March 10, 2013
One year at the start of Lent, a sweet-natured seminarian with a wickedly funny approach to theology decided to give up his vegetarianism for the duration.
Part of his motivation was his absurd sense of humor and his great gift to be able to laugh at himself. But he also wanted to tweak his fellow seminarians about this whole Lenten discipline thing. During Lent, we always give up something we think is somehow bad for us anyway – alcohol, chocolate, dessert in general.
Food and drink ranks high on the Lenten give-up list.
It was a real struggle for this seminarian to, as he put it, become a carnivore again. Changing his diet that drastically, even for 40 days, made him newly aware of what he was eating, and made him consider why.
He knew that food matters and so do we. We know this as human beings and as spiritual beings. We must eat to live and we must kill to eat, even if we’re vegetarian. Those simple facts make eating a mysterious act of commitment to ourselves, to the world and to each other. We’re communing with the world.
We know how important food is to relationships. The bond of friendship is never truly cemented until we eat together. When someone dies, or is sick, one of our first instincts is to make some food and take it to the family. It’s as if, unconsciously, in the midst of illness and death, we acknowledge that we are still alive.
Think of all the times when it seemed your world was falling apart and you could barely find a reason to get up in the morning. A friend came by with a casserole and said: “You really need to eat something.” Translation: “You really need to go on living despite this loss that makes living seem impossible.”
As a people who gather around this table every week, we understand the symbolic power of sharing a meal together. Many of us who did not grow up Episcopalian joke that we came into this denomination because Episcopalians really know how to eat, and perhaps they’re not talking just about the coffee hour and the spaghetti supper.
In this morning’s readings, we hear of a people who celebrate their passing over into a new land and a family that celebrates the return of one of their members. They all celebrate with food.
The Israelites no longer need manna now that they’ve crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land where food is abundant.
The Prodigal Son arrives home destitute and hungry, and his father celebrates by serving everyone the sweet meat of the fatted calf.
Yet, these images are not all so sweet. Frankly, the first one might leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.
The Israelites celebrate the end of their wilderness years with a feast. Granted, it’s only parched grain, but it must have seemed nice to not to have to worry if the manna would in fact show up every morning and the quail every night.
What about the Canaanites, though, whose crops the Israelites take for their celebration? The Israelites are invaders camped outside of Jericho. Soon they will lay waste to the Canaanite city, in the name of their God. They will kill every human being except Rahab and her friends who spy for them. They will kill every animal. They will drag off all the gold, silver, iron and bronze, declare that it all belongs to their God and deposit it in their treasury.
This story is part of our heritage as Christians. Yet, what if those are the not Canaanites, but instead are Oglala Sioux or Cherokee?
The story from Joshua might sound different if we recall what the people who came to this Promised Land did to the American Indians. There has been much thievery and death committed in the name of God and of religion.
At the very least, the implications of this story might make us wonder during this time of self-examination called Lent. They might make us wonder about of our own sense of entitlement. Do I expect that I will get certain things because of who I am, what I do for a living or what God I call my own?
There may be the same sense of entitlement lurking in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Not all of the experts agree about whether the son really had a conversion experience out there with the pigs, or felt at least a little bit of regret and thus turned toward home. Some say the boy sounds a bit calculating:
“Let’s see, I am starving, but my father’s hired hands have more than enough bread. I am slopping these unclean pigs, which, as a good Jewish boy, I would never own, much less eat. No one will feed me.
“I know – I’ll go home to my father and say whatever I have to, to get him to take me back. Then I can at least have the bread he’s giving to the hired hands. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”
Is he the least bit worried about his reception? After all, he’d declared his father dead so that he could have his inheritance early. Did he think he was entitled to even more from his father?
No matter the son’s motivation, there was his father ready to feast in joy and to feed him. No strings attached. No gotcha. No asking, “Now, have you learned your lesson?” We could call it unfair, as did the older brother. Or we could call it forgiveness and unconditional love, as did the father.
He gets “forgiveness with music and dancing,” as one preacher puts it. Forgiveness can seem so somber and fraught with seriousness, perhaps because of the circumstances that created the need for forgiveness.
Forgiving does not come easily to most of us. We have to learn about it. Often, we feel like the older brother of the Prodigal Son. Yet, when we are the ones who need to be forgiven, we can think of all sorts of reasons why this is precisely the ultimate fair thing to do.
Perhaps forgiveness, whether given or received, is not about fairness. Perhaps it is about love, and perhaps it is a gift of generosity purchased with the knowledge that each one of us is a mixture of good and evil, capable of great love and great mistakes.
Forgiveness is a gift that we give and receive because of God’s promise of unconditional love – the love that welcomes us back home each time we have wandered away.
Jesus lived this promise. He opened his table to everyone. The Pharisees and scribes sneered about how Jesus welcomed sinners and dined with outcasts. And now, Jesus has become for us the bread of life, as the collect for today says.
The altar is our banquet table. It’s where God welcomes us home no matter how many times we have squandered the inheritance that Jesus left us – the inheritance of equality, unconditional love and forgiveness.
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.