Monthly Archives: March, 2011
Beatitudes 4: Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness, Rev. Christi O. Brown
Third Sunday in Lent
(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.
- Barclay-Newman, Greek-English Dictionary.
- Kolbell, Erik. What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 76.
- 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.
- Miles, Sara. Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008) 116.
- Ibid, 158.
- Ibid, 247.
Second Sunday in Lent
We continue our Lenten Sermon Series on the Beatitudes. These majestic phrases at the beginning of Matthew are the keynote address of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5, 6, and 7. It is a vision statement of sorts, a preamble, the way Christ gives us of thinking about the world, His world.
We are gathering around these texts in worship together through to Palm Sunday, and will work in partnership with the Wednesday evening study that began this past week. Come join us to continue the conversation. Let us pray…
Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
The Word of God for the People of God.
Thanks be to God.
Ruby Bridges was just six years old when in 1960 she stood before a judge who ordered her to go to first grade in the William Franz Elementary School. No black child had ever before stepped foot upon the hallowed white ground. Ruby recounts: “my mother and I drove to school with the marshals. The crowd outside the building was ready. Racists spat at us and shouted [horrible things].” One woman screamed at me, “I’m going to poison you. I’ll find a way.” She made the same threat every morning. And this was Ruby’s routine for much of the year – go to school with Federal Marshals, stoically walk past the incensed crowd…learn all by herself in a classroom where every single white child had been withdrawn from school, and then go home just to do it all over again…that was first grade.
One day, there was a break in her routine. Her teacher, Mrs. Henry, noticed Ruby walking toward the school and the protesters. But then she stopped, turned toward the howling crowd and seemed to be trying to speak to them. Finally, she stopped talking and walked in. Mrs. Henry immediately asked Ruby what happened; why did she try and talk to such a belligerent crowd. Ruby irritatingly responded that she didn’t stop to talk with them. “Ruby, I saw you talking,” Mrs. Henry pressed. “I saw your lips moving.” “I wasn’t talking,” said Ruby. “I was praying…I was praying for them.” Ruby had stopped every morning around the corner from the school to pray for the people who hated her. But on this morning she had forgotten until she was already in the middle of the malevolent mob.
After school that day, Ruby bolted through the crowd as usual and headed for home with her two companion federal marshals. After a few blocks and with the crowds behind her, she paused as she usually did to say the prayer that she had repeated not once but twice a day — before and after school.
Please God, try to forgive these people.
Because even if they say those bad things,
They don’t know what they’re doing.
So You could forgive them,
Just like You did those folks a long time ago
When they said terrible things about You.1
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
This might be my least favorite beatitude. We don’t like meek, do we? Meek is the kid in the back who won’t talk to anyone, meek is the awkward adult that we aren’t sure how to engage. We are taught, from the beginning to avoid being meek. Be strong and commanding and in control. The meek person gets left out on the playground, gets beat up in the locker room after school. The meek guy doesn’t get the girl. The meek miss the job opportunity because they don’t step right up, don’t sell themselves particularly well. The meek end up filled with untapped potential, in the corner, alone.
Digging into the language further complicates matters. The Greek, praus, really does mean meek, gentle, mild.2 This is the only time this particular word appears in the New Testament. Back into the Hebrew, it appears numerous times in the Psalms – appearing variously as poor, meek, the oppressed. 3 An animal whose wildness has been tamed, disciplined, having rendered him gentle, James Howell notes, would be called praus. The meek person shyly hangs back when others are stepping forward. 4 Meekness is passive.
But that assumes that we have some say in our situation. “The meek in Jesus’ crowd may not have chosen meekness; meekness is frequently forced upon you by circumstance. In Matthew 5, the meek are those treated by the world as nobodies. Think of the mentality,” Howell again reminds us, “of a slave woman on a Southern plantation, or the posture of a beggar on a street in Europe, or the stare from a disease-ravaged child in Africa.” The child, alone in the hallway, scared to enter the classroom. The older person sitting in a wheelchair by the nurses’ station, unsure of what exactly is going on. A Japanese family standing in line for water. “To those who have no power, who have nowhere to turn and no one in their corner, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the meek.’” 5
This, naturally, is tremendous word of comfort. Like with the poor in spirit, like with those who mourn, Christ is reminding us, again and again and again, that He is uniquely present with those the world forgets, dismisses, ignores by the side of the road. But these beatitudes all cut a couple of ways. They remind the suffering of the way they are embraced. They call us to be a people that seek out those Christ loves. But they also offer a challenge. When you are forced into meekness, when things fall apart around you, these words are profound comfort. But for the rest of us– folks who look like us and live in the neighborhoods we live in, Jesus presses us to embrace meekness. For Jesus, it seems, meekness was something akin to humility. Both verses 5 and 6 (blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness) draw on Psalm 37, which Mary Beck read a moment ago. Meekness, in the psalm, refers to those who are powerless and yet trust in God to save them, those who renounce retribution and live faithfully and with expectancy. 6 Tom Long concurs, suggesting that meekness is patient trusting that God will act in due time. 7 This is not a quiet submission, not assuming that everything that happens has to happen, not a resigned, cliché, ‘well, this must be God’s will.’ This is a patience that is rooted in humility – that knows none of us own truth. That none of us have full knowledge of God’s grand design. That, regardless of the circumstances and the pain. Regardless of the exhaustion we feel. Regardless of the fact that half of the children in the 34 county area of the food bank serves are on free or reduced lunch. Regardless of the death toll in Japan. That the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice. That creation, and our lives, are something with which God can be trusted. That God is somehow underneath it all.
