Where Does the Lord’s Table End?

February 3, 2019
Reverend Matthew Johnson

Proverbs 9:1-6; Isaiah 55

It’s Super Bowl Sunday. It’s a day when competition is celebrated, when people come together to be in community, regardless of which team they’re cheering for, or even just to enjoy the commercials and the half-time show. It’s a celebration of food – lots of it, much of it with little or no redeeming nutritional value.

The big game is also a display of incredible wealth spent in ostentatious, over-the-top ways. Tickets are thousands of dollars. Flights and hotels are expensive. Those commercials that entertain those of us not particularly interested in the “sportsing,” cost $5.25 million for every 30-second spot. That’s $175,000 per second; never mind the cost of producing the commercials in the first place. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Millions of dollars more are poured into stadium costs, activities and experiences for locals and visitors, parties, security, the half-time show, and on and on.

It’s not a particularly unique event in its display of wasteful wealth; it’s an easy target given the day. The reality is that it’s one of many ways that we choose to display our values in our capitalistic, consumerist society. It’s what empires have always done. Frankly, there’s very little about it that’s novel. Like so many other displays of wealth and power, the end result is an unsatisfied, empty feeling that has consumed much in terms of time, energy, and resources. When it’s all over, we are left wanting more, hungering for something that offers real substance.

I don’t mean to single out football or other sports as somehow evil. We all make choices about how to display our values and use our resources all the time. Regina and I are foodies. Sometimes we cook our own food, investing our time and energy into preparing a meal. Sometimes we have food delivered or go out to inexpensive restaurants. And, sometimes, we spend more money on a single meal than I care to admit. We also love to travel, and we spend significant resources on that passion. These are reflections of some of our values.

At the core, what’s so disturbing is how rooted we are in a broken system, how much we’re caught up in the notion that we must always be pursuing the next big thing, something more. No matter what wealth we amass, no matter what goals we achieve, no matter what experiences we have, it never seems to be enough. And it all comes with a price tag. At the heart of our system of capitalism lies a slippery concept – the monetization of value. Everything we eat has a monetary value. Everything we wear, everything we read, everything we do, even our labor – the work of our bodies – has a monetary value. We talk about net worth, and no one stops to ask whether we’re talking about a person’s monetary worth or something more transcendent. All too often, we limit our own worth and the worth of others to the sum of our financial resources, reducing one another to dollar signs.

God operates with a different economy. While we like to focus on supply and demand, letting the notion of scarcity to drive up cost, God offers abundance. Everything we need for life in this world is provided, free of charge. It’s part of God’s ongoing creative activity. The only thing God asks in return is that we trust and participate in that creative process and that we share the abundance. That’s the vision laid out for us in both of our readings. In God’s economy, we are invited to drink deeply from the wellspring of God’s good earth, to quench our thirst with the waters of creation. We are called to buy wine and milk, to eat the bread of God’s bounty, all for the low, low price of NOTHING!

Has the prophet got your attention yet? This doesn’t make sense in the world I live in. My grandfather was a banker; money measured value. My dad came from a farm family; crops were labor-intensive commodities. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. That’s just not how it works. Right?

Isaiah says otherwise. Water flows throughout his text, reminding us of the way God provides for all of us, offering the abundance of this earth for all people. The same water that we drink falls from the sky, giving life to the plants and animals that feed us. It flows all the way down to the cypress and myrtle that provide lumber for buildings and furniture, spices, medication, even wreathes for Olympic athletes. It’s true in a very literal, physical sense.

The prophet also speaks in metaphor. This poetic invitation originally called the Judean people back from their Babylonian exile to their home in Judah. The call echoes the metaphor of the land flowing with milk and honey, but to partake in this feast, they, and we, must incline our ears. We are called to a feast for all of the senses. Yes, this earth is meant to sustain our physical bodies, and we have been given all that we need for that purpose. AND, through God’s Word, we are given all that we need for our deeper longings to be nourished.

Like the rain that falls from the sky, God’s Word yields life. It is performative; it does what it says. This word spoken through Isaiah calls an ancient people, and us, to return to the Lord. The Hebrew word is shuv, the same word often translated repent. In this case, it’s a call to be reoriented. Our ancient siblings had been living in exile in Babylonia. They had adopted new systems, new ways of being, but God’s call is to return to the ancient covenant, the faithful promise made to their ancestors. As Walter Brueggemann puts it: “As an alternative to Babylonian junk food, Israel is summoned to listen, as was ancient Israel, to the offer of the rich food of the gospel of Yahweh.” They are called to return to God’s economy of abundance, and when they do, they will be greeted by mountains and hills bursting forth in songs of welcome and the trees of the field clapping their hands. What a homecoming!

