The Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster
Saturday, 3rd March 2007
Joshua 5: 9-12; Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-end
How hungry are you feeling at the moment? I imagine none of us is feeling really hungry. The old days are long gone when people fasted from midnight before receiving Holy Communion. And I imagine few of us are taking the Lenten fast to the point where we are actually hungry. And we heard last week that on average we throw away unused 15% of the food we buy. So we suffer no shortage of food. Most of us will have come to church after a modest but satisfying breakfast and are looking forward to a decent Sunday lunch. I hope the mothers amongst us have been able to rely on someone else to provide breakfast - and possibly to prepare lunch, though I suppose that might be a more precarious expectation.
There is a common theme to our readings today. The theme is of hunger satisfied. That is appropriate for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday, when the rigours of the Lenten fast are traditionally relaxed. At the Abbey we still think of this day as Refreshment Sunday.
In the reading from the book of Joshua, we heard of the people of Israel emerging from the wilderness and arriving in the Promised Land. God's people had fled from slavery in Egypt, only to spend forty hungry and unedifying years in the wilderness, when they blamed God for leaving them without sustenance and squabbled about whether he was still supporting them. They had their answer when they were fed with the manna from heaven and drank the water sprung from the rock, the cleft rock of ages. Now they had at last crossed the river Jordan and entered the land God had promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey. No longer did they need the manna from heaven. Their hunger could be satisfied with the produce of the land.
Hunger satisfied is also one of the themes of the glorious parable of the prodigal son, which was our gospel reading. The son, having required his inheritance of his father while he was still alive, went off to a far country and squandered his wealth, until he had nothing left and fell to watching over another man's pigs. He was hungry and remembered that his father's servants were fed better than he. Returning in the hope of being employed by his father as a servant, he was treated with amazing generosity and love. His father, who had mourned his son, who had been lost and was found, had been dead and was alive, ran out to meet him without a word of reproach. He ordered the fatted calf to be killed for a great banquet.
The physical hunger of the people of Israel in the wilderness or of the prodigal son who would gladly have filled himself with the pods the pigs were eating is almost certainly strange and unknown to most of us. And yet it is the reality for huge numbers of people around the world.
Last summer, parts of Sudan's eastern Red Sea State were hit by severe flooding. The town of Tokar was among the worst hit, with thousands of people displaced from their homes, and many more trapped by the rising water. Up to 30,000 people were affected and some of the town's outlying villages were completely submerged.
Last month the Zambezi burst its banks in Mozambique, displacing 90,000 people who lived along the river. Of the 5,500 people at one rescue centre, almost all are children, babies and women. They have lost their homes to the flood waters, along with their precious crops. The soil along the Zambezi is richly fertile, and the harvest was due within a month. Now all that can be seen of this staple food source is the maize heads poking above the water line. Many men have refused to leave their homesteads, even with waters rising dangerously. Their livestock - goats, cows, pigs - are all they have left, and they are risking their lives to save them. The women and children were able to take only what they could carry - babies, a pot, a reed mat, sometimes a chicken. With rescue camps filling up rapidly, a health emergency is looming. Water is everywhere, bringing with it crocodiles and deadly malaria. Yet there is not enough clean water to drink.
Those are just two stories of the many I could have quoted from Oxfam's or some other charity's website. Neither is widely known. Hunger and disease remain rife: our prayer, our concern, our action, our giving this Lent all need to take proper account of how richly blessed we are when we consider the sufferings of so many people.
Thinking about physical hunger, not our own but that of others, should rouse our concern and direct our conscience to generous giving - a Sunday version of Red Nose day. Jesus himself, according to St Matthew's Gospel, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, condemned those who had not fed the hungry.
However, Jesus also referred to another kind of hunger, in the Beatitudes, when he said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." And surely what Jesus means is, happy are those who long to be and to do what is right, to live at peace with God and with our own conscience. This means more than how we behave. It is at root about who we are, about what we hold dear above all. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who want to be reconciled with God, to be at one with him and find all our motivation in his will, to receive his love and for his sake to share his love with others.
In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus tells of a prodigal Father, always willing to share his gifts, always willing to forgive, always willing to run out and meet us as soon as we take tentative and uncertain steps in his direction. His gift of life and love is always freely given, poured out. God satisfies our hunger for righteousness, which comes not by our striving but by his gracious gift.
Jesus said to his disciples, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." The people of Israel and the prodigal son needed physical food, as we do. But above all they needed the love of the Father, the love of God and the gift of righteousness in him. Our society, we ourselves, are just as needy as they.
Perhaps we need a little physical hunger to be reminded of our real spiritual hunger, our deep, personal longing for the knowledge and the love of God, and for his sense of direction in our lives. Come to the altar this morning and receive the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation. Let the life and love of Christ pour into your life. Be filled with his goodness, transformed into his likeness. Shine with his radiance. Renew the fast. Come to the heavenly banquet. In God alone are all our hungers satisfied.