“A Meal Worth Eating: Going Deeper With God”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
February 28, 2016
When I was a kid, every Sunday after church, my dad drove us to a bakery in the next town over and bought us doughnuts. There were four of us kids and we each got to choose our favorite. My mom would put in the order and I still remember the wonderful smell of the place as I watched the woman behind the counter put my brown sugar cruller in the waxed cardboard box along with the whatever my other family members had ordered. I can still see her deftly tie the box closed with a string.
There were other food-based rituals that I can remember from childhood as well. Eggs and bacon on Saturday mornings. Sunday night sandwiches in front of the TV. Roast goose on Christmas (I think my dad had read a lot of Dickens).
By the time I was in college and then graduate school, ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly were major elements in my diet because that’s what I could afford. Dessert no longer happened. Wine was not a regular part of dinner, but rather a rare and special treat. When someone would invite me over for a meal, it wasn’t just an enjoyable social event, it was one less meal I had to pay for and I really appreciated that.
In many cultural and religious traditions, especially those originating around the Mediterranean, meals are not just for survival, they are events; they are rituals that give meaning to life and define our family and social circles and boundaries.
When the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with them, they were saying to him and to those who witnessed these gatherings that Jesus was a recognized religious teacher and a man committed to his Jewish faith.
When Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, he was sending a signal to them (and to all who saw him) that he cared for the people with whom he ate, despite their status as outsiders, and that he believed God cared for them as well.
One of the few miracle stories that show up in all four of the gospels is the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus and his disciples are out in the countryside. Thousands of people are following them, hungry to hear words of wisdom from Jesus, longing for a message that would give them hope. Some wanted to be healed from an infirmity and others wanted a completely new life, free from the habits or emotional demons that were holding them back, keeping them from living fully.
You remember: They were out there, far from their homes, far from any town, and it was getting late. Despite the disciples’ doubts, Jesus had compassion for them. He sat them down and, using just a few loves of bread and a couple of fish, he was able to feed them all.
Each gospel writer tells the story a little differently. In one, a young boy supplies the food. In another, Jesus has the disciples do the feeding. In another, Jesus organizes the crowd into groups before he feeds them.
In all four versions, though, everyone eats and is satisfied and there is an amazing amount of leftovers. It is an image of abundance. It is communion. It is a sign of God’s love expressed through food. It is a meal that is much more than just bread and fish. It is Jesus’ way of telling the crowd and his disciples that as individuals and in community, we hunger. Our bodies and our minds and our souls hunger and thirst for sustenance, and not just for anything. We hunger for food that truly satisfies and reminds us of who we are.
When I was in my twenties, I used to go to McDonalds a lot. It was cheep, tasty food. At least I thought it was tasty at the time. For years, I would go to McDonalds about once a week. I noticed early on that I would be hungry again about half and hour or so after eating my big mac and fries, but that didn’t stop me from eating at McDonalds because I liked it and it was part of my routine.
Eventually, just for a change of pace, I switched over from big macs to chicken mcnuggets. I especially liked the barbecue dipping sauce. But after a while, I realized that I not only felt hungry again in half an hour, I felt kind of sick.
So, here I was, regularly eating at a place that did not satisfy my hunger and actually made me feel ill.
I haven’t eaten at a McDonalds for years now, but it took me a while to break the habit. We do that with other routines, don’t’ we? We stay with them long after they prove to be unsatisfying and even painful.
Not enough sleep. Too much booze. Not enough exercise. Too many sweets. Not enough quiet time. Too many commitments. Not enough meaningful conversation with true friends. Too much socializing with those who are in our social set but whom we don’t really trust. Not enough art and too much Facebook. Not enough music and too much Candy Crush.
We fill our lives with unsatisfying food and drink when the real thing is right there in front of us.
Jesus, who saw himself as a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, must have known this passage that we read this morning. In the Gospel of Matthew, he say, Human beings don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. When he sat around the table with his best friends for one last meal before he was arrested, he broke bread and said, This is my body. He must have loved and appreciated this passage!
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.
He knew that we, as humans, fill ourselves with all sorts of processed junk food and he wanted to give us something substantive and nutritious.
And so he gave us himself. And in so doing, he gave us God.
In this Lenten season, I invite you to push aside the prepackaged stuff and sink your teeth into something grand. I invite you to go deeper with God, and in so doing, feed your soul with healthy food and refreshing water. I invite you to break your fast food routine and prepare for yourself a meal that will satisfy for more than just a few minutes, spiritually speaking: a salmon off the grill, pasta with homemade sauce, a hearty vegetable stew…
Lent is flying by and Easter will be here before we know it. The changing seasons will mean new activities and the stillness that this season affords will be gone.
Put your phone away for a bit, choose a good book, and take the time to read it. Open your Bible. Turn off the TV and go for a long walk and spend the time in prayer. Have a conversation with someone you trust about God and life and your dreams for the future. Find a worthy organization and volunteer for a couple of hours. Consider a new job – one that feeds your soul and not just your bank account.
And in all of this, know that the Spirit of the Living God is there to offer grace when we fall short, love to carry us through our struggles, and wisdom for our days. Now that is a meal worth eating.