Friends, God has the same sort of re-orientation in mind for us. The table of creation has been set before us from the abundance of God’s love. Come to the waters. Come buy wine and milk without money or price. Come, incline your ear and feast on the rich food set before you. The table is set, and Wisdom is calling. Does this table of the Lord’s have an end? Yes and no. It will not be limited by a wall on our border with Mexico, just as it will not be limited by a wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. God’s Word goes out from the Lord’s table like the rain and snow that fall to the earth, and it will not return until it has accomplished God’s purposes for it.

Therein lies the real end of the Lord’s table – its many purposes. Here at the Lord’s table we are knit together into one body. Here, God’s performative word unites black and white, indigenous and colonial, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, people of many colors and languages and ethnicities, people who identify with L, G, B, T, Q, I, or A, people who will not be limited by a binary gender system, all who come to buy wine and milk, to eat the bread of God’s goodness. Here, we come together to know God’s economy of abundant love, freed from the shackles of a monetized captivity. Here, we are re-oriented to God’s vision of shalom, where value lies in love and relationship.

“You shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,” Isaiah proclaims. It’s the age-old language of blessing. When God blesses, it is so that others might be blessed. We gather at this table with all those who have gone before, those who gather at this wide table the world over, and those who will come to this table after us. We are gathered and blessed so that we can be sent out to be a blessing, to share God’s limitless abundance with all people. Here we are changed so that we may change this time and place to better reflect God’s economy. Here we are called to be part of the action of God’s performative word.

There’s a funny thing about that word; it’s always up to something, always working toward the ends that God has in mind. We don’t have to be the ones to initiate it; in fact, we never are. That’s God’s place. We get to witness what God’s up to in the world and join in the rich feast; that’s our place. It’s not hard to spot those places where God’s word is performing its life-giving work. As Fred Rogers and his mother reminded us, “look for the helpers.” So true!

I mentioned earlier that I’m a foodie. I enjoy eating, cooking, talking about food, seeking out new flavors and textures. I like the way food, both literally and metaphorically, connects us to the earth, one another, and God’s abundance. If Mr. Rogers were still with us, I can imagine him sharing this story about a pretty remarkable helper. There’s a celebrity chef named José Andrés, who recognizes the abundance in his own life. With his business partner, he owns numerous restaurants in the mainland United States, as well as Puerto Rico and Mexico. He hosted a cooking show in his native Spain, he’s published cook books, and he’s appeared on numerous television shows. He appears to love what he does, and he’s very good at it.

In 2010, responding to the devastation of the Haiti earthquake, Andrés formed an organization called World Central Kitchen, which responds to disasters by enlisting volunteers to provide meals where they are most needed. In 2017, when Puerto Rico was reeling after Hurricane Maria, after struggling with regulatory red tape for a while, Andrés decided that he and his volunteers would “just start cooking.” They served more than 2 million meals in the first month after the hurricane, and their volunteer base swelled into the thousands. World Central Kitchen goes beyond feeding people in emergency situations; they focus on education, health, jobs, and social enterprise. Just last month, they offered free meals to government employees impacted by the partial government shutdown. Asked to expound on this work, Andrés said, “What I’m doing in D.C. right now is what we’re doing around the world. You need to provide for others. We believe in longer tables and shorter walls.”

I don’t know what Mr. Andrés’ religious beliefs are, or if he’s associated with any kind of a faith community, but what he describes and displays sounds a lot like the abundance of God’s economy described by Isaiah. It sounds like Wisdom’s feast. When we heed the call to incline our ear, we feast on the life-giving Word; God promises that Word is alive and on the loose in this world, always expanding the Lord’s table, breaking down barriers and sharing God’s abundance. You are invited to incline your ear and be changed by this incredible feast.

Here, in our own community, we see the performative Word at work in the efforts of our partnership in Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness and in our partnership with 3 other congregations to provide meals on Sunday evenings. Today, we follow the leading of our youth as they strive to live into the abundance of the Lord’s table through the Souper Bowl of Caring; let’s share our abundance. Friends, we aren’t going change our capitalist system overnight; I’m not sure that’s what we’re called to do. We ARE called to incline our ears, to listen to what the performative word is calling us to do, to recognize God’s economy of abundance, to feast on the abundant, rich food of the Lord’s table, and to be changed by it. When we do, we grow in wisdom, and we are re-oriented to share God’s abundance as the Lord’s table is set for all of creation, with no end in sight.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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