2 Corinthians 9:6–15
I didn’t get to where I am by not enjoying many good dinners. I once enjoyed a very good meal on the high table at Mansfield College Oxford, after preaching in the college chapel, but then I am biased in favour of Oxford.
In an episode of Inspector Morse, he returned from a college lunch, and when Lewis asked him how it had gone, he replied, “l had an eminent chemist on my left, who talked throughout the whole meal about the operation he’d had on his piles. And the world-famous mathematician on my right demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that the best au pairs come from Portugal”.
Lewis replied, “That’s what you go for, isn’t it, sir? The conversation?”
An Oxbridge high table thinks conversation is a blood sport. Worse than that, as you look over the cream jugs, the butter swirls, and the dessert wine you can hear the cholesterol. In his book Porterhouse Blue, Tom Sharpe caricatures the excess eating, and the eponymous Porterhouse Blue is a stroke brought on by excess pressed duck.
I may like my food, but even I wouldn’t go that far.
The best dinner I’ve had in Farnham was undoubtedly my first Venison Dinner, where the venison was sublime; it was made the better by Dame Elizabeth Anson looking at the normal sized portion I had been served, and the enormous portion on her plate, and promptly swapping the plates over.
However, perhaps the best dinner I’ve ever eaten was in an out-of-the-way restaurant in the Italian countryside: fabulous home-made cheeses and home cured meats, enormous portions of homemade pasta, and Florentine bistecca – the tastiest beef I’ve ever eaten.
The fact that I can talk of excess food says something important and dramatic about things that are wrong in our world today, things that are wrong in our country, when hundreds of thousands of people need emergency food parcels from our Foodbanks. In Farnham alone five tonnes of foods was given out last year to people in crisis.
But I want to make an even more profound point than the excess. Food is power. What we eat says something about who we are. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, we got a new government and a new language. Norman French became the official language in this country. We still have that legacy – our words crown, throne, court, duke, baron, servant, are Norman French; so are govern, authority, obedience, and traitor. And, after the conquest, the lowly English looked after the animals, so we have English words for cow, ox, sheep, and pig. But, the ruling French ate the meat so we have French words for the food: beef, mutton, veal, venison, and pork.
We use food to celebrate. It’s how we offer hospitality. It’s the sacrament of family and friendship. So, in most of our minds, food is comforting. It is a pledge of loyalty and commitment: the Christmas turkey, a wedding cake, a harvest lunch. But if I eat differently from you – if I have venison when you get scrambled egg; if I eat at Simpsons in the Strand (if only!) and you eat at a Little Chef; if I eat when you go hungry – then that communicates division and difference, and food is not uniting us at all.
We eat routinely, we eat daily bread, and many of us stop noticing the significance of food. Food marks the great occasions: birthdays and baptisms. We eat when we are sad after funerals. They serve last meals on death row. We have designed dinner jackets, and rituals with wishbones. We count calories, we wonder about fat, salt, and sugar. Food shapes us, in every sense and feast, it comforts and defines, and feast and fast take us into the heart of our faith.
Scripture is shot through with references to food. The word eat occurs more in scripture than hear or speak, sin or spirit. From the apple in Eden, to the Last Supper, from the food Abraham gave to angels to the marriage supper of the Lamb. The Jews knew themselves Jewish when they kept the food laws. Jesus redefined the community when he ate with sinners.
Food defines us. So, what does it say about us and this town, that so many people need to use our food banks to feed themselves and their family?
Our reading from Deuteronomy was pretty stark in reminding us not to be mean or hard-hearted towards those in need. Surely this is a powerful challenge to a society which increasingly views anyone in need as a scrounger or a fraud? And if we were left in any doubt about our responsibilities, our reading from 2 Corinthians reminds us that we receive what we give, and we’re challenged to try to be as generous as God is.
We read these passages alongside our reading from Matthew, in which Jesus fed the crowd of 5000. There’s a multitude of possible points to be made about this passage, if you’ll pardon the expression. However, I just want to make one of them today: it was essential to make sure everyone was fed before Jesus could do anything else. People need to be fed before they can learn, before they can experience God. Being fed is a basic priority.
And today is Poverty Action Sunday. Food poverty must surely be an important area of that to think about. But today isn’t really about my telling silly anecdotes about meals to get your attention. Rather, it’s Poverty Action Sunday. Action, nut just words and thoughts. If you tell me at the door that I’ve given you something to think about, I’ll have failed, becausae I want you to take action.
Here are five things that you could do:
1. Volunteer to help at the foodbank.
2. Give food to the foodbank – this week, not just at the Harvest Festival – we have a box in the foyer for donations all the time. Last year they needed at least five tonnes of food.
3. Give money to help the foodbank run. Last year the operating shortfall was hundreds of pounds.
4. Simply be aware that people near to us may need help.
5. Pray for those who need that help. and for those who give it.
Five things to do. Will you do at least one of them?
Hunger is not just a scandal it’s a cancer. It grows. People who have to live on an inadequate diet are more likely to develop cancer, heart disease, diabetes and (by a wicked kind of fate) obesity. They are also more likely to suffer from stress, poor academic results, and shortened life expectancy. That is what poverty means.
This is an injustice on our doorstep and it touches our faith. Our gospel has at its heart the generosity of God, overflowing abundant love, sheer gift, the gift of his life to us. Today our souls will be fed at God’s table, fed with God’s life; I believe that must lead us to ask what we will do to feed the hungry who are so much nearer to us than we once believed.