“What Are You Hungry For?”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
24 March, 2019
1 Corinthians 101-13
I’m sure I’m not the only parent who’s ever had a teenager stand in front of a fully-stocked pantry or fridge and lament loudly, “There is NOTHING to eat in this house!” I can relate, if I’m honest. How many times have I sensed a dull ache or a certain restlessness, and mindlessly headed for the kitchen—only to discover, as I’ve surveyed and reflected on my options, what I’m craving isn’t there. My body doesn’t really want or need food right now. But still, something in me is saying, “I’m hungry!” My tongue is not dry, but I am thirsty.
“O God, you are my God, I seek you—my soul thirsts for you; my whole being longs for you, as in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” The Psalmist expresses our shared experience in his 63rdwork. Just read through the Psalms, and you’ll see how clearly he recognized that human beings possess a variety of powerful appetites: in addition to food, we hunger for love, for meaning, for fun. For physical affection that’s not manipulative or coercive: adults crave sex; children hanker after play. Interactive sports are popular because they feed deep hungers. We hunger for bodily safety, and material security, but also for adventure, and for a sense of proficiency and control in navigating our world. We thirst for knowledge, and for deeper, more honest connection with others: a sense of knowing, and being known and accepted for who we are. All of these are good things. They are features of our human experience that help us to enjoy the smorgasbord of gifts God has lavished on this world. But when we indulge any of these appetites in ways that overpower God’s intended balance and order, the consequence is suffering and death.
It’s not just the Psalmist that acknowledges our hungers. The Bible is full of references to how our appetites can draw us closer to God, or drive us away from the only thing that will ultimately satisfy us. It all depends on how we seek to feed our hunger, or slake our thirst.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Isaiah announced in our first reading. It’s a confusing invitation—come and buy without money? But when you digest those first words along with the last words of our reading—”For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD”—you begin to understand that the prophet is referring to dining, not on anything we can touch or taste in a physical sense, but rather, on spiritual food. A source of nourishment and sustenance that is often neglected when we allow one of our more carnal appetites to dominate or control the rest of our soul’s experience.
It’s as though God has spread a tremendous banquet table, with every possible thing our heart could desire. But instead of the balance God intends—and tried to show us how to achieve, first by the teachings of the law and the prophets, and then by the embodied example in Jesus Christ—we load up our plates with too much of one good thing or another. And that has the knock-on effect of spiritual indigestion, malnourishment, alienation.
There are some Christians who would like to avoid talking about these darker aspects of our human nature—as if, because we’ve professed Jesus as our Savior, we’re no longer susceptible to the same sorts of temptations and behaviors that ‘the rest of the world’ engages in. The apostle Paul knew better. He knew that some of his people were living double lives, and he wasn’t afraid to talk (or write) about it. In our epistle reading, he warned the early Christians in Corinth about the consequences of over-indulging the wrong appetites.
Imagine a child who approaches the banquet table and piles his plate high with every sort of sweet treat on offer. Because he’s been taught enough to know that this probably isn’t a healthy plateful (he may even hear his mother’s voice warning that there will be a stomachache in his future, but at the moment he doesn’t care), and because he’s knows others can see him, he adds a couple carrot sticks and a green bean or two. Paul was addressing a similar sort of dynamic, spiritually speaking. His message to the Corinthian congregation was, “For some of you, church is little more than an empty display of pretend virtue. You are indulging your appetites in ways that are far from wholesome, and your spiritual health is suffering.” For some, the hunger for material security was being over-indulged, so that it led to a hoarding of wealth at the expense of those in need. What the hoarders didn’t realize about their lopsided diet was that it was starving their souls of the richness of compassion and the joy of generosity. Some fed their hunger for power and control so lavishly that they crushed the spirits of others—and, while they lived large in terms of perceived worldly superiority, their souls had rickets preventing them from appreciating God’s intended order, where each person has equal worth, wonder, and God-beloved-ness. Unchecked sexual appetites were playing out in unhealthy and destructive relationships in the community. Paul details those in several places in his two letters to the Corinthians. Specifically, he called out extra-marital affairs, dalliances with prostitution, and incest. And, some in his congregation were over-indulging indulging their hunger for affirmation and self-importance, which led them to excessive criticism and complaining. You see, over-feeding one appetite or another inevitably leads to suffering.
Paul prefaced all of these observations to his audience by acknowledging their proclivities were nothing new, hearkening back to their ancestors in the wilderness in Moses’ day. They, too, he reminded them, “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.” He concluded the passage by saying, “So if you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.” In other words, don’t get too cocky, and don’t judge those who stumble, because it may just be you next. But he hastens to add, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” When you realize one or another of your appetites has tipped you off-balance, you’re not the only one who’s been there and done that. Trust that God will also provide a way out—watch for it.
