Hunger and Thirst
When we consider hunger we immediately think of our next meal. When it comes to food most of us have no idea what hunger is like but there is a greater hunger than what we shall eat. It is a hunger for something real, for something strong and true, for something to hold on to, for something that will hold on to us. There is a hunger for God in our souls so deep that we can’t find it. There is a hunger for reality but at the same time there is a fierce resistance to reality and so there is this war inside of us and for the most part we are losing the battle. We tend to sentimentalize and trivialize religious experience so that there is no chance of really losing a battle because there is no battle. There is nothing except the big nothing. We are numb. We don’t really get it. Some of us still show up but we want nothing to do with reality of any kind.
J.D. Salinger was famous for his book, Catcher in the Rye but his book Franny and Zooey was on the shortlist in 1953 or 1955, I forget which, for the National Book Award and it was a book about Jesus. Franny and Zooey are siblings. Franny is Zooey’s little sister and she is about 20 years old and having a nervous breakdown. Nothing in life is good enough. She is seeing the reality of a broken, stupid world that is not even close to living up to the promise of God and that is driven by ego and she is hungry for God and sick to death of human beings. She has discovered the Jesus prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” She has read that if she can get to the point where she is praying this prayer without ceasing everything will be alright.
Her older brother Zooey is 25 and has experienced a little more of the world and is wise beyond his years. He is worried that she isn’t getting it. Her impulse is correct but she hasn’t gone far enough. She is sentimental and romantic and as such is getting nowhere. This is what he says to her: I can’t see how you can pray to a Jesus you don’t even know. If you’re going to say the Jesus prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s Grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only and him as he was and not as you’d like him to have been. You don’t face any facts. . . . not facing facts is what got you into this messy state of mind and it can’t possibly get you out of it.
I think the Jesus Zooey refers to is the one who shows up in the gospel reading this morning. The Jesus in this word this morning sounds like someone who is just about fed up with the same old sentimental ideas about life we seem to hang on to from one generation to the next because we don’t get it either. The sentimental idea is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished and even if we know it isn’t true we want it to be true even if we have to also then figure out a way to convince ourselves that we are among the good people who will be rewarded never mind what we actually do and so the questions come and they come from our insecurity: Why do particular people die in natural disasters or accidents or at the hands of an evil act, people who don’t appear to deserve such a fate? Or worse, why does God let these things happen? And what does Jesus say? He says grow up. God is not Heidi’s grandfather. Everybody dies, repent and live. Live rightly now while you are still alive and stop worrying about when you are dead. These are words of serious reality. It is a reality of hope because we can change and live rightly but it is a reality that is not sentimental about death. It does not trivialize random “undeserved” death. What do we deserve by the way?
Perhaps the fig tree incident will help us to see the reality of what we deserve. The fig tree has not been producing. The owner of the fig tree tells his gardener to cut it down but the gardener says let’s give it one more chance. Oh my, do you feel the grace in that? Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good, but if not, (then) you can cut it down. There is grace and reality. One more time but just one more time. The fig tree perhaps deserved to be cut down but the gardener asked for more time, more time to care and nourish and help this fig tree to produce. Life is not about what we deserve, it is about what God gives us. It is always a gift and our task is to make something of it, whatever it is, with a grateful heart remembering that the gift is not measured by how it turns out for anyone of us but that it is given at all.
The prophet Isaiah celebrates the giftedness of life but warns that we settle for less. The issue then was not much different than it is now. The reality of God was in conflict with the reality of the world. They, as we, thought they could fill their bellies and that was enough to live on, in deed, to live well, but if we ignore the hunger of our souls we will never be satisfied, never know peace, never even understand what life is. We take our religion for granted at our peril. We give a small part of our heart and even less of our time and we think that is enough, that that will suffice for the religious portion of our life but it is not enough to hold us together when we can no longer keep reality away. We choose other loyalties over God but they add nothing to our souls. They leave us hungry and thirsty and we wonder why we want more when we have too much already.
What can we do? We can grow up. Be real. Repent means we can change our ways, what we live for, what we want, what we do. Isaiah says seek the Lord while he may be found. That sounds a lot like what Jesus was trying to say to those who were wondering why buildings fall down on some and not others. Seek the Lord while he can be found, cried the prophet, call upon God when God is near. Live your life while you are still alive. Turn to God and God will have mercy for you. Turn to God and the gardener will give you one more time to live. Pray not to the sentimental cardboard Jesus or the Jesus who is just whoever we want him to be today, but to the Jesus who is real and knows what reality is and how hard it is and what is needed to carry on living in it. His body was truly broken, His blood was spilled. He died. And he lives so that we can live also. Like Franny, he is what we hunger and thirst for. He is the real deal. He is the gardener of our souls and in this holy meal he holds out not just bread and cup but life itself, abundant and present now. To all who will come he offers the very mercy of God that will save us and make us whole whether we deserve it or not.
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