Last week, in our prayers, Beth, having gotten sick in Nicaragua, gave thanks for the medical care available because she’s a North American. She also remembered rightly the families we worked with in Mesa Sur who do not have any of the medical advantages we count on.
What was so stunning in that rural, mountain village was the insecurity that’s a companion to the inhabitants’ lives. And the sense of community that existed. Perhaps there’s an inverse relation in that.
I’m not just talking about our social safety nets: public education, health insurance, disability benefits, retirement incomes, fire and police departments, hospitals and the ambulances to get to them, and welfare. These services, even threatened, are more than the people of Mesa Sur could imagine.
It’s a village of about 80 homes. 1 grade school. 2 churches. 1 pulperia — sort of Wawa qua counter in front of a 4′ X 6′ room in the front of someone’s dirt floor house.
Matagalpa, medical care, and almost everything we consider as part of everyday conveniences and necessities in our urban and suburban North American lives are a 2 hour, grueling ride down the mountain. And a longer trip back up. The bus leaves at 5 a.m. It returns at 12 noon.
But I’m talking about the basic necessities– daily bread and water to drink. We didn’t actually see it first hand, but if we listened carefully, we had entered into a place where people were not sure they’d have enough food and water.
CEPAD, the church council that organized our mission experience, trucked in the food for our meals. We ate more food and more varied meals than the villagers usually eat. (And still you might ask Jordana or Sam this morning about rice and beans as the filler at every meal!) CEPAD actually brings enough for the families of the women who were cooking for us… so a few of the village families ate like they rarely do.
It’s normal for the people of that community to have to get by on less than enough food, and half the year with a dire scarcity of water. We were there in the raining season experiencing deluges and seeing the mountains all around us alive with crops and tropical vegetation. But come the dry season, there’s no rain for months. Just cloudless skies and a burning tropical sun. The land dries up, dies, turns to dust.
It was hard to miss hearing about how many of the men leave the community to find work in Managua or in Costa Rica or the United States — because without that extra income, money from elsewhere, their families can’t always eat or have clean water to drink…
Church, as foreign as it might be to most of us, we live in a world where 1 in 7 people is hungry. 1 in 6 people do not have clean drinking water. There’s undernourishment and malnutrition closer than you might imagine right here in Philly. But for most of us, “hungry” means we don’t have the exact food in our cupboards or refrigerators that we have a taste for.
A friend of mine pointed out: “The only time I’ve ever know hunger pangs was when I was fasting before what is for us a routine medical test that most of the world could not afford.”
The world of the Bible know the precariousness of life’s basic needs. Famines and droughts are part of stories of people moving and interacting, not always peaceably. Immigration isn’t a modern inconvenience, a foreigner’s impingement on our nation state. It’s sharing this planet together — what happens as people are pushed around by the vagaries of weather, resources, each other and our planet.
Can we remember all this as we hear Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading today? I’m afraid, if we don’t we might really miss his meaning.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Hunger. Painful, physical hunger. But also a hunger for right relation and one’s right place in this world.
Thirst too. That desperation for the water that makes up most of our bodies. But also the unquenchable need to drink deeply of the cup of life. It reminds me of Jesus promise to the Samaritan woman by the well:
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Beloved, let’s not spiritualize these so much as to miss the challenge of a world where every person, every child has enough to eat and clean water to drink. But Jesus does means more than our physical needs. For humans do not live by bread alone. We need a home too. And love. And all the in-betweens that make miracles like that possible.
And the promise here is that all this is possible with Jesus. That’s the real issue here: who is this Jesus and what’s it mean to have faith in him?
Remember Nicodemus, in John’s 3rd chapter? He couldn’t figure out what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of “being born again?” Nicodemus got stuck on the image or on the sign. He couldn’t make the metaphorical and spiritual leap to what Jesus meant most profoundly.
Jesus, the bread that feeds us for true life.
Jesus, the living water, a spring within that eternally bubbles us to life everlasting.
Jesus, our new birth, the fresh start by which we can really begin living.
Jesus is how we Christians know God. And how do we know Jesus? In as many different way, I suspect, as we know other people. But if you sometimes aren’t sure, maybe you should start thinking of Jesus as the answer to your greatest need. Food. Water. Rest. A New Beginning.
A shepherd for those who’ve lost their way.
The vine by which those who are growing and producing draw all their strength.
A door for anyone for whom there seems to be no way out.
Resurrection and life, when dead-ends and death surround seem to surround someone on all sides.
One of you recounted an insight from Madelaine L’engle to me recently. I don’t have the exact quote. But the essence was:
“Determine what you cannot live without. Then organize everything else in your life around it.”
The same can be said for God: determine what you cannot live without. That’s probably the best way to begin identifying God. And outstretched arm from the Divine.
God is what you need most. Now organize everything else around God.
Think of God as who or what you really need. For a good part of humanity and the better part of human history, that might be the basics — food, water, shelter, protection.
But, when life is good, secure, comfortable, those needs are elevated, become more existential — direction, hope, forgiveness, the promise of a future.
Someone been coming to church for a short time, hoping to find faith. She looks around and sees such a deep faith in the others here at church. I agree– there’s profound faith in the hearts around Old First. But I reassure my friend — right along deep faith, there are real, abiding, nagging doubts.
She asked me, “How can develop that faith, even if it grows right alongside my doubts?”
I have to agree with Paul that faith is a gift. It comes only from God. But it might be given, or at least offered more often and more readily that we grasp. So, here’s my suggestion to my seeking friend, and to all the rest of us. It’s a spiritual discipline really. A way to help us perceive God more often, more clearly:
Figure out what you need most, what’s your deepest need? I doubt if it matters if you are right. If you feel it’s what’s most needed — that’s probably enough.
Now image Jesus using that metaphor. Begin relating to God in that way.
If you’re over-working, if you workaholic ways are ruining your life and destroying your family, Jesus might surprise you by saying: “I am your day off, completely free of any list of what you should be doing, free of all the burdens of your work responsibilities.”
If you’re miserably, desperately alone, Jesus appears with the promise, “I am your constant friend. I’m your lover. I’m company for you.”
If you’re working on leaning to be thankful, Jesus offers, “I am your Gratitude.”
If you’re suffering from too much anxiety or with condemning fears, Jesus promises “I am your peaceful place.”
If you need to need to put down the bottle or throw away the pipe, Jesus comes to you, promising “I am sobriety.”
If you struggle with illness, he might promise (as he did in Scripture) “I am the Great Physician.” Or even, “I am your health and wholeness.”
If you struggle with a negative sense of yourself — maybe someone put you down so long, you do it now, even better, all by yourself — Jesus says to you, “I am your best sense of yourself. Your confidence.”
If you are scared that you are nearing the end of your life, and that either getting out of this world or what happens next is terrifying you, Jesus offers “I’m Rest and Peace, in this life and the next.”
One of my parishioners in my first church, Bea Taylor, was struggling with emphysema. She confided in me, “I’m not so afraid of death. I’ve been through so much in life, not even death can scare me.
It’s just I’m not sure how I can keep fighting for each breath.”
She and I created a prayer reflection for her to recite, sort of a mantra, in which Jesus reassured, “I am your next breath.” She was delighted– I get so into Jesus’ promise to me of my next breath, I think Jesus actually takes over breathing for me.
It’s probably too abstract to be really helpful, especially for someone struggling to find faith, but Jesus might just say to any and all of us: “I am your everything.”
* The sermon title is a reference to a Ghandi quote: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”