Breakfast with Jesus
Only recently have I been able to listen again to the Broadway musical, Les Miserables. Between taking my children and hauling numerous youth groups over the years to New York or DC to watch and then discuss this musical, I soon memorized the entire score and even now can sing most of the music in my sleep, which is the best time to hear me sing!
In case you have somehow missed this musical, it adapts Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean. He is a convict who has just been released from years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. As the musical begins, Valjean is set free but he is still bound, living with the label of ex-con. No one will hire him and those who finally do pay him far less than what is fair for the work he has done. Soon, Valjean is homeless, penniless, and must steal again to make ends meet.
During my tenure as pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, a downtown congregation in Atlanta, I had the privilege of working with a remarkable woman, Kimberly Parker. Kimberly and I began our ministry at Central the same day. I was the new Head of Staff and Kimberly was fresh out of Seminary, working for and eventually directing our Outreach and Advocacy Center, a place where those who were living on the streets could come for a variety of aid and education. This Center served over 10,000 guests every year. Daily, Kimberly dealt with desperate people living in desperate situations. She kept a prayer journal and on occasion, she would share a prayer with us. One prayer, in particular, I have always remembered because it made me think of Jean Valjean, just out of prison. Kimberly writes:
“Most days we are able to refer 12 guests . . . for emergency groceries. Today
was one of those days. The first 12 people in line today were here for groceries. After those 12, we made the announcement that we would not be able to take any more names for the food pantry today, but they were welcome to come back tomorrow. Several people were upset. I apologized and told them to try another day.
“One lady, however, came to the front desk and asked if I had a list of other
food pantries that I could give her. I gave her the list. She thanked me and left or at least I thought she left. A little while later, she was back at the front desk and said as she pointed to one of the pantries on the list, ‘Could you tell me where this food pantry is located? I really need to get some food today. I have been stealing from grocery stores and I’m going to get caught.’”
Kimberly goes on to say: “I am not sure I have ever had anyone be quite as
honest with me as she was when she confessed that she had been stealing from
grocery stores . . . As someone who does not have to worry about where my
next meal will come from, I do not know the reality of life that our guest was
facing. I may not always want to cook, but I know that I will not go hungry and
I know that I will not have to steal from the grocery store. At least at this point
and time in my life, I do not know this kind of reality of life.”
Then Kimberly prays: “God, life is not easy for those whom we serve. Many are hungry, even those who have a roof over their heads. There are times when our guests resort to all kinds of means in order to have what is needed. Today, especially I pray for the lady I encountered. I pray that she found food today without having to steal again. I pray that she will be back tomorrow so that we can try and help her. God, the reality of life is not easy.”
If anyone ever understood that “the reality of life is not easy,” it was Jesus. He could never do enough to convince people that he wanted them to know life’s abundance rather than life’s scarcity. In the passage from John’s Gospel, you have to laugh out loud when you read the exchange between Jesus and the crowd.
Just before this exchange, Jesus has fed over 6,000 hungry people. In today’s passage, Jesus is hounded by those whom he fed. He stares them down and says, “You are only interested in me because I fed your hungry bellies.” Then, he warns them not to spend their lives working for “food that perishes.” He tells them, “Believe in the bread of life that God has sent you.”
“Okay, Jesus, we will do just that after you show us a sign.”
At this point, you either have to either laugh or cry out loud. He has just fed thousands and they are asking for a sign?! But, Jesus does not laugh or cry or poke fun at them; instead, he reminds them that God once provided manna each morning in the wilderness and then without a pause Jesus shifts tenses and says that God is still providing for their daily needs and that he himself is the bread of heaven that has no shelf life.
“I am the bread of life,” says Jesus. It is a catchy phrase, something you might see on a bumper sticker or on a t-shirt, but what does it mean? Will this “Jesus-bread” fill the stomach of the woman who was stealing groceries in Atlanta? Will this “Jesus-bread” satisfy the hunger of Jean Valjean who has not eaten for days? If people just close their eyes and say, “I believe in Jesus” enough will this “Jesus-bread” make all their needs evaporate like a puddle of water on a hot summer day?
“I am the bread of life.” What does that mean? Whatever it means, it surely means that Jesus is serious about people being fed in heaven and on earth. It means that you and I cannot simply fill ourselves spiritually at the Lord’s table and ignore the woman out there stealing food to feed her family. It means that the community of Jesus can never be nonchalant about making sure that people, especially those living on the margins, are fed on earth. It means that the community of Jesus will applaud public policies that fight hunger and will advocate loudly when public policies advance or are oblivious to daily hunger.
“I am the bread of life” is also an invitation for us to live into an intimate, daily, honest relationship with Jesus. I wish I could stand here and tell you just what that looks like precisely, but I am convinced it is an invitation that we do not want to set aside or get to later.
Over the years, those who have taught me the most about trusting Jesus in this intimate way are often those whom our society labels as “slow.” Heidi Neumark tells of a young member in her congregation that fits in this category. This young woman, says Heidi, calls the Lord’s Supper “my breakfast with Jesus.” I love that image, perhaps more than any image I have read in the great theologians, Aquinas or Luther or Barth.
One of my finest teachers about carving out an intimate, trusting relationship with Jesus also was labeled by many in the same “slow” way. Each Sunday when he would come forward to the table at our early service in Alexandria, I would say, “This is bread of heaven for you.” Each Sunday, he would break out with a smile like a child opening presents on Christmas morning, and would say, “Gee Gary, thanks!” His gratitude was not perfunctory, but palpable, real, inspiring. Each Sunday, he taught me something about gratitude for Jesus that I am still slowly discovering for myself; it is gratitude that refuses to fill my own stomach and be oblivious to so many empty stomachs waiting for bread.
I have studied Jesus most of my life, written a book about him with my friend Brian Blount, preached sermons about him, started justice and feeding ministries in his name in a couple of cities, but I have so much more to discover about “the bread of life.” I suppose that is one reason why I keep having “breakfast with Jesus.”
I keep eating the bread of life, because I know that I am still hungry. I am hungry for the day when women will not need to steal to feed their children in America and men will not need to steal because they have no way to earn their daily bread, earn a fair day’s wage. I am hungry for a church that is as passionate about feeding the world with “the bread of life” “on earth as it is in heaven,” as we pray each Sunday. I am hungry to know the raw joy of the young woman who comes to this table to have “breakfast with Jesus” and the sheer delight of the young man in Alexandria who cannot wait to come to the table to taste and see the goodness of God.
This morning, I am hungry and I am grateful that no matter our station in life, no matter our history, no matter the state of our faith, you and I invited to this table to have “breakfast with Jesus.”