Back in a more innocent time a teacher invited the children in her second grade class to bring to school a symbol or object from their religious tradition. A Jewish boy stood before the class and said, “This is the Star of David.” A Roman Catholic girl said, “I am holding a Rosary.” A Baptist child said, “I brought in a King James Bible.” Finally, a little girl holding a large serving dish stood before the class and said, “I am an Episcopalian and this is called a casserole.”
What is it about churches and food? Here are some things shared in common by every parish I have served:
· Each loves pot-luck dinners.
· Each loves a good cookout.
· Each loves having sweets and treats set out after church.
· And, at one point or another, the women of each parish put together a cookbook of their favorite church dishes.
Two food memories stay with me from the parish I served in Richmond for ten years. The first happened at a monthly meeting of a women’s group. Each member brought a dish to share at lunch and each person brought the same food each and every meeting. I think they did this to help set apart the plate brought by one particular elderly lady known for not keeping a clean house/kitchen. At the first meeting I attended as the new rector a kind woman whispered in my ear while we were in the serving line, “Take some of Laura’s food, put it on your plate, but whatever you do, don’t eat any of it.”
The other memory involves the single bravest thing I have ever done in parish ministry. In working with the Vestry to dream up a way to make the Annual Meeting a better attended event, I suggested we have a pot-luck brunch. The idea met with general approval at that leadership level, which, in hindsight, was sorely lacking in representation of women who typically prepare dishes for church meals. Call for a pot-luck dinner – no problem. These ladies had their go to dishes honed to a fine art. A cook-out where everyone brings something for lunch – they were on it. But the notion of a pot-luck brunch pushed this dependable crew into uncharted territory. Oh, the weeping and gnashing of teeth that ensued cannot be described. Sure, Jesus calmed a storm or two, but I guarantee you he would have shivered in the face of this tempest. The Vestry had to conduct actual internet research to suggest potential brunch dishes in order to quiet the quell. Eventually my faith and determination bore fruit because the women of the parish came through with the single most unbelievable brunch spread I have ever seen.
The connection between faith communities and food goes way back. In today’s readings we hear again about significant events from both Testaments where food plays an integral role. In the Old Testament, God sends the less than satisfying provisions manna and quail to feed the people. In the Gospel, Jesus blesses a few barley loaves and fish and then distributes them so that everyone has enough to eat their fill.
As John the Gospeller tells the story, Jesus’ act is to be taken as a sign of a deeper spiritual feeding. Jesus knows that God created us to be resourceful, independent, to spread out our wings and fly. But like an adult child who never leaves home, the crowds follow Jesus because they want him to meet their most basic needs – needs they should tend to on their own. Bread for your body you must get for yourself, Jesus tells them. The bread that I give to you is for your soul; bread that will give you courage and hope and compassion and purpose and peace and all the things that get taxed as you labor to get bread for your body.
Did any of you eat at Chick-fil-A this week? As you most likely know, the act of standing in line to get a fast food meal of processed chicken has become an incredibly complicated, politically and theologically charged event. In a recent interview, Chick-fil-A’s founder and president volunteered that he believed same-gender marriage goes against the teachings of the Bible. I am not sure why he chose to comment on this, but I for one was not surprised by his position. Chick-fil-A is known as a ‘Christian’ business; the most obvious manifestation of which is being closed on Sundays. While not their official language, Chick-fil-A strives to live out the Episcopal baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being – be it employees, suppliers, or customers.
Still, the president’s position angered some… and I understand why. Some encouraged an organized a boycott of franchises… and I understand why. Others responded by encouraging like-minded people to go in mass to a Chick-fil-A this past Wednesday… and I understand why. But since then, back and forth the barbs have gone… and I just cringe.
I pondered this all week as I have prayed about today’s readings. I have wondered what, if anything, I could say in this setting to make some sense of this latest maelstrom in our public life. After a week on mediating here is what I have to say: nothing. I simply cannot make sense out of yet another facet of this on-going debate. On one hand, if you are going to boycott a business because of the owner’s beliefs, shouldn’t you do your homework in order to figure out what other business owners hold beliefs contrary to yours? On the other hand, do we really make a strong witness for Christ by standing in line for a value meal at a fast food establishment? Are these really what the faith and faithfulness have come to mean?
Here is one more common characteristic of every parish I have served: each has been a faith community gathered around two tables. One table sits in the holy space we call the Sanctuary. Each week from this table the faithful receive the Bread of Life – the Bread of Heaven. It is a meal that connects us with God and makes us aware of those who are gathered with us. Typically the other table resides in the Parish Hall. This table, stocked with coffee and lemonade and baked goods, serves to create a space where the faithful meet one another in a setting that reminds us that God is in our midst.
In some shape or form, all meals ought to do both. They ought to connect us with one another and they ought to connect us with God. Ultimately, what makes me sad about the Chick-fil-A bru-ha-ha is that serves to further diminish the spiritual nature and possibility of every meal we eat.
We live in a very complicated world. If we could investigate every business and every friendship and every institution we would detect things we find laudable and inspiring and things we find troublesome and objectionable. There is, I believe, no safe enclave to be had where everything I value and believe is perfectly mirrored. And thank God for that, because if we take seriously the nature of sin we must recognize that no one – starting with me – has it exactly right. If I shelter myself from the evil influences of the world I do two things: first, I might protect myself from that which can corrupt me, but I also cut myself off from the fire that might refine what is not of Christ in me.
What we in the church offer to the world is this: two tables… one where we encounter God in the presence of others and another where we encounter others in the presence of God. I invite you to both of these tables. You will meet here people who affirm you, people who challenge you, and people who do both. All will enrich your life.
Jesus said food is food, but through the food I give to you I offer something more. In a week when one type of food served at one establishment has de-evolved into a debate between who stands on one side of a social issue and who stands on the other, today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus presides over meals at every table in order to make us one in his love.