The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
First Reflection: God’s gift of food
It is an undeniable truth that we need food to eat. That is how we are made, and according to our readings from Genesis and Ecclesiastes both the food itself and the toil to make it is fundamentally good. That is, it is fit for purpose. Food is essential for life and the plants and animals we eat are effective at feeding us. We humans have the ability to work, to labour, to grow, to harvest, to process, transport and cook the food we eat. There is a natural yearning in each of usto work, be it in agriculture, or behind a desk, it is part of being human. The Old testament points again and again to the Israelites assuming that they were the providers of their needs. Sure enough, all those who work to produce the food we have play an important role in our own livelihoods, in our survival. But in the same way we might pray for God to work through the healing hands of nurses and doctors when a friend is unwell, so, in the same way we should pray thanks to God, for the sustaining work God does through the sun and the rain, but also through the hands and arms and legs and taste buds of all who labour to give us food. In this way, through the food we eat, we are actually in fellowship with all those who helped to get it to our table. We are not simply eating with those around us, but we are in a relationship with those who made the food.
The Jewish prayer said before eating is called a bracha. A bit like a grace. But its more than saying ‘thank you for dinner’. Some rabbis consider that eating without asking God’s blessing for that which we eat is equivalent to theft from God. Rather, they encourage us to recognise that the very existence of a simple grape on our plate is an everyday miracle. Saying grace may not be everybody’s preference before a meal. but since I realised that I have a tendency to eat without thinking. I have tried to practice an attentiveness to what I eat. As a spiritual discipline I take the time to enjoy the flavour of the food I am eating. And to think of the ingredients and people who have engaged with the food that is in my mouth.
Second Reflection: The paradox of superabundance
Throughout our scriptures, there is an understanding that God provides in superabundance. The cup overflows, do not worry about where your next meal will come from. And according to various reports there is sufficient food in the world to feed everybody sufficiently. But this seems to be a ridiculous claim when 868 million people continue to suffer from undernourishment. And the issues of hunger are not reserved for parts of the world suffering from failed crops or droughts. In this country the use of foodbanks has grown rapidly as families struggle to feed themselves. According to the FAO the key problems relate to overconsumption and waste of food throughout the foodchain. Certainly foodbanks are doing something to take food that might otherwise have been thrown away and passing it on to those who need it. The Enough Food If campaign was particularly trying to tackle systems which made it more difficult for farmers and hungry people in the developing world from being able to feed themselves and others. Without any doubt there is something not right about so many people suffering from undernourishment. In my previous reflection I suggested that each item of food is an everyday miracle, a gift from God. As such we only posses in as much as God wills us to. According to our reading, the expectation for us to share what we have with those who are hungry is clear. But it goes beyond that. We are not only sharing with some distant unknown. Christ tells us that sharing what we have with the stranger is the same as sharing what we have with him. The stranger becomes the one who we have the most intimate of relationships with. The one who gives us life. And so we are compelled to not simply give food, but to recognise we are already in relationship with them as a result of their being in need. It is easy to become paralysed by the structural failings of the world, but in Christ we look for hope. We keep a heavenly banquet where the appetites of all are satisfied on our horizon, and we ask for God’s help in bringing that banquet into the here and now.
Third Reflection: Eating with each other
Luke 5: 27-32
Jesus sets an example, eating with the supposedly deprived, the tax-collectors and sinners of his day. Actually, Jesus eats with everybody, pharisees, tax-collectors, prostitutes, his disciples... In some societies eating with somebody is regarded almost as making a covenant of friendship, hence the scandal to the Pharisees of Jesus' eating with sinners. The act of eating is inherently intimate. We face each other as we eat, allowing others to see us in our vulnerability as we satisfy our primitive need to eat, the same way as we are doing this evening.
Taste and smell have the ability to stir up great emotions in us.
There is a book and film called Babette’s Feast, where a French refugee, Babette, is taken in by a pair of pious Christian sisters in Denmark. When Babette wins a lottery she chooses to cook a feast for the sisters and their community, something far more opulent and lavish than they are accustomed to. She was, before having to leave, a great chef in Paris and we are told her food has the ability to become a kind of ‘love affair’. She is an artist whose toil is part of what gives her life, it allows her to fulfill her purpose. The meal becomes a kind of ecstatic experience and has the ability to transform the sad Danish community over the course of the evening. It is through relationship with each other and with God that we can all become transformed, and can transform the world. Eating with one another we become more closely connected to each other. That is why the way this community comes together for social occasions is so important to the way we pray together. And why, in a moment, we will have an opportunity to eat together, not as a social activity after the service, but as a part of the way we are engaging with God and each other throughout this service.