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God's Priceless Banquet

Sermon - 3/07/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 55:1-6, 12-13

Just a word of introduction to the text for this morning. After 70 years in exile, some 25-2,600 years ago, a Persian King by the name of Cyrus defeated the Babylonians, and decreed the that the Hebrew people living in exile should be set free. And so it was a dramatic turn of fortune for the people of Israel. And it's described in part through the words of the prophet interpreting these events for us in the second half of Isaiah, beginning with chapter 40.

In this prophetic oracle that is our text for this morning, the prophet, speaking on behalf of God in the first person, describes what God is doing--extending the covenant made with David to all of the people of Israel, even though there is no longer a descendent of David on the throne. And then switches to the third person to describe the response called for not just by God's people, but even by nature itself.

So, reading then from the 55th chapter of Isaiah, I invite you to follow along in your own Bible:

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.
2Why 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.
3Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
   my steadfast, sure love for David.
4See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
   a leader and commander for the peoples.
5See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
   for he has glorified you.
6Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;

For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.


I was struck as I read this passage once again this week by the way in which food is used to describe this marvelous thing that God is doing. Eat what is good, delight yourself in rich food. This is not a time for frugality and dieting, the Lord says, it is a time to eat, drink, and be merry.

And it got me to thinking about how often food is used to portray the grace and the goodness of God. So freely and abundantly given throughout scriptures. The story of the Manna in the wilderness, 40 years it sustained the people of God on that goodness. The description of the promised land flowing with milk and honey. Of course, after 40 years of living on Manna, anything would sound good, right? :)

Jesus and that wedding in Cana, turning not just a cup full of water into wine, but seven barrels full of water into wine. What a symbol of the abundance of that goodness from God. Feeding the crowds, remember the story with loaves and fish that Jesus begins with, and then it ends with 12 basketfuls of food left over. Again, the symbol of this abundance of the life of God.

Then there is that great and wonderful Emmaus story on the evening of the resurrection, in this wonderful metaphorical moment of truth and clarity when they break the bread and their eyes are opened and they see the risen Christ in their midst. And that brings up the image of the Last Supper, which of course was not just a tiny bit of bread and a little sip of juice but it was an abundant meal, most likely Jesus was celebrating the Passover with his disciples.

And it got me to thinking, I'm curious how many have celebrated a Passover before, in a Jewish home? We did it here in the basement of the Church a number of years ago, some may remember that, and even that was only a taste of a real Passover meal.

The Passover meal is a combination of Thanksgiving, Easter, and July 4th all combined into one. Its just this rich feast of food and wine and blessings, and readings, and stories, and dialogue and debate. And more food and wine and it just goes on and on and on a throughout the evening. Wonderfully rich in every way.

When I was in Jerusalem last year, February 2008, we had a meal at a restaurant that was operated by two men:

One a Palestinian Muslim, and the other an Israeli Jew. They served the meal with only food that was mentioned in Scripture, either in the Old Testament, New Testament or in the Koran. They call themselves "Chefs for Peace", and you see their name their written in Aramaic, English and Hebrew:

And they passed out these food items, the raw stuff that we can hold and smell and taste as they describe each of them for us:

It was just his wonderful meal, rich in aroma, smells, and sights, that was, well, I guess you would just have to say finger licking good :)

We often joke about church potlucks, how often we have them, or how much food we have, or the enormous variety of food. Sometimes the variety of quality of food, whatever the case may be. There is something that happens at those potlucks that conveys the very essence not just of church or Christian community, but even of the kingdom of God. Do you know what I mean? Have you experienced that?

There's fresh greens from somebody's garden. And frozen lasagna from COSTCO. There's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and honey glazed ham. There's homemade egg noodles and store-bought egg salad. There's over baked casserole, and if you're lucky, under-baked cookies. There's recipes that have been in the family for generations, and creations not even Picasso could imagine. Or Evel Knievel dare try.

There's a wonderful mixture of this culinary cuisine and supermarket convenience. And it's all laid out there for us. The smorgasbord of taste and texture, smells and colors, and then the magic happens. Someone gives a blessing, the line forms, and each person takes a plate, and a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and before you know you it your have this creation piled up on your plate.

And it matters not if one brought homemade pie with homegrown apples, and another stale dinner rolls from a day-old bakery. Or perhaps nothing at all. Everybody eats from the same table. Gets the same food. Has the same options. Well, maybe not if you're last in line, but you know what I mean :).

And at those potlucks, it doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what you wear, it doesn't matter where you live, all are welcome, and eat abundantly. Some more abundantly than others :). But I ask you: is that not a snapshot of the Kingdom of God?

