When I was a youngster few things were as wonderful, few things brought me as much joy as a church potluck. It was always a huge spread, and, believe it or not, I loved the salad table. Not that I didn’t love the table with the main dishes with the sweet and sour meatballs and every variation of casserole with cream of mushroom soup. And not that I didn’t love the dessert table with the squares, and the pies, and something that even these conservative rural Mennonites acknowledged was properly called “sex in a pan”. Oh yes, I loved those, but the salad table held a special delight.
The salad table at our potluck dinners usually included a couple versions of 3 bean salad, which I loved, a couple potato salads, which I loved. There might be a coleslaw or two, which I mostly avoided. Of the remaining of the dishes on the salad table, the base ingredient for most of these was Jello. Lovely colorful, glistening, playful, squeeze through your teeth Jello. There were a few “healthier” options of Jello salad with shredded carrots or celery, and some with fruit cocktail, but then you came to the really good ones that included a combination of Jello, Dream Whip, vanilla pudding, and marshmallows. These were salads for the gods. Kale hadn’t even been invented yet. I’m positive in the first 25 years of my life I never tasted a real lime, but I knew what limes tasted like – green Jello.
Eating food is a deeply intimate act. You are taking all sorts of edible (we hope) materials, and ingesting them into our bodies by smelling their odors, seeing their shapes and colors, feeling their texture and heft, and manipulating them past your lips and tongue and teeth, before finally swallowing and handing them over to your digestive system.
Our texts this morning all have to do with food and eating, which rightly fits into our Lenten theme Blessed Hunger, Holy Feast. I will admit when I first saw that theme for Lent I was puzzled. This is lent, when we are supposed to be fasting and doing without not feasting. Feasting seems like a Easter theme, and just like we shouldn’t be singing Christmas carols in October, it doesn’t seem appropriate to discuss feasting in Lent. Perhaps we can discover some Lenten wisdom in these texts.
I will admit that I have a deep fondness for the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures – especially the prophets, Psalms, and wisdom literature. They are for me a feast of rich words and images. They are often deeply engaged with the physical world and the physical body. In these texts, encounters with God often have physical manifestations that interact with bodies.
And so, looking at our Old Testament texts, both the Psalmist and Isaiah speak to the reader of rich food and feasts.
Isa 55:2 reads “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.”
My bible tells me that where the translator opted for the words “rich food” the Hebrew text actually reads “fat and fatness.” Rich foods seems like a polite and tame translation of fat and fatness. Inviting guests over for an evening of fat and fatness probably wouldn’t get many RSVPs. This is a feast of dripping juices and greasy fingers.
“5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;”
After an extended rich feast, with joyful, and glistening lips, like the Psalmist, where do we all end up but sprawled out on the bed, on the sofa, on the floor, groaning, moaning, and burping out our praise to our glorious God of abundance.
Both the Isaiah and Psalm text begin with the desert experience of being parched and faint from lack of water and food. There are times when we feel a lack of abundance. Withholding food – like sending a misbehaving boy to their room without supper – is a familiar punishment. There will be times when you are in the desert, and times when you should be in the desert, and these can be important and necessary times when you may not be living the most abundant life. But these desert times are to be temporary and transitional. We are to emerge from the desert – parched and hungry, and ready to receive a feast. What God provides in response is not just a cup of water and a slice of bread to merely satisfy immediate bodily needs. God responds with a rich feast.
Let’s move for a moment from these rich feasts to the parable of the fig tree in Luke. I will confess that this is one of those parables where I puzzle over what I am too understand from it. A fig tree isn’t producing figs, the owner doesn’t like that he isn’t getting figs, and the gardener asks the owner to give the tree one more year. Thinking about our previous texts we see that nobody is getting a rich feast from this fig tree. So what do we make of this parable that seems to be more about scarcity of food than abundance? We will return to this.
And then we quickly turn to the 1 Corinthians text which leaves me even more puzzled than the parable.
“3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
Well, doesn’t that just take the fun out of food. What happened to fat and fatness and glistening lips? I can imagine our Old Testament text readers hearing this line about spiritual food, and spiritual drink and responding with surprise and disapproval “Spiritual?” The OT writers are often much more interested in the pleasures of the body than Paul and the writers of the epistles. The OT write of fat and fatness, and Paul writes of spiritual food. And in the OT the food was a sign of God’s abundant pardon, and in Corinthians the people got the spiritual food, and no abundant pardon. God was not pleased with them and struck many of them down.
Earlier in 1 Cor Paul even writes “’Food will not bring us close to God’ We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do.” 1 Cor 8:8 I think Isaiah, the Psalmist, and I would beg to differ.
Having looked briefly at these four texts I wondered what is the thread that ties them together? What is the Lent message that these texts bring to us? Is it merely they all talk about food? This has puzzled for quite some time, and it was while making a big pot of soup at the Hermitage this Friday that a thought came to me. These texts are about repentance, and abundance. These are the two basic attitudes, actions, stances that are held up. In these text God’s being, God’s character, God’s definitive action is characterized by abundance. And humanity’s being, humanity’s stance is called to be characterized by repentance.
