Meherrin Presbyterian Church
October 12, 2014, Ordinary 28A
Ruth 1:22-2:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-22
A Table With Enough For Everyone
A few weeks ago, after my last visit to this congregation, my wife and I made a stop at a small stand selling fruits and vegetables, a few miles north of here on Highway 360. We came away with several apples, mostly eaten by my wife; some peaches, several of which ended up in a peach crisp for dessert; and a goodly sized tomato that found its way into two very tasty BLT sandwiches that week. Oh, and a jar of honey.
Living in an area where such goods can be found almost by accident, it’s easy to get spoiled. Even in Richmond proper, the number of farmer’s markets dotted around the metro area over the course of a week can be challenging to keep up with.
Those farmer’s markets, though, don’t cover the whole city. Additionally, the large supermarket chains that so carefully preserve their dominance of the market in a city like Richmond are absent from many of those same neighborhoods. If you happen to live in such a neighborhood, it can be profoundly challenging to find quality food for one’s family, especially if one relies on the circuitous bus routes of the city’s transit system for one’s primary transportation.
So it is that, in close proximity to one another, one can find neighborhoods that qualify as “food deserts” – reflecting the lack of options for finding good, healthy food nearby – and neighborhoods with a glut of healthy and accessible food options. Because one must not interfere with market forces, or because poverty is near inescapable once one is caught in it, no matter how hard one works, these inequalities of access persist over time, and indeed even grow more pronounced as well as persistent.
This phenomenon is only one of many that illustrates the complicated and difficult role that food plays in the modern, technologically advanced world. In an age in which farms are capable of producing truly unbelievable amounts of food, the number of people across the world, and across this country, who go without food at some point in their daily lives continues to grow. The food scarcity noted above is hardly restricted to Richmond, nor even to cities as large as Richmond – as this church evidently recognizes, based on the fact of the collected food I see when I come to preach.
Today marks the beginning of the Food Week of Action, sponsored by the Presbyterian Hunger Program, an agency of PC(USA) under the supervision of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. The Presbyterian Hunger Program, or PHP, works to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes, responding with compassion and justice to poor and hungry people in local communities in the United States and internationally. It is supported by the One Great Hour of Sharing offering and by regular gifts to the Hunger Fund to support ministries of direct food relief, development assistance, public policy advocacy, education, and lifestyle integrity. The PHP seeks to fulfill its mission through strategic grantmaking, print and web educational and worship materials, partnership collaborations, and participatory programs that allow us to recognize and love especially the most vulnerable of our neighbors next door and across the planet.
I suspect most Christians don’t need to be told that we are to care for and help provide for those who do not have enough to eat. I wonder, though, how many would be surprised to realize just how much our scriptures have to say about food and how God’s children are meant to share it. The scriptures read today only scratch the surface of the Bible’s content on the subject of food, stories that stretch from the many beautiful fruits of the Garden of Eden to the twelve kinds of fruits on the Tree of Life in the last chapter of Revelation. On many occasions the gospels speak of Jesus’ ministry in relation to the sharing of meals, whether within the four thousand or five thousand fed from a few loaves to the turning of water into wine, to bread and wine broken and poured at one last meal with his disciples.
What we do have in these two stories, though, does illustrate two extremes in which the people of God have existed in terms of providing for one another. In one story we see those with plenty taking care that those without do not remain without, while in the other no such care is evident.
Perhaps the book of Ruth is not wildly familiar to many people, or even many longtime Christians. Today’s scripture picks up with Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth returning to the city of Bethlehem. Naomi and her husband had left Bethlehem years before to escape a famine, taking up residence in the region called Moab. Their two sons had married local women there, Orpah and Ruth. First Naomi’s husband died, and about ten years later the two sons died as well, leaving Naomi with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Having heard that the famine had passed in Bethlehem, she resolved to return. Orpah was persuaded to remain in her home country and return to her family, but Ruth would not be dissuaded from following Naomi to Bethlehem.
