[Sermon to be preached July 21 at First Mennonite Church Winnipeg]
Text: Deuteronomy 8:1-10
Bruce Fink, a contemporary psychoanalyst, writes,
[The demand that we make] does not exhaustively account for or cover everything we want. Nor do the objects the Other provides in response to our demand fully satisfy us. A young bear is given honey to eat by its mother, gorges itself, and lies down for a nap, [satisfied]. We receive the blanket we demand from our mother and then dream about cars and dolls and world domination. For us there is always something more to be desired. We find ourselves to be wanting something more, but what is it that will fill that want, make good that lack?
Isaiah the prophet said of Israel,
They gorged on the right, but still were hungry,
and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied
In many ways these quotes are unexceptional. The unrelenting expansiveness of our hunger and desire as humans seems pretty self-evident. The rub of course comes in the questions Fink poses at the end. Is there really any way to balance our desire or satisfy our hunger? Will hunger always be a question of restraint or release? There is something about being alive that assumes hunger. To be alive is to need; it is to feel something inside pushing and demanding to be acknowledged; there is something that comes from within us but also seems to demand from us. And it is at that intersection of involuntary demand and conscious response that things get interesting.
To talk about human hunger is to also imply desire and longing. Hunger is not simply a biological or physiological reality. Our hunger is tied up in all the other influences that affect us. And food is never simply food. Food can be a marker of class and economic status. Food can be a source of consolation. Food can be strategic high performance fuel. Food can be a creative and aesthetic experience. Food can make us repulsed and nauseated. Food can symbolize fellowship and unity. Food can represent history and culture. Food can remind us of rejection and self-hatred. Food can be the result of ecology stewardship or it can come from devastating exploitation. Food is never neutral but comes directly out of our lived environment. And so our hungers, as we express them, are never neutral, they are always part of some larger context and to be more specific food and hunger are always communicating something.
In the book of Deuteronomy Moses is already making this same connection. The setting in Deuteronomy is that of people who have wandered for forty years who are finally about to enter the promised land of Canaan. Deuteronomy, which literally means ‘second law’, is a recounting of the law through a series of sermons which are to prepare and warn the people of how to live faithfully in this new and abundant land. Part of the preparation is moving from a rhythm of daily dependence in which the people were given manna in the wilderness but only enough for the day. The people could not store food or create any food security for the future but they needed to daily trust that God was sufficient for what they needed; that God would in fact address their hunger. In the wilderness it seemed there was a direct connection between the people’s relationship to God and how they were physically sustained. But as they reach the banks of the Jordan River, on the threshold of a new way of living in Canaan, Moses acknowledges that this relationship between their God and food can no longer be assumed, will no longer be so direct. Moses says to them that their time in the wilderness was to help them understand that humanity does not live on bread alone, but by all that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD. In this new land the mouths of many gods will speak, offering satisfaction, you are now called to discern the mouth of your God, the God who freed you and sustained you.
So what exactly is Moses trying to communicate to the people. What is the nature of the relationship between food, hunger, and the mouth of God? In some ways this is basic creation theology. God spoke the world which sustains us into existence. Surprisingly the Bible actually has several key images that point to the relationship between hunger, food, and God’s word. Already in the Garden of Eden we find the strange prohibition that Adam and Eve not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But of course the word from the mouth of God prohibiting this food only set the stage for an increased hunger and desire that was easily exploited.
In the book of Ezekiel the prophet is given a vision from God, a message for the people of Israel in the form of scroll. And what does God ask Ezekiel to do with this message? God asks Ezekiel to eat the scroll. In Psalm 34 we are told to taste and see that the Lord is good. And it is a popular image among commentators to refer to passages in the Bible about meditating on God’s word as a processing of chewing our cud, letting the text be worked over and processed internally until it becomes indistinguishable from who we are.
The New Testament has extended discussions about what food should be eaten because at that time most food or at least most meat was butchered at local temples. Again food and the gods were directly connected. And of course in the Gospel we read about Jesus as the word of God and of Jesus’s own call for the people to eat his flesh.
Returning to Deuteronomy I always looked at this passage about humanity not being able to live by bread alone as a specific Christian, or Judeo-Christian view. But as I reflect on this relationship between hunger, food and the word of gods I am beginning to see this verse as a broader statement and description about humanity, and an assumption of how things were in the Ancient world. So what if we take it as true that in fact we simply cannot live on bread alone? What if we are always feeding on the word of some god when we eat, when we respond to our hunger and to our desire? What if our hunger and desire is in fact shaped by the word of some god, or some authority figure? What does that mean?
