Holy Hunger -- September 25, 2011

Holy Hunger

Exodus 17:1-7

The Reverend Chris Adams


The last time Pastor Tricia and I worked together in worship was at the February Presbytery meeting. We preached a sermon together, based in the story of Jesus calling Peter to get out of the boat. It was a dialogue sermon between the two of us and one additional pastor and we offered the message seated together in an actual boat. We called it, “Three Bored Pastors.” It was a lot of fun and a joy to work together.

As I remember now, my character (I guess that’s what we call it) was very hungry. Over and over, to interject a little humor into the message I told the others that I was hungry. Over and over Tricia and Tim responded, “You always are.” Did I mention it was fun?

To be honest though, I wasn’t really. Hungry that is. In fact, as I read the Exodus story again this week, only part of which we have today it occurred to me that I have never really been hungry. Not the way the Israelites seemed to be anyway.

It’s funny how we talk about being hungry and thirsty. My children, four years old to fifteen, come in to me sometimes, “Dad I’m hungry!” My youngest daughter has this recent routine where the last thing she says before we turn off the light for bed is to tell us that she is thirsty. It’s a great stall tactic to get just one or two minutes more out of the day.

But to be honest, none of my children have ever really been hungry or really been thirsty. I am not saying I want them to be; of course I don’t. It’s just funny how we use those words and do not distinguish their meaning from other ways of being hungry and thirsty.

You probably watched the media coverage of this year’s drought in east Africa. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, one of the medical correspondents with CNN I think, traveled to Somalia and reported on the crisis level, shortage of food there caused by the drought. I remember the video of a small boy that was literally starving to death. Dr. Gupta reported that even if they could keep him alive, his life would be forever changed by this event because his body would never fully recover. His brain would be smaller than normal because his young developing body was hungry for so long.

That kind of hungry is nothing my children will ever experience, I pray.

Remember the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. The country’s infrastructure was destroyed and even now has not even begun to recover. In the weeks and months following, because clean water wasn’t available, a cholera epidemic devastated the already desperate situation. Moms and dads had to choose whether to give their thirsty children infected water or watch as their children became more and more dehydrated. If you have children, can you imagine that kind of decision? But we won’t have to make such a choice.

That kind of thirsty is something my children will probably never experience, again I pray.

You see, we use words like hungry and thirsty, but they clearly aren’t the same as the kind of hunger and thirst other people in our world know all too often. I have never really been hungry and really been thirsty.

So how can I read a story like this Exodus story and make any sense at all out of it?

You see, we pick a side pretty quickly in this story and it’s the side articulated by Moses. Perhaps that’s because the story is told from the perspective of Moses, and so naturally that is the way the author is leading us.

But have you ever considered that you might read a story like this differently if you lived, say in East Africa or Haiti? I guess I wonder how much our experience affects our ability to identify with this story. You see, don’t you, that the story never declares that God is on one side or the other. It simply points out that there is an argument.

You see, friends, I have never really been hungry or thirsty, and so it’s pretty easy for me to get self-righteous with such a story and take the side of Moses in this quarrel. That’s what the words at the end mean. Moses names the place Massah and Meribah, meaning trial and quarreling.

The traditional interpretation of this story is that the Israelites are just ungrateful to God for being delivered and fail to appreciate Moses and the strain of his leadership of a stiff-necked people. That’s the way I have always seen the story, anyway. In fact, that’s clearly a way to understand the story. If you read Chapter 16, then there is even more grumbling and an even clearer denunciation of that grumbling.

The Israelites are ungrateful it seems. They constantly grumble, and Moses and even we see that today as testing God, who has been gracious in delivering them from Pharaoh. In fact, Moses even asks them in the story, “Why are you testing the Lord?” It seems the Israelites are never satisfied. That’s the way we understand this.

But if I were a father that had just made a life and death choice about my dying child and her need for food or water in Haiti or some other place in desperate need, I wonder if the demands of the Israelites wouldn’t seem quite so obnoxious. I wonder if I might want to have a word with Moses about the things that are lacking?

Because in the end, water is provided to the people, just like quail and manna and just about everything else the Israelites needed. The very thing that they needed the most is there when Moses cries out to God about getting ahead of the people and leading them. When Moses follows the instructions of God, then the rock (even a rock) provides life-giving water.

That’s the good news of this story. God provides. God provides life-giving water to the Israelites, in spite of the quarreling and disagreement. Of course God does this. Would we expect anything else? Of course God provides for His people. You and I, we believe in that don’t we.

