Orson Welles famously once said, “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
Before we go any further, I want to make clear – doing good things for your country is good! But so is lunch. I love my job. I love the fact that I get to use my brain, interact with a wide variety of people, laugh – and cry – with my colleagues, and all the while serve God. But I have to confess that one of my favourite times of the working day is when I sit down for lunch with my colleagues – my friends – and share food, share our lives, and Thai Green curry.
Food, or lack thereof, has incredible shaping power for communities. According to UNICEF, more than 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty – less than $1.25 per day. For those people, food is less something to be desired and enjoyed, more a basic need, a daily battle between living or dying. Meanwhile in the UK, the way we treat food surplus in some quarters can be mind-boggling. It is estimated that roughly one third of the food we produce never gets eaten, and the average household bins £700 worth of food per year. The psychology of retail won’t allow crates of fruit and veg in supermarkets to look anything less than bountiful, identical, and perfectly in season. Anything less than overflowing crates of courgettes and cucumbers denotes scarcity and nobody wants that. Half-filled shelves and crates are simply not acceptable to the Western consumer any more, and will simply drive shoppers to the more bountiful store down the road.
When you put those contrasting scenarios side by side, it is very easy to become confused about how we should feel about food. I confess, knowing that a short flight from where I live, people are starving – literally starving - has the potential to make me want to push away the plate of food in front of me in solidarity with my fellow human.
Food - like money, sex and power - dominates human experience. It speaks of our culture, our economic security, how we prefer to look in the mirror, who we value, what we value. Food holds the power of liberation for some and guilt and shame for others. It is a basic fuel of the human body, like water and air, but in that sense sits alone in its ability to divide or unite tribes and communities.
What to do?
This is an unusual week for food at Gateway. On Sunday afternoon, we’ll be hosting an event called, ‘Taste the Nations’. In previous years, a couple hundred people have filled our building as Gatewayers from around the world showcase food from their home nation, and offer it for the rest of us to eat. It’s free. It’s incredibly fun. And it’s a celebration of food. You are of course, all invited!
The following week we’ll be launching a Food Bank. Food Banks have shot up all over the UK in recent years, in acknowledgement of the fact that for many families, having to decide between paying the bills or feeding themselves is a reality. And that - like any form of food poverty - is appalling. And to feast without acknowledgement of the poor is in itself, a tremendous injustice.
For the Christian, we look to our leader, Jesus to give us a lead on how to approach all issues of life, food being just one of them. Jesus was a man who fasted for long seasons, in order to focus all of his bodily and spiritual attention on prayer. He was a man who stooped down to feed the poor, on occasion, miraculously multiplying fish and loaves to feed a hungry crowd. And he was a man who feasted. Heartily. And would have enjoyed wedding wine, tasty breads, ripe figs, olives, succulent lamb, laughter and conversation with friends.
What can we learn from this?
1) Food brings people together
Maya Angelou sums up much of how I feel about hospitality with this thought, “Eating is so intimate. When you invite somebody to sit at your table and you want to cook for them, you’re inviting a person into your life.” Eating with others breaks social barriers, gives us dignity, and helps us feel connected. Do it. As often as you can. Make great, tasty, imaginative, rich food, tell stories, laugh together, cry together. And thank Jesus for the beautiful world that he created, and for the rich bounty that it produces. Come and practice this with us on Sunday afternoon at Taste the Nations.
2) Food is a gift
God is creative. He is a Father. He loves us. Put those three things together, and you start to understand why one of His first words to Adam in the Garden of Eden was what to eat and enjoy. It also explains why for the follower of Christ, we believe that when we arrive in heaven one day, we’ll begin proceedings at what the bible calls, ‘the wedding feast’. At the right times, and as situations called for it, Jesus was a feaster. Proper feasting is good. It isn’t about gluttony, or all-you-can-eat buffets. It’s about the satisfied enjoyment of one of God’s gifts to us. And rooted in a love for God, to deny ourselves that pleasure is to rob ourselves of enjoyment in God, and to rob Him of our gratitude for His provision. It’s one of the reasons that the highest point of our worship is breaking bread together at the Lord’s Supper – taking the bread and wine and feasting on Jesus.
3) Food poverty needs a response
One of the quotes that has most challenged me lately is this one from Gustavo Gutierrez, “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” Feeling good about feasting heartily and feeling anger at the injustice of poverty is not some sort of tension that needs to be struck. With respect to point 2 above, the thought of people living in poverty should be an offence to us, and compel us to act for each and every hungry individual within our reach. In one of the most beautiful of all the Psalms in the bible, King David says of God, “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” Even in the midst of trouble, hardship and poverty, God will provide the intimate setting of a meal, where he will commune with you and be your supply. We must replicate that model here and now.
The Food Bank opens its doors on 7th Feb at our Ashley Road site, every Tuesday. When those doors open up, I’m praying that life, light and love come streaming through, and famine turns to feasting. There will always be a kettle on, and a slice of cake too if you just need somewhere to recline and rest for a moment.
Taste the Nations is this Sunday at 5pm at our Alder Road site. Come and celebrate in the richness of God’s produce, from the nations over which he is King.
And taste and see that God is good. That in seasons of plenty, and seasons of want, he is consistently the strength of those who say yes to him.
See you on Sunday (www.gatewaychurch.me/events for more details).