Jesus described the reign of God (in that story that we heard from Luke's gospel just a bit ago) as this great banquet. Invitations sent out, all the fine food prepared, and then the excuses began coming, and people can't come. So the master the house sends the servants out just to collect anybody, everybody, off the street. Until that banquet hall is filled.

Paul describes a different kind of meal that was happening in the church in Corinth, a sort of anti-banquet, opposite of the kind that Jesus described. And there, instead of everyone sharing equally, some are feasting while others go hungry. And such, says Paul, humiliates those who have nothing and shows contempt, shows contempt, for the church of God.

Now, it may be unthinkable to us that anyone could feast someone else is going hungry right there in their midst, but that was actually the norm in that society, where eating was not only something you did for sustenance and pleasure, it was something you did that showed your status in society.

Two anthropologists, writing on the anthropology of eating, wrote this: "Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among societies' members. To know what, where, who, when, and with whom people eat is to know the character of their society".

And another anthropologist, after reviewing the literature from various cultures that reveal the eating habits of those cultures concludes: "Eating is a behavior which symbolizes feelings and relationships, mediates social status and power, and expresses the boundaries of group identity".

In other words, it's not so much a case of 'you are what you eat' but rather you are with whom you eat. And think about our own practices and this society. You see, this is what makes the biblical vision, first expressed by the prophets, demonstrated by Jesus and then practiced in the early Church, so radical. Anthropologists call the rules that govern eating, which serve as a microcosm for the rules of society as a whole, "commensality". And Isaiah lays a vision for open commensality, where all are welcome at God's banquet table, regardless of status or ability to pay. "You who have no money, come, buy, and eat".

In chapter 25, the prophet says "On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food. A feast of well-aged wines".

John Dominic Crossan makes the case that such open commensality, the table of God where all are welcome, was one of the primary ways that Jesus put the kingdom of God into practice. Yielding the accusation that he was a glutton and a drunkard who ate with tax collectors and sinners. He writes in his book, "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography":

"The kingdom of God, as a process of open commensality, of a non-discriminating table, depicting in miniature a non-discriminating society, clashes fundamentally with honor and shame, those basic values of ancient Mediterranean culture. Open commensality is the symbol and embodiment of radical egalitarianism, of an absolute equality of people that denies the validity of any discrimination between them, and negates the necessity of any hierarchy among them".

And it's precisely that vision, which has meant for many of us in Disciple churches and others, of this open communion table, where all are welcome to partake in the gift of God's grace, and in that goodness of God's gift of life.

But does that go far enough? Some of you, many of you, are aware that we are in this process of dialoguing about the meaning of being an open and affirming, welcoming church, where all can participate as full members, with all rights, responsibilities and privileges regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, status, national origin, or whatever. So the question is, does that alone adequately communicate a vision of God's kingdom here on earth? Or can we do more?

Some of you remember the book that we used in the prayer triads two years ago, Diana Butler Bass, "Christianity for the Rest of Us". And it was in her chapter on hospitality that describes the church in Washington DC, the Church of the Epiphany, that served a breakfast on Sunny morning. Not only a breakfast, also had a worship service, they call it 'The Welcome Table'. And it was not breakfast for busy church people, who had too much to do on Sunday morning, but rather breakfast for those who had no other place where to eat. And she writes: "For them, hospitality opens the way to practicing peace. Doing a tangible thing that can change the world".

It's a good illustration of hospitality And it never occurred to me when we selected that book for use in our prayer triads, that someone might say "Oh, gosh, maybe we can do that here". So, c'mon people, it's a great example and illustration for somebody else to use, right? Not us. But you know, we've got some folks who think differently, and they've made some plans, they have been talking to Food for Lane County, talking to St. Mary's church next door that does breakfast every other Saturday morning. And now we have a meeting scheduled in two weeks after church to see who else might be interested. If we get enough folks interested, we might do something like that.

Here's the thing that should make us stop and think before we go off and do something foolish: if we serve breakfast to a bunch of hungry folk on a Sunday morning, the only place in town on a Sunday where you can eat for free, the only place on a weekend (St. Mary's is the only other place, and they do it every other Saturday), if we do that soup-kitchen style, where we serve all those folks as our guests, it will be a good thing.

But if we, decent citizens of the community with good reputations at stake, not only serve them but actually sit down and eat with them, well that's something different. The first we call charity, it makes us feel good. The second, well, Jesus and the prophets, they call it something else. They call it the promised land. They call it the kingdom of God. They call it the place God calls home.

It's not about making you feel good. They said it's about changing the world to be good.

Can it happen here? We'll see.


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