I preached this sermon on Thanksgiving 2007.
Tables of Love
Scripture Readings: Psalm 100; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35
When I think of tables, I think of eating with friends and family. Through the years these tables have taken different shapes and forms. Sometimes it’s just me and another person and at other times there could be 15-20 of us gathered around. Sometimes it’s quiet conversation and other times a cacophany of chatter, dishes, and someone yelling down the table to get someone else’s attention. I’m Irish-Italian; we tend to be a loud bunch. Of course that didn’t change when I headed off to seminary, and all of my friends were religion geeks like me. There was still a lot of talking over one another, around one another, and yelling at someone in order to get a word in edgewise. I felt right at home.
The table I normally think of is our family table growing up. Mom, Dad, my sister and me every night for supper. We didn’t have very many family rules set in stone, but eating supper together was one of them. When friends were over, they ate with us. Same thing if family visited: eating supper together never changed except when we slept over at a friend’s or had a school function. Some nights there was a lot of chatter, some nights we played Jeopardy more than we talked, and other nights we ate in relative silence because we were tired. The ebb and flow of activity may have changed but supper itself did not. We ate one meal as a family at the table everyday. Period.
One of the hardest things to get used to when I moved out and started living on my own was eating alone. It seemed odd, wrong. And not just because of family dinner. Before college I had always eaten breakfast with my sister, lunch with friends, and dinner with the family. In college I always ate with friends or a the family that adopted me at church. Eating by myself bothered me more than living by myself. In the movie Under the Tuscan Sunher neighbor invites Francis over for supper saying, â€œIt’s not healthy to eat alone.â€ I absolutely agree with him.
In fact the Mediterranean people know how to do supper. I lived in Barcelona for a year as a Nazarene in Volunteer Service or NIVS for short. I loved their attitude about food. Food was something to be enjoyed, not scarfed down. I am a slow eater. I always have been and I will stubbornly remain so. I get teased because I refuse to scarf my food down in order to â€œdoâ€ something more important. What’s more important than nourishing yourself? And I don’t believe you can nourish yourself if you inhale your food. I fit right in in Spain and with the Mediterranean mindset: food is to be enjoyed and preferably enjoyed with family and bunch of friends. They take supper seriously. There it is a three hour affair with three or four courses and a lot of conversation. Talking, joking, sharing the day, getting caught up. It’s relaxed. Everyone is enjoying themselves. Everyone is enjoying the food. I fit right in. I found out the Italian genes I got from my full-blooded Italian great-grandmother ran true in my blood. They somehow skipped the rest of family.
How the Mediterraneans view supper is very much how people in both the Old and New Testaments viewed supper. Breakfast was some bread, probably left over from the night before. Lunch was at work and normally a piece of dried fish and what ever fruit or vegetables that were in season. But supper–supper was different. You were paid for your work at the end of the day. You went shopping then came home, and the whole family–and you have to remember in the Bible this would be three generations who lived close to each other–all of them would get together and eat supper. It was a relaxed, joyous time for the family. They had food, they had each other. They enjoyed their day’s labor at the end of the day. And they took their time. This meal was not to be rushed. It was to be savored and enjoyed. It was the only time the entire family ate together.
In today’s readings in Deuteronomy and John we see two types of meals. In Deuteronomy 26 after coming into the land, the people are to bring the firstfruits of their crops to God. The priests blessed the offering, and then the person who brought it said: â€œA wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” After the offering had been given, the person along with their family, the Levites and any resident aliens sat down and ate together in thanksgiving for what God had done. God had kept God’s promises and brought them into the land, and now they were obeying God giving back what belonged to God and celebrating with each other. This is one of the ways Deuteronomy shows the command to love God and love your neighbor in action.
Another way Deuteronomy shows the two greatest commandments is in verse 12: â€œWhen you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns.â€ Every third year there would be an extra offering to make sure that those who did not have land–the Levites and resident aliens–and those who did not have a household to protect them–widows and orphans–would be taken care of. This was in addition to the earlier commandment in Deuteronomy for the Israelites not to reap all they had sown, but to leave the edges and some grain and grapes for the widows, orphans, and aliens to harvest, so they too could eat. I know many of us probably don’t read Deuteronomy that much, which is a shame because it really is a fascinating book. But the next time you do notice two things: notice how many times the reason for obedience is â€œto love the LORD your God.â€ And notice how many times the Israelites are commanded to take care of those who are immigrants, poor, needy, and those who are without family and without protection from the elements. Deuteronomy is not only a guide book for how to obey the 10 commandments once Israel goes into the land–remember they were nomads for 40 years. Now they were about to settle down and become farmers and live in towns. That’s a very different life. Obeying the 10 commandments would look different because they were living differently. But Deuteronomy is also a primer for how to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
In Deuteronomy remembering what God had done for Israel, making tithes and offerings, taking care of the poor and needy, and all of the people celebrating the harvest by eating together are all very important things.
In fact, considering the importance of feasts and festivals, not only in Deuteronomy, but through out the Old Testament, it’s not all that surprising that Jesus liked to eat too. When I think of Jesus in the Gospels he’s always at someone’s house eating: the wedding of Cana, Simon the Leper’s, Simon the Pharisee, Mary and Martha’s, or Zaccheus’. In fact the religious leaders who didn’t like Jesus accused him of being a wine-bibber and glutton. I always go to the King James for that verse. The newer translations say drunkard, but you just can’t beat wine-bibber when it comes to a good word.