I had the privilege of being a part of a couple of really interesting interfaith conversations this week. At First Presbyterian on Monday a professor of Hebrew studies spoke on the ways the Christians, Muslims, and Jews all understand Abraham – and how those differences provide for us an important window into the ways these three great faiths relate. The second was on Thursday, when I walked into Duke’s chapel for a conversation between Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells, and Imam Feisal Rauf. Imam Rauf is best known as the leader of the Muslim community in Manhattan, hoping to build a community center there, a handful of blocks from ground zero, the former site of the World Trade Center. And they sat, in nice chairs right in front of the communion table, sitting in the light of the windows, the delicate artistry drawing your eyes up to the ceiling in that magnificent space. They talked about the political football the community center had become, and how it dropped off the radar so quickly after the midterm elections. Imam Rauf said that in a meeting with families of those who died on 9/11, they asked him to get out, to spend time traveling around America, to get to know it and allow us to get to know him. They told him he wasn’t near as threatening when they actually talked to him.
Both men talked about their faith, church and state, the way religion draws the best and worst out of us. It was really powerful, exactly the kinds of conversations the church ought to be having. And they both kept circling back to these same two pieces of meekness – humility and trust. Rauf said that we must get to know each other, as the world gets smaller and smaller. He was quick to complement Christians, saying we can teach the world about love for neighbor, at our best, about love and compassion for another. About being inspired by our faithfulness. He joked about a Christian friend being humbled by Muslims fasting for Ramadan. We give up chocolate for Lent and it drives us nuts, he said, you guys fast for a month! Dean Wells told a story about being on his honeymoon in Morocco. They went on a tour of a magnificent set of dunes, looking out to the sea. So beautiful, holy. And they got to the top of these dunes, and all of the Anglos were praying to the God of Nikon, he said, taking pictures for their friends back home. And he walked over the side of a dune and his tourguide had rolled out his mat and was praying. He had heard the call to prayer from the closest village, and had dropped to his knees in prayer. And I was so humbled, he said, challenged to dig more deeply into his own faith tradition, awed by the faith of another. And I realized, he said, turning to Rauf, that maybe I can become a better Christian by you becoming a better Muslim. That maybe we can engage our deepest
convictions, yet move towards a common vision.
There are times when the church must be bold. There are times when we must stand up andproclaim that the ways the white, southern church has treated African Americans and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is contrary to the message of the gospel. There are times when we the church must decry the rush to war, to the scapegoating of Muslims as the root of terror and evil. There are times when the church must say the poverty that remains is unconscionable, and the church cannot stand idly by. But the kind of faithfulness to which Jesus calls these disciples here is one of powerful meekness, leaning towards the world, deeply rooted in humility, in trusting God to be God. The world is too quick to listen to the loudest voice. As the church debates theology, as we struggle with coworkers, as we seek the best for our kids. As we confront the times in our own lives when we feel powerless, desperate, afraid. It is there that you must remember…Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- The Ruby Bridges story is compiled from a first person account found at
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/history/spotlight_september.html and a third person account found at http://www.everystudent.com/wires/aprayer.html from the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin’s paper on I Corinthians 1, shared at The Well’s 2010 gathering in Davidson, NC.
- Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (New York: American Book Company, 1889), 534.
- Psalm 25:9, Psalm 34:2, 37:11, 76:9, 147:6, 149:4, also Job 24:4. From the cross-reference function of Bibleworks 5: Software for Biblical Exegesis and Research.
- James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 47.
- Howell, 47.
- Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 133. This reference comes from the Rev. Jessica Tate’s paper on this text for the 2010 gathering of The Well in Davidson, NC.
- Tom Long, WBC:Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 49. Also from Tate.
- The Ruby Bridges story is compiled from a first person account found at