If you’ve ever cooked a meal for 75 people in a cramped kitchen, you know it can be a chaotic process – at least it is when I’m doing it. There’s always a scramble to get things done, last minute snafus, confusion about what should happen next – yet somehow, in the end, it seems to come together. Perhaps that’s a miracle in itself, like the loaves and the fishes.
We don’t have evidence in the gospels that Jesus did any cooking, though he did manage to organize a meal for 5000 souls – with leftovers for the next day. His instructions that day to his disciples were, “ You give them something to eat,” which surely induced a moment of panic among them.
He has given his followers today the same instructions, and the paramount importance of those instructions is apparent in the fact that on Sunday morning a meal for everyone present is our central act of worship.
Why are there so many references to Jesus eating and drinking with others in the gospel? It’s central to his concept of God’s kingdom: God’s feast of good things is already prepared, God wants everyone – and particularly those most in need – to share in it. Gathering people of whatever sort together to share a meal with them was, for Jesus, not just a sign of God’s Kingdom but making the Kingdom real and present , of experiencing God’s presence here and now. It was a practice of healing and nurturing and community formation, and it was a promise of love and joy and hope.
I’ve engaged in a number of different kinds of ministries in my life as a priest – preaching, teaching, healing, visiting, etc. – but none has been more important to me than preparing food for others to enjoy together.
I’m presiding at a meal when I celebrate the Eucharist, which is usually a well ordered event. But preparing a meal, from planning to shopping to prepping, to working at a hot stove, is inevitably a kind of juggling act with an uncertain outcome, as any cook will tell you. So I guess it’s not that different from all the other ministries of the church.
The Friday dinners are a critical ministry at Grace. When Hale McMahon helped begin these dinners, I suspect he was relying on the observation that if you prepare good food and offer it to people, they will come and eat. But if you’ve been to a Friday dinner you know that it’s not just about the food. It is making real God’s Kingdom in this city, in people sharing and serving one another, in acknowledging and honoring both the humanity and the divine image in each person present, satisfying our hunger for both sustenance and relationship with others. It is hard not to have a sense of joy in that experience.
I never discussed theology with Hale. I don’t think I needed to: his dedication to the Friday dinner was theology in action. It told you what you needed to know about his character, his commitment to the service of others, his radical welcoming of all to God’s table.
When I make it to the heavenly banquet, with the angels, and the elders, and people from every tribe and nation feasting on fat things full of marrow and well aged wine, my plan is to head back to the kitchen, because the kitchen is always where the action is and where people are usually having the most fun. I suspect I will find Jesus there, popping in to see that everything is okay. “Do you need any more wine, maybe?” he’ll ask.
And I’m thinking that’s where I’ll find Hale, making sure everyone has the supplies they need, offering to run out to get something last minute, checking that the banquet is running smoothly, that there’s plenty of food for everyone, and that everyone feels welcome.
For him, as for all of us, the Feast is only just beginning.
For thus says the Lord:
I will extend peace to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bones shall flourish like the grass;
There is a certain way you can hold a child in your arms. A certain way you shift
your weight from one foot to the other, a certain angle at which you can position your hip. You might sway slowly side to side or bounce if the child needs settling.
This can feel like the most natural thing to do, to pick up a child and rest them on the
little perch your body so easily creates, you don’t have to think about it really, your body knows instinctively what to do.
There is a certain way a child can just collapse into your body, a certain way their
weight can just sink, so utterly, into your chest when they lean back. There is a certain way their feet dangle, a way they can squirm until they find just the right spot.
Holding a child on your hip or the crook of your arm or your on your lap, to give love
and comfort, to receive love and comfort in return, is as basic a human need as to sleep and eat.
And there is a certain moment, sometimes, a moment when you are holding a child
and you and the child are in sync, your limbs relaxed, your breath matching theirs…and in that moment there is peace, such deep and inexorable peace.
Peace…. like a river, to quote the prophet Isaiah in today’s reading from the Old
Testament, a river full to almost overflowing, meandering slowly past the bank. And while our translation of this verse renders the phrase ‘prosperity like a river’, the word in the Hebrew is shalom, peace. This word in Hebrew is not, according to one commentator, a peace that is simply the absence of malice…it is the peace that is the wholeness that comes only through proper relationship with God.
