A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church
Little Rock, Ark., on March 7, 2010.
A number of you have heard me say – jokingly, of course – that we ought to change the name of our church to the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church and Eatery (I thought I might get an “Amen!” out of Judy Moses with that one). Round here, we just eat all the time. You got your regular Wednesday night meals, you got your First Sunday Lunches, and then we’ll use just about any excuse to sit down at table with one another… the Christmas Feast, the Secret Pal Party, even the annual Little Rock Marathon.
It’s put us in a bit of a quandary since William Larry, our chef, has retired. We’re hiring someone new. We have to; we just like to eat together too much to let the situation go.
I’ve told you before, but I think I’ll tell you again, that in my small, rural church in Kentucky there was one lady who didn’t think it was right to eat at church. We didn’t do it all that often, but occasionally we would have a pot-luck lunch and she would stay at home, or at least go home right after worship was over. That was too bad, too, because she was a mighty good cook. We had the opportunity to eat in her home on several occasions, and she could really lay out a spread.
I talked with her about it once. You know, when a preacher takes a new church, one of the things he has to do is learn the people… their likes and dislikes, their idiosyncracies and habits… things like that. Most of them are more than happy to fill you in, and that was true of this particular lady. She had the strong conviction that church was for worship and Bible study, not for eating. I suppose you could make a case for it since there’s not a whole lot of biblical evidence that people got together around the tables at church… if they had tables back then, that is. But when it comes to the subject of food and eating, the Bible is just full of it.
One reason for that is that the table is more than just a place to eat. It is the center of fellowship, and acceptance – or the lack thereof– and is dealt with quite a bit in scripture.
Jesus got into trouble with some of the religious leaders because he ate with sinners and tax collectors. Down at Antioch, about the time that Simon Peter was warming up to the idea that the gospel was just as good for gentiles as it was for the Jews, Paul decided to come for a visit. He was pleased that Peter was so open to the gospel being for everybody. But then a contingent came to the church from Jerusalem, a group composed of Jewish Christians who had not come to same generous idea that Peter had developed. When they arrived, the peer pressure got to Peter and he kept company only with them and wouldn’t have anything to do with the gentiles. Paul took note of it and confronted him about it. Got on him about it pretty good, in fact.
Table fellowship, as Paul well knew, is more than just a meal. It has a great deal to do with acceptance, and Paul and the Bible have a lot to say about that.
Sometimes it’s literal and on other occasions it’s figurative. When Isaiah the prophet wanted to give his people in exile an idea of what it was going to be like when they finally got to go back home to their native land, he chose to talk about food.
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Sounds good to me.
But they didn’t do it the way we do. Our supermarkets are filled with food that’s been doused with all manner of preservatives because the food industry knows that people are busy. We eat on the fly and stock our shelves with stuff that will last for a long time because heaven knows when we’ll finally get around to eating it. And when we do, we want to prepare it quickly. And then there’s a Wendy’s or Burger King or McDonald’s or Backyard Burgers, or you name it, on just every street corner. Fast food and take-out… that’s the name of the game.
But not in biblical times. They bought at the local market only what they would need for the next day because after that it would no longer be fresh. The purchasing of food and meal preparation took time and occupied a significant part of life. Slow and easy was the name of the game, not fast and take-out.
Remember Martha? It would be interesting to know how many hours she clocked in the kitchen. I’d also be curious to know how much Mary, her sister, avoided doing so.
There was always the danger of famine. Natural calamities lurked around every corner and crop failure was frequent. Food was a special commodity and was definitely not taken for granted. Bread was baked from scratch (I still haven’t found a box of that at Kroger), and beans and lentils simmered for hours.
It is not surprising, then, that food took on spiritual significance. Wednesday night, in our dealing with words that shape and form, we talked about patience as a spiritual virtue. In the days of scripture, you had to be patient when it came to food. Half of Jesus’ parables had to do with such things as seeds and farmers, barns and banquets, wheat and figs. Depriving one’s self of food, in the form of fasting, was not just an exercise in good health; it was a spiritual discipline designed to keep one in tune with the Giver of all good things. And let us not forget that Jesus, in the prayer he taught his disciples to pray, said they were to ask God for their daily bread.
Did he mean that literally or was he referring to what is known as the “messianic kingdom,” where God will bring all his creation to fulfillment and where, in the words of the prophet, food will be available at no cost and rich food will be abundant and will evidently not add to the waistline? The answer is, yes. I think Jesus meant it both ways. Evidently, so did Isaiah.
How could anybody pass up such an invitation? Well, consider the context. I will remind you: the people of Israel are in exile in Babylon when Isaiah promises them this wonderful vision of a sumptuous banquet. Unfortunately, the chances are his words fell on deaf ears. After all, all they have to do is look around and see that today is just like yesterday, and they know tomorrow will be the same. The Babylonians don’t treat them too badly, all things considered. And they have food. It may not be a gourmet meal like the prophet is talking about, but it sure beats starving to death.
And besides, the Babylonians own the food. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, says, “Whoever feeds, owns.”1
When we lived in Baltimore back in the early 80’s, a famine in Ethiopia broke out and I was convicted by the scenes we saw every night on the news. So I came up with an idea. Our church had regular local vendors that provided us with services, so I wrote them a letter. In the letter I told them that if they would reduce our bills by ten percent, we would send the proceeds to a denominational agency that would forward them to food relief in Ethiopia. I explained that one hundred percent of these funds would be used for this purpose and that nothing would be taken out for the administration of the funds. I thought it was a fairly creative way of responding to an obvious need.
Several of our vendors did just that. But one wrote back and said he would not do it, that the reason for the famine in the first place was that the Ethiopian government was withholding food from its own people so they could be more easily controlled. My initial reaction was pretty negative. I thought he was just being stingy. And then I got to thinking, “You know what, he’s right.” The famine in Ethiopia, if it wasn’t started by a repressive government, was definitely made worse by it.
I still thought our project was a worthy one, but I had to admit that in many respects he was right. After all, “Whoever feeds, owns.”
At the time, the Babylonians are the ones who are doing the feeding. And because they are feeding the exiled people of Israel, they own them… lock, stock, and barrel.
But not for always. There will come a day when the food will be endless and the water will run free. In the meantime it falls to them to understand the Source of their grace and to be faithful to the One who in good time will prove, all over again, his faithfulness to them.
I think that is a pretty good idea of what the Lenten season is all about. We find ourselves living in the meantime. We have plenty, to be sure. Just look at all the food we have consumed this morning. But this is the season for getting in touch with the Source of all our grace, and then finding it within our hearts to be faithful to the One who is the Great Provider of all we have and of who we are. Because, if I read my Bible correctly, we ain’t seen nothin yet!
To that end, may the journey continue, and may it find us often at the table. After all, God has given us an open buffet!
May we eat, O Lord, not only of the food you have provided us, but may we also be filled with the grace that only you can give. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Some of the thought of this portion of the sermon, as well as the Brueggemann quote, is found in “Free Meal,” by Peter L. Steinke, The Christian Century, February 20, 2007, p. 21.