My Starving Soul: Spiritual Food Insecurity
I honestly don’t have a generous bone in my body. It’s terrible.
Some people are naturally giving, scattering their resources with joy and never counting the cost.
How very much I wish I were one of them.
I am at heart simply a selfish person.
My sisters remember from our childhood how bad I was at sharing.
All my giving is an act of conscious will that I sometimes have to just force myself to do—not a great characteristic for a priest.
That’s why I so desperately need our gospel story today, and why I pray so often for God to teach me to be generous.
Selfishness is a basic human trait, but underneath it there is something deeper: fear.
Selfishness is very rarely about actively wanting to deprive the other of something needed in order to cause that person distress or lack.
It is really about fearing that we ourselves will run out and will not have enough.
It is amazing that we in our affluent society can still experience this fear that leads to selfishness and lack of generosity, but it often seems that the more we have, the more tightly we hold on to it and the harder we find it to share.
The good news is that at least we’re not alone in this–the disciples were fearful and selfish too in our story today.
At first they seem to have the crowd’s welfare on their minds.
“This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” they say.
But this is an attitude that I recognize so easily in myself.
These people are clearly in need, but I don’t want to deal with this.
Send them off somewhere else, Jesus, so they become someone else’s problem, someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s call to ministry.
Jesus won’t let them off the hook, though.
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” he says.
This creates an interesting turn in the story.
The disciples began under the assumption that they did not have what was needed to feed these people.
How often is that the default assumption in our churches?
Before we even start talking about funding ministry, we begin the conversation in a worldview that assumes we lack what we need.
But Jesus says, “No, I’m calling you to do this.”
What does that force the disciples to do?
They have to stop and evaluate the resources they actually do have, to enumerate the blessedness that already exists.
We do have food, they discover. We have five loaves and two fish.
We do have money and time and talent, a church might discover.
It doesn’t seem like we have much, like nearly enough to do the job, but Jesus gets us to stop and realize that we do in fact have resources, the very seeds of abundance.
Part of the reason the disciples’ first response is so insulting—tell them to go into town and buy food for themselves—is because the vast majority of these people had no money at all, much less enough to buy food for their families.
This was a society in which food scarcity and food insecurity were bedrock principles of life.
The disciples’ response would be like a person needing a plane ticket to get from Indianapolis to Dallas for a funeral, and someone saying, “Just flap your arms and fly there yourself.” It’s impossible to the point of being nonsensical.
For the people listening to Jesus on the hillside that day, and for countless others in our country and around the world today, daily bread is by no means guaranteed or easily obtained.
For these people, the calculus of how to feed themselves and their families is the major project of their day. It takes all their time and effort and ingenuity, and it is not always successful.
And given all that, consider how deep this crowd’s spiritual hunger must have been to cause them to flock after Jesus, literally chasing him down across the countryside to hear more of what he had to say.
Jesus was trying to find a quiet place to grieve the death of John the Baptist.
But these crowds of people were so spiritually hungry that they hunted him down to spend time with him, and by doing that, they gave up an entire day’s worth of opportunity to obtain physical food for themselves and their families.
They needed Jesus so badly that they were willing to pay the price of losing an entire day of food gathering—in a time and place where the consequences of that could be dire.
And Jesus knew that.
He knew that having fed them spiritually, he had to feed them physically as well.
We as churches can sometimes veer wildly from one extreme to another in our efforts to care for others, providing for physical needs like food and shelter but neglecting the spiritual needs of companionship and a listening ear and shared prayer, or providing for spiritual needs with sermons and music and beautiful liturgy, but neglecting the reality that people need food on their tables and some sense of how they’re going to pay their rent this month.
We need to follow Jesus in his comprehensive care for both the physical and the spiritual needs of everyone around him.
I had the opportunity to hear Joel Salatin speak this week, a sustainable farming activist. He talked about how divorced we are from our food production as modern Americans, and how we are overfed but undernourished.
He talked about how the food climate of first century Palestine adds a lot to our understanding of some of Jesus’ most important metaphors.
