“In a Hungry World”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
July 29, 2018
Have you ever been so hungry that you were willing to be late to a social event, late to a meeting, late getting home because you just had to stop and get a bite to eat? I think most of us have been there at least a few times in our lives. And we probably ate something that wasn’t very good for us: Fast food… a bag of chips… ice cream… or those little pretzels filled with an orange processed cheese-like substance. I think they’re called Combos… Anyway, they’re not real food!
At times like those, it’s not unusual, as we head into the convenience store or into the fast food joint, to think, “I’m starving!”
Of course, we are not really starving in those situations, just uncomfortably hungry. In our silly, privileged way, we mix up those two realities.
When I returned from my first trip to the jungles of southern Mexico about ten years ago, whenever I heard someone say, “I’m starving!” I’d turn into a self-righteous, judgmental jerk and reply with something like, “No you’re not starving! Don’t say that! I’ve just been spending time with kids who are actually starving and you are not starving!”
Well… That approach didn’t make me any friends, as you can imagine. I’ve calmed down since then. But you still might not want to say, “I’m starving” around me. You never know what I’ll say or do. I might even give you a bag of Combos!
Some of you have been to Africa or South America or the Caribbean and other places where malnutrition is a reality and you may have gotten to know some folks who were actually starving.
Malnutrition causes all sorts of problems in children, especially: Low energy, inadequate organ development, lack of physical growth, cognitive problems, a higher susceptibility to disease, and so much more.
It’s a hard situation to understand. Even though the world has made great strides in this area, there is no reason anyone should be starving at this point because we have the resources to make sure that everyone has enough food.
What’s wrong with us?
In meditating on this story we’ve just heard from the Gospel of John, I’ve been thinking about that question, “What’s wrong with us?” And I think Jesus had a pretty good idea.
In all four Gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — the authors tell this story of the feeding of the five thousand. Each version is different and has its own interesting details.
Matthew and Mark thought this story was so important that they included it twice in their Gospel accounts. What’s so important about it? I think it says something about who we are as human beings, that we are, at our core, hungry — hungry in lots of ways.
We of course, need to eat food every day. But we are also hungry for other things: satisfying relationships, affection, respect, meaning and direction in our lives, spiritual input and inspiration.
In all six versions of this story, Jesus has compassion for the crowd; he recognizes their many hungers; and he empowers the disciples to feed them physically, just as he had been feeding them spiritually all day.
Here in John, there’s an interesting difference. A small boy is the one who provides the food — fives loaves of bread and two fish. Obviously, this is normally not enough for five thousand people, but somehow, with God’s help, they make it work.
I believe that everything in scripture is there because someone or some group of people wanted it there. This little boy’s appearance in John’s version of this story is not incidental or unimportant.
Jesus tells us in several different New Testament scenes that children are an example of how we might be at our spiritual best. They are naturally open and trusting; they are full of wonder; they are honest about their hungers for food and help and tenderness.
In what ways are you hungry?
While on Sabbatical, I had the opportunity to read several great books. One was by the Buddhist theologian Tich Nat Hahn called, Reconciliation.
In it, he argues that it’s important for us to be in touch with the unsatisfied hungers of our childhood. Perhaps there was a lack of support or a lack of unconditional love from our parents… perhaps a feeling of being unsafe… Maybe we feel we didn’t have adequate opportunities to learn and grow.
Hahn believes that we can’t really be at our best unless we come to terms with that little girl or little boy inside of us, and recognize his or her unmet needs, so that we can then tun and be a compassionate force in the world. Otherwise, we will spend our time always trying to make up for those unmet needs, with no time left for anyone else.
All four Gospel writers say that the disciples don’t get it. They don’t understand the depth of hunger in the crowd. They don’t believe that they themselves can do anything about it. Hahn might say that they are letting their own unsatisfied hungers get in the way of their compassion for others.
And I think that happens to us a lot. We are so busy trying to fulfill our own hungers, we forget that one of the reasons we are on this planet is to feed others, to feed our neighbors.
Jesus understands completely that, by feeding the five thousand people, they are feeding not just a physical, but a spiritual hunger. This is a communion image. When we share communion here in this sanctuary, yes, we eat bread and drink from the cup, but we are doing so much more than having a snack.
We are celebrating the power of God, the power of generosity, the power of community.
I said earlier that I think Jesus had a good idea about what is wrong with us. I think he knew that we are terribly hungry spiritually, that our first instinct (like the disciples) is to think we can’t help, that we can’t make a difference.
I believe that he also had a very good idea about what is right with us.
And that’s where this little boy comes in. Children were not valued very highly in that time and place. They were considered a burden… undersized adults who hadn’t become useful yet.
And yet Jesus and his disciples empowered this little boy to feed five thousand people. Jesus knew that everyone has gifts. Each person in this room this morning has something to share that can change lives, that can increase positive energy in others, and that can awaken hope.
Tracy and Sara and I recently led a service trip to West Virginia with a group of our high school students from church. Our kids did an amazing job on the worksite and in connecting with the family who lived there. They showed up every day, ready to get some work done on the house and to listen to the family’s stories. In so doing, they communicated love and hope to them.
You should be very proud of them. The family we worked with was extremely isolated and facing many problems. They were hungry for companionship, for a sense that someone cared. And our kids gave them that.
That experience was a reminder to me that, even though we may be shy, even though we may not have carpentry or painting skills, even though we may not know what it is we can give, if we become aware of the needs of our neighbors, if we did deep, if we trust God to help us, if we take action, we will find that, together, we can make the world a little less hungry.