“A Sacramental Commons (preached at University Baptist Church)”

These days, it’s easy to find recipes on Google. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m attached to my cookbooks. There’s a tattered volume, What’s Cooking in the Coulee, published by the church I grew up in. The recipes aren’t brilliant, but the names beneath each entry call to mind the faces and voices of the village that raised me, and summon fond memories of potluck plates heaped high. There’s Grandma’s Betty Crocker and a salad cookbook that was someone else’s castoff before it became one of my favorites. Cookbooks from Wilderness Canoe Base and Holden Village conjure tables filled with laughter and storytelling. And my copy of Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone contains notes from friends at the Disciples Divinity House in Chicago, where I cooked a weekly meal for the community.

“Thy will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.”   

As I pondered these petitions from the Lord’s Prayer, another one of the cookbooks on my shelf came to mind. Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook was published by the Mennonite Central Committee. My copy of this cookbook is well-used, saturated with grease stains and filled with notes scribbled in pencil. It has brought food and stories from the homes of ordinary people around the globe into our kitchen.

Thy will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.

The story of manna in the wilderness reveals just how closely these two prayers are linked. After generations of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were free at last. Freedom, however, meant danger and discomfort. The people wandered in the desert—hungry and thirsty, without home or security. And each day, one day at a time, they learned to trust that God would feed them. God rained heavenly bread onto the desert sands—manna which, literally translated means, “what the hell is this stuff?” It was a strange way to eat. The people of God had to accept that they were not in control of the manna. They did not plant it or water it or pick it. There was enