Benediction Online

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Eating Across Difference

Food. It’s central to our lives. We depend on food for our survival, but more than that, we have turned food from a necessary input like water into something overlaid with great significance. It’s the basis of religious ritual. It’s a symbol of hospitality. It defines our ethnic roots and our socio-economic status. It connects us and divides us.  A special meal is the height of celebration, or a way to honor a special occasion or a special guest. Food has become a national obsession as marketers compete for our dollars, more and more people realize the effects of our choices on our health and on the health of the planet,  and it seems like everyone is either a foodie or on a diet!

It was a little like that in the time of Jesus. But the obsession then was not about gourmet food or about ways of growing or cooking; it was about the Jewish dietary laws. The book of Leviticus provides a number of laws intended to regulate the selection and preparation of animals for ritual sacrifice and how they were then eaten. The Pharisees and other orthodox Jews had elaborated on those laws and, by Jesus’ time, carefully followed strict rules about meticulous ritual washings, about how food was to be prepared and eaten and with whom it might be shared; all to avoid contamination. All to avoid becoming ritually unclean.

Not only did the food have to be absolutely clean, but so did the company. For observant Jews it was a perilous thing to share a meal with someone about whose moral and religious status they were uncertain. Their attempts to be scrupulous about avoiding defiling contact with sinners, combined with the fear of ingesting unclean food made mealtimes particularly tricky. Contact with sinners was just as bad as eating forbidden or unsanctified foods and would make it necessary to submit to ritual cleansings, even if the contact with impurity was quite inadvertent.

For those who tried to observe every detail of the complicated dietary regulations, sharing a meal with anyone other than ones closest friends was fraught with moral and religious danger. As a result, the safest course of action was to avoid all contact with outcasts, sinners , pagans and non observant Jews. [1]

It has been said of Jesus that he would eat anything, anywhere, with anyone. In that context of the religious climate of his time that was highly controversial and counter-cultural. Food was being used as a religious marker –  a way of defining who was clean and who was not; who was in and who was out. But Jesus ignored the whole thing. Jesus was willing to eat anything, anywhere, with anyone.
It’s in that context that we need to think about the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist which we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks. A miracle is not simply a change in the physical world; it is a change which touches the hearts and minds of those involved, which is why Jesus might say to a bedridden man, “Your sins have been forgiven you” or “Get up and walk” – the two things meant the same because the miracle of healing was in the inner healing which was then seen in the physical change.

So instead of focusing on the outer miracle here – the loaves and fishes which fed so many, let us think about the inner miracle. That was that 5,000 people who didn’t know each and everyone among them, sat down and ate together breaking the taboos and rules and the observant Jews among them risked becoming unclean. Jesus’ ministry of the table was not just because he loved to eat or because eating together helps build community; Jesus’ ministry was to break down the barriers between people that religion had created. Jesus’ ministry was to show the unconditional love of God to all people, whoever they are.

And as his followers we get to do the same. We get to share our table with everyone. And that includes fundamentalists and Tea Partiers, and Republicans and yes even Democrats not to mention Jews, Buddhists and Muslims. I was backpacking last week with a group that included a woman who told me, “I’m a bit paranoid about Republicans.” We live in a time when polarizing politics have invaded every part of our lives, yet just because we have political or religious differences doesn’t mean that we have absolutely nothing in common. We have more in common than not. We are all humans in need of God.

It has been argued that in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus did not actually increase the amount of food that was there, but that his blessing and his example encouraged people to get out the food they had brought and eat it and share it. They took the leap to risk eating with strangers. They risked sharing their food.

About 1 in 9 people living on this planet today do not have enough food to lead an active healthy life. Worldwide, hunger kills more people every year than malaria, AIDS and TB combined. This isn’t the result of war and emergency situations. This is just chronic, day by day hunger. 870 million people – more than the populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union combined – are hungry today. According to the World Food Programme, there is enough food to go round but the number of hungry people is increasing.

What would Jesus do?

Jesus took the bread and he blessed it. Jesus gave it to the people and they ate.

I’m not sure what we’d do if five thousand people showed up at St Ben’s at the same time! But while it’s unlikely that that would happen, we live in an inter-connected world where the hungry in Asia, in sub-Saharan Africa and in comfortable San Luis Obispo are on our doorstep. As the disciples of Jesus we cannot just ignore it. Hunger is rarely the only problem these people face; it comes in a bundle with poverty, little access to education or jobs, and often a shortage of clean water.
As the disciples of Jesus we are challenged to welcome and eat with those who think differently from us, who dress differently, yes even smell differently. And we are challenged to expand our table to include those who are hungry across the world. Each one of us can find ways to do both of these things.

Just take a moment to think of someone with whom you differ; someone whose values or background seem quite different from yours… this is the person whom God is asking you to reach out to. It may not be an immediate dinner invitation, but it may be lifting them up to God in prayer regularly and asking not only for them to be blessed but also asking to be led into a closer relationship and deeper understanding.

Locally you can help hungry people through the Prado Day Center, People’s Kitchen or the Foodbank, and also by working for changes in the structure of our society so that there will be affordable housing and jobs to go round. It’s very clear, here in the food capital of California, that the problem is not the supply of food but the lack of money to buy it or a place to enjoy it.
Internationally you can send money to any of a number of organizations who help provide food and agricultural skills to those who need them. Since it uses far more water and grain to provide a pound of protein from eating beef or lamb, you might consider reducing the number of days you eat meat, and sending the money you save to help someone else eat.

These are the outer ways that we become part of the miracle, part of the miracle of the multitude who found that they could sit down and eat together. But the real miracle is in our hearts. The real miracle is in the touch of God calling us to open our hearts to those who are not family, to those who are unfamiliar, because they too are God’s beloved.

Our Eucharist together is a symbol of the future time, the coming heavenly banquet, when all of humanity will sit down with God and eat in harmony. Our Eucharist is a symbol of our reconciliation with God and with one another, which is why we pass the peace beforehand, to symbolize that we are one despite our differences. Our Eucharist is a symbol of our participation in the miracle.
Our participation in the miracle that is the love of God.

[1] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, pages 212-215. New York: Crossroad, 1995.