August 2, 2009
Summit Presbyterian Church
This summer, groups of college students from around the country have been meeting in regional conferences to plan for something they call the "Real Food Challenge." Their goal is to get their college dining halls to start buying and serving "real food"; their hope is that within 10 years 20% of the food on college campuses will be "real." (www.realfoodchallenge.org)
What do they mean by real food? They mean food that at least bears a resemblance, or can trace it's ancestry back, to a living thing found in nature: blueberries, carrots, rice, chicken -- as opposed to, say, twinkies, american process cheese food product spread, skittles or pringles. Unlike those yummy items, real food is healthy. But that's only a beginning. Real food, they say, is food that's ethically produced and fairly traded: food where the farmer who grew it and the workers who brought it to the table, both here and abroad, are treated justly. Food where animals that we milk - or eat - are treated humanely. Real food is sustainably produced and transported: grown without chemical pesticides, leaving as small a carbon footprint as possible. As many of you know, real food is sold at the weaver's way coop on Carpenter's Lane, where you can find coffee that's fairly traded or vegetables that are grown locally without pesticides. (An interesting factoid for visitors: Weaver's Way began at Summit church)
The real food challenge, according to these young activists, is not merely about changing our diets or shopping ethically. It's an organizing focus for bringing about a more just world: a world where tomato pickers have a decent wage and slaughterhouse workers have health care; a world where no one goes hungry, and where people have a say in their government. A world with an economy where all people - as well as animals and plants- can flourish. Increasing the demand for real food, their thinking goes, will encourage and and support these just practices; with other groups, the students also work for change in agricultural policy. I'm sure there are many differences within the movement on strategy, and you or I may have differences with their approach. But as Christians we share their vision of a just world. The students don't use this word, but a world fed by real food would be a world grounded in love. Jesus showed us a glimpse of such a world when he fed the 5,000 and everyone had as much as they wanted. Isaiah speaks of it when he says that on God's holy mountain the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food and well-aged wines, and wipe away tears from all faces.
In our reading this morning, the crowd hunts Jesus down because he had fed them. Five thousand people had followed him up a mountain, and when they were hungry Jesus gave them bread and fish. He started with only five barley loaves and two fish but all had enough, with twelve baskets left over. Those original five loaves and two fish would not have been "real food" by standards of the real food challenge. The loaves and fishes were not artificial or sprayed with pesticides, but the Roman Imperial food system was not just or equitable. The crowd who followed Jesus would have been used to having much of their food taken away to feed soldiers or the wealthy in the cities; those who grew the barley or caught the fish or even baked the bread were likely poorly treated. But Jesus took that food, he gave thanks, and he transformed it: it became a sign of God's abundant love. God's abundant, life-giving love for every person.
But according to John, the people didn't get it. They didn't see the sign: they just knew Jesus had given them enough bread to eat their fill and they wanted to stay close to the source. Who can blame them? Those of us who never go hungry shouldn't cast stones at anyone who misses a sign because of a growling belly. And Jesus knew they had to be fed; it's no accident this sign was done with food. But when they come to him again, he tells them he offers even more: more than the bread they need but which perishes, whether it's a barley loaf or manna in the wilderness. He offers them life that will satisfy their deepest hunger and direst thirst. Tfheir hunger for love and healing and for a purpose guided by God. Their thirst for forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus offers them this life, life nourished by the love that has come down from heaven in him. Come to me, Jesus says, so you may know this love, this love that stretches into eternity because it comes from God.
Jesus offers us this life, too. Jesus calls us to trust in him so we may be fed with the love of God that goes beyond our need for barley loaves or fish and other food that we eat. Jesus invites us to the table, where he transforms this bread and wine so it becomes a sign of his love and indeed his very presence. What theologians, coincidentally, call his "real" presence.
Now it would be easy to take a wrong turn here and say that because Jesus is the true bread from heaven, the other kind isn't that important: we shouldn't be chasing after it. It would be easy to draw the lesson that believing in Jesus is spiritual, and eating or worrying about the bread that perishes is not. It would be easy to see communion as a time for us to receive the love of Jesus the bread that we eat simply as a means to this end. But we would be wrong. When Christ transforms this bread and this wine, he does so no only so we may enjoy his presence and feel in love. He also transforms this bread and wine so that we may go out and share that love. We're invited to partake of Christ's real presence in the bread and wine so we can be strengthened to go out and accept the real food challenge. The challenge to work for a world where workers and farmers are treated fairly and animals humanely; where everyone has enough; where we live respectfully with creation; a world that is just and sustainable. We may do it in ways other than joining the real food movement, but we're all called. We're called to repair the world so that the bread we grow and share with one another may be as "real" as the bread we eat today. Bread that reflects the love and justice of God in Jesus Christ. So now let us come to that table.