Scripture: Isaiah 25:6-9; Luke 14:15-24
Picture a typical dinner from your childhood. Where are you? What are you eating? Who else is there? Any other details that seem important?
I was at a conference recently—on food and faith, appropriately, where I drew a lot of my inspiration for this series—and we did this at the beginning of our time together by drawing a picture and sharing what we had drawn with others. As it turns out, one of the things we may find out from an exercise like that is that our stories may differ a lot.
If I were to describe my typical childhood meal for you, it would be in the kitchen of our house in Vienna. We always ate in the kitchen except on special occasions because the dining room table was always piled high with books and homework and pretty much anything we wanted to put down somewhere, much to my mom’s dismay. It would be me, Mom, Dad, my younger brother Eric—plus the cat, who got her own chair and always sat with us even though she didn’t technically eat with us. Dinner was never fancy, but it was always healthy, maybe something like whole wheat spaghetti and salad. When we timed it right, we could hear the church bells that played each night from our church down the street.
When we did this sharing exercise at the conference I attended, some of my group had similar stories to mine, but one drew his picture of his family in the car, eating fast food on the way to some lesson or practice. For others it might be something heated up after a single parent got home late from work. Maybe some of us ate in front of the TV, or sat around a low table on the floor instead of on chairs, or ate with our hands instead of forks. I know if you were at my in-laws’, the picture would probably involve everyone cooking together.
You see, it’s about a lot more than food, right? These pictures can provide a lot of insight into who we are.
Last week I talked about how food is an integral part of our story as people of faith and how it’s so much more than just numbers on a nutrition label or Weight Watchers points. Food is comfort, memory, fellowship, hospitality—and food is also tightly wrapped up in our identity.
How many of your strong memories have to do with food? I could tell you that if I went back to the town on the Jersey shore where we spent our vacations growing up, there would be one specific ice cream place I would want to go to, and I would need to eat a funnel cake on the boardwalk. I could tell you that I’ve tried unsuccessfully to replicate my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese. And I can tell you that when I’ve traveled abroad, as much as eating different food is part of the experience, after a little while I always want pizza—because pizza is somehow ingrained in me as an American.
What if I told you that God also paints an image of a meal for us?
We heard it in Isaiah, which we used as our call to worship earlier. “On this mountain,” Isaiah says, on God’s mountain, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Where are we? On God’s mountain, Mount Zion, the place where we dare to hope for what is to come. What are we eating? Only the finest food, the kind we can’t afford in real life. Who is there? All peoples.
If the image of a meal can say so much about our identity as individuals, what might this image of a meal have to do with our identity as Christians?
How does this futuristic, heavenly meal say something about us now?
Maybe it’s just a metaphor. Is there really going to be food in heaven? Is that going to be a thing? Maybe this is just another image of how much better things are going to be in the sweet by and by, like the image of streets of gold. Or maybe it’s meant to tell us about God’s welcome in a way we can understand, like the image of a house with many rooms.
Early Christian theologians—actually, probably also later ones—disagreed over whether there was eating in heaven. Irenaeus envisioned a renewed creation which would “abundantly produce a multitude of all foods out of the rain from the heaven and the fertility of the earth.” Tertullian, on the other hand, argued that we won’t have bodily needs in heaven in the same way we do now, and thus we will have no need to eat.
The scholar Norman Wirzba, who is my inspiration for much of this series, points out in his book Food and Faith that one of the aspects of our Christian story is that God thinks bodies matter, which is why God came to earth as a real live person, who was then resurrected not as a disembodied spirit but as a real live person who had scars and ate breakfast. Eating, he says, is so much a part of the fabric of our lives that it would be hard to imagine life, even the next life, without it. And again, food is about so much more than just fulfilling basic nutritional needs. It’s love and comfort and fellowship—all things that we could guess would characterize the Kingdom of God. So who knows, but maybe it’s not actually so metaphorical at all.
I’d add that if heaven weren’t going to be like a feast it is strange that there are so many depictions in the Bible of heaven as a feast! Besides Isaiah, my favorite is the one we just heard from Luke, the parable of the Great Banquet.
Jesus tells this story, appropriately, at a dinner. It’s a dinner where everyone is scrambling to call dibs on the best seats, and Jesus notices and tells them it would be better to claim the worst seats and be invited forward than the other way around. Then he says to these very status-aware guests, “When you host a meal, don’t invite your friends or your relatives or the rich people, the ones who are going to be obligated to invite you back. Instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, the ones who can’t do anything for you. Your reward will come later.”
