Sharing the Feast

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on August 29, 2004

Notice sometime how many books on the best-seller list have to do with food – whole major sections of bookstores about food – and the Bible.  Have you ever noticed?  The Bible story begins with a forbidden meal and ends with an invitation to a feast in heaven.  And in between a very large part of the five books of the law have to do with food: what you can eat and what you can’t eat and how to prepare it. The Gospel begins with John the Baptist who had a low carb diet: locusts and wild honey. How much time did Jesus spend sharing meals – with publicans and sinners, with crowds of thousands, with Mary and Martha, with the disciples at the Last Supper, with the disciples after his resurrection in the upper room and on the shore of Galilee?

But after all, what is more central to your waking hours except for breathing.  We have to eat.  So it’s a necessity, but it’s also a celebration.  There’s hardly ever a wedding or birthday or anniversary or even a funeral without a meal.  You can’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day or Christmas without a meal and probably not Easter or 4th of July.  And families who don’t share meals probably don’t share much else either.

So we spend a lot of time with food and our problem is that evolution left us well-adapted to deal with famine but not with a MacDonalds on every corner.  Our bodies are designed to store up energy in the form of fat and science hasn’t yet discovered a fool-proof way to help us cope with a society that only knows about famine by reading about it somewhere else.  I read just recently that half of all adult Americans are overweight and the expectation is that in the next twenty years that will grow to 75%.  All the concern for fitness and diet is not solving the problem.

So let me suggest you look to the Bible for help.  Why not?  There’s more about eating in the Bible than there is about sin, more about eating than love, and half as much about eating as there is even about God.  So why not start with the Bible?  Why not start with today’s readings which have a lot to say on the subject if you stop to look.

The Bible does have some answers when we’re thinking about food.  And the first advice is to share.  “Do not neglect to show hospitality,” says the second reading: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have . . .”  And the Gospel gives very specific, practical advice: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

And don’t tell me you don’t know anyone who is poor, crippled, lame, or blind.  You see them every night on the news, and some of them not that far away.  And, you know, one reason Americans are eating too much is that we don’t share what we have.  And not just with people elsewhere.  More children in this country live in poverty than in any other developed country – one out of every five.  But world-wide, do you know that 23 children die from hunger every minute of every day?  In this country, the last survey I saw by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that nearly 32 million Americans live in homes at risk of hunger, 2 million more than the year before.

There was a time when they thought that the world couldn’t feed any more people, but since then the world population has doubled and tripled, and the rich nations have more than is good for us and there is enough for all – if it’s shared. Thirty-six years ago, in 1974, world leaders at a World Food Summit committed themselves to end hunger in ten years.  Thirty-six years ago.  It was agreed that the means were available; only the will was lacking.  So, in 1996, 22 years later, world leaders committed themselves to cutting hunger in half in twenty years – half as much in twice as long and six years to go to get there.

But why should our leaders push when we followers don’t care?  Have you ever written your Congressional representatives on the subject?  Have you asked what the candidates this year plan to do on the subject?  Have you looked at web sites for the two parties to see what they say about food and hunger – or don’t say?  I did, and I found it more interesting than I imagined.

The point is simple: where there is enough food for everyone and some have too much and some are starving, the obvious thing to do is share: contribute to the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund or any other, take part in a Crop Walk or sponsor someone in it, vote for candidates who understand the issue – if you can find one.  And cut back on your own food intake so you can share more.  Some people set an extra place at the table and put something into a box or jar at each meal to contribute.  That’s one way of inviting the poor and hungry to your table; one very simple and practical way of sharing what we have.  Keep using those ERD mite boxes.

Sharing does two things: it helps keep us from over-eating and it keeps others from dying.  Jesus provides the solution in today’s gospel.  That program has been in place for 2000 years.  But sharing is more than just feeding others.  Sharing is also about our own lives.  Sharing food brings us together in all sorts of ways: as a family, as a congregation.

It’s no coincidence that what we do here in Sunday is share a meal.  It’s what Jesus did so often with his disciples; not just at the Last Supper.  And it’s not just about bringing us together with each other; it’s about uniting our lives with those of our Risen Lord.  It’s his life we share in this meal, his life that renews and strengthens ours.  Notice that we always bring to the altar not just bread and wine but food to share with others, that’s critically important: this meal is about sharing.

And maybe it’s also not surprising that the food we share here comes in very small portions.  When my wife and I go out to eat we almost always come home with enough for another meal.  But not here.  Here, one small piece of bread, one sip of wine, is food enough to renew us and strengthen us.  That probably won’t do for your evening meal but it is, I think, a reminder that we don’t need to stuff ourselves to have enough.  This simple sharing unites us and renews us and there’s more than enough for all.  Compare serving sizes here and at your favorite restaurant and your own table and think about it.  What is it telling us?  How much do we really need?

Let me point out quickly that all three readings today deal with food issues.  In the Old Testament reading God says: “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.”  God provides more than enough. In the second reading we are told what to do with it: to show hospitality to strangers.  Share with others.  In the Gospel, Jesus tells us very specifically what to do and this central act of worship provides the example.  What is it all about?  Unity, first of all: sharing our lives with others, God sharing life with us.  Second, it’s about renewal.  We eat to live, we eat to renew our strength.  But we need more than vitamins and minerals.  Jesus said, “We do not live by bread alone but by the word of God.”  So here, as in every meal, we are renewed inwardly and outwardly.

One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that this meal was so misunderstood that some churches gave it up almost entirely.  Still today there are churches where it is seldom provided. But we need more than sermons and hymns; just as we need more from our parents than good advice.  We need to share food.  We need the Eucharist.  We need it for unity, we need it for renewal, and we need it for joy.

The prophets and the Book of Revelation both describe heaven as the sharing of a great feast.  How could it not be?  It’s the joy of coming home at last, the joy of being loved completely and powerfully, the joy of being united with God and all God’s saints. the joy of victory.  And what we do today is a foretaste of all that, a reminder of what will be and what could be now if we only learn to do better such a simple, instinctive thing: share – share what we have with others who are still in need.

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