The Israelites grumble, they ask, and Moses with God’s help delivers. In fact, if I were to again put on my parenting hat this morning, I would notice that surely the way not to spoil these Israelites would be to stop giving in to their every demand. Every parent knows that giving in to whining only encourages more whining. Right?

Except, again, let’s look again at the story with different eyes. The Israelites aren’t asking for another piece of candy or the latest video game they saw on television. They are asking for water, and food, and shelter. They grumble for the basic necessities of life, and God provides. That’s what happens in this story, and over and over in the story of God with God’s people.

So here’s the question... What are we grumbling for today? What is it that we that are not particularly hungry and thirsty really want from God?

Or do we understand a story like this one as prohibiting grumbling? Are we not supposed to ask God for things anymore, because of this story and the grumbling of the Israelites? We certainly wouldn’t want Moses and others to think we are spoiled. We certainly want God to know how much we love Him and appreciate all we have been given. So maybe we think that means we don’t ask?

There are some pastors I know that won’t ask God for healing as they visit a person in the hospital or suffering from cancer. They figure, and I know this because I have asked, that God already knows what they need so they don’t have to ask. They only need to pray to the Almighty deliverer of all things. Maybe that’s okay.

But for me, there is something intimate about asking. I realize that we might be disappointed if the answer is no, but I want to ask anyway. I want to grumble a little. I want to be sad and disappointed when the world is not as God created it to be. There isn’t supposed to be death, and sickness, and poverty, and hunger and thirst. That’s not what God created.

So I want to join the Israelites and do a little grumbling this morning. I want to join the people of East Africa and Haiti, and the Middle East, and India, and the Sudan. I want to join people that live without a job, and a home, and healthcare. I want to join people that sit by the bedside of someone they love with the specter of death in the room. I want to grumble.

I don’t want to just assume God knows what we need. Sure, I believe the Almighty knows. I know God knows the ways we suffer in the world, after all, He created the world without suffering and so surely God knows when people and creation end up less than what He created. In fact, I believe as Paul says in Ephesians 4 that Christ is already in all things and through all things and works in all things.

But I want to grumble a little, because grumbling demonstrates my dependence on God. I share intimacy with God when I get down on my knees, with you and others, and grumble about the things that aren’t yet part of the Kingdom of God. Does that make me spoiled? Does grumbling make us the new Israelites, testing the Lord? Maybe.

However, it’s not like we are grumbling for our version of a piece of candy or whining like a child. I am not advocating grumbling to God for a new car, the expensive kind, or a better house, or more comforts. You see, when so much of the world lives without the basics, that kind of grumbling isn’t about anybody but us. It’s just selfish. It’s not the holy hunger for the Kingdom of God.

Holy hunger and a thirst for justice seems to be different. It seems almost worthy of grumbling. Maybe that’s not quite what you see in today’s lesson? But maybe that’s also because we have never really been hungry or thirsty. Maybe we have never heard shots ring out in our neighborhood at night and wonder if it’s close. Maybe we have never returned to the place where our home used to be to discover that fire, or tornado, or flood has destroyed everything. If we have, then I wonder if we might read the story differently.

Grumbling is what we do when we realize that things aren’t as they are supposed to be. We are sad when we live in a world that falls short of the glory of it’s creator.

The good news for you and I today, my friends, is that God provides. That’s our God’s answer to grumbling. God grants the wishes of the grumblers, then in the ancient world and now.

Awes and wonders continue to happen in our world. People are healed. The hungry are fed. The thirsty are quenched. Prisoners are freed. Wars end. The unemployed get hired. The homeless find shelter. The naked are clothed. The sun rises and sets on all of creation, which sings of the glory of God.

I guess, in the end, just as I was back in February sitting in that boat with Pastor Tricia and Tim, I am still hungry. Perhaps as my friends reminded me that day, it seems like as God’s people, we always are. We all still share that holy hunger for the Kingdom of God.

The good news is maybe not what we expect. The good news is that we find joy in knowing that we can grumble. That God hears our prayers and answers. That God is out in front of us creating the world into what God intended all along, and in the end we trust in Jesus Christ, the one in whom every tear is wiped away and every prayer is answered.

We trust in the Holy One of Israel, the one who will return to bring all things to their God intended end, to bring Shalom to the entire world! May we continue to grumble joyfully in our holy hunger until then...

Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen.