From The Sacred Meal
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:46-47)
Many of us are asking, How should I live? How should we live? We come to our faith communities with those questions. Sometimes they are taken seriously, even answered, and sometimes the church sticks us on a committee.
One of the things that happened to me after I went to church for many years, asking those questions, was I began to see that if you don’t act on what you hear in the gospels every Sunday, then it doesn’t stick.
When I first went back to the Episcopal Church after a long hiatus, I loved the ritual. I loved the liturgy of the Episcopal Church: each week, the same form, from the Book of Common Prayer.
The trouble was, I had trouble connecting it back to my daily life. Church was like a play or a nice concert. I went to the “theater” on Sunday, felt uplifted or moved, but couldn’t figure out how to integrate those feelings into my own experience; so gradually they faced as the week wore on. It didn’t connect. I suspect that many people who faithfully attend church remain in such a state and don’t really know what to do about it. What I finally understood was that simply going to church doesn’t do it, but neither does not going to church.
In the last fifteen years, a renewal of interest in the “historical Jesus” has resulted in books, papers, and arguments as to who this person really was. We have known for some time that the gospels were written long after the death of Jesus and were compiled by men who lived long after him, from stories and compiled by men who lived long after him, from stories and scraps of history. Each of these men also had his own point of view and philosophy. Scholars today work to find something of the man behind these stories, to sift out some of his real words and actions, through painstaking examination of the gospels and comparisons between them and other recently discovered documents.
Certainly, scholars agree that Jesus traveled from town to town, healing and preaching, and lived an itinerant’s life. He lived under the Roman Empire and was certainly aware of it. Jesus lived in occupied territory. Israel, Jerusalem, and Galilee were colonized by that great empire: builder of aqueducts, commander of the largest and most efficient army in the world, and inventor of that peculiar form of execution, one they saved for dangerous political terrorists, persons who were threats to the empire itself, charismatic leaders who attracted followers – crucifixion, the cross.
Scholars have studied Jesus’s relation to Rome, and for them, neither the term political activist nor personal savior quite cuts it, but rather something or someone in between.
This ground is delicate: these days, we often make Jesus into only a personal savior. I don’t want to swing all the way the other way and make him into a political revolutionary. That limits him too. But to remove Jesus from his political and historic reality is to deny him, and us, his full story.
Trying to understand Jesus without knowing how Roman imperialism determined the conditions of life in Galilee and Jerusalem would be like trying to understand Martin Luther King, Jr., without knowing how slavery, reconstruction, and segregation determined the lives of African Americans in the United States.
But, like King, Jesus did not provoke the empire by armed revolutionary activity. He may have provoked it by insisting that violence, the very underpinning of the empire, would never bring the kingdom of Heaven to Earth. This is a kind of criticism. Having compassion for people who are hurt by an empire becomes a way of criticizing the empire itself. Jesus said it is not normal for someone who is blind or deaf to beg on the street.
One of the many radical things Jesus did was to sit down and eat with people who were the lowest on the rungs of his society. He loved an open table.
Some of the religious leaders of first-century Jerusalem lived by a purity code that not only classified food and habits but classified people into rigid categories, such as “sinners, untouchables, outcasts.” People who were sick or maimed were not “whole,” and therefore not “pure.” Sound familiar? Jesus refused to live this way.
I began to understand both my own faith and what Jesus was up to when I went to work in a soup kitchen.
It started in the base community at Trinity. Modeled after the Latin American communidades de base, Trinity’s communities work from the same premise as do those in Latin America – that the gospel is a living document, speaking to us aloud, shaking us up. Our community at Trinity had between ten and twelve members. Each week, we’d “check in” by talking about how our prayers have gone that week and then the gospel for the following Sunday. Then we’d ask ourselves, what is this saying to us in our lives right now? What is it asking us to do?
In the base community, we read the words in Matthew 25:25 – I was hungry and you gave me food – enough times and talked about it so much that it became impossible not to act one day when the vestry struggled to decide what to do with so many homeless people coming to the office window, begging for food.
I could go down the street and find out if Vons would give us their old vegetables for soup, Ann Jaqua said one night at the base community.
For the first five months of that kitchen’s life, we handed the soup through a little window cut into the back door of the parish hall. The men stood in line outside. Then, it started to rain. The men stood in line outside, drenched and cold, while we stood inside, warm and dry. Finally, we let them in once. Everyone behaved. In fact, they were too well behaved. Almost no one spoke. Tables of silent men filled the hall. They ate and left. After that, it seemed silly not to just let them in. And so for months they sat at the tables, and we stood behind the serving table, grabbing a bite to eat ourselves either at home or in the church’s kitchen. Then one day, I noticed that at a table with four men in various states of homelessness, was a well-dressed woman, eating the same food. She was, I realized, a volunteer from another church. The next week, I tried it.
