I know that was a strange assignment to ask Rayna to read this collage of scripture sentences from the New Testament. They come from all four gospels and different stories of Jesus. I could have made this collage of sentences even longer because the one thing they have in common is that Jesus is eating or inviting others to eat or inviting himself to someone’s home to eat or telling a parable about people feasting or telling others that they are supposed to feed people. Jesus seems to be always in the midst of food. Jesus sat around the table with food and wine so much that the religious leaders accused him of being a glutton and drunkard. Food was at the very centerpiece of his ministry. It appears that Jesus and food go together.
So it is very strange that church buildings used to be built without kitchens in them. I read this week that there is some evidence to suggest that the oldest church kitchen in America might have been in the Pricetown Church of the Brethren in Pennsylvania. I told that to my son Matt this week and he said, “The Brethren are so cool.” Food is at the center of the Brethren ethos. For decades the Brethren wouldn’t even take communion without the full Love Feast of washing feet and sharing a meal together. The Brethren that meet in this building love food. It is why when we were left a sizeable gift from one of our members we decided to use it to make our kitchen more useable for serving meals, not only for ourselves but for the food insecure and our neighbors who are homeless.
But the truth is that food isn’t just the centerpiece of Jesus’ ministry or of Brethren ethos. Food is the centerpiece of all our lives because it is the very substance of our lives. M.F.K. Fischer, the American food writer that wrote over 27 books in her lifetime and believed that eating well was just one of the “arts of life” wrote:
People ask me why do you write about food and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.
You cannot live without food. Sitting at a table to eat is one of the unique things about us human beings. No other creature consumes its food at a table. It is why the dining room table was the hub of my family’s life together. It is the place where we shared meals and regaled each other with the stories of our days. It is where we did jigsaw puzzles and played cards. It is where we sat down and had the painful family discussions. It is where we opened our stockings on Christmas morning while we ate pastries and drank coffee. It is where we spread out all our paperwork when working on a difficult project or helped with our elementary-aged children’s schoolwork. It is where we had friends, new and old, over for dinner and had sacred conversations. It is where we prayed for others together. The table represents something much larger than simply the vehicle to hold our plates while we consume the food that sustains our bodies.
When you read through your Bible, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the table plays a central role. Not just for the Passover Meal and the Last Supper but as a place of inclusion or exclusion. It seems that we humans can use the table to keep others away but the table of God is extravagant and welcoming. “You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies,” says Psalm 23. N.T. Wright, a prolific New Testament scholar writes: “When Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.” Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this:
The daily practice of incarnation – of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks in the language of flesh – is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper? With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.
It is clear that we are losing the table and the significance of sharing food in our families and in our world. Our culture is fast paced and the concept of a slow meal around the table with others doesn’t fit into our new ethos…or our busy schedules. The thing that makes us unique in the animal kingdom is disappearing…the table. And when we lose the table we lose the connection between spirituality and food, between soul and body.
It was around the table that Jesus taught his disciples and others about living in God’s divine community….where no one is excluded and in fact God sends us out into the streets to search out those who we assume are excluded and welcome them in….where the least becomes the greatest…where bread and wine are the substance of our connection with God and each other…where there is enough for everyone. When Jesus wasn’t at a table he talked about the table and about food…about a wedding feast in which the people off the streets were invited to eat…about hiding the radical leaven of the Kin-dom of God in the flour….about seeds and fig trees and wheat and tares. For Jesus eating together was communion and it pointed towards justice.
One of the most difficult things for me in adjusting to being a widow revolved around the table and food. When Bryan was alive and I went shopping for food I did it with my mind on him: “What would Bryan enjoy eating this week?” When, in the blink of an eye I lost him, I had no idea how to shop. I literally cried down every aisle. Sitting at the table to eat by myself made me feel even lonelier. I took to sitting at the island in my kitchen.
Almost all of our social interactions revolve around eating and drinking. Try to think of the last time you got together with friends or family and there was no food or beverage involved. Eating is rarely a silent affair….unless you are alone.
In the church we have made the food and the table into a metaphor. I don’t think that is a crime. Metaphors are good. They point to something larger than we can get at with mere language. But food and the table are not just abstractions. We have attempted to de-materialize them but it isn’t possible. Food is a requirement for life and the table is one of the descriptors for what it means to be a human being. That is why Jesus was always inviting us to the table. Because food is necessary to sustain life and God always meets us where we are…here in the world…now…in our bodies. God is present in the very substance of life…not somewhere out there in the great by and by. God makes the journey to us.
It is the reason communion and the communion table is such compelling symbols. We are invited to God’s table…here and now…to eat real bread and drink real juice. Eucharist means thanksgiving and the reason we call it that is because after Jesus gave thanks for the bread and the cup he said, “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup remember me.” The table becomes the meeting place. It is the place where we meet God. God comes to us and we come to the table to meet God.
The table is the altar…the altar is the table. “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup remember me.” Every time! Not just the few times a year that we have communion here do we get to meet God. No. Every meal we eat…every drink we have…every table we sit down to is Eucharist…it is communion…it is connection with the divine and with each other…it is a chance for thanksgiving… even if you are eating alone.
This morning I got up and I made myself two soft-boiled eggs. The eggs were connected to a hen I had never met, who supposedly was cage-free on land I did not own but am now connected to. I put these eggs in water I was boiling in a pan that my son Brett brought home from college. I got out a plate, which was part of the dinnerware Bryan and I picked out together. After five minutes I put one of the eggs in the eggcup that my grandfather carved out of ebony wood while he lived in Nigeria. I dug out a small spoon from a box of spoons my grandmother collected from her travels around the world that I inherited when she died. I cut my toast in long strips, the way my mother taught me to do. In that simple act of eating I was connected to the Creator and another creature, to people I never met and to my heritage and my child…and I gave thanks. It was communion at a very deep level. God was present in the room in my very act of eating.
For every act of eating is communion. It is an experience of the divine in the world and in our lives…a chance to notice…remember…give thanks. Actually everything…and I mean everything…holds this same sense of sacrament. We human beings divide the world into sacred and secular but God doesn’t. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”
This world is filled with sacrament. Sacrament is the outward sign of an inward grace. Art is sacrament. Kissing your children on the top of their heads as you rock them is sacrament. Saying, “I love you” is sacrament. Driving to see a friend in the hospital is sacrament. Life is sacrament. The bread and the cup….the table and the food…are just reminders of all the sacredness that is here…that is now…that is holy hospitality. We have only to put our cell phones down and notice it. Amen.