Sunday, December 8, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Miracle Bread"

Isaiah 25:6-10

6 On this mountain, the Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined. 7 He will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is veiling all peoples, the shroud enshrouding all nations. 8 He will swallow up death[b] forever. The Lord God will wipe tears from every face; he will remove his people’s disgrace from off the whole earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 They will say on that day, “Look! This is our God, for whom we have waited— and he has saved us! This is the Lord, for whom we have waited; let’s be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” 10 The Lord’s hand will indeed rest on this mountain. Moab will be trampled down as straw is trampled into manure. (Common English Bible)

“A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity with the Poor,” Week Two

I cannot possibly paint my usual word-picture at the beginning of these things to tell you about what it might be like to live in the country of North Korea—not simply because I have never been there, but because so few outsiders ever have.  But imagine a wholly evil, brutally totalitarian government, replete with concentration camps, secret police, and a real short temper.  Now compound that with a relative lack of arable land and you get a perfect recipe for perpetual famine…something that the North Korean people have been facing perennially since the mid-1990’s when the late Kim Jong-il ascended to the office of his father, Kim il-Sung.  But a birthday present of mine from Carrie—a subscription to the food magazine Lucky Peach—gave me an incredibly powerful, moving, and dare I say emotional look into what it is like to eat in North Korea when they sent a journalist there to do just that.  And this is what he wrote, in part:

A quick glance at any statistic about health and nutrition in the country will tell you that each of our individual meals would have easily dwarfed the average daily caloric intake of an ordinary North Korean.  Protein of any kind is rare in the countryside, and fruit is a real delicacy; even the browning apple slices (we received) were a relative luxury.  By local standards, the amount of food we were served was obscene.  Which only makes our rejection of it all the more ugly…

In the moment it feels strange, like playing the fiddle while Rome is burning.  The feeling is vaguely horrible and acutely hypocritical.  But you eat anyway—because the food is there, and you’re hungry.  You share your food as much as possible, of course, and make other small gestures to allay the moral dilemma.  But you eat.  And if the food is good, you savor.  There’s some cognitive dissonance at play: you understand that people all around you may be starving, but you enjoy your meal.

In North Korea, we committed something of a double hypocrisy: we knew people around us were starving, and that we were being served feasts, but we didn’t enjoy them.

And honestly, truly, I think the same can be said of us here, today, in the United States.  So often at our kitchen tables, we serve ourselves feasts relative to the food insecurity of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and we do not enjoy them.  We do not appreciate them as we ought.  And it is something that this next installment of our Advent series is going to tackle.

Another new liturgical season, another sermon series, right?  Well, pretty much, but this liturgical season—called Advent—is relatively short, only four weeks long, and unique in that it is largely a waiting game as we count down the days to Christmas (which, let’s be honest, how many of us started doing after Halloween?).  But even though Advent is a time of festiveness in our culture, with Christmas carols on the radio station and gingerbread this and peppermint mocha that, Advent actually began as a penitential season—a season in which we were meant to follow the exhortation of John the Baptist as he foretold Christ, telling us to repent and believe in the coming Messiah.  One of the most prominent spiritual disciplines of penitence is fasting, and so for this Advent, I chose a source of sermon series material you may be familiar with.  If you remember my “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series two years ago, about trying to find Christ within the crass consumerism of Christmas, well, one of the Advent Conspiracy authors, Pastor Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston Texas, has written a sequel called “A Place at the Table,” in which he details fasting as a spiritual discipline.  Though the book is actually written for Lent, the season when we are supposed to give something meaningful up, I have shanghaied it for Advent because I think that the holiday season is probably when our charitable goodwill is often on the front burner, and I wanted to be able to speak to that here.  This week, we turn to the chapter of Pastor Chris’s book entitled “Miracle Bread,” in which he writes in part:

Many days I wake up, and the first thought to enter my mind is, “What do I want to eat today?”  I really like food, and here in Houston I have a lot of good choices.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but many mornings (even before the sun is completely up) I wonder whether to have Tex-Mex or Korean tacos.  Or what about Thai cuisine, or Indian?  It is not just the time I spend answering the question that makes me feel so self-absorbed, but also the way my cravings have the power to shape my day…

(But) a very simple realization broke my will, pride, and eventually my heart.  I realized that the joy that food and material possessions bring to me is often substantial, but that far too often I lack any sense of gratitude for it.  The fact that God sustains our lives by a gift from His hand should cause us to stop everything and offer sincere thanks, but so often we do not.  The same is true for the air we breathe, our health and well-being, and sadly even the grace and forgiveness offered to us through Jesus the Liberating King.