One of the guests responds by saying, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!” It’s kind of an awkward thing to say, possibly just to break the uncomfortable silence, or maybe he is feeling particularly assured of his later reward. Jesus, as Jesus likes to do, responds with a story.
In this story that Jesus tells, God is throwing a party. He doesn’t say the host is God, but because this is how Jesus tells parables, and because we are already talking about eating bread in the Kingdom of God, we can imagine from the beginning that it probably is. And God invites all the important people to his party, but they all have some excuse. They’re too busy. “I have to try out my new oxen,” one guy says. They send their regards. So as these “no” RSVPs build up, God sends out another set of invites. He tells his guys to go out and gather up the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. The ones who never get invited to the cool parties. The ones who no one sits with in the cafeteria. And then there’s still room so he sends the servant back out to bring in everyone he sees on the street. Everyone.
You’ll notice that this is a picture of a heavenly feast that is a lot less about what’s served, and a lot more about who’s around the table.
When I was studying in India I had dinner with a professor who told me he though the table was Western civilization’s best contribution to the world. The table, he said, changes the dynamics. Maybe it’s perfectly possible to say that about other traditional ways of eating too. The fact is, that when we eat together, relationships form and change.
What you eat and where and how you eat it may say a lot about you, but so does who you eat with, as any middle schooler can attest. In fact, that was always Mom’s way of getting information out of my brother and me when we were teenagers—she would ask, “Who do you eat lunch with?” Those were my people—the people I ate lunch with.
Think about the answer to that question now: Who do you eat with? Who is in the picture?
For some of us, the answer might be often no one. We eat at our desks and, if we live alone or run on different schedules from our partners or families, make something for one when we get home. Or it might be the same people all the time—the same coworkers who go out to lunch every day. Or it might be a group of friends who get together for dinner every so often.
How homogeneous is that group of people?
And how much does the group ever change?
Who is welcome at the table?
How much does God’s image of a meal have to do with the way we, who call ourselves God’s people, eat?
The people around God’s table, Isaiah tells us, are all nations, not just the one nation we happen to think is best. The people at God’s table, Luke tells us, are the unexpected. They are, perhaps, exactly the people it would not be our first inclination to eat with. We might feed them. But that is very different from eating with them. There’s a very different power balance there.
It’s a powerful thing, speaking of power, to invite someone new to your table.
It’s a powerful thing to eat with someone you never have before.
Did you know the word “companion” comes from the Latin “to eat bread with?” When we eat together, strangers become companions.
I wonder how many of you saw in the news this week that in Wichita, Kansas, the local Black Lives Matter group had a cookout with local police.
The event was originally scheduled as a protest. After talking to the police force, the protest organizers cancelled the protest and instead agreed to come together with police in a nearby park to eat and talk. Police officers flipped burgers and members of the two groups played basketball and danced together.
They also had some real conversation. Members of the community voiced their concerns and the police addressed their questions. They also broached on the question of whether a cookout was really going to do any good or change anything. But for many of the people there, it was the first time they had ever sat down at a table with a police officer. It was, perhaps, the first time they had seen police officers as people. And—just maybe—vice versa.
Is eating together going to change everything? Probably not. This week in America there were even more reports of police violence against black people elsewhere—and, more reports of violence against police. Clearly the solution lies in more than a cookout. But it seems like a really good start. Because around a table, people become equals, at least for a little while. It’s not one person serving and one person being served. It’s not one person feeding and one person being fed. It’s not a person with a badge and a thug. It’s people, eating the same burgers and drinking the same lemonade and getting to know each other and maybe even playing and dancing together. And it’s not perfect, and it’s not magic, but I think there is something of heaven on earth in that picture.
How does God’s picture of a meal shape who you are—and who you eat with?
Your mission this week, if you choose to accept it: eat with someone new. When we eat together after the service today, sit with someone you haven’t talked to much before. Invite a new coworker to join you for lunch, or invite a neighbor you don’t know well over for dinner, or buy lunch for someone panhandling on the street and actually eat it with them. Make your table look a little more like God’s heavenly table. A lot could change. It’s not just about food.
 Quoted in Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, by Norman Wirzba, p. 225.