Marvelous and Mighty Meals
by Louise Westfall
Are you hungry? I am. Yeah, there’s those minor stomach growls that usually hit about this time during the Sunday service, just as we get to the sermon. But that’s not what I’m talking about this morning.
I’m hungry for food eaten with others–with you, with my church family and family-family, and friends. For that camaraderie and companionship that comes so readily over a shared meal.
I actually ate very well during the pandemic. I took more time to prepare food, bake bread, experiment with new recipes. Eventually there was take out–Indian and Thai and Italian and Mexican. One family arranged for a delicious Easter brunch delivered to each Central staff member. I participated in a couple of zoom cooking demonstrations, ending with all of us eating what we’d made, smiling and comparing notes into our separate computer camera lenses.
Now, I don’t make light of this. Food insecurity rose sharply during the pandemic. Research estimates 12 million children in the United States experience hunger and inadequate nutrition. Metro Caring reports more than twice the number of clients than they served in pre-pandemic times. New Genesis was practically overwhelmed by the increase in meals required during Covid, until the Men’s Group started delivering high-quality, protein-laden “We Don’t Waste” food. I am grateful for all the ways you respond generously to the unacceptable reality of hunger in our nation and the wider world. And we can’t let up.
But today, I’m thinking about our hunger for connection, for proximity, for the soul-nourishment that were victims of the demands of the pandemic. It’s a spiritual hunger, really, but one that so often is fed first by food. None of the meals I ate alone will hold a candle to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’m going to eat in your company.
Which makes our Scripture text even more…chewy and delicious. Today we are living, breathing enactments of this story. So pay particular attention to the setting, and the ingredients, and the marvelous and mighty meal enjoyed by a hungry crowd. A reading from Mark, in the sixth chapter, reading verses 30-43.
I am struck first by the context for this bread-of-life story. Jesus and his disciples had been working full-bore, traveling throughout the Galilean countryside, preaching and teaching and healing. Jesus invites them to rest and relax because “they had no leisure even to eat.” A reminder that meals are not simply fueling opportunities. At their best, they are moments to stop work, to savor the aromas and tastes, and to be together. Even if you live alone like I do, there’s a big difference between standing at the counter texting and reading the newspaper while shoveling down a bowl of cereal and sitting down to eat mindfully, gratefully. Take a moment right now to breathe, settle into your chair more comfortably, just “be” here on this beautiful day, among people who love you and whom you love.
Feeding each other is part of what it means to love one another.
Second, feeding hunger is a community responsibility. The ever-practical disciples gently reminded Jesus that it was time to shut down the sermon and send the people away to find food for themselves. But Jesus had a different idea. You give them something to eat. In other words, food is an essential part of Jesus’ message. Feeding each other is part of what it means to love one another. Even the word “companion” literally means “the one with whom we share bread.” Church folk are sometimes teased about our potluck casseroles and refreshments at fellowship hour, but across the generations we “get” that eating together helps create community. Even during the pandemic, the Samaritan meal ministry continued to prepare and deliver meals to members in grief, recovery and dealing with chronic illness. There’s a reason why the meal we will share shortly is called “communion,” reflective of bonds both utterly human and gloriously divine.
And the great thing is, there’s always enough. And more than enough. What was the miracle that day? That Jesus conjured up loaves and fish in such prodigious amounts it fed the multitude? Well maybe. Or maybe they settled themselves and drew out of their totes and backpacks the lunch they’d made for themselves…and saw something different. Everyone ate. No one went hungry. There were left-overs. Hmmmm. Could this be not simply a statement about a day in the life of Jesus but an affirmation of reality? There is always abundance.
Finally, friends, food is a means of grace. The New Testament is full of examples of Jesus enjoying meals with friends and strangers and outcasts and even potential enemies. We remember the dinner he had with Zacchaeus, the wee little man and big cheater. Afterwards, he repaid the people he’d swindled four times over. We remember the meal with religious leaders being disrupted by a woman of shadowy character anointing his feet, and how he blessed her and silenced her critics by centering mercy and forgiveness above judgment. We remember that all four gospels tell stories of multitudes being fed and the startling power of food shared. And on the night in which he was betrayed by one of his own, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. He broke bread and poured out wine (while Judas was still in the room, by the way), as an expression of grace and gratitude and love that will go the distance. Grace to accompany us into the valley of the shadow of pandemic and loneliness and fear and separation and masks and division and injustice and death…grace that will see us through and today, right here and now, will bring us home…together.