This passage from Isaiah 25 should ring familiar, then, to all of us who are just like Pastor Chris—and like me, for that matter—in our Falstaff-esque love for food.  Rich food is one thing, and well-aged wine another, but the bone marrow that verse 6 mentions is something else entirely—marrow, to this day, is a delicacy and a luxury.  A little bit of it goes an awfully long way.  But Isaiah is prophesying foods “filled” with the stuff—it’s over-the-top food porn, it’s the Food Network on steroids.  This verse is obscene in how decadent it is.

And it is probably supposed to be that way, because those sorts of visions and, if you will, daydreams are the stuff that people who eat minimally sometimes indulge in.  I know that during my student days, I would order off the dollar menu and think about a fabulous nine-course meal at the French Laundry instead of thinking about the six-inch BLT on honey oat that I was actually eating. (I’m sorry, Subway…our entire relationship was built on lies and fantasies…)

The difference is that Isaiah probably knew what the stuff tasted like.  Unlike the other Old Testament prophets with books to their names, Isaiah was a prophet of the royal court, and so he probably wasn’t out on a street corner wearing a pickle barrel and shouting that the world is going to end.  Isaiah instead is promising this sort of life—the life that he enjoys—for everyone.

And the thing is Isaiah doesn’t stop there.  He builds on this to talk about how God will swallow up death forever (we get to consume marrow and wine, God has to consume death…I think He may have gotten the short end of that stick), how God will wipe away all of our tears, and how God will take away all of our shames and our disgraces.  It is incredibly hopeful, incredibly powerful stuff.  But it is also potentially very dangerous stuff to the way our world works.

Because the way our world works, the poor are not supposed to enjoy these sorts of privileges.  Much less the taste of good food, the poor are not supposed to have their shame and disgrace taken away from them.  We do things that are meant to shame and disgrace them every day.  Letters to the editor suggesting that the names and addresses of welfare recipients be publicized.  Hateful comments about the poor being leeches on society, even if they work full-time.  Even something as subtle as handing a WIC check over to the supermarket clerk to endorse, in full view of everybody else in the checkout line, can carry with it its own form of humiliation, since now everybody knows exactly how you are paying for your bread and baby formula.

Bread that does not have to be bought and paid for in this way, that is true miracle bread.  It is the bread that Jesus multiplies thousandsfold in order to feed the five thousand men, plus their women and children, after John the Baptist is executed.  It is the bread that Jesus consecrates as His body at the Passover, giving new meaning to the liberation of sin that God’s children experience.  And it is the bread that would be included in the feast that Isaiah prophesies.

It is the bread that enables us to offer a place at the table to all comers, all takers.  It is the bread that entire faith testimonies, entire spiritual journeys, entire God experiences are made from.

What is the miracle bread in your life?  What is the spiritual food that motivates your hungry spiritual body the second you wake up in the morning, like how Tex-Mex or Korean food motivates the hungry physical body?  Maybe you even have to ask yourself, “Is there any miracle bread in my life?”  In other words, am I spiritually starving right now?

Of course I hope that isn’t the case: if I’m completely honest—and completely selfish—that doesn’t reflect well on my own work as your preacher and teacher.  But perhaps if you are spiritually poor, it can give you a small window into the life of someone who is materially poor.  I know that I have looked at some incredibly spiritually rich pastors, colleagues, and friends, and envied them, thinking, “I want what they have,” just like we would want our neighbor’s  big-screen plasma television or spanking-brand-new Audi.  It’s still jealousy.  It’s still envy, whether we are envying a spiritual wealth or a material wealth.  In other words, like I said at the beginning, we still are being served feasts in our lives, but so often we do not enjoy them.

And why is that?  Honestly, I think that we use what power we have as a weapon to tear down, rather than as a tool to build, because really, it is far easier and far quicker to tear someone else down than to build them up.  Building someone else up—in any capacity, material, spiritual, emotional, anything—is laborious, time-intensive, and sometimes, well, frustrating.

Now imagine having to build the entire world up, starting with a small circle of twelve disciples, then a larger circle of seventy, then the church entire.  That is why the birth we are about to celebrate is so special: what we struggle to do sometimes with just one person—to build them up instead of tear them down—is what Jesus managed to do in the course of His birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  It is why we call Him Savior.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longiew, Washington
December 8, 2013

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