Breakfast with Jesus
Text: John 6:24-35
Only recently have I been able to listen again to the inspired music of Les Miserables. Between taking my children and hauling numerous church youth groups to watch and then discuss this musical, I soon memorized the entire score and even now can sing most of it in my sleep.
In case you missed this musical that premiered on Broadway in March of 1987, it tells Victor Hugo’s story of convict, Jean Valjean. He has just been released from years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. As the musical opens, Valjean is set free but it is not an occasion to celebrate. No one will hire an ex-convict and when they do, they pay him under the table and far less than what is fair for the work he has done. Soon, Valjean is homeless, penniless, and he must steal again to make ends meet.
During my years of ministry in Atlanta, our church hosted an Outreach and Advocacy Center that served nearly 5,000 guests a year. The Center then and now is directed by the Rev. Kimberly Parker. Over the years, she has had a holy habit of writing a prayer at the end of each day. It is a way of reminding herself that every guest served is a child of God, no matter how desperate their plight.
I loved reading Kimberly’s prayers and can still remember one prayer that brought to mind the story of Jean Valjean. She writes: “Most days we are able to refer 12 guests to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception 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.”
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 quite do enough to convince people that he wanted them to know life’s abundance rather than to live in constant want and need. In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, you almost 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 with the most meager resources. In today’s passage, Jesus is hounded by those whom he has fed. He stares them down and says, “You’re only interested in me now because I fed your hungry bellies.” Then, he warns them not to spend their lives working for “food that perishes.”
“Okay then, Jesus, so what do we need to do to earn God’s favor?”
“Simple enough,” says Jesus, “believe in the bread of life that God has sent you and is staring you in the face.”
“Well, then, Jesus, show us a sign and we’ll do just that.”
“Show us a sign?! Really?! I’ve just fed you and six thousand of your hungry friends!”
At this point, you either have to laugh or cry. But, Jesus does neither. 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 expiration date.
“I am the bread of life,” says Jesus. But what does that 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 hasn’t eaten for days? If people just close their eyes and click their heels and say, “I believe in Jesus” three times will this “Jesus-bread” make all the hunger of people in Charlottesville or Haiti or in Ukraine evaporate like a puddle of water on a scorching Phoenix day?
“I am the bread of life.” Whatever that means, it surely means that Jesus is all about people being fed in heaven and on earth. It means that you and I cannot simply stuff ourselves at this table and ignore the women and men out there who need to steal food to survive. It means that the community of Jesus can never be nonchalant about making sure that people, especially people living on the margins, are fed on earth. At the very least, it means that the community of Jesus will applaud public policies that fight hunger and will actively resist public policies that make it more difficult for those who are hungry to get food.
“I am the bread of life” is also a personal invitation, an invitation to you and me to live in an intimate, daily, honest relationship with Jesus. I wish I could stand here and tell you exactly what that looks like, but I am convinced it is an invitation that we don’t want to set aside or file away for a later date.
Over the years, I have found that those who know Jesus best in that intimate, trusting way are often those whom our society labels as “slow.” Heidi Neumark tells of one of her young members whom others categorized in this way. This young woman, says Heidi, calls the Lord’s Supper “my breakfast with Jesus.” I love that image, perhaps more than any eucharist image I have ever read in Calvin or Luther or Barth.
One of my finest teachers about carving out an intimate, trusting relationship with Jesus was Fred, not his real name but one I am using for this sermon. When I served the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, we had two services each Sunday. In the early service, communion was always served by intinction, by people coming forward to receive the gifts of bread and cup, as you will soon do today.
Each Sunday when Fred would come forward for communion, I would say to him, “The bread of heaven for you, Fred.” Every time, he would break out with a smile like a child opening the one present he really wanted on Christmas morning and say, “Gee Gary, thanks!” His gratitude was not perfunctory, but palpable. Every Sunday, he taught me something about gratitude for Jesus that I am still slowly discovering for myself; it is gratitude that refuses to be content with filling my own stomach when so many stomachs remain empty, filling my own heart when so many hearts are aching.
I have studied Jesus most of my life, written a book about him with my friend Brian, preached sermons about him, started justice and feeding ministries in his name in several 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” and enjoying that breakfast with friends and strangers.
I keep eating this bread, now even gluten-free!, because I know that I am still hungry. I am hungry for the day when women won’t need to steal to feed their children in America and men won’t need to steal because they have no way to earn a fair day’s wage to buy their own their daily bread. 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 Fred who can’t wait to taste and see the goodness of God.
I do not know what any of you had for breakfast today, or if you had breakfast at all. What I do know is that the hour in the day is never too late for you to enjoy “breakfast with Jesus.” And, when you do, make sure that everyone you know is welcome to this feast.