Repentance might be the most Lenten of activities. I will admit that I’ve become quite fond of the word repent. I know it has a lot of baggage and doesn’t feel like a very welcoming word to a lot of people. The word repent, often conjures up old preachers of revivals or street corners. But I see the call to repent simply as the act and intention of turning around. Turning to face your intention. In our context, to repent is the act of turning from what you are facing to face God.
And what are we to repent of? Mostly idolatry. Idolatry, is another of those words that doesn’t comfortably fit into our vocabulary. But I think a helpful way to think of idolatry as turning your face toward, or setting your focus on anything that is not God.
Isaiah asks that wonderful question “Why spend money for that which is not bread?” This is one of my favorite lines in the bible. Why would I eat that food that has no flavor, no joy, no sustenance, no justice when I could eat food that bursts with juices and justice, with richness and reward.
To do so is idolatry. It is being satisfied with less than our God of abundance.
Living a life that is less than the one God is calling you to is turning your face to the idol of fear and familiarity.
God calls us to turn away from that which does not feed and nourish you. Turn away from dry and tasteless food. Turn away from emptiness. Turn away from a life that is less than the one God is offering to you.
I even when does our Mennonite and Brethren value of thrift and “simple living” get in the way of celebrating and participating in God’s abundance? When does our desire for simplicity, frugality and thrift take our eyes off of the God of abundance? The God who offers a rich feast.
And while our stance is to be a stance of repentance, of turning to God, God’s stance, God’s being is one of unending abundance. God doesn’t need to repent. God is already and always facing us. God is the one who provides rich feasts. God is the one who provides spiritual food and water. God is the one who serves up the fat and fatness that leaves us full and beyond satisfied. God is the self-giving one who takes the form of a human so that all may live.
And so, with this lens of repentance and abundance let’s take another look at our texts.
In the Isaiah text we saw the joy of a rich feast, but that is not the end of God’s abundance. God offers us feast for the body and spirit.
“let them [the wicked and unrighteous] return [repent]to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon.“
God will not just pardon, which would be as sufficient as a cup of water for a thirsty man. But, abundantly pardon, a tall glass of homemade lemonade or a nice strawberry milkshake. That’s what God’s abundant pardon looks like. Turn from your idols of scarcity, fear, and self-dependence, and turn to God who is eager to provide an abundance of pardon and feasts.
And in the Isaiah text once you’ve eaten the feast text God invites you to incline your ear toward God. Once you’ve completed your intimate meal, God invites you to move in closer to hear God speak for God is about to offer a covenant as abundant as the feast that is slowly digesting. God offers not just feasts, but a relationship with the feast provider.
And in Psalm 63 verse 2 we read “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” The psalmist has set his face on, or toward God, has repented or turned toward God. And in verse 7 “for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.” We once again have repentance, abundance, and relationship.
Going back to the parable, my initial understanding of the parable was the tree needed to repent, turn toward becoming the fig tree it was created to be, and the tree owner would feast on figs. But I wasn’t really satisfied with that reading. I realize now that I saw no abundance in the story. But then, thanks to something Naomi said I took a second look, and took note of the gardener’s response. What did the gardener do in response to the demand for repentance, the gardener tilled the soil and offered the tree manure. The gardener provided for the tree and its surrounding ecosystem – a feast of abundant nutrients. We can only imagine that in response the following year the tree produces an abundance of figs, and the tree owner enjoys the abundant feast of figs, and lets hope that that the owner responds in abundance to the gardener.
The parable begins with a strained relationship between the owner and his tree. This relationship can only be resolved through repentance – the man turning away from his impatience, and the tree turning from its not being the tree it was created to be, and both turning toward feasts of abundance.
And this finally brings us back to my quandary about what to do with Paul and this 1 Corinthians text. Like the OT writers, he connects the lack of abundance to idolatry. To an unrepentant people not turning to God. But even then he characterizes the idolaters and eaters and drinkers. So, rich feasts don’t seem to be a sign of God’s abundance to Paul.
Here’s what I can take from Paul. In the Isaiah and Psalm text, the rich feasts were in the context of repentance, intimacy with God, and entering into a covenant with God. What Paul sees is the people of Israel taking the food offered to them by God but the people were not repentant. They were not returning to God. They were ignoring the intimacy and the covenant with God. And if you are just consuming the gift of nourishment without turning to the giver you are just binge eating. In that case, I guess Paul was right to say we are no worse off if we do not eat and no better of if we do. Without a relationship with the great giver, our feasts merely idolize our own gratification. So in Corinthians God remains the God of abundance, but the people lacked the stance of repentance, of turning their face to the source of abundance.
Just to be certain, I am not preaching some kind of culinary prosperity gospel – turn to God and you will eat like royalty (and with no adverse health effects.) God’s abundance is not our prize for repentance. God’s abundance is not conditional. God is abundant. That is simply who God is. A life not turned to God, however, is a life less than we were created for. It is a life lacking in the abundance of God. It is a life lacking the intimate relationship God desires. It is being a fig tree that bears no figs. A life not turned to God leaves us parched and hungry.
So I call you to repent. Turn to God and enjoy God’s abundant feast. And as we receive God’s abundance and enter into intimate relationship with God we in turn become God’s extravagant abundance, God’s rich feast, God’s intimate relationship offered to the whole world.