In John 6 we pick up in the middle of the story. In fact, this is kind of a funny set of verses to choose for a reading because it is right in the middle of an entire story. John 6 begins with a meal, or rather an outdoor banquet. Jesus had been teaching and crowds of people were coming to be healed. Jesus saw even more people coming and decided everyone needed to eat. A boy had five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus had the crowds seated and blessed the bread and fish and began handing it out. Jesus fed 5,000 that day. After the banquet Jesus sent the disciples across the Sea of Galilee in a boat and he went back up the mountain by himself. Later that night, as they were rowing across the sea, they saw Jesus walking toward them on the water. They were appropriately terrified. Jesus told them not to be afraid, got into the boat, and immediately they were on the shore they had been sailing toward.
The next day the people began to look for Jesus because they knew he had not gone with his disciples when they left. But he was no where to be found. So they got into the boat and went to Capernaum to look for Jesus, and this where our part of the story picks up. Once the crowd finds Jesus a very interesting conversation begins. It revolves around bread and work and signs. The people want more to eat. It’s not that they see Jesus as a vending machine. Remember eating was not always a given for these people. They went out each day hoping to get work, so that at the end of the day they could buy food and enjoy supper with their families. When they saw Jesus miraculously multiple five loaves and two fish to feed them, they naturally thought that he could multiply their meager resources as well, so they didn’t have to worry about eating from day to day. This is a valid concern. But Jesus wanted to take them beyond that. He wanted them to see that he was more than a miracle worker: he was the Son of God. He was the Messiah that they had been waiting for. Not the political Messiah that would free them from Rome, but the Son of God that would free them from sin and death through his body and blood.
When Jesus tells them that the only â€œworkâ€ they need to do is to believe on the one whom God sent–Jesus, the people demand a sign. I find it interesting that those who had just witnessed the miracle of the day before are asking Jesus for a sign. They tell Jesus: â€œWhat sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Manna came everyday in the wilderness except for Saturday, the Sabbath. The people had to collect a double portion on Friday. Yes, they saw the one time event of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, but they wanted it everyday like their ancestors had in the wilderness. They were still focused on the physical, while Jesus was trying to get them to see the spiritual.
Jesus responded to them: â€œVery truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Notice the change in tenses. Jesus said that it was not Moses who gave them the true bread from heaven. The bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. It’s all present tense. It’s all happening now, not then. The people were stuck in a past event of God. Jesus wanted them to look to the here and now and the future. He wanted them to look at what God is doing now and will do in the future. When the people ask for this bread Jesus tells them â€œI am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.â€
Jesus started with hosting a meal, and now he becomes the meal. In the other three gospels during the Last Supper, Jesus instituted communion or Eucharist. Eucharist is the Greek word for thanksgiving, and that is what communion is called in the New Testament. John does not do this. John talks about Eucharist in chapter 6 and totally separates it from the Last Supper. Let’s read verses 51-58.
â€œI am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
As one commentator put it: John puts Jesus’ discourse on the Eucharist here because for him â€œall of Jesus’ life, rather than one particular event at the end of his life, ‘institutes’ the sacrament of Eucharist. . . .To share in the eucharistic meal is not to remember or commemorate one particular event, but is to share in all of Jesus’ life, including ultimately his death.â€ And this brings us back to tables. This table. The table of Eucharist. The table of Thanksgiving.
Our Thanksgiving begins in the past. As in Deuteronomy it begins with what God has done for us. With the Israelites we say, â€œGod delivered us out of Egypt with mighty signs and by the power of God’s right hand. God brought is into this good land where we could live and be God’s people and God could be our God.â€ We remember the things God has done for us, and we give thanks. But we don’t stop there. God’s grace and strength are in our lives now working to make us more Christlike and bring us into a more intimate relationship with God. God is with us now. God is our God today and we are God’s people. This gives us hope. We can look into the future and know we will be giving thanks to God because God is faithful and will continue to be with us. I think I see that most with Keisha right now. Northside Church of the Nazarene you should be very proud of the responsibility God gave you when God sent her here. She is a dynamic and loving person, full of grace and fire, and I am absolutely sure you had a hand in that. Look at her future. A high school senior with a wonderful calling. And when God called she answered. We give thanks for the work God has done in her life now. We give thanks for what God will do five years from now, twenty years from now, knowing that this is where she laid down her roots and became part of God’s people.
The Church Year is winding down. December 2 is the first Sunday of Advent, which for the Church is our new year. We will begin a new year as we remember the birth of our Savior and look forward to his triumphant return. As we wind down this year, what has God done in our lives this past year–not only individually–but as a church that we need to give thanks for? What do you give thanks for right now? Looking to the future what will you give thanks for? I want you to be thinking about these things. Because during prayer, I’m going to allow time for you to offer your thanksgivings to God as the Israelites offered their firstfruits. What are we thankful for? What has God done and what is God doing? How have we seen God with us?
Then we will be turning to this table and giving thanks for Jesus: for his life, for his sacrifice, and for his resurrection. We will give thanks that through his body and blood, we are saved and have eternal life, an eternal life that starts in the here and now. But our Thanksgiving won’t end here. In the New Testament after worship and Eucharist, the church would eat a meal together called a Love Feast. So our table will continue downstairs when we get together to eat, share our lives, and continue to give thanks for all that God has done and will do for us. Nothing says love, fellowship, and intimacy like a table.