Beatitudes 4: Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness, Rev. Christi O. Brown

Third Sunday in Lent

Psalm 107:1-9
Matthew 5:1-6

Matthew 6:33

(audio recording not available)

Many of you likely remember the popular Rolling Stones song from the 1960’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”  In this song, Mick Jagger croons on about no matter where he looks or how hard he tries, he just cannot find satisfaction.  My guess is Old Mick had not studied the Beatitudes, or he would have discovered—as we read this morning—that it is the ones who seek God’s righteousness who are truly fulfilled and satisfied.

Yet even for those of us who have read the passage, it can be a hard concept to grasp.  One of the reasons is that righteousness is not part of our everyday modern vocabulary.  We don’t really understand what it means, much less how to yearn for it.  Righteousness conjures up images of monk-like holiness, which can seem fairly unobtainable for normal folks like us.

The important thing to note, however, is that the original Greek form of the word refers not to our own righteousness—indicating that we do not have to seek to be a holy sin-free monk—but it actually refers to seeking the righteousness of God.  It connotes not only uprightness, justice, and integrity, but a right and just relationship with God as well. 1 It points us back to our covenant relationship with God established in the Old Testament.  This righteousness we seek is a yearning to walk with, be in friendship with, and to know God better—all of which in turn helps us establish respectful relationships with each other as well.

Though we are focusing on the fourth Beatitude of hungering and thirsting for righteousness this morning, there is a reason we read the previous three Beatitudes as well.  God’s righteousness is not one simple thing to strive for, but rather the sum of the whole.  It includes poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness.  And it also includes the Beatitudes that follow—mercy, pureness of heart, and making peace.  In fact, the 10th verse states, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” indicating that those who are blessed do not simply yearn for all of these things, but take action in order to implement them, fully aware they might be persecuted for these very deeds.  Hungering and thirsting are active, tangible verbs.  This is a call to not only yearn for God’s righteousness, but to put our faith into action.

This all-encompassing message of the Beatitudes that Jesus proclaims appears to be in strict opposition to the message secular society sells us today.  The Beatitudes indicate those who are blessed are those who are not in power, are not rich, and are not beautiful.  Imagine the title of a soap opera based on the Beatitudes.  Instead of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” it would be “The Meek and the Lowly.”  “The Bold and the Beautiful” actually celebrated 24 years on TV this week.  It is the most-watched soap in the world with 26.2 million viewers and has won 31 Emmy Awards.2 I wonder how long-running, how many viewers, and many Emmies “The Meek and the Lowly” would win?

And yet, this is what Jesus states we should yearn for.  But what does it really mean for us to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness in today’s world?  There is a saying, “You are what you eat.”  This is true for our bodies, and it’s one reason the local food movement is so big right now.  If we eat healthier foods, we have healthier bodies.  And just as food affects the health of our bodies, so our hungers affect the health of our souls.  Theologian Richard Neibuhr believes that once you the answer the question of what you hunger for or desire above all else, then you’ll know what your little “g” gods looks like. 3 This begs the question, “Where are we seeking our satisfaction, and what is the ensuing state of our souls?”

All too often we hunger and feed on unhealthy things.  We seek our satisfaction in stuff that we feel directly, positively, and immediately impacts us.  Yet often the effects of these things subside as fast as they come, and we’re left empty and our hunger ensues.  As Chris indicated in his sermon several weeks ago, we should not be satisfied with the status quo, but we should keep searching for true satisfaction, for God’s righteousness, hungering for the world to be better, and committing to making it so.

I personally spent far too much of my 20’s hungering for the wrong things.  Though strong in faith, I was still tempted and wooed by the secular notions of success and satisfaction, literally feeding on both unhealthy food and ideas.  I understood what Mick Jagger was singing about.  Seeking idealized notions of beauty, I consequently suffered from a compulsive eating disorder.  I ate more than enough but was never filled.  Striving for outwardly perfection but always falling short internally.  Enduring vicious cycles of loss, gain and shame, I was never truly happy, much less satisfied.  I was surrounded by loving friends and family, but I kept a pretty good secret and therefore often felt completely alone and dissatisfied.  And no matter how rich, how sweet, how healthy, how salty, how natural, or how gourmet what I ate was—it was never enough.

I would surmise there are very few of us here this morning, living in this land of plenty, who have ever known what it feels like to be truly physically hungry, at least for more than a few hours.  I was astounded by the statistic on the Crop Walk last week that read, “The average American consumes six pounds a day, while those in the poorest countries eat 2-3 ounces.”   What disparity.  Though many of us don’t experience empty stomachs, I would guess there are plenty of us in this consumeristic society who do know what spiritual emptiness feels like.  In a country with a plethora of physical eating disorders, could it be that we also suffer from spiritual disorders?

