February 7, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
“To Think of Food at a Time Like This”
(third in the series: Waters of Chaos and Creation)
There’s a great story about an elementary school class studying the world’s religions. The children are invited to come to a school assembly, and if they happen to be religious they are welcome to bring a sacred object that represents their faith. One boy says, “I’m Daniel, I’m Jewish, and this is a menorah.” A girl says, “I’m Maureen, I’m Catholic, and this is a crucifix.” One boy says, “I’m Kyle. I’m Protestant, and this is a casserole dish.” See Kyle understands our faith.
You just can’t buy a churchmade casserole at a grocery store or order one at a fine French restaurant. Say what you will about the state of Christianity in America, casseroles are something our churches do really well! And there’s a reason for this: You know who you are by the people you eat with, and casseroles are made for sharing at the table. Eating together is how we remember what it means to be Christian. Which is why we need a lot of potlucks, to realize again and again, “Ah, this is what Jesus meant when he’s teaching us how to eat. It’s like this! Could somebody please grab a serving spoon for the jello salad…”
So it’s also the case that as Christians, we know a little something about what eating is not. Eating together is not reserved for those who make it to a party at the end. Food is not just for those who have earned it. It’s not just for those who deserve it, or who can pay for it, or who can pass a drug test. Food is for those who are hungry. For anybody who’s hungry.
What’s more, eating together is not just about filling up. Sure, it’s pleasant to answer being hungry with being full. But the essence of eating together is not making sure we get the prescribed number of calories; it’s not reducing people to organisms in need of certain nutrients.
Food can be delicious and beautiful. Eating can awaken our inner poetry and call us back to life. A protein bar or a can of Ensure has its place but it doesn’t capture the fullness of possibility that comes from eating a meal with the people you love. It doesn’t come close.
And when it’s your hope that has been defeated. Or when trust has been broken, again. When the storm is raging, and shaking your ship, and you’re not sure you’ll ever make it home, eating together reminds us that we once knew what it was to believe in God’s grace. And maybe we still do. Because maybe it’s right here in the bread.
Today our scripture comes to us from the book of Acts. It’s the story of a storm at sea that causes a shipwreck. This story concludes our winter worship series on the waters of chaos and creation. In the Bible, the waters are both. They are teeming with monsters and danger and bursting with new life, so you can’t tell whether the whale that swallows you will kill you or save your life. You can’t tell whether that ghost walking toward the boat is coming to pull us into the grip of death, or whether it’s Jesus, the one who keeps saving our lives. And even out here on the water, there is grace.
What happened was that earlier Paul had been arrested and taken prisoner for proclaiming his allegiance to Jesus Christ. He gets charged with being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). Which is exactly the kind of thing that keeps happening to Paul. This time, after being imprisoned for several years, Paul makes his defense before the king who finds that he should not be imprisoned.
So along with a group of other prisoners, Paul boards a ship bound for Rome, and right away the winds were against the ship. Paul was not shy about speaking up. He warned the centurion in charge that they should not continue the voyage, but do you think they listened to Paul!
Our scripture this morning begins with a violent northeaster bearing down on the ship. The Bible says the crew threw the cargo overboard with their own hands. Listen to verse twenty: “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (Acts 27:20).
At the same time, the people on board the ship were not eating. Maybe they were fasting as part of their prayer, or maybe they were just too upset to eat. Either way, not eating creates a condition of being suspended in between worlds, in between life and death, in between earth and heaven. In this state, anything can happen.
So Paul tries again. He stands up and says “I told you so” but then goes on to describe how an angel came to him and prophesied that they will survive. The ship won’t; but the people will. Still for days the storm keeps raging, until just before dawn on the fourteenth day, Paul stands up and tries again. This time he doesn’t tell them “I told you so” or insist that they repent and become Christian. He doesn’t try to explain the miracle of the resurrection.
He looks at them and says, “You all need to eat something.” Then he takes the bread and gives thanks to God. He breaks the bread, and begins to eat, and the people do too. All their hope that had been abandoned didn’t stay that way. Eat this bread and remember the courage you have always had, the grace you have always known since before you were born. (Then they threw the wheat overboard, ran the ship aground, and made it to the island of Malta.)
In our scripture today, God does not stop the storm, or release the prisoners, or make everything all better. What God does is show up with the people — in the vision of an angel and then in the bread. Here have something to eat, then your life won’t be the same.
Back in two thousand five, you might remember the news story about Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols. It became wildly popular and inspired a movie called Captive. The gist of what happened is that Brian Nichols was awaiting trial in Atlanta when he overpowered a sheriff’s deputy, stole her gun, and went on a shooting rampage. While on the run, he showed up at Ashley Smith’s apartment while she was coming home, so he forced her inside and held her hostage. What Ashley Smith did not do was shoot him.
Instead she talked to him, and he listened to her. She shared with him details about her own struggle, and she read to him from Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. Through the course of their conversation lasting a number of hours, Smith successfully persuaded Nichols to turn himself in.
In every account of this story I’ve found, there is one more detail that always gets mentioned —like it just might have something to do with the reason Brian Nichols changed his mind and his plan. See Ashley Smith made Brian Nichols pancakes. Because there’s no use being held at gun point while everybody’s hungry!
In a two thousand fifteen interview on Oprah’s Where Are They Now? Ashley Smith met Brian Nichols’ mother who made this comment, “One of the first things I thanked Ashley for was showing some kindness to Brian by fixing him pancakes. That meant so much to him.”
The thing about the grace of God, it can be difficult to trust. Grace is like a blanket amnesty that covers and cancels all our sin. Grace is the saving power of God, the energy of compassion, the promise beyond our human understanding, the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. All that’s fine. But how do you really trust it to change your life? Here have something to eat; the grace is hidden in the bread, and now our lives won’t be the same.
On this day when we celebrate the ministry of our food pantry at Church of Peace, please understand what it is not. It is not about making sure that food goes to the people who have earned it. The food downstairs is not a prize for the deserving, thank God. It is for those who are hungry. The work we do in giving people food is not about filling them up, like we put gas in a car or money in the bank. It’s about serving the delectable grace of God which keeps on going…
Last fall, I talked with a woman at the food pantry whose son was getting ready to go to homecoming that night. As I recall, he couldn’t afford to take his date out to dinner, so he decided to make her spaghetti at home. Good thing! Because we had the spaghetti and jars of sauce to give this woman. The food from our food pantry allows families to celebrate holidays and kids to enjoy breakfast before school. It goes for backyard picnics in the summer and soup for a neighbor who’s under the weather, and something hot for dinner after work. Grace upon grace upon grace…
(move to the communion table) That’s what we’re doing here. We come to this table on Sunday mornings for the same reason we come to the pantry on Saturday mornings, because God’s love is in the food. Because if you find that all your hope has been abandoned, it might still be restored. Taste and see the LORD is good. (go right into the introduction to the table)