Come to the table – The Menu

I suspect that we all have a favorite menu or at least a favorite food.

Three things must be on the menu every time our extended family gathers: Macaroni and cheese, Baked beans, and black olives.   The rest of the menu can reflect the season and/or the occasion, but if we want to make sure everyone at the table is happy with the meal, those items need to be present.  The black olives are so popular it is difficult to keep the serving dish full, and they can be used to persuade the children to finish some of the other foods on their plates, in order to have more olives.

For some families, pasta is important at every meal, for others the meal centers around chicken, or beef, or fish.  Potatoes prepared in a variety of ways are also critical in some households, and the smell of fresh baked bread or rolls often makes the meal.  The list of menus is as diverse as the homes from which we came and those homes which we formed with others we now call family.

In both passages read this morning, food is either named, or implied.  The Amos passage talks about a bowl of fresh fruit.  Commentators indicate that it was probably referring to figs harvested at the end of summer.  In the Luke passage, while not clearly stated, it seems there is a gathering at the home of Mary and Martha, which likely included a special meal for those traveling with and coming to see Jesus.

At the time, the most common menu might include lettuces, cucumbers, garlic and leeks, apricots, figs, melons, and olives, which were also a source of oil

There may have been a variety of nuts, herbs and spices, as well as cheese and yogurt.

Evidence in scripture indicates Martha had financial resources, so she may have included goat, lamb, small fowl such as pigeon, on the menu, although only the wealthy regularly had those items on the table, and they were reserved for very special occasions by much of the population.

Many were very poor, having lost their land and needing to move from place to place to harvest for other people in order to feed their families, and having access to fewer of the foods available at the time.

They all ate bread.  For the wealthier families the bread was made from wheat flours.  Poorer families often used ground legumes along with grains.

When famine came, bread was the last food source for the poor, and when it was gone, everything was gone.  We saw a glimpse of that reality while talking about Elijah and the widow a few weeks ago.[1]

Bread is more than an item on the menu.  It is a means and symbol of sustainable life.

As we join Jesus, he is at the home of his best friends, welcomed and comfortable, away from some of the hostility of those challenging his teaching and his authority, and we find ourselves at the table.  Here Jesus clearly declares the critical food that needs to be on the menu.  It isn’t any of the food items we know might be on hand, it is the presence of Jesus himself

In John 6:35-40 (NRSV)  we read:  35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

In the Amos 8:1-12 passage we heard “I’ll send a famine through the whole country.  It won’t be food or water that’s lacking, but my Word.  People will drift from one end of the country to the other,   roam to the north, wander to the east.  They’ll go anywhere, listen to anyone,  hoping to hear God’s Word—but they won’t hear it.”

It isn’t the basket of fruit they will not have, it is God’s word.

It isn’t the fruit, meat, nuts, or bread we won’t have if we choose unwisely, it is God’s word shared by and in Jesus, the bread of life.

I don’t think Jesus is telling Martha that what she is doing isn’t important.  I don’t think Jesus is telling Mary she should never help out with what needs to be done to serve others.  Throughout scripture, people who follow God are called to be in relationship with God and others, to listen to God’s word and then to take action based on what is heard, to serve others.

In the Amos passage the people are fulfilling the law, they are observing Sabbath but can’t wait for it to be over so they can go out and have some fun.  They are observing the laws, but missing the importance of serving others.  They are “religious”, but not faithfully living in the way God calls them to.  They give little and take much as “The Message” paraphrase titles this passage.

Martha is giving much.  Putting together a large meal can be exhausting.  You have so much to think about, so many preparations that go beyond the food.  Martha is not wasting her time, she is using it to make sure all are welcome and feed, and doing it the only way she knows how – wholeheartedly with excellence – but for some reason on this occasion she is not serving with joy, but is looking at what her sister isn’t doing.

Those following the rules but not living out God’s love in the Amos passage, as well as Martha who is living out God’s love with exuberance to the exclusion of everything else, are missing the point.  God delights in their presence and they need to set aside time to delight in God’s presence.  It doesn’t matter what is on the menu, how the table is set, how perfect or not perfect they are, if they are following all the rules of etiquette, what anyone else is doing.  It is about having a “heaping helping” of sitting with Jesus, of being in God’s presence.

A peanut butter sandwich and good conversation with someone we love is quantitatively better than the finest gourmet dinner of all our favorite foods when we are sitting at an empty table with no one to talk to.

We can get so caught up in the tradition of what we should serve, the way things should be prepared, the perfect presentation, that we can’t enjoy the meal.  We can’t hear the Word that calls us to God’s grace for our lives.  We can’t hear the Word that calls us to love each other as God loves us.

There is a disconnect between the worship of the Israelites and how they lived their lives.  They were singing God’s praises but mistreating the powerless and vulnerable.  The fruit in the vision is the end of the harvest, not the promise of the beginning.  It signifies accountability that comes from going through the motions and not living out the call to be in a grace-filled relationship with God and others.

When we are developing the perfect menu: selecting the finest foods our budget will allow, digging through recipes that delight all of our senses, spending hours in the kitchen so everything will be just right, it can be an important way of living out our faith as we seek to serve others, to help them feel cared for and loved.

It can also become a distraction that keeps us from experiencing the presence of Jesus, as the “way it should be done,” prevents us from experiencing the joy of serving and becomes a burden which then prompts us to evaluate others, what they are or aren’t doing.  Why we serve, why we want to put on the best banquet we can, is what is important.  When we come to the table together we are experiencing the Kingdom of God in our midst if we create a space where every person knows they are loved and of value.  Care and love is what needs to be on the menu.  What follows doesn’t matter when we connect with God through our relationships with one another.

When we lose sight of what is important; When the distractions of making everything up to standards that are arbitrary and not critical to the health and well-being of anyone; we miss out on the condiments that make the meal extraordinary, the feeling of belonging, of being loved and accepted, of all being family in God’s kingdom.

Guests at our table know the difference.  They can see when we are following the “Joy of Cooking,” recipes and rules for meals down to the letter, but don’t really want to be here.  They can see when we are pointing out what the other person should be doing.  They can see when we are happy just to be present with God and each other.

Hospitality is part of who we are as members of the Kingdom of God.  Marthas and Marys important to living out our mission to share Gods love wherever we are.  Menus and preparation are tools to help us live out that part of our faith journey.  As one commentator notes: “there is a time for us to sit at the feet of Jesus, and a time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  We need to know what it is Christ wants us to do and why we should do it.  Service is not an end in and of itself and neither is instruction in the word.  We need both together; for they only make sense together.”[2]

A common comment in the surveys you have completed is a hope that our congregation can reach out in meaningful ways with God’s love, and as a result our faith community can grow.

If that is a goal we ultimately set together, we will want to recall and reflect on these passages as we set a menu that focuses on offering the Bread of Life in all we say and do.

It may mean we add some things to the menu and set aside some family favorites.  It may mean we get to experience new dishes and find out we wish that had been on the menu long ago.

It all means that each menu needs to include a heaping portion of the presence of Jesus and that we set aside the distractions that keep us from offering Jesus a heaping portion of our presence.  In doing so, our menu will be just what it needs to be, our service will be directed by the One who calls Us, and we will serve one another with joy.



[1] “The Food and Feasts of Jesus: Inside the World of First-Century Fare, with Menus and Recipes,” Neel and Pugh

[2] Allan R. Bevere, Mary vs Martha or chicken Kiev vs. Chili.

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