Picnic in Paradise
by Louise Westfall
It’s a stereotype with roots in reality: church people and food go together. I hope Communion comes quickly to mind, though the tiny chunk of bread moistened with grape juice is more symbolic than hearty. The fellowship time which follows worship and includes cookies, breakfast breads, veggies, cheese, and even popsicles is practically a meal. We give visitors and newcomers a loaf of bread homemade by one of our members (thanks, Ron Covey!). Potlucks, soup lunches, the Samaritan meal ministry which delivers home-cooked food to a person after hospitalization, to new parents, in times of grief … Food equals caring. I’m convinced the meals we share regularly with New Genesis men keep us from over-generalizing people who are experiencing homelessness. By eating together, we’ve come to know Ross, and heard about the stresses of his security guard job. Over burgers and baked beans, we learned how Steve’s mother took him to child care one day and just never returned to pick him up. I read about a couple of pastors who have organized more than a thousand gatherings nationwide they call “the People’s Supper,” where strangers come together to share a meal and have conversation meant to strengthen a sense of community in the real world — where we all carry scars and have all caused wounds. They call it “brave space” because the dinners are designed to go beyond mere “safe space” into new territory. What is it about food that disarms our defenses and creates bonds with other people?
Of all the amazing work Jesus did during his earthly ministry, only one event is narrated in all four gospels, and that is the feeding of the multitudes. In fact, there are no fewer than six accounts of crowds who gathered to hear Jesus teach, and then found themselves sharing a meal with thousands of others. Today’s text is one of them. A reading from Mark, in the sixth chapter at the 30th verse. Listen for God’s word to hungry people. [Mark 6:30-44]
I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to listen to a sermon (or preach one!) when my stomach is growling. Since we’re talking about food, I thought it might be good to eat some too. So … here are baskets of delicious gluten-free crackers to pass. Take as many as you’d like. There will be enough for everyone. Keep passing them around throughout the sermon.
Food is necessary to sustain life. The need for food is part of the human condition common to every single one of us. Jesus’ disciples were entirely reasonable when they suggested he finish up and send the people on their way to buy food. After all, they had neither the money nor food in sufficient quantities to feed everyone.
The story hinges on Jesus’ response … words that echo across the millennia and fall upon our ears: You give them something to eat. Certainly it’s a call to action, to feed the hungry. Here in our own state, some 12% of the population are “food insecure,” not always certain where the next meal will come from. That’s six hundred sixty-five thousand, two hundred twenty men, women, and children. A lot of children. We respond to Jesus’ words partly through tax support of federal initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, free and reduced school lunches and Nutrition Assistance for Women/Infants/Children. Here at Central we contribute money, food items, and volunteer time to Metro Caring, metropolitan Denver’s premier hunger alleviation organization which has a food pantry, garden, and classes on healthy food choices and meal preparation. To feed hungry people has always been a basic responsibility of Judeo-Christian faith, and almost every other religious tradition. It’s just right; just and right.
But the intriguing thing I notice about this text, however, is the way Jesus turns the disciples’ solution — send the people out to buy food for themselves –into an opportunity for that great crowd to eat together. Instead of each individual or family taking care of their own need, Jesus suggests they already have enough to provide for the entire group. While the disciples were doing the math on how much money it would take, Jesus simply asked How many loaves have you? Honestly, I’ve always put the emphasis on “how many” but I wonder if it’s more accurate to turn it into a pointed question: How many loaves have you? — what do you have to share?
Instead of each individual or family taking care of their own need, Jesus suggests they already have enough to provide for the entire group.
The disciples quickly survey their own lunchboxes and report back: five loaves and two fish. Jesus takes these and instructs everyone to sit down in groups. He offers a prayer … and everyone eats until they’re full, and there are basket loads of left-overs. It’s a miracle! Maybe like the miracle described by the wise one who said “Some people think it’s a miracle when God does what we want. I think it’s a miracle when we do what God wants!” Were the bread and fish literally multiplied through supernatural power? Or did the people see the gift of the disciples, hear Jesus’ blessing, and become moved to share their provisions too? Does it matter?
Well, what we do know is that every man, woman, and child enjoyed a full meal that day, and did so in the company of others. It’s as if Jesus knew the joy and shimmering potential of eating together, an experience that nourishes both physical and spiritual hunger. Humans can’t live without bread; but we can’t live by bread alone. Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef and certified foodie who took his life earlier this summer seemed to understand this when he wrote: I think there is a danger in taking food too seriously. Food should be part of the bigger picture. I wonder if what was missing from his “bigger picture” accounts for the despair that swallowed him up.
Recently I went alone to a well-reviewed new movie called First Reformed. I knew that it portrayed the anguished spiritual journey of a pastor in a dying, historic New England church. No spoiler alerts, but when the last scene faded and the credits started to role, there were audible gasps from the small theater at Chez Artiste. Never have I had more desire to stand up and call out into the darkness “Would anyone like to discuss this movie with me?” I didn’t, and I kind of regret it, because I think there might have been some others who left the theater as hungry as I.
We won’t let that happen today. We’re eating and we’re together. So let’s talk. In the biblical story, Jesus had the people sit together, so I wonder if you’d be willing to move right now closer together with some other people. Then with the people around you, discuss your responses to a series of prompts I will give. First, share briefly about a meal you’ve enjoyed in the recent past that nourished you body and soul?
- What are the barriers that keep us from sharing our resources so that everyone’s needs are met?
- Why do you think Jesus prayed before the meal? Could you make this a practice to your meal time?
- In the last couple years, the Stewardship committee — tasked with coordinating the annual pledge campaign in support of Central’s mission — changed its name to the “Generosity Team.” What do you think is significant about that change? How can we develop a “theology of abundance” which reflects the trust that God will work miracles through the gifts we offer?
Is there any food left? (We can take it to fellowship hour)
Friends, when we share with one another, we do more than simply consume food. We receive the Bread of Life. Everyone eats and there is plenty for all. It’s a picnic in paradise. Thanks be to God!