[Sermon preached on Sunday, August 12, 2018 (Proper XIV, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]
For today’s sermon, if you’ll indulge me, I just want to testify, I want to share more of my story with you in hopes that you might see yourself in it. What I have come to understand in my young life is that, although we may look different, have different experiences and perspectives, we share some commonalities.
One of the things that is common across the human experience is hunger. When I speak of hunger, I am not speaking of physical hunger, though there is certainly a need for the Church to speak about, listen to, and support those experiencing physical hunger. We must ask ourselves, what does it mean to create a compassionate world where no one goes hungry, where no one lives in poverty, and where no one is too poor to live.
Today however, when I speak of hunger, I mean a deep, inner, spiritual hunger, the kind of hunger that is experienced by people regardless of economic or class background.
When I was called to my first parish, I was called to an incredibly wealthy congregation in one of the wealthiest zip codes in Kansas and Missouri. In contrast, before finishing my ordination requirements at Sewanee, I did most of my theological education at a seminary in the inner city of Atlanta, across the street from the poorest zip codes in the entire city. I came to my first congregation taking “spiritual hunger” for granted, that is, until I had a conversation with a man who was wrestling through his own spiritual journey. “Jesus came to Zacchaeus too,” he would often say. “People like me may not experience physical hunger, but our souls are starving.”
As I began paying attention to the voices of those in my congregation, many of whom had wealth set aside for many generations, I heard stories of loneliness, of pain and trauma, of unreconciled relationships, of spiritual famine. Many of them were folks who came to church week in and week out hoping that this time they would feel God and be filled by God.
I began to see that, although we often came from and lived in two very different worlds, we had a lot in common. I too remember being spiritually hungry. I remember starving and being blissfully unaware of just how malnourished my soul was.
It must’ve started in high school. As many of you know, I began preaching at the age of 14. In many ways entering ministry at such a young age was a blessing. To possess such clarity of vocation so early is a gift, or so I’m told.
It was also a curse.
I don’t know that I possessed the spiritual discipline to support that vocation beforehand, but I do know that I sure didn’t have it afterwards. I was so busy putting on a show, hoping no one would see just how insecure I was, that I didn’t have time to pray.
At first, I noticed the hunger. I noticed how thin and tentative my relationship with God began to feel. I remember being unable to draw on any spiritual depth when I needed to, like when I needed to be able to resist becoming a bully in high school. I noticed how, even though I was in a room full of people, I felt so incredibly alone.
I would try to fill the void with friends – I had a lot of them, especially in college; or accomplishments – I was addicted to the attention that you get when you do good things; or busyness – I measured my self-worth by how full my calendar was. These things filled the hunger temporarily, but it was still there, still nagging at me, still trying to tell me that something in my life was missing.
Eventually those feelings, those warnings, began to fade into a spiritual numbness. I would pray sometimes, mostly when I really needed something. I would read my Bible even less, mostly when I needed to find the right scripture to battle someone with. Over time, the loneliness, the fatigue, the insecurity, the instability, it all simply began to fade into a numbness.
That is, until I stumbled into an Episcopal Church in the summer of 2009, a little of nine years ago. I am still not all the way sure how I wound up there, but I do remember sitting in the parking lot and having this conversation with God: “God it is now or never.”
You see, my spiritual hunger had existed in the background for a long time. But when I needed to draw on a deep well of grace after wrestling with my own identity and what it meant to be a faithful Christian and be gay, I found that I had nothing. In the moment when my soul needed mooring and security, I found nothing. It was in that moment that I had to come to grips with how far I had drifted from God – all while being in seminary, all while working in campus ministry all through college, all while working at a church in youth and young adult ministry. It happened slowly, but by the time I realized it, my soul had drifted very far from God.
But when I walked into Saint Martin’s Church all those years ago, I found out what grace really meant – it means that no matter how far we may drift from God, we are never really more than one step away from God. When I experienced the welcome and hospitality of the woman sitting in the pew next to me, when I received the Body of Christ in the palms of my trembling hands, when I sat tearfully in the pew repeatedly uttering the words “thank you” over and over again, I knew that something was different.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, that great Doctor and Father of the Church, also struggled with grace. True love is hard to comprehend, particularly the love of God. His most famous work, Confessions, is basically him trying to reckon with the presence of grace in his life, grace that he doesn’t feel he deserves or earns. Confessions begins with a beautiful line: “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”
The spiritual hunger that exists within us is there because, we are were made to desire one another and to desire God. Now, some people may have found other things to fill that desire, but the fact that we are here, in this room, when we could be doing anything else, means that there is something there, something we desire, something we need, something we seek.
What do you seek?
For what does your soul hunger?
When you examine the shape of your own life or the shape of our world, for what does your soul thirst?
The end of today’s testimony has led me to this conclusion: whatever it is we hunger or thirst for, Jesus can fill it. Over and over again in the scriptures, we are warned against filling our lives with wealth or possessions or titles or esteem or busyness To do so presents a moral and spiritual crisis. This isn’t because having things, accomplishing things, or being ambitious are necessarily bad. We are warned against them precisely because they can seduce us into thinking that they are fulfilling our deepest hunger.
But when our world is falling apart, when a loved one dies, when we experience a frightening diagnosis, when we lose a job or a home, when our marriages run aground, when what we have come to believe about our nation no longer feels as true, when we are shocked at the level of brutality humans can inflict on one another, the only thing that can fill the hunger and thirst left behind is Jesus.
The truth is, even when all is going well, many of us still pick up on a spiritual sluggishness. The ancients call this ακεδια, or the one of the Seven Deadly Sins we call “sloth.” It’s not laziness, but a spiritual stupor, a falling out of love with what really matters, a falling out of love with God, a cooling of the heart, a spiritual numbness.
We’ll have to tackle part II of this next week and talk about what it means to make our way to God, but I want to leave you with the words of Jesus for whatever it is that you hunger for: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”
We all hunger for something – forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, mercy, community, security, grace – and blessed be those who hunger for Jesus promises us that we will be filled, filled to overflowing.
 Saint Augustine. (2006). Confessions. Hackett Publishing. p. 18.