As I was preparing for this sermon, I stumbled across the blogsite of a therapist in New York City. He specializes in addiction disorders, and I was struck by his ‘secular’ commentary on what we’ve been examining through Biblical lenses. He begins by making some of the same observations I did, about the variety of hungers we experience as human beings. And he describes what I would call the embodied experience, arguing:
[Our] appetites are not frivolous desires; they are physiological mandates required by our bodies and minds, and we need to fulfill them just as we have to fulfill our need for sleep. These needs press upon us throughout life. Either we learn to meet them in healthy ways in adulthood, or we suffer consequences. In my line of work, it’s not uncommon for people to seek help precisely because one or more of their appetites is out of control and has them in the grips of obsession and compulsion. . . . Human beings have a remarkable ability to go to extremes in one direction or another. We can be desperate for love or cut from the feelings of needing others. We can compulsively eat or obsessively restrict. We can spin grand narratives about our lives or find ourselves devoid of meaning and purpose. We can go from hero to zero in a matter of seconds. Being out of balance in life is painful, disheartening and serves as a major obstacle to moving forward.”
Next, he asks some very direct and helpful assessment questions: Do you overindulge any of your appetites – and feel repeated frustration and shame about it? Do you make endless promises that you will “control” yourself, but continually find that your methods are not working? Conversely, have you cut yourself off from any of the basic human appetites because trying to meet those needs just seems too [darned] complicated? 
According to his paradigm, regularly overindulging one or more of our “appetites” is a manifestation of addiction, which results from and perpetuates a fundamental rupture in human connection. And he concludes:
“Human beings heal and grow in the context of relationships. As the saying goes, no one gets well alone. Yes, there is work to do within one’s own mind and heart, but if that process is not witnessed, supported and reinforced by other people, it will not be nearly as effective. We are social creatures to the core. We need others and they need us. The first step in rebalancing our appetites is admitting that going it aloneis not working. This is the beginning of addressing the rupture between oneself and the human community.”
He gets a lot right—and he’s making an implicit appeal for his own ability to help as a therapist. But his approach misses a crucial beat by leaving God out of the picture. He’s right that we cannot get well alone—we doneed others, and they need us. But that’s because even more fundamental than our connection to other human beings is our connection to God—the One who designedus to need others, and to be needed by them. Though we often fail to realize it because we’re so adept at feeding our more carnal hungers, our deepest and most fundamental hunger is spiritual: our souls yearn for meaningful re-connection with the Source and Sustainer of our life.
The Psalmist understood this, which is why he proclaimed with such clarity, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my whole being longs for you. . .” His next words convey the soul’s fulfilment, “So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast . . . for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.”
Isaiah also understood it, as did Paul. That’s why the prophet exhorted his people to “listen carefully”, to “eat what is good”, and to “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts…” Isaiah was saying that indulging in worldly appetites to the neglect of one’s hunger and thirst for God results in nothing good.
And that’s why Paul encouraged his congregation to pay attention to the experience of their ancestors. Because, he argues, they—though they all “ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink” saw many perish, spiritually and literally, as a consequence of their refusal to repent, or turn away from, destructive behaviors stemming from over-indulged appetites.
Too often, we feel the emptiness, or shame, or disappointment of having indulged an appetite that clamored for our attention, only to have discovered it was masking our deeper, more fundamental hunger for connection with our life-Source. Feeding that spiritual hunger takes time and devoted attention.
Jesus regularly took time from his day to feed his spirit: to study his scriptures, to listen to what God was saying to him, and to speak his truth to God. That’s how he maintained the strength to withstand forty days of testing and temptation in the wilderness. It’s how he maintained a clear focus on his ministry and purpose all the days of his life.
In the hubbub and countless distractions of our world today, such spiritual discipline takes real determination and perseverance. But that’s what Lent invites us to do: to turn away from the things that introduce distance between us and our true, deepest hunger. To re-orient ourselves toward the One whom our hearts truly seek after. And to take notice when something in us says, “I’m hungry!” When that happens, try sitting calmly with that feeling for a moment, just be with that thought, and respond with the question, “What am I really hungry for?”
Prayer: God, help us to pay attention to our appetites, and to adjust our diets so that we’re feeding our hunger for you. Amen.
Psalm 63:1, my combination of NRSV and NIV.
1 Cor. 10:3.
1 Corinthians 10:12-13.
Psalm 63:1, 4-5a, 7.
Isaiah 55:2b, 6-7.