John 6:35, 41-51
Have you ever been truly hungry? I mean really and truly hungry. I get a headache when I am caffeine deprived, and I often succumb to hunger for salty snacks, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about real physical, food-hungry, the not-sure if-you-can-go-on kind of hunger. I’m not even talking about the kind of hunger that comes after a long day of work and busyness and now it’s dinnertime, nor even the hunger we feel after a fast. Those sorts of hungers come with the knowledge that the end is in sight, and we will have something to eat when the fast is over, or when we get home from work and fix dinner. No, I’m talking about being truly hungry, and not sure when we will eat again.
Most of us probably will admit that we haven’t had that sort of hunger experience. Hunger that hurts us, causes us to feel discouraged, perhaps even near-the-end of our ropes hunger that scares us and that isolates us. Most of us haven’t had that kind of hunger – but there are plenty of people in our world who have. From an old, but still current, U.S. News and World Reports, “People who are continually hungry; Ethiopia: 20%, Sudan: 20%, Mozambique: 30-40%, American adults currently on diets: 19%”
The term sociologists and government officials use today to describe the relative degree of assuredness people have about the availability of food is food security. An individual or family who have food security abide in the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. And we know that food security has declined dramatically in many developing countries. There are, according to the USDA, two degrees of insecurity when it comes to food.
Low food security refers to individuals and households who obtained enough food to avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake by using a variety of coping strategies, such as eating less varied diets – like cutting out fruits, veggies and lean meats, OR… participating in Federal Food Assistance programs, or by getting emergency food from a community food pantry. In 2016, 7.4% of American homes, or 29.7 million people, fell into that category.
The other category is very low food security. With these individuals or households, normal eating patterns – that is, being able to eat three meals a day with food that has proper nutrition and that fills them – those eating patterns are disrupted and food intake is reduced at times during the year because of insufficient money or other resources for food. In 2016, 4.9% of American households representing 11.5 million people, were deemed with a very low food security. In total then, 12.3% of American households suffered some degree of food insecurity during the year 2016. That, thankfully, is virtually the same as the year prior, but it still represents some 41.2 million people who lived in food-insecure households that year. Even more sadly, 1% of the nation’s children or about 703,000 children, lived in households in which one or more children experienced very low food security. In such a wealthy nation, hunger at that rate is astounding. Hunger on that scale affects far more than our digestive systems.
Any hunger is too much hunger, in my opinion, but our relative prosperity as a culture makes hunger less frequent than it was in the past. During the time of Elijah, many
people may have been assigned very low food security. For years there had been a drought, and because of that, very little food had grown and was available. Elijah was a prophet of God, so besides hunger for basic food needs, Elijah felt hunger for meaning and for rest. He was mentally and physically exhausted. Elijah had confronted King Ahab and Queen Jezebel over the on-going worship of the god Baal, and because of that, he was deemed a criminal and enemy of the state…being a prophet can get a person into some deep trouble with the authorities, it seems. Jezebel was a particularly worthy opponent – far more than her husband, Ahab, and because Elijah continued to be a thorn in their side, to act out, to call out injustice, she threatened Elijah with death, and so he fled, as a hunted man, to Beersheba, right on the edge of the desert, and there, settled under the solitary broom tree. Perhaps the isolated broom tree and he had a good deal in common. Elijah could not escape the heat of the sun nor the despair of his heart and he cried out, “O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4b) Elijah, prophet of the Lord, had served God, putting his life on the line many times by his civil disobedience, but still he felt a deep hunger, and, on top of that, an incompetence. Physically exhausted, food hungry, he also felt a failure, for he still had not fulfilled what God had asked of him – or so he thought. He had not convinced others to turn to God. Hunger can come in many forms – hunger for food, hunger for meaning, hunger for justice.
But, instead of taking Elijah’s life, God sent him food and water and prepared him for a long journey. “Keep going, Elijah,” God said, “you are doing as I’ve asked. There is more to do.” So, though Elijah hungered and asked to die, the Messenger of the Lord brought him life – and not just once, but twice.
In last week’s OT lesson the whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt . . . for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. . .” A bit dramatic, but still tells the story of deep hungering.