As I alluded to earlier there are so many ways that we address our hunger. Food can be fuel. Food can be status. Food can be escape. Food can be healing. Food can be the enemy. The gods that we look to our address our desire for attention and value shape our hunger and direct its expression. In our modern context we might say that we have internalized a particular cultural script. Get faster and stronger, thinner or petite, wealthy and sophisticated. Unlike the ancient world we tend to live as though our material sustenance is not a spiritual or theological matter. But as a people of faith we to recognize that hunger and desire are theological statements that we need to learn to read again.
So if it is true that our hungers are responses and reflections of the words of the gods among us then how do we distinguish and feed on what proceeds from the mouth of the LORD? Looking closer at this verse I noticed that nowhere does it mention the ‘words’ of God. It simply says that which goes out from, which proceeds from the lips. Now of course this can be a simple idiom for speech as it used elsewhere in the Bible. But the word ‘proceed’ is also used to refer to a spring of water. And, significantly I think, this is spring is most often connected to the work and presence of God. Here are a few images that scripture offers,
The prophet Isaiah uses these images of God,
17 When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
18 I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water.
And later in chapter 58 it says,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
The prophet Hosea says,
“Come, let us return to the Lord;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
3 Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”
And of course Jesus echoes this tradition by confirming that whoever trusts him will have living waters flow from within.
The image is clear. What proceeds, what flows from the mouth of God is life, is life-giving waters. When we learn how to place our lives within that flow then I believe our hungers and desires will be re-shaped and re-formed. This is why our forms of worship and our rhythms of faith can be so important. Because the gods speak loudly everyday of our lives. They shape our desires into hungers that are not life-giving. We become accustomed to unhealthy food. We feel shame and guilt if we eat too much or too little. We often eat alone. We prioritize speed over process. We are hesitant to share a table with others. We become dulled into the lowest common dominator of flavour (trust me I know there are some irony here in the hot dogs I will be BBQing after the service . . . this is a process).
It is doubtful that you will change your desire and your hunger simply by will power. We are immersed in the gods who try and feed us their words and their scripts. We are ingesting these messages throughout our day and live out of them for so many of our decisions. So don’t begin with some extreme crash diet trying to deny your desires. Start simply by becoming attentive to them. When you express your hunger and desire stay present with it. What are these expressions are saying about you and about the people around you. Do you see how they could flow into new expressions of life or are they cutting you or others off from what is good? Just become attentive to your hunger and desire
Too many of our responses think that we can control our hunger or desire but for the most of us I simply don’t think that is possible. To try some suppress our hunger is usually an attempt at denying or avoiding its enduring and persistent presence. While I don’t think it is possible to fully control our hunger or desire I do think it is possible shift the channels through which they flow. In fact this is where I often think our hungers are too small, too impoverished. We proclaim a God who spoke all of creation into existence and yet we find ourselves insulated and narrowed in so many of our pursuits. Chantal was just telling me the other day that she wants to grow a particular fern plant because its shoots are sort of like asparagus. That’s fantastic. Our hunger should be increased in its engagement with the world. What a beautiful place to explore. Increasing our hunger of course does not mean eating or consuming more in fact an increased hunger often means restraint, learning the appreciation of simplicity and subtly, the experience of savouring food, the experience of going without food. I used to think it was the food’s responsibility to hit me with flavour as it was going down but I am realizing that there is actually something to, you know, tasting food; being present and attentive to your hungers and desires.
So what proceeds from the mouth of God sends our hunger into all the world, into this beautiful creation that God called good. And the flip side of this expansive hunger is a fierce and demanding call to respond to the places where this goodness is not shared; where the gods of death have influenced us to separate some of us from the flow of life. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they will be filled. Here again, our hunger is not suppressed but it is mobilized, channeled.
So do not be ashamed of your hunger and your desire. If you are like me there are certainly times when they take on unhealthy expressions. But do not be ashamed that you hunger and that you desire. It is my hope that your desire expands, being unsatisfied with words and promises of dead idols. May this hunger open you to embrace the fullness of creation and may this hunger instill a ravenous sense of justice. May this hunger lead you to the living and life-giving waters that flow from the mouth of God.