Cultivating Hunger & Thirst
Luke 16: 19-31
One Sunday this summer I preached and celebrated Communion at Wesley Memorial. After church, sipping lemonade on the lawn, a newer family approached to chat. They had small children, including an almost-3-year-old daughter who took Communion for the first time that morning. I remembered bending down to offer her the bread and the cup.
Her dad told me with a mixture of pride and amazement that that day was her first taste. He was also chuckling as he told me that he was pleased she had behaved during worship but that she didn’t fully understand what had happened. Her dad said that when they got back to their pew she had turned to him and said, “I’m still hungry.”
Well, though her dad was laughing about this, I contend that this little girl’s response was a great theological and liturgical response to receiving the Bread of Life. Of course, Jesus satisfies our deepest hunger and quenches our deepest thirst and, in that sense, the little girl’s comment might sound theologically “off.” But, if we come to the feast with open hands and open hearts, we should expect also to leave with more hunger and thirst than when we arrived.
One of my favorite authors, Sara Miles, says it this way, “[S]alvation does not depend on getting things right. It depends on thirst” (Jesus Freak, Sara Miles, 2010, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.13). Hunger and thirst for more God, for more kingdom, for more of this weekly feast, for justice. The early Christian bishop and theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, said that we are most like God in our desire (Jesus Freak, p. 74).
What do you desire? What are we hungry and thirsty for?
When you take a taste of the kingdom of God in our Communion meal each week, does it feed your hunger and thirst for more God in all the other days of the week? Does it make you hungry and thirsty for justice?
John Wesley preached a sermon called “The Duty of Constant Communion” and believed that we should partake of this feast as often as possible. The prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray every day asks for bread and for the ability to forgive others and be led away from temptations. Regular reminders of our deepest hunger and thirst – because though it is relatively easy for most of us to quench our thirst on a hot day or satisfy hunger with a meal, it takes persistence and prayer and cultivation to keep us hungry and thirsty for the right things.
Here’s the point of the parable Jesus tells about Lazarus and the rich man. It’s not two separate stories, one that happens when they are alive on earth and another one that happens later after they are dead. It’s all one story, the same story. One earth the rich man desires fine clothes and sumptuous meals. He keeps himself secluded and safe from the riffraff in his fine house behind locked gates. Either he passed by Lazarus every day without stopping or considering him or he was somehow so self-involved that he didn’t even see him, but either way he crafted a life without worry for anything other than satisfying his most ephemeral hungers.
When he dies, though his comforts are gone, he still sees people like Lazarus as servants to his every need. He looks up and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to drip water into his mouth (v. 24). And when that appeal is denied, the rich man still doesn’t get it. He then asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers (v. 27).
What parable would Jesus have told if the first part of the story had been different? What if the rich man had stopped at the gate every day to bring Lazarus food and clothing and water to wash up with? What if he had invited Lazarus into the house?
How we live is how we live. Are we developing habits of kindness and mercy? Do we see the people around us and are we involved in bringing mercy and justice to the people in our world? Are we cultivating these habits every day, through prayer and worship and study? Because this doesn’t usually come naturally to us. Left to our own devices we prefer purple robes and big feasts and we would rather not wonder about who’s outside. Jesus says the people outside are part of the story, too – they are part of our story.
Sara Miles’ first excellent book was Take This Bread. It’s her conversion story and it is centered on what happens at this table. Much to her surprise, after a lifetime of living as an atheist, Sara walks into an Episcopal church in Sans Francisco in the 1990s and joins in the worship. The table was open and when it came time to celebrate Communion, she opened her mouth and took in Jesus. “[T]hat impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb,” she writes, “…the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh” (Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles, 2007, Ballantine: New York, p. 59).
She felt the meal, the communion, that community, God working on her as she continued to wander in each week, hungry, to the table. At some point she began to see a vision. She saw the abundance of the Eucharistic meal spilling over the table and into the lives of the poor and hungry who were outside the doors of the church. The table of plenty for all God’s children.
Around this time she also saw an advertisement for the area’s food bank, which was expanding into new areas of the city and needed volunteers to launch the new sites. This is the vision I’ve been having, she thought. Why not serve the hungry, the poor, and the homeless right from this very table? Sara was adamant that the new food pantry take place in the sanctuary and right on the very altar table. Rather than being a program of the church, operated out of the fellowship hall, she envisioned it as one more way of being church, another act of worship, an extension of the table fellowship they celebrated each week. As we’ve been fed by God, now we share the abundance with our neighbors.
This sounds great. Inspiring. Uplifting. Something practically any Christian could get behind, right? Well. It’s amazing what happens when you invite everyone and when you make all who come to your table welcome.
In addition to the inspiring, uplifting moments Sara and the other volunteers had, they also experienced frustration. They worked all day on Fridays in order to service the 3-hour food pantry. Their hungry neighbors showed up early in the morning to stand in line. Some of their hungry neighbors urinated in the yards of other neighbors. Some didn’t smell clean. Some fought or used drugs. One woman carried a weapon into the church, in order to defend herself from the man who beat her. One little girl showed up scared, pointing to the baptismal font, and asked if the water would protect her. One recovering alcoholic stood in line for a few weeks, then offered to come in and help the volunteers. Some would wait in line all day, only to find that the bread or some other item they needed had run out before they got their turn. Some would try to sneak in early and snatch a little extra for themselves.
When you invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” this is the kind of scene you get (Lk.14: 13). There are no place cards but there is a place for everyone.
In the church it seems we too often make the mistake of seeing ourselves only as the host, inviting and welcoming others into the fold. But strange and beautiful things happen when true hospitality unfolds. Roles become more fluid; giver and receiver are harder to discern.
Sara Miles describes this phenomenon as she writes about the transformation occurring at the food pantry as the great variety of people began brushing up against one another in community around the table (pp.138-9):
They [guests turned volunteers] were people who, like me, had come to get fed and stayed to help out. Who, like me, took that bread and got changed. We were all converting: turning into new people as we rubbed up against one another. The transformation amazed me. I’d think about it as I unpacked the food: blushing red potatoes and curly spinach and ripe peaches that grocers had discarded, and that instead of being trash were feeding people. Once I picked up a huge grapefruit and showed it to a volunteer from St. Gregory’s. ‘That’s the stone the builders rejected,’ I said, quoting Scripture aloud with only a twinge of embarrassment. I could see, now, how we were like that, too: the volunteers, and the families who came for groceries. Each of us, at some point, might have been rejected for being too young, too poor, too queer, too old, too crazy or difficult or sick; in one way or another, cracked, broken, not right. But gathered around the Table in this work, we were becoming right together, converted into the cornerstone of something God was building.
This is what cultivating hunger and thirst looks like. When the first choose the last place, knowingly giving up power and privilege for someone else. When we make room for the stranger even when we don’t feel like it – when we didn’t even have a party or a meal planned. When we recognize that we aren’t living out the stories of our lives in isolation from the life of the world. When walk away from this feast saying faithfully, “I’m still hungry.”
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis