Sermon originally delivered at the Jack Crum Conference at Highlands United Methodist Church in Raleigh on Saturday, April 21. The primary text was Isaiah 55:1-9.
My parents have an amazing garden. Besides the fact that it’s huge, it’s also bountiful. Its bounty comes from the gardeners who know how to get the most from their soil. My father understands the chemistry of soil—he knows which nutrients are lacking and puts them in; and he has a pond close at hand to help him out when the weather doesn’t cooperate with some rain.
Their garden has the basics: corn and beans and tomatoes and peppers and squash and cucumbers. Some years the corn doesn’t do so well or the raccoons get it, but it doesn’t matter because in the years when the corn did do well, we’ve got quarts and quarts of corn in the freezer. Some years the beans don’t do well or the deer get it, and that doesn’t matter because in the years when it did do well, we’ve got jars and jars of beans in the pantry. The tomatoes always do well, so many tomatoes and so many jars of tomatoes and jars of spaghetti sauce and jars of salsa and jars anything else we can think of to make out of tomatoes until we run out of jars…
My friends joke that when my parents stop gardening, my grocery bill will triple. My food is made in this garden. But most people have to make food out of money. They take money to the store and get food for it. The money produces the food that feeds them. When I pick a Cherokee purple tomato—my favorite variety—there’s no money involved. That tomato started in the dark of winter when my mother put tiny little seeds into tiny little cups and the seeds grew into tiny little plants. The tiny little plants were carefully watered and monitored and transferred into larger and larger containers until they were put into the ground after the danger of a late season frost had passed away.
The tomatoes you buy also come from tiny little seeds and plants, but they can only be had with money. Money making the food to provide the 2000 calories a day the average active adult needs to stay healthy. This assumes a balanced diet of calories and not a steady diet of ramen and coke, that will not keep you healthy. The healthy, thrifty family of four will spend over $200 a week on food for those calories. Similarly, the average healthy person should drink over 2 liters of water a day—think big coke bottle. If you bought bottled water to satisfy that need, laying aside the environmental issues of all that plastic, you’d spend over $2 a day for basic water. Add some flavor and fizz and you’d spend more.
The bottom line is, eating and drinking is big business. It’s probably the single, most important line item in a capitalistic economy. Certainly, anyone who’s studied the agribusiness industry can confirm for us what it costs to grow food—think fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and all the fuel needed to get all those things into the ground, out of the ground, harvested and transported, often to a land far, far away. Consider oranges in July. Out of season oranges can come from as far away as South Africa—at the very least Brazil. I love citrus; my mother is from central Florida, I come by it honestly. She grew up with orange trees and grapefruit trees in her backyard. But she did not have oranges in July. And if you do, they didn’t come from Florida. And it costs money and resources to get them to you.
Then there’s the packaging and the staging. People don’t buy ugly food and pretty food creates waste. Have you ever noticed in the grocery store how all the apples are the same size? Even the ones that are different colors are all the same size. And the cantaloupes are all the same size as the other cantaloupes and the onions are all the same size as the other onions—unless you buy them in a plastic bag and I’ve already talked about plastic. But about the cantaloupe, a number of years ago I helped orchestrate a trip for the Duke Youth Academy out to Nash County. We worked with the Society of St. Andrew, of course, and our task for the day was to glean the cantaloupe left out in the field. We loaded a 50-foot long refrigerated trailer that would go to those who can’t travel to Nash County and glean for themselves. The truck was full of huge cantaloupes. I asked the field supervisor, “Why didn’t the pickers take these gorgeous cantaloupes? I’ve been gleaning for years and I’m used to searching under every leaf for a decent piece of produce that didn’t get ripe yesterday and so will not rot on the truck before it gets to a hungry house tonight. But these cantaloupes are so beautiful and so easy to find.”
“These cantaloupes,” he said, “are too big.”
The cantaloupes are too big. The stores do not want them if they are too big or too small. They have to be Goldilocks cantaloupes: not too big, not too small. Just right. So, the others rot in the field unless you can find a hundred youth on a hot day in July willing to ride a bus for an hour and a half—one way—and load the cantaloupes on a refrigerator truck, which you also have to get on loan because most of us don’t have those parked in our driveways and get those cantaloupes to the places where people are hungry. Where they can hear the call: “You that have no money, come.”