Consider the fact that bread had to be made fresh daily, because in that climate and without Ziploc bags and climate controlled houses, it would mold and go bad by the next day.
Bread had to be made—and prayed for—literally daily. There was no such thing as shelf-stable bread. Hence Jesus teaching his disciples to pray for their daily bread.
Now consider that in the context of Jesus as the Bread of Life.
Bread as the people in Jesus’ time knew it was fragile.
It had a very short life span.
It was highly perishable.
Those things were all true for Jesus in his human body—fragile, highly perishable, and with a very short life span.
It makes his presence with us all the more dear and vivid.
But then consider the other way Jesus offered himself to us—the wine that is his blood. As Joel Salatin pointed out, wine represents longevity.
In a time without refrigeration and climate controlled environments, wine was something that could be kept for a very long time, years and years through heat or cold without ever going bad, in fact even improving over time.
That is the presence of Christ in Jesus Christ—the thread of the eternal that runs through the Incarnation.
Jesus the fragile bread and Christ the enduring wine come together in one self-offering that nourishes and strengthens us in the feast at the altar.
It banishes all fear that there is not enough, because we know he will never stop offering himself to us.
As Bishop Cate often reminds us, everything we do is about stewardship, because every decision we make and every action we take utilizes the resources that God has given us.
Joel Salatin added another layer of understanding to this for me when he said, “How we steward what is God’s that we see creates an ethical and moral framework that determines how we steward what is God’s that we don’t see.”
I want to say that again, and let it sink in: “How we steward what is God’s that we see creates an ethical and moral framework that determines how we steward what is God’s that we don’t see.”
What that means is that our decisions about what we as individuals and we as the church do with our resources and our opportunities to serve, affect far more than whether our church operating budget is in the black or whether this number of families in our community is fed.
How we steward our money influences how we steward trust.
How we steward our time influences how we steward forgiveness.
How we steward our food influences how we steward hope.
What we decide to do with the tangible creates the environment that will determine what we do with the intangible.
We have been given money, time, food, shelter, this church building—how will we use them? Will we in turn give them to others as they have been given to us?
The answer to that question matters in and of itself. But it also matters because we have been given hope, forgiveness, the knowledge of God, grace, truth—all the riches and nourishment of the life of faith.
How we give away our things will determine how we give away our faith.
If we wish to be generous in sharing our faith, we must be generous in sharing our goods, and if we wish to be generous in sharing our goods, we must be generous in sharing our faith.
Jesus shows us in this story today and in his total giving of himself in his death and resurrection that tangible and intangible generosity feed each other in an ever growing cycle of abundance.
And the opposite is true. A lack of tangible and intangible generosity feeds into a circle that spirals down into more and more tightfisted, angry fear and selfishness.
Which brings me back to my own woeful lack of natural generosity.
Just as the first century people of Palestine lived in a physical food desert, I think many of us are living today in a spiritual food desert.
By being driven by the sense of lack, we are in fact starving ourselves of the sustenance that would satisfy us deeply—the exercise of generosity.
Paradoxically, the more we give away, the more we know and understand that there is plenty and our giving will never cause us to go without.
I am as starving for Jesus and his teaching as much as the 5000 he fed on the hillside, as much as the disciples who threw up their hands when confronted with the needs of the crowds.
And notice what Jesus does.
He calls the disciples to feed the people, asks them to evaluate their resources, and then he says this: “Bring them here to me.”
That is the turning point—we are not left alone to accomplish some impossible task, whether it’s funding our church budget, or feeding our community, or confronting our own spiritual weaknesses.
We are to bring it all to Jesus, and he will transform everything.
He will transform our resources into abundant gifts to the world, and he will transform our fears and selfishness into the knowledge of the security of being cherished children of our loving God.
But it all starts with us.
We have to acknowledge our resources and acknowledge our own hunger, and then bring it all to Jesus.
Then we can all sit down on the hillside together and be fed by him, the Living Bread of Heaven.
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