our strength.  Amen.

I’ve probably told you all before, but one of the things that I first loved about this church as I was just beginning to get to know you is the fact that you are a food loving church.  When I first interviewed with the search committee, they told me about the Thrill of the Grill, and the Food & Wine Pairing Event, and the Beefsteak Dinner, and the Fish & Chips Supper…  It seemed like everything this church did centered around food.

And, as I’ve gotten to know you better, it really is true.  It’s not just that we enjoy eating together when we’re able to, but so much of this church’s existence centers around the table.  Our fundraisers are almost all dinners.  Coffee Hour and Foyers Groups all our other social engagements have delicious food every time.  Even most of the outreach we do focuses on food: we raise money for local food pantries, we encourage the donation of goods to our own food pantry here in Kinnelon and Butler, we provide meals for the men’s shelter in Paterson.  And, of course, that’s to say nothing of the fact that our worship centers around the Last Supper – the Holy Eucharist – that commemoration and remembering and reengaging with the last meal shared between Jesus and the disciples.

I remember when I was in high school, the Methodists in Louisiana were building a new conference and retreat center, and I was selected to be the youth representative on the Board of Trustees.  We agonized over practically every detail of the project as it was being built: would the buildings be made of wood or cinderblock?  What housing would be available on the property for staff? Where should the dam for the lake we were building be built, and how high should the water be?  But one of the conversations I remember most clearly was about the dining hall.  The cost of this project had stretched into the millions, and some were worrying about raising the necessary funds.  We were always looking at where we could cut back and save.  But as we discussed the dining hall, one pastor on the board spoke up and declared that the place where we gather for meals should be a showplace.  Of all the places we could cut back, that shouldn’t be one of them.  His passionate argument was about the importance of hospitality as a part of the heritage of our faith, but I’ll never forget his closing argument.  He said, “Eating together is the oldest Christian tradition.”

When I heard him say those words, it was a moment of connection for me.  Lights went off in my mind and my curiosity was stoked.  Suddenly so much of my experience as a young Christian made more sense.  The Holy Eucharist for one, but this story of the feeding of the 5,000 for another.  It wasn’t just the tale of a magic trick that happened a long time ago, but an expression of our values as people who follow Jesus.  And it wasn’t just a matter of understanding better some stories from the Bible or liturgies of the church – the profundity of that idea filtered into my own life and experiences – even into things that didn’t seem integral to faith to me.  All those potluck dinners we had at the church when I was growing up – those weren’t just parties.  They were foretastes of God’s vision for us.  My family eating dinner together every night – it wasn’t just a habit, or a convenience, but a statement of who we are – an identity that involves our faith as much as anything else.

So, when my love for this place began to grow out of learning about your love of eating together and feeding together, it wasn’t just because I like food.  I do, of course.  But, in my mind, it spoke to a deep understanding – a soul-level understanding that transcends simple words and teachings – about what it means to be a part of this movement of people who long to follow Jesus.  Because Jesus focused on satisfying hunger.  And the stories of satisfying the physical hunger point to the deeper reality – that Jesus was about satisfying that spiritual hunger that is innate to humanity: the hunger to more deeply know and experience God.

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve been forced to refrain from practicing many elements of this central aspect of how we understand and experience our faith.  And it’s left us with a very real hunger.  A hunger not just to get back to where we were, but a hunger to reclaim what it means to be a part of this community; a hunger to experience again the aspects of this community that truly and deeply nurture us.

For a year and a half we’ve been hungry.  And not just because we couldn’t eat with each other, but because we couldn’t feed each other.  We couldn’t be fed by the ways that we would laugh together around the table and share stories and memories and new experiences together.  It’s left us with a deep hunger for one of the aspects of following Christ in this community that has nurtured us the most.

So, in that sense, we can relate to this story of the feeding of the 5,000 this year, perhaps more than ever.  The people in that story had physical hunger, of course.  But they also had a spiritual hunger.  That’s what brought them out, in the middle of nowhere, following this teacher and his band of disciples.  Presumably, they could have just gone home if it were just a matter of needing to eat – the same way they would have had meals if they weren’t following Jesus.  But it wasn’t just that they needed to eat.  They needed to be fed.  And so do we.

The hope of this story isn’t just that Jesus did something amazing – that a miracle was performed to provide food for everyone.  The hope of this story is that in scarcity, God responds with plenty.  That when we hunger, we are fed.  That time.  This time.  Every time.

This is one of those stories we should cling to, because it gives us a roadmap to find our way out of despair, whenever it grips us.  Not with turn-by-turn directions – orders for every step we should take – but with the knowledge that the goal can be reached.  We’re not just wandering, aimless and alone.

The path to sustenance means following Jesus, and being fed with others who also hunger.

This time of hunger isn’t over.  But the example of our faith shows us that our hunger will be satisfied.  We may not understand how it happens, we may not be able to pinpoint exactly when it will happen, but we trust that it does.  We trust that together, we will be fed.  As long as we follow Christ, we will be fed.  Amen.