Well, you know all about this food distribution and food waste. You’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food and Faith and you all probably scour labels in the grocery store looking for that dreaded high fructose corn syrup and the more insidious monoglycerides and diglycerides. For some of us, our biggest food challenge is, where can I get organic lettuce or free range eggs? That would not be the question for Isaiah’s listeners. Eating organic is the least of their worries; eating is their worry.
Put it all together and listen to what Isaiah says: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” This kind of talk will not keep an agribusiness industry afloat, the farmer’s market in business, or increase share values for Kroger Company. Not a good plan for those places that turn money into food.
Friends, you know the economics of eating is huge. But the politics of eating may be even bigger. What we eat, when we eat, with whom we eat. All of that says volumes about us. Consider this:
- We serve meals at the soup kitchen, but we don’t eat with the people at the soup kitchen. We eat before we get there or we stop for something on the way home. Although that is changing in some places, it is the norm for the servers not to eat the soup kitchen food.
- We glean produce with the Society of St. Andrew, but most of us don’t deliver the sweet potatoes or the collards—or the cantaloupes—that we pull from the field, much less share a meal with the people who receive them. We don’t even know where they live…
- We donate canned goods at church to be sent to the local food pantry or maybe even to the food pantry in the basement of the church, but we don’t expect to be invited into the homes of those who eat that food to share food that comes out of those cans.
Most of us don’t eat the kind of food that is the staple of a food pantry—spam, Vienna sausage, ramen. We prefer the organic, free range stuff I mentioned earlier.
With a bit of knowledge about food choice, we begin to get a better idea about why the poor are also the unhealthy. But that’s another sermon. This sermon is about food and drink and who gets invited to eat and drink with us, because eating together can be a highly subversive act. It has deep social, political, economic and theological ramifications. The words from Isaiah get right to the heart of the matter. Isaiah invites people without money to take food—that raises economic questions. He invites people who don’t belong in the community, described as “nations that you do not know,” to sit down and eat. That could be an undocumented immigrant—raising both political and social questions. Isaiah invites the thirsty to drink and the hungry to eat claiming that our money has been wasted on that which is not bread. That’s a theological claim, a claim about the God who sets the table.
Isaiah is saying a lot more than simply—feed the hungry. Clearly, we know that’s something we should do, Jesus told us to do it. But Isaiah is also talking about upsetting the systems that cause hunger. You all know the stop-gap measures that God put in place to feed the hungry: leave the outside rows of your field for the sojourners; don’t pick up the things that fall off the cart, but let the widows and orphans have them. That works really well when hungry people can walk to the fields and orchards. But our world doesn’t work like that anymore—that’s why we carted cantaloupes to Durham from 80 miles away. Still, those are stop-gap measures. Isaiah is after something different.
Food and drink for anyone who wants to come regardless of ability to pay. “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” How are we going to buy without money? “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” It’s an oxymoron; Isaiah is telling us to let go of the moorings that determine our relationships to one another—politically, socially, economically. And we just can’t imagine how this will all work out without the guidelines of purchase and payment, and some parameters around who is welcome at the table. We operate in a world that first asks: “What’s it going to cost?” and then wants to know: “Is it worth it?”
Isaiah offers us a glimpse of paradise and we want to know: Is it worth it? We should stare straight into the vision and imagine what that paradise could look like right now. What does it look like right now? Here are some pictures:
A local co-op asks people to round up their bill. $3.99—round up a penny, $3.01, round up 99 pennies. Over the course of a year, they collected half a million dollars—$500,000. This money goes to the neighborhood schools to supplement food insecure students over the weekends and over school breaks. Because they are a co-op, they deliver the food right to the school, mostly fresh fruit and vegetables. “You that have no money, come.”
There are restaurants where people pay what they can. Some pay more than the suggested price, some pay less, some pay nothing, but instead help with the dishes. Yes, that’s a thing. And everybody eats at the same tables. “You that have no money, come.”
Some schools provide free breakfast for everybody in the school, so no one has to be the one who comes in the door without money. Everyone comes in the door “without money and without price,” just like Isaiah said. “You that have no money, come.”
These things are happening in our area code and they are glimpses of paradise. They are worth it. Because here’s the thing, if we practice being in paradise over and over and over again, we come to realize that paradise is not impossible or even unusual, paradise is the way the world is supposed to be. It’s our politics and economics and social constructions that are unusual, that ought to be impossible. This is what’s real; sharing in a priceless consumption of food and drink, passing the peace with everyone. We only have to use our imagination to turn our impossibility into God’s promise.
Paradise is open for business. Thanks be to God. Amen.