In both of these instances, God provided for the needs of God’s hungering people and those provisions are often seen in the goodness and hospitality of others. For Elijah, it came in the touch of an angel, who instructed him to “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Elijah did get up and he ate and drank and had enough strength with the nourishment provided to get him up the Holy Mountain of God. And for the Congregation of the Israelites, it came with the calling of God to Moses, who said the voice of the Israelites has been heard, and food, manna and quails in bountiful quantities, were provided. “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” (Ex. 16:15)
Hunger does come in many forms. We talk about hunger for meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, fruits, grains, and yet, at some point in our lives, we may also hunger for relationships, hunger for love, hunger for a place, hunger for meaning in life…. hunger for justice. God provided for the whole congregation of the Israelites, and for Elijah, and so God can and does provide for the hungers in the world. But, with God, we are called to feed the hungry through our own work. . .whatever that work is.
Dorothy Sayers, British writer and essayist, said, “Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
Our work, whether here at church for the good of the congregation, or in an office or studio or lab or hospital, or in the cockpit of an airplane…our work is an expression of how we feed others – how we are God’s messengers in the world – or even an expression of how we might be being fed by others – by being the Elijahs of the world. We can feed the hungry with food for the body or food for the heart and soul.
The writer of Ephesians wrote that we work so that we can exercise our God-given creativity and, in doing so, have something to share with others. He outlined a few rules for living the new life in Christ, like putting away falsehood, speaking the truth, being kind, forgiving one another and, in the end, we all must produce something to share with the needy. “Thieves must give up stealing, rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. “ (Ephesians 4:28)
WE WORK because we are made in God’s image. We work so we can share the labors of our work, so we can feed others in some way.
Bill Howes was an example of someone who understood this about his work. Bill’s work was more than a vocation for him. Almost a year now since his far-too-early death, we remember Bill and his legacy to others. Bill had a deeply spiritual awareness in his work, as a nurse and officer in the Navy. He often told Liz that he was aware of an aura in the room of gravely ill patients, or during the birth of a baby. Bill was a seeker and a seer and recognized the goodness and closeness of God’s Spirit, which touched him at a deep level. There, at the two extremes of life, when the veil between life on earth and life in the hereafter is such a thin substance, Bill was aware, and his awareness touched others. He was aware as he changed bandages, gave medications, comforted sick children whose families were so very worried, and as he administrated other nurses in his charge. Bill fed the hungry.
And, good food, real food, was not lost on Bill nor his family. In Bill we remember someone who loved to fill the house with people and the people with great food. In his work, either at home or at the hospital, Bill fed the hungry and hurting people around him.
As a congregation, we also help to feed the hungry…with our donations to the Food Bank, to Episcopal Relief and Development, to Episcopal Charities, to Ryan’s House, here on Whidbey, and to countless other agencies in our congregational tithe. We may even brighten the first day of school for needy youngsters who come to school without their supplies with our donations for Olympic View Elementary. And, yesterday, a highly energized group of us gathered to learn from Brian Sellers-Petersen about the possibility of using our vacant lot to begin a garden which would produce food for our community. That conversation has begun now, and Bill Adams will have more to announce about it at fellowship time this morning. Imagine the produce that could be grown right here in the St. Stephen’s garden…imagine how our small patch of earth could have an impact on the food security of many folks. I think that Bill Howes would be among the first to grab a shovel and head out to our garden.
Hunger comes in so many ways…we are all feeding the hungry in what we do each day – by looking in on a neighbor, by taking time to sit and listen to a friend who is hurting, by making a salad to share at a potluck. We feed the hungry by our labors, whether in the garden, in the laboratory, at Naval Air station Whidbey or in writing a postcard to a lonely sailor. The products of our labors, whether here at St. Stephen’s or out in the larger world are best shared with the community, and in that way, we become God’s partners in transforming the world.
Jesus, Bread of Life, feeds us and fills us in our hunger, our despair, our longing for life and meaning. Occasionally we forget this or our call to feed others by our work in the world. Strengthened by God’s grace, and in communion with God, go into the world now, forgiving one another, and feed the many hungering people in the world.