And the people the Old Testament writer was writing for are a people desperately in
need of peace. A people driven from their home, from Jerusalem, in 587 BCE when the
Babylonians invaded and destroyed their city. A people who spent decades, generations, in exile and now, when this text was written, are returning to their home, a home they might not recognize, a home changed and ravaged by years of foreign occupation. But like a child returning to their mother, they are returning to their God who will be there to comfort them and offer them peace.
In today’s Gospel Jesus also speaks of peace. In this commissioning of the 70 to go
out as lambs amidst wolves, Jesus tells these disciples to carry nothing with them, to greet those they encounter with the words “Peace to this house.” They are offering no simple peace however, but like the Hebrew shalom, this is a peace which is about wholeness and relationship with God.
We have lost that sense of the word peace I think. The German theologian Dorothee
Sölle, in her book “The Window of Vulnerability” writes that this Biblical concept of peace has, in this current world order, been absorbed by and become synonymous with security., that we now look to a person with guns and ammunition to provide us with peace.
This kind of thinking leads to walls and tanks and guns. This kind of thinking sees
those fleeing the violent insecurity of a home they once knew and crossing the border of another as a threat. This kind of thinking, which prioritizes security over wholeness and love, separates families and locks up children in cold, crowded dirty cells instead of picking them up, rocking them gently.
But the kind of peace we find in Christ, the kind of peace he talks about in today’s
Gospel, is found in letting go of those things the world tells us lead to security – armies and guns and walls and money and things and achievements- and instead opening our arms wide and embracing those in need of comfort, feeding those who are hungry, holding the hands of the sick and the dying.
Jesus calls us to a kingdom peace, a peace which asks us, each and every one of us, to
leave the security of our comfortable places (our homes, our cars, and yes even our pews) and venture into the world carrying nothing but the Best News Ever that in Christ God entered the world. And in and with and through Christ we too can participate in bringing peace to a broken world.
Taking part in the kingdom peace that Jesus is talking about today also asks us not
only to offer hospitality to those who come through our red doors, but to accept the
hospitality of others in the world, to stay with them a while, to share the stories of our faith and the way the kingdom of God has come near us.
And that is scary, my friends. It scares me. It can feel just as Jesus described, as if we
are lambs being sent out into the midst of wolves. But in the upside kingdom of peace that Jesus proclaims, the lamb carries the blessing of God with them and that kingdom comes near everyone, all we encounter, even the wolves of the world. That does not mean that we will always feel secure, we will always feel safe, but we will have the blessing of the peace of Christ with us.
One of the things I was most looking forward to upon being ordained to the
priesthood was offering God’s blessing at the end of the Eucharist and it is still just about my favorite ‘priestly’ thing to do. And the words that are often offered at the moment are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians which offers the peace of God, which passes all understanding to the community of believers to which he was writing and to us.
And while I love and am deeply grateful for the privilege to offer God’s blessing, I
think that we all should leave here blessing one another, blessing everyone we meet,
reminding the world that the kingdom of God has come near.
So I wonder if, this week, you can offer a blessing to someone or something. It can be
small. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World suggests starting with a stick you might encounter as you walk down the sidewalk. Take a moment, recognize that you did not make this stick, imagine the stick’s story (did a bird once sit on it? did a flower bloom at its edges just a little while ago?), wonder at the miracle of this piece of wood that once was an artery of a tree, and she suggests you can say (whisper perhaps) a blessing:
“ “Bless you, stick, for being you.”
“Blessed are you, o stick, for turning dirt and sun into wood.”
“Blessed are you, Lord God, for using this stick to stop me in my tracks.”
And then maybe, after some practice, you might try a bird, a cat, a friend, the man you
encounter sleeping on the sidewalk…offering the blessing of Christ’s peace, which is really just a recognition of the belovedness of all creation, to the world.
And in these blessings we offer one another, in the relationships we build, in the comfort we give and receive, the comfort like a mother might offer her child, picking her up, adjusting her on the side of her body, swaying side to side….that is the comfort that overflows from God.
That is peace that shall make our hearts rejoice and our bones flourish like grass.