Spiritual anorexia would be when we never feast on the Word for nourishment.  Our souls are depleted, lacking nutrients, weak.  Think about the pictures you’ve seen of those who are physically malnourished and then imagine your soul in that state of deterioration and emptiness.

Spiritual compulsive overeating would be when we do consume the Word, maybe even with great fervor, but with no purpose—no end in mind.  We just go through the motions, leaving our souls bloated, lackluster and forlorn.

Spiritual bulimia would be when we gorge on the Word, but end up purging by dismissing it as not applicable to our lives today.  The lining of our souls are left torn, dehydrated and weak.

So how do we healthily feast on the Word, how do we seek God’s righteousness and our full satisfaction, not in a disordered way, but in an ordered way of hungering?

A bishop who lived 1700 years ago in what is now modern day Turkey sheds light on this subject.  Gregory of Nyssa commented on this Beatitude that just as we must distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food for our bodies, so we must distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food for our souls.  And when our desires go beyond the limit of lawful need, we too are tempted to turn stones into bread, to do that which is instantly gratifying.  He goes on to remark (and remember this is 1700 years ago), that none of the things that are coveted in this life for the sake of pleasure will satisfy those who run after them.  None of the things that are coveted in this life for the sake of pleasure will satisfy those who run after them.

People can spend all their time pouring themselves into this abyss of desire, adding pleasure to pleasure, yet never procuring pure satisfaction. 4 When we obsessively seek these pleasures and fall into the abyss (and we all do at some point—none of us are alone in this), it is then that it is most helpful for us to remember that it is Jesus who is the Bread of Life and Living Water.  It is the grace of Christ that becomes solid food to the truly hungry.

Sara Miles learned what it meant to hunger and thirst for righteousness and to rely on God’s grace.  A self-proclaimed  atheist who wandered into a church as a middle-aged adult, Sara received communion, and found herself transformed.  In that moment she did not discover a religion based on good behavior or piety, but rather a faith centered on real hunger, real food and real people.  Her hunger for God’s righteousness was raw and ravenous.

Within a few months of her first communion, she opened a food pantry in that very church—piling groceries on the church’s altar to give away to those who most needed it.  Unlike most charities, however, there were no qualification forms required to receive food.  Everyone was welcome at the table—including church ladies, schizophrenics, bishops and thieves.  Running the food pantry at the church was messy, heartbreaking and simultaneously beautiful.  It was the living communion of Christ.

In her book Take This Bread, Sara stated she found the hard work rewarding because “To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we are fed by God.” 5 She described the food bank worship service with the smell of incense and wet cardboard and slightly rotten bell peppers; and fifty out of tune voices.  A small child was lifted up on shoulders to see the minister break the English muffin.  And it was in that poignant moment when she realized why Christians imagine the kingdom of heaven as a feast; a banquet where no one is excluded—where the weakest and most broken, the worst sinners and outcasts, the poor in spirit and the meek, both the self-righteous and those seeking God’s righteousness, were each honored guests who welcomed one another in peace and shared their food. 6

Sara got a call from a man who had never stood at this table, but who had heard of it.  He wrote a check to the food bank for a quarter of a million dollars.  But this rich man was so spiritually hungry himself that through tears he asked Sara for a prayer to pray.  She gave him the one she had written for the food pantry worship:  “O God of abundance, you feed us every day.   Rise in us now, make us into your bread, that we may share your gifts with a hungry world.” 7

Friends, how is God rising in you?  What do you hunger and thirst for above all else?  Where do you seek your satisfaction?  What do you feed on?  How do you share your gifts with a hungry world?

Seeking God’s righteousness is our hungering and thirsting turned into action.  It means being in right relationship with both God and each other.  It is an ordered way of hungering, being fulfilled by the sustaining satisfaction of God.  It is a yearning not for our little “g” gods but for our big “G” God.  It is avoiding the abyss of desire.  It is celebrating the living communion of Christ every single day.

When we seek God’s righteousness, all these things are added unto us.

Alleluia, Amen.

  1. Barclay-Newman, Greek-English Dictionary.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_bold_and_the_beautiful 
  3. Kolbell, Erik.  What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 76. 
  4. Plumpe, Joseph C. and Johannes Quasten (eds).  Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, vol 18. (Westminster: Newman Press, 1954).  “St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes” translated by Hilda G. Graef, 126. 
  5. Miles, Sara.  Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008) 116. 
  6. Ibid, 158. 
  7. Ibid, 247.