With no husband to either woman, Naomi and Ruth were left to the mercies of their kin in the region around Bethlehem. One kinsman to Naomi’s husband, Boaz, had large fields nearby. Ruth proposed to go gleaning—gathering up the grain left over after Boaz’s workers had first gathered all the grain they could. In this time such was a custom that allowed for those without food to get food. Boaz, though, could have placed restrictions on Ruth, or even forbidden her to glean in the fields. Instead, Boaz not only allows for her to continue gleaning, but instructs his workers to protect her as she works, provides a little extra barley for her, and allows her to eat with Boaz’s own workers.
Of course, if you do remember the story, Ruth ends up marrying Boaz, with a little machination from Naomi, and ends up becoming the great-grandmother of King David. Still, this segment of the story is instructive of how Israelite society was structured in such a way that those without were not left without. Even a stranger like Ruth was not set aside because of her foreignness, but was able to provide for her mother-in-law. To be sure, Israelite society didn’t always work this well, but the law given way back in Moses’s time had evolved and been interpreted so that the Israelites knew that part of their covenant with God was the instruction to take care of the poor among them, whether they be native or stranger.
The world in which we live is dramatically different than the world of Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth. Still, I wonder if we can, from our own daily experience, bring to mind those who – like Ruth and Naomi – live in a situation, or a system, in which their ability to provide for themselves is compromised. They are unable to work, perhaps, and have no family to provide for them. Or maybe they do work, maybe more than one job, but still cannot make enough to avoid having to choose between feeding family and paying rent. They are out there, whether in the big city or a rural county, and they are who God calls us not to overlook like the rest of society does.
We in the church, though, are not always ready to follow here. Too often, the voice of the church is more prone to condemn than to show compassion – telling that one already working two jobs to “get a job” or blaming him or her for not working hard enough. The church too easily looks for excuses to judge rather than seeking to find ways to show God’s grace to the ones in need. Israelites like Boaz, out of the pages of Hebrew Scripture, judge our modern coldness and failure to live up to the standards God has set for us.
The passage from 1 Corinthians is regrettably a bit more reflective of the ways we are not always so prone to fellowship around the table. Were I to have continued from the end of that passage, you would recognize the words of verse 23 and beyond as the Words of Institution spoken as part of the liturgy around the Lord’s Supper. Our passage today, though, requires a quick explanation of the context in which the early church observed that sacrament, still a new and evolving practice at the time.
In the earliest days of the church the re-enactment of the Last Supper Christ had with his disciples, with the breaking of bread and pouring of wine that have become the core of the modern Lord’s Supper, took place within the context of a full meal with all of the community gathered together. Meal practices of the time, drawing upon Greek traditions and Roman adaptations of those traditions, involved a sequence of different courses to the meal.
Adapting these Greco-Roman practices to the particular interest of the Christian church involved negotiating several problematic features of those Greco-Roman traditions; among them the preference of more “important” guests of the dinner to be seated in places of honor. This is also the background to Jesus’s teaching in Luke 14, where he instructs his disciples not to seek out places of honor at the table. This wasn’t really compatible with the teachings of Christ, obviously, but sometimes the church had trouble remembering this.
Apparently the church at Corinth was such a church. As Paul describes what he has been told about the goings-on there, some families or groups were arriving early and gobbling up all the food, while the more needy in the congregation were left with nothing to eat. Furthermore, the excessive behavior led to incidents of drunkenness and ill behavior disruptive enough to be reported to Paul.
Food is, when you get right down to it, a particularly strong example of God’s providence. It sustains us. As an added bonus, it’s enjoyable. And yet we are too easily led to abuse that good gift one way or another, whether in taking too much for ourselves, or hoarding the good and leaving only poor-quality food for the poor, or abusing the labor of those who do hard, back-breaking work to provide the food we eat; or some other way in which we make something painful and elusive out of God’s good gift.
May it never be so with us. Sharing a meal with our sisters and brothers in Christ is not only emulating the model offered so many times in scripture, but is also one of the greatest pleasures we can enjoy. When we share God’s good gift with one another; when we give respect and honor to those who take upon themselves the work of planting, nurturing, harvesting what we eat; when we give thanks to God for that labor and care, and for what we eat itself; we are living, in a microcosmic way, the fellowship of Christ in the family of God.
For the good gifts of God’s creation, Thanks be to God.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (PH 482)
When We Gather At the Table (tune: REGENT SQUARE)
All Things Bright and Beautiful (PH 267)