Sylvania United Church of Christ
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The sermon for week July 29, 2012

July 29, 2012
Sylvania UCC

Soul Food
II Kings 4:42-44
John 6: 1-14

When the prophet Elisha returned to Gilgal there was a famine in the land. The people were frightened and hungry. All they had left was twenty loaves of barley and a few fresh ears of grain. Elisha commanded his servant to distribute what they had. The servant was bewildered, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” But Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’.” And it was so.

Barley was a humble grain most often used to feed the poor; but on that day the meager meal they shared fed more than their bodies, it fed their souls.

Soul Food is any food that feeds the body in difficult times. It tells a story. It recalls the past. It reminds us of God’s faithfulness in times of trouble.

During the Great Depression 15 million Americans were out of work. Those who lived through it will never forget what it was like to be hungry. In 1932 the mayor of Toledo said, “I have seen thousands of these defeated, discouraged, hopeless men and women… they come to ask for public aid. It is a spectacle of national degradation.”

When the decade finally ended in 1939 the Hollywood hit Gone With the Wind captured the national resolve with Scarlett O’Hara’s pledge, “I’ll never go hungry again!”

Soul Food is the culinary masterpiece of necessity. History tells us that slaves on plantations in the south took what was discarded in the large kitchens they served and from what was left over of vegetables and rejected parts of the pig they stirred up a rich heritage of chitlins, and cheesy grits, collard greens flavored with salt pork, red beans and rice and a side of corn bread.

Today when these meals are served their rich fragrance brings back memories of people gathered in segregated churches to tell the Biblical stories of slavery and freedom. When they remember the stories of God leading the people out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and Moses feeding the children of Israel on manna in the wilderness, they recall their own struggles to survive. In the shared memory of the community of faith they renew their strength to persevere, and their courage to overcome.

Soul Food is the food of the poor; but you don’t have to be poor to be hungry.

Soul Food reminds me of my Aunt Bessie who prepared a complete Southern breakfast every morning for her husband’s work day beginning with a freshly killed chicken and a full complement of bacon, biscuits and gravy. As a child from Detroit who thought milk was poured from a carton and food came from grocery shelves, Aunt Bessie’s breakfast was memorable indeed. I still remember watching her blend the flour and buttermilk in a large wooden bowl with her fingers until it could be shaped for baking. My appetite grew as the fragrance from her kitchen wafted through the old farm house; but it was Aunt Bessie’s loving care for this orphan from the big city that made those early morning breakfasts Soul Food for me, food flavored with the milk of human kindness and care.

Your Soul Food may be as heavy with memory as a Christmas turkey or as sweet as the memory of returning home after school to the smell of freshly baked cookies. Foods with a memory are rarely exotic; but rather familiar and easily obtainable. Like the memory of the food you ate the first time you got together with newly formed friends at the pizza place near campus when you were a struggling student, or the fruits and vegetables you gathered from your “victory garden” during the war. Your soul food may be peanut butter right from the jar, macaroni and cheese, chicken soup or beans and rice; but it’s likely you have some particular food that inevitably gives rise to memories, of another place, another time.
Soul Food is food with a past. It is food that tells us who we are by reminding us of where we’ve been. Soul Food is food with a memory. Smell it and you’re home.

The children of Israel may have invented Soul Food. Our scriptures begin with the eating of fruit in the Garden of Eden and end in the book of Revelation with the marriage Supper of the Lamb.

During the 40 years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness God provided manna to sustain them during their long journey to the Promised Land. The story of the Exodus out of slavery in Egypt is the defining event in the history of Israel. Each year at Passover the story of their liberation is told within the context of a ritual meal called a Seder that features foods which symbolize their journey. The story of the Exodus and the Manna that sustained the people of God during their journey are fixed forever as a sign of hope, the tangible evidence of God’s sustaining love and a symbol of God’s deliverance.

References to planting and harvest, the gathering and processing of food and sharing at table abound throughout Scripture. Historically we are a people, dependent upon God, living in community with each other and sharing stewardship for the land. Daily bread is more than an economic goal; it is a human necessity.

Currently we are experiencing the worst drought in fifty years in our own heart-land. Prices rise with each crop that is plowed under. The threat of scarcity produces fears that lead to conflict, fueling debate about the politics of food. While experts debate farm subsidies and question the security of our food supply people like us will wonder how our own people can go hungry in a country that has a reputation for “feeding the whole world.”

The Prophet Isaiah anticipated a time when God’s economy of abundance would prevail. One day the Messiah would deliver a sign of hope and deliverance from the politics of scarcity and problems of distribution. At that time the Messiah will invite all the wretched and the poor to come and eat without having to pay:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money
come, buy and eat! (writes Isaiah)
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price. “ Isaiah 55:1

According to Isaiah when the great day of deliverance comes and the Messianic banquet is spread, even the Gentiles, those who are not among God’s chosen people, will be brought to the Lord.

“Behold, you shall call nations
that you know not,
and nations that knew you not
shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God,
and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.” Isaiah 55:5

The Messiah will extend an unprecedented invitation to all the poor and hungry to a great feast, a feast which would eventually include “nations that you know not.”

The stories of Elisha and Moses and the words of Isaiah were etched in the collective memory of the children of Israel. And with each Passover all the corporate memory of the past returned evoking their common hope for the promised Messiah.

When Jesus fed the 5,000 in Galilee with an offering of five barley loaves and two fish, the crowd remembered the mighty deeds of earlier prophets. So it may have been memory, rather than recognition that caused the people to conclude, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus fed the 5,000 with a few barley loaves and a couple of fish he was not simply feeding their hunger, he was feeding their souls. The ration of a small boy was transformed to feed the multitudes. But the most miraculous transformation of all occurred among the people themselves: the disciples who distributed the bread, the people who were fed, and the little boy who started it all. They were all transformed in the simple act of sharing a common meal. The bread and fish became the means through which the people experienced God’s grace.

When Jesus, the Host of God, took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to the crowd. John tells us, “They were satisfied.” To those who received these humble gifts with faith, they became Soul Food, food for the poor with a memory of the past, food that satisfies.

John calls it a sign. A sign is something that points beyond itself to something greater. The bread became a sign that God was among them and it pointed to an even greater sign which was yet to come.

When on the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread and when he had blessed it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you. Each time you eat of it, do this in remembrance of me.”

Ultimately all meals are about hunger; but not all meals satisfy.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

This food, so like and yet unlike any other, is about God’s desire to fill the hungry with himself. The daily bread we pray for is the gift of God’s Son. It is the bread of Jesus’ life through which our own lives are interpreted and given meaning. This is the Bread which nourishes the Body of Christ, the Church.

Soul Food is organic. It cannot be found at the drive-through or eaten at your desk while you work. Soul Food requires someone to share it. It becomes sacramental when it is blessed, broken and shared in Christ’s name for Jesus promised “Where two or more are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Soul Food is steeped in our collective memories of God’s mercy and grace in times past. It is these memories that transform us from a gathering of individuals with our own hopes and dreams into the family of God, sharing God’s hopes and dreams for the welfare of the world. When God sets the Table all are welcome and each of us brings something to share of what we ourselves have received, so that none of us goes hungry. The feeding of the 5,000 (after all) was initiated by a small boy who was willing to share his lunch!
Whether our faith is bold and robust or more subtle and tentative, what we have to offer is blended together by God’s own hand to become a fragrant offering we refer to as, “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

Jesus called us the salt of the earth, and so we are, a very necessary ingredient for the Soul Food with which God intends to satisfy the hunger of the whole world.

Thanks be to God. Amen

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