My Soul Thirsts

Our sanctuary is filled with pictures this morning. There are photographs on every pillar and wall, pictures of rabbits, goats and chickens, corn and beans, bananas and tomatoes, tortillas and mango juice, heavy melons and tender seedlings, pictures of children, men, and women.

Tallu Schuyler took close to ten thousand pictures last year, while working in Nicaragua with a number of food security projects. Church World Service and its partner organizations in Nicaragua are supporting small scale farming to help improve nutrition and encourage community development through local markets.

Why did we ask Tallu to hang all those pictures in the sanctuary? Why did we quite literally surround ourselves with images of food and the people who grow, produce, prepare and sell it, people hungry for life as we are?

The exhibit is part of our hunger:360 ministry project. During Lent this year, we take time to approach hunger from as many angles as we can:

  • We prepare  and serve food for Nashville’s homeless and working poor.
  • We learn about the work of organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and Church World Service.
  • We are reading a book by Sara Miles who argues convincingly that the bread of the Lord’s Table and the food given away in any soup kitchen or food pantry is the same bread.
  • We will participate in the CROP Walk to raise money and awareness for the fight against hunger around the block and around the world.
  • Next week, we’ll start Mapping the Pantry to visualize where the food in our pantries and refrigerators is coming from.
  • Just this morning, we learned what hunger does to human bodies as well as societies.

We fast and pray, we listen and watch, we walk and study and wonder. hunger:360 is a way to approach and address a human experience from as many angles as possible and to grow as followers of Jesus Christ.

Half of the stories Jesus told about the reign of God speak of seeds and farmers, barns and banquets, fields and vineyards, figs and grapes.

Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep,” and to his disciples who wanted to send a crowd of people away because they were hungry, he said, “You give them something to eat.”

When Jesus instructed the disciples about prayer, he taught us that we need forgiveness like we need bread, daily. And on the night before he died, he spoke of his body while breaking a loaf of bread and giving it away to those who would betray, forsake, and deny him. We do indeed need forgiveness like we need bread, daily.

This morning, we come to Jesus waving the newspaper, reciting last week’s headlines, parched thirsty and hungry for answers:

Chile Earthquake Aftershocks Cause Panic

Suicide Attacks Kill at Least 32 in Baquba

With Haitian Schools in Ruins, Children Are in Limbo

We get in line behind those who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. They too are hungry for answers, they want Jesus to explain to them the bloody violence in the Temple.

Was it the Galileans’ fault? Did they provoke the Roman guards with anti-Roman slogans? Galileans were known for that kind of thing. Or was it Pilate’s fault? Was he unable to control his own military, or was he himself behind this blasphemous act? Or did they die in this way because somehow they deserved it?

Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” We hunger for meaning, for knowledge or wisdom that makes sense of  the inexplicable. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

Or those hundreds of thousands who were buried in collapsing buildings when the earth quaked under Port-au-Prince and Concepción – do you think that they somehow deserved to die that way—and you, somehow, did not? Do you think that the fact that you are still among the living in a world where lives are cut short daily and violently by droughts and famines, hurricanes and earthquakes, crimes and tyranny – do you think you are alive because you are good and righteous? Do you think you can just step back and explain the world’s brokenness and the tragedies of life with a concept of divine justice that somehow spared you?

No. The answers you crave are found only by turning around. Turning around is another way of saying repentance. Repentance means you begin with yourself.

Let me tell you a story. A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

That’s one way to think about the fruit of righteousness and divine justice; three strikes and you’re cut. You had Moses to teach you. You had the prophets to remind you. You had John the Baptist to warn you: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” You know he wasn’t talking about figs and olives. Plenty of  teaching, of pleading and warning, but no fruit to be found on the tree. Why should it be wasting the soil?

The story could end there. The story could end with the gardener going to the shed to get the ax. But the gardener hasn’t left yet. Standing beside the fruitless tree, or perhaps kneeling beside it in the dirt the gardener says, “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good, but if not you can cut it down.” Or perhaps the gardener says, “... but if not you can cut it down – because I won’t”? And the story ends with the gardener going to the shed to get the cultivator. That’s another way to think about the fruit of righteousness and the work of God.

We can pretend that we are spectators looking over the wall into the vineyard and speculating about the fate of that tree, but in truth we are that tree. We long to live lush and fruitful lives, but the soil is hard and dry. The soil is so packed down that the rain cannot penetrate it and the water cannot get to the roots and we remain thirsty and dry, despite our desire and good intentions.

John the Baptist points to the ax to remind us of the urgency of change and taps into our fear to motivate us to action. Jesus reminds us that we are not alone in our hope for fruitful lives by pointing to the gardener who works with dedication and patience to break and soften the soil.

But we got to let the gardener do some digging. We got to let the gardener break the dry soil in which we are trying to grow roots. When an earthquake buries thousands of people in just a few seconds, there is a moment, just before we start stepping back, distancing ourselves to explain or find blame, there is a moment of pain and truth, a moment when we feel just how fragile life is.

We usually run from that moment. We step back and pretend to be observers who can control the chaos by explaining it. Or we jump into a action to get a sense that we have done something to push the chaos back behind boundaries.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with trying to understand. There’s nothing wrong at all with responding to tragedy with acts of compassion. But we shouldn’t run too quickly from that moment where we know life as vulnerable, threatened, and in question. We shouldn’t run because that moment is a place where we meet the God who knows and bears our pain. That moment is a dry place where the gardener pours out grace to soften the ground. That moment is a holy place where healing water finds its way to our parched roots. It is in that moment that we come to know our real thirst and say, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

They say that in the southwestern United States, where the humidity is low, you may be thirsty and not even know it. It can be extremely hot, but your perspiration evaporates so quickly, you don’t even get a wet spot in your arm pit. You are becoming dehydrated and you don’t have a clue. In Grand Canyon National Park they have signs strategically placed along the trails that say, “Stop! Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not.” [Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B, Vol. 2, 2008, p. 74]

Do you find it hard to imagine that you could be thirsty without realizing it? How about getting so settled into routines that keep you busy and distracted that you can’t tell whether it’s your heart and soul that are hungry, or your stomach? We have a hunger for God and a thirst for life, but we get lost in a culture of insatiable appetites and false promises of fullness and fulfillment.

Isaiah asks just the right question, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The prophet reminded God’s people in exile and reminds us, that we are people of a different bread, bread not from the Babylonian bakery, but from God’s kitchen.

Isaiah shouts with urgency, inviting any within earshot to God’s banquet, to the feast where all are fed simply because all are hungry.

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

When we listen, we are given a word as delightful as the richest food. And we have a piece of bread placed in our hands, bread that speaks of God’s faithfulness and mercy like nothing we have ever tasted.

In many ways, Lent is a persistent invitation to get to know our real hunger and to eat the bread of life.