I sat down with a bunch of guys who slowly looked up and greeted me. As I did this week after week, I began to learn their names. Greg, who had mental illness and like to tell jokes; Alan, a Vietnam vet who watched PBS and ended up volunteering to clean up the dining hall every day, without fail. Other men who drifted in and out of despair and poverty.
I began to understand what Jesus had done when he sat down with outcasts. For an hour, I became an outcast myself. In comparison with religious codes, this was a minimal practice. Religious or social codes are elaborate, divisive, and hierarchical; this was simple, a kind of nothing, but it greatly affected my sense of how the gospels connected to my life. I was “doing” the gospels.
After I’d eaten at the tables with the men and women for a couple of months, when I walked in the door, I felt I was walking toward the same place I sought when I took Communion. And one day, as I handed a guy a bowl of soup, I imagined a river of free vegetables flowing into the kitchen. Our job was to catch the vegetables, make them into soup, and then pass them along. I thought about how weird it would be to charge for the soup: what was freely given had to be freely given away. This was God’s economy, I realized. I called “the economy of abundance.”
The economy of abundance was tenuous: you could not buy your way out of it. We had to rely on what was given to us; cubes of frozen cheese, a box of frozen ham, a gallon of ranch salad dressing were causes for celebration.
In the economy of abundance, you had to scrounge. We begged bread from local bakeries; from butchers who donated meat, we even used the chicken bones left after most of the breast meat was removed; from traveling executives, we were given the soaps and shampoos collected in hotels. On the bottom rungs, I saw that scrounging is a craft. The men we served in the kitchen sifted through wastebaskets at the end of the day and found things I would have missed: hairpins, a half-smoked cigarette, two paper clips. Everything was useful; nothing was wasted. I came to believe God scrounges too. A pregnant, unmarried woman; tax collectors; blind beggars; a son conceived out of wedlock. God uses what is useless, what is discarded, what is low.
We gradually stopped worrying too much about fundraising, kept our expenses low, and waited to see what would happen next. It felt wild and free.
It did not last in my daily life, always. I’d get on an airplane, be upgraded, and immediately feel contemptuous toward those in economy. But when I recited the Nicene Creed on Sunday morning, the “unseen” became for me, not a realm of ghosts, but a place where you waited and hoped. It was like the soup kitchen.
One night at the base community, Ann Jaqua, connected the soup kitchen and the Eucharist. She said, The serving table is like the table in the church, the altar. The two go together. I don’t think the Eucharist makes sense without the soup.
I thought of what she’s said a few weeks later when I was working in the kitchen on Maundy Thursday. I arrived at noon to begin sorting fruit and bread for the lunch to be served. Suddenly, the kitchen felt like worship itself, the altar table in the nearby sanctuary had meaning only because of this table, where I stood, that was full of day-old bread and free grapes.
Karen Torjesen describes “house churches,” the meeting places for the early Christians, as “informal, often countercultural in tone.”
I wondered if the soup kitchen was like one of those early churches, or reminiscent of it, where everyone was welcome or, at least, women, slaves, and artisans were welcome, those people who didn’t have authority or even personhood in public life. Maybe in the soup kitchen, we were re-creating the original Eucharist, a feast for the marginal.
We live in what is thought to be abundance, with lots of stuff to buy. But somehow, it is never enough. In the late eighties, I asked the owner of a successful business, who must have made at least half a million dollars a year, if he had enough money, and he replied, Don’t you understand? There is never enough.
The “never enough” reaches into every aspect of our lives. We don’t have enough money, but we also don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough energy, solitude, or peace. The emotional consequences are subtle and pervasive; we’ve got fantasy and illusion and anxiety. Believe me, I know them all. So I call the economy we live in “the economy of scarcity.”
Here’s the irony: the economy of scarcity appears to be abundant, while abundance is marked by an appearance of scarcity. The scarce economy looks rich and full, but within it, people’s souls and bodies starve. The economy of abundance, on the other hand, is organized to provide just enough. Like the manna in the desert that could not be stored but was only enough to get through the day, so the economy of abundance releases no more than enough nourishment. I ran out of fruit in the kitchen one day at just the moment a farmer drove up with three cases of oranges.
I don’t work in that kitchen anymore, and I miss it. My soul misses it. I am not learning what I learned there about abundant life.