Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, M.Div.
Never Be Hungry, Never Be Thirsty
When I approach a Biblical text, knowing that I need to write a sermon, one of the things I try to do is to get very quiet and to notice where I have questions. In today’s gospel a big question for me is, “In what sense is it true that we will never be hungry, never be thirsty if we approach Jesus and if we believe in him?” It’s clear from this passage that Jesus is not referring to physical hunger and thirst, but even on a metaphorical level, don’t we at times feel hungry or thirsty – aren’t there times of deep longing? So, what was Jesus offering those who followed him to the other side of the sea after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand? What is Jesus still offering?
Another thing that I do when thinking about a sermon, is to start noticing overlapping texts – I look at the text of my own life and I start to notice books, movies, and events in our culture that may be addressing some of the same themes in the scripture. The text I can’t quite shake from my mind is the recent documentary about Fred Rogers. A couple of weeks ago my sister texted our family and wrote, “I watched the Mister Rogers movie last night. The audience kept clapping throughout. And then they walked out sniffling and silent. Like we had all been to the same therapist but weren’t ready to talk about it.” I knew what she meant, because a few weeks before her I saw the movie at the end of a difficult week. I watched scenes from Mister Rogers Neighborhood with delight, nostalgia, and tears.
The movie struck a very tender place because throughout his life he was so singularly focused on the following message, “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” Now there are many people who have mocked or dismissed him because of his gentle demeanor and earnest manner of addressing children. However, I think Fred Rogers was a subversive badass. Oh, there’s probably a more appropriate term to use from the pulpit – but what strikes me is that his very kindness was fierce in its commitment to others. There are so many more voices in our culture that tell us that we are broken, deficient, shameful, or not attractive enough – voices that grab us by the throat and seek to rob us of the knowledge of the divinity that has been planted within each of us. It is a battle to stand for the divine spark within oneself and within others, and Fred Rogers fought that battle with exquisite kindness, grace, and joy. And puppets! He used puppets to connect to children and help them make sense of difficult things. And those of us who have left the documentary in tears, have been marked by the person of Jesus as made known through this fiercely gentle man in a zip-up sweater who asked us to be his neighbor.
Jesus and Fred Rogers dedicated their lives to answering a couple key questions that plague humanity: Am I loved? Am I worthy of love? Over and over again they committed themselves to addressing this great hunger and thirst for belonging and acceptance. To the question, “Am I loved?” Jesus responds, “A thousand times yes” and to the question of whether we are worthy of love, again Jesus responds, “A thousand times yes.” In the gospel of John, the crowd receives miracle food and their impulse is to take Jesus by force and make him king. They move from provision of physical needs to the assurance of political might. But Jesus isn’t interested in that, and we see in this passage his sadness over their struggle to recognize the kind of hunger and thirst he is there to address – it is this other hunger and thirst that is so important to resolve.
When the question of “am I worthy of love” goes unanswered, or is answered in the negative, it becomes the root of destructive harm to self and others. When the answer, “Yes, you are loved and worthy of love” is not heard or taken in or trusted, we become a turbulent and unsettled people, fixed on survival of the fittest because we are convinced that love is a scarce commodity and only power will insulate us. That leads to all sorts of problematic behaviors and choices. We become mastered by hunger and thirst.
To that Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He says to us, there is no scarcity of love and I offer it freely to you. I love you and you are worthy of love. What we do may be problematic, even hurtful to others, but who we are at our core is always worthy of love.
Earlier in the passage the people ask Jesus what they must do to perform the works of God, and he tells them that the work that is needed is to believe in him whom God has sent. Believe. If you want the great hunger and thirst to be resolved, approach me, he says, believe in me and what I have told you about how deeply you are loved.
What practices enable us to come, hear, and believe that what Jesus has spoken into our souls is true? Certainly, the traditional spiritual practices embolden the soul and cause its quiet inner wisdom to grow. And sometimes, perhaps, we need to parent ourselves in the way that Fred Rogers modeled.
From time to time we encounter voices within that threaten our ability to dwell with the knowledge that we are worthy of love. Do you know what I’m talking about? They are voices that tend to speak in absolutes. They are fond of the words “never” and “always.” They say things like, “You will never find love” or “You are always going to be overlooked” or “You will never make your father proud” or “You will always be a failure.”
When that happens I usually respond one of two ways: I give in to the voice and grow despondent, or I try to shun the voice, vigorously naming it as wrong, dangerous, and not worthy of my attention! So, not long ago, one of these dark assertions came my way and for several weeks I did all I could to beat that voice into submission and banish it from my presence – until one night that voice woke me up in the middle of the night and got me by the throat and I started to give in. But a strange thing happened. My soul rose up within me, the part of me that knows that I am loved as I am. The soul spoke its truth and I was able to hear it. My soul said, “What if we didn’t respond to that voice with fear and contempt, but welcomed it as a part of our self that is worthy of kindness?” I found myself doing the strangest thing. I placed my hand at my chest and gently rubbed it back and forth and I said, “It’s okay, you, voice in the back of my head, you are part of me and I’m going to stop trying to shove you out the door, come inside, I’m not afraid of you.” I had an image of that voice and she was like an awkward teenager at a party, not at all sure that she belonged there. And I pictured my own soul like the host of a party in a basement family room full of other awkward teenagers longing to be free of their angsty self-consciousness and I realized that my soul was full of love for them. My soul was suddenly full of love for all the parts of myself that feel awkward and unfinished and scared – or scarred. I knew I wasn’t going to give that particular teenage self the keys to the car, but I was going to give her something to eat and let her receive kindness. Much to my surprise, the vicious sobbing and heartache that had gripped me melted away and I felt whole.
Fred Rogers wrote a song with these words:
But it’s you I like –
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
Our heads and our hearts are acquainted with grief and suffering. There are seasons when we feel emotions that threaten to overwhelm us. All of that continues even after receiving the bread of life.
Yet, in the midst of that, our souls can offer us a sense of home and can gently remind us that we are worthy of love, just as we are. That’s when the hunger and thirst are transformed. Transformation and maturation happens when we yield to the fierce kindness woven into our souls – when we realize love is always accessible to us. From there we can accept ourselves as complicated and yet divinely wonderful and when we do that, we become capable of honoring the way that this is also true for everyone around us. We become capable of turning to our neighbor and saying, as I say to you now, “It’s you I like – every part of you. It’s you, it’s you I like.”