Text: Matthew 5:6 – 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
You may remember that we have been referencing a poem over the past few weeks written by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian titled “The Work of Christmas”. For those who may be unfamiliar or who have forgotten, let’s take another look at that poem.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
We have been considering this list of work that is offered and hopefully we may have expanded your thinking around a couple of these items. We have talked about finding the lost and healing the broken and today, the third item on this list is “feed the hungry”.
Of course there are a couple of ways to look at the feeding of the hungry; we have people with physical needs that are actually hungry because they lack food and lack the resources to buy food. There are also many people, I believe, that suffer from a spiritual hunger. Feeding the spiritual hunger is maybe a little trickier than feeding the physically hungry so I will be more focused on that aspect of what we do as a church than the physical hunger.
This is not to say I don’t consider the physical hunger an important part of what we do; we offer quite a bit of ministry as it relates to people’s physical needs. We prepare and serve a meal through the Salvation Army one day a month, we collect food on a regular basis for the food bank and we participate in a number of other ministries, like Family Promise or Circles that are designed to help people meet their physical needs. These things we do and do quite well.
Feeding the spiritually hungry is a little more obscure; many of us may not know exactly what that looks like, or worse yet, we think we are offering food for the spiritually hungry, but we really are not. I think this is a problem many in the church fail to recognize; we think we are offering food, but what we offer and how it is presented make it inaccessible to many individuals. The results of our failure to feed the spiritually hungry is now becoming apparent as more and more people leave main stream Christianity and look elsewhere for their spiritual nourishment. These are the spiritually hungry that self-identify as “spiritual, but not religious” and they are the fastest growing demographic currently in the United States.
I want to take just a minute and have some fun with this idea. In the movie Castaway, which starred Tom Hanks, there is a scene early in the film that I think depicts beautifully, what I am talking about. In this scene, Tom Hanks has been alone on this deserted island for perhaps 24 hours or so. He has had nothing to eat or drink that entire time and he is beginning to recognize that he needs to find food and water soon. In this clip from Castaway, our hero discovers that the island has coconuts! Let’s watch.
Play movie clip
Some of you may have figured out where I’m headed with this idea, but I think it is important for us to recognize some of the truth that is depicted in this film clip. We may offer spiritual food at times, but to get to the real beneficial part of that food requires some technique and some stripping away of things that just get in the way. Our hero struggled a little bit to access the water and the meat that was contained inside of the coconut. If he had not been starving and desperate, I think he probably would have just given up and sought food elsewhere; don’t you?
We need to think about this. I believe it is a huge problem that goes unrecognized or unacknowledged by many in the church. We offer spiritual food to the general public as a green, whole coconut without any indication about how to access what is inside. In some cases the church actually prohibits the peeling away of the outer layers and the breaking of the coconut shell; it simply is not allowed or not encouraged in any way.
There are many ways that we in the church do this, I think. But of all the ways we fool ourselves into thinking that we are providing spiritual food, I believe the worst offender is probably the Bible. We offer the Bible as a complete meal, a giant smorgasbord of spiritual food, the answer to every question and the final authority on any disagreement. We do this often without even recognizing ourselves how shrouded the true meat of the Bible actually is. We don’t recognize what is required at times to cut through the outer shells of misguided understandings and traditions and belief systems which surround this sacred text.
When we offer the Bible as spiritual food to the unchurched or the first time visitor, we need to recognize that it comes to them as a whole green coconut. We need to help them strip away the outer shells and grant them permission to do so. But that is rarely found in the church and it is even rarer to hear it preached. When we do not help them, they become frustrated and seek food elsewhere.
Just in case you are not following what I’m talking about, I thought I would provide a couple of examples. Of course you have heard this before, but generally when I offer a personal opinion or observation on something it comes with a disclaimer. These are my ideas and opinions; they don’t have to be your ideas or beliefs. That being said, there are a couple of thoughts about the Bible that I don’t think we make clear enough.
One thought is I don’t believe the Bible was dictated by God. All 66 books of the Bible represent imperfect, flawed and very human products of human authors. Are some of the scriptures inspired? Certainly, I think we can claim that, on the same level that Mozart and Bach were inspired or Martin Luther King Jr was inspired. But my belief is that the authors of the Bible retained their faculties and were not puppets on a string being manipulated by God. Further, I think most of us feel this way, but we don’t say it enough.
Another example is I don’t believe the Bible is a science book and trying to make it function as a science book is just crazy. The earth is not 4,000 years old, evolution is real and the creation stories are just that; stories. Again, I think most of us in mainstream Christianity believe this to be true, but we do not say it enough.
A third example is that I believe the Bible contains many errors and is not a reliable source for answers to contemporary questions. When we begin to discuss things like gay rights, capital punishment, the role of women, questions about marriage and divorce or even violence in our culture, the Bible, at least in my experience has little input that is of real value in these areas. I think most of you would agree with my assessment of this and it certainly isn’t a radical or extreme position, and yet we fail to really put that message out there on a regular basis.
One more example is the notion that you can use scripture to justify scripture; in other words the use of circular reasoning has no place in an actual theological discussion. But, as I have stated previously, we don’t say this enough and when we see it or hear it, we don’t challenge it or call it out. The Bible isn’t true simply because the Bible says it is true. Things don’t work that way. At least not from my perspective.
When I complain that we don’t say these things often enough or put that word out there for the visitor or unfamiliar I’m speaking of mainstream Christianity as a whole. Not necessarily this particular church. For example, I have been in a number of churches, mostly United Methodist, that share the majority of my opinions about scripture. In spite of this, however, when scripture is read, it is often concluded with the phrase “the Word of God for the people of God” or something to that effect, and often the people respond with a line like “praise be to God” or something like that.
I’m not saying that this type of liturgy is inappropriate or not meaningful; what I am saying is that we need to consider the impact that traditions like this have on a demographic that is already suspicious or disenfranchised from Christianity as a whole.
To return to the movie clip example, if we are going to feed the people coconuts, we need to tell them how to get into the coconut, give them permission to get into the coconut and perhaps demonstrate for them what that looks like. This is a large topic, too big really for one sermon or one sitting. But it is worth thinking about and worth considering in what ways we may be perpetuating belief systems or traditions that we actually don’t agree with.
So that, of course, is food for thought. Perhaps we can continue the discussion at Preacher’s Pub tomorrow, but for now, go in peace and go with God. Amen.