Preached June 9, 2013, at Head of Christiana PC
There are so many stories in our scriptures about bread. We hear, so many times, about the mystical feeding of thousands with five loaves and two fish – which my friend Katie refers to as “five hot dog buns and two cans of tuna fish” – and stories of gathering around tables, around campfires, of manna in the wilderness, of the bread that is Christ himself at the last supper. Food is pretty important to us.
It’s important in a physical way, and often in our stories this is the way people long for it – forget about all these fancy metaphors, sometimes we’re just hungry. And when you’re hungry enough, even the simplest bit of bread feels like life itself, and a hot meal is like safety, like somehow everything is going to turn out okay.
But food is also important to us in a communal way. For so many families, gathering together over a meal becomes an essential ritual – and cooking for another person is a beautiful way to offer up a bit of ourselves in caring for them. We have a whole vocabulary around sharing food together: asking someone to meet up for coffee means something entirely different than “getting a drink together,” somehow; and going out to dinner is something entirely different than meeting up for lunch.
In some ways it’s no surprise that something as important as food shows up so often in our scriptures – but it also says something very important about our God that something as apparently “unspiritual” as bread has a central place in our stories and in so many of what we know as miracles. Put simply, our God gives us what we need to live and live fully, not something otherworldly and “spiritual” that doesn’t help if you’re starving. God comes to us in the places we need, and in the form we need. When we are starving and prepared to die, God is bread. God is food. God is life, God is enough-ness. God is sharing bread with one another. God is where and when we need God most, if we will just trust that the help is coming.
But that trust is easier said than done, sometimes. We have heard these stories so many times – just place your trust in God and you will be safe/have enough/be blessed – it’s easy to think, of course I would be able to trust God’s word and follow the instructions. But for someone who hasn’t heard the end of the story, what kind of trust must that take! For someone who is so poor, and feels so abandoned by their community that after this one meal they are actually prepared to die, to share even a little bit of that meal with a stranger takes an incredible amount of trust.
And what a stranger this was! Elijah may have gone on to become a well-known prophet – if not always a well-liked one because of the way he spoke against the injustice and idolatry of his day – but in this chapter he has only just appeared on the scene. His first act told in scripture is predicting this drought, and being sent out by God to live by himself next to a little brook, east of the Jordan river. So when the widow meets him, Elijah is pretty much an unknown, and one who probably looked like he had been living for a while out in the country by himself, outside of the community.
Here she is, feeling abandoned and alone, so that all she has is a child demanding to be fed and a tiny bit of meal and a community that can’t or won’t take care of her; and here comes some stranger asking to share her last bit of food! I can’t imagine what she must have been thinking. But for this woman who felt so poor and alone that she was ready to simply curl up and die, God does come in the form of bread, that which she most desperately needs – but first God comes in the form of a wandering prophet who needs bread. And it is in the act of feeding a stranger that this woman is saved. God’s blessing is not offered on the last bit of meal when it is hoarded and kept jealously – God’s blessing is on this very act of sharing bread with an unknown soul, when that is the one thing of which she does not have “enough.”
And we talk sometimes about this sharing food – we do great work sometimes donating food, serving meals, and so on – but I know my favorite part about this is meeting all the incredible people who sometimes come needing food. Sara Miles, a writer in San Francisco who founded a food pantry in her church, describes it so well in her book Take This Bread:
A long line would form on Fridays in front of the church, beginning hours before we opened. While other volunteers finished unpacking the groceries, I’d go outside and talk with people in the waiting crowd: At least half my conversations were in Spanish. Here was the city I lived in, at last. The pantry wasn’t hushed and pious; it was loud and holy. As the whores and cripples, widows and foreigners and thieves and little children gathered outside, it took on an almost biblical atmosphere.
There were a lot of extended Latino families, with fussed-over chubby babies wrapped in pink acrylic blankets. There were black grandmothers from the projects nearby and a beautiful deaf woman with her three kids. There were homeless crackheads and street kids and a couple of schizophrenics; a bunch of old Moldavian ladies in head scarves; Russians with gold teeth; chain-smoking Chinese men in jackets. … There was Phil, the speed freak; and Michael, the big scruffy British guy; and Nirmala, the radiantly calm Chilean woman – all three of whom would later become volunteers themselves. Nirmala chatted easily with me. She lived serenely in a single-room-occupancy hotel, over a bar, on disability. “I’m not happy,” she told me, “but I’m content. Content is deep.”
The people who came to get food at the pantry had been, to regular middle-class churchgoers, basically like Jesus – that is, invisible. We knew they were there, but we couldn’t see them, and their sufferings and loveliness were imagined, not incarnate in a specific body.
But as I got to know them, I started to see more clearly how the people who came to the pantry were like me: messed up, often prickly or difficult, yearning for friendship. I saw how they were hungry, the way I was. And then, I had a glimpse of them being like Jesus again: as God, made flesh and blood.*
The appearance of Jesus to her was pretty unexpected, having been raised an atheist and fairly skeptical about this Jesus thing. Conversions are funny like that sometimes. So many times in his writings, the apostle Paul tells and retells the story of when he met Jesus by the side of a road – as completely unexpected as that would have been, given his notoriety as an incredibly violent persecutor of the early church. It is that first encounter that changes him, that set him off on a trek around the middle east, proclaiming the gospel and founding churches wherever he went.
In the passage we read from Galatians, Paul makes a point of trying to validate his words by insisting that he has not gotten his gospel message via other people, but that it was straight from Jesus’ mouth! Be that as it may, he still tells a story of going to visit with Cephas, Peter, as well as James “the Lord’s brother.” Despite Paul’s insistence, I find this story almost more important than his first conversion vision. I’m happy to know that these apostles met around a table, sharing food together over the course of several weeks, in such a normal, domestic sort of way, even after Jesus had gone. And, that Paul was welcomed despite his awful past. Somehow that scene feels more like Jesus to me.
We get so caught up sometimes waiting for the big, mysterious miracles – the blinding conversion experience, the resurrection from death, the figure walking on water – that I wonder if we don’t miss God sitting quietly beside us. If the only places we’re looking for God are those knock-you-off-your-feet kinds of miracles, we’re not going to see God very often. Sometimes the miracles are quieter, unassuming. Sometimes God is a mighty roar, and sometimes a whisper. Sometimes the miracle is nothing more than a handful of meal in a jar. Enough to eat when you were prepared to die.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, puts it this way: “Someone who has lost her sight would give anything to be able to see, and if suddenly she could, she would consider it a miraculous gift. [Yet] we who have eyes capable of seeing many forms and colors are often unhappy…. When you have a toothache, you think that not having a toothache will make you very happy. But when you don’t have a toothache, often you are still not happy…. If you sit down, very beautifully, and practice breathing and smiling, you can be very happy. When you sit in this way, aware that you have a feeling of well-being, that you don’t have a toothache, that your eyes are capable of seeing forms and colors, isn’t it wonderful?”
We who are Christian can easily see our creator God in these things – a loving God whose hand appears wherever we look in the miracles of creation – and our savior Jesus in the faces of those who eat with us, and the Spirit stirring among us as we show forth, and receive, the love of God. Sometimes our God is extravagant with color and life and resurrection and big booming miracles, and sometimes God’s extravagant love comes quietly, in simply having enough to eat, a meal with a beloved friend, a blessing to continue the good work we are already doing together.
Our God is everywhere. We see God in sunsets, in nature, in the faces of those we love. We see God in our children and in our grandparents. God is there in unexpected moments with friends, or connections with strangers, or beautiful walks alone.
God is everywhere. Are we looking?
*Take This Bread, p. 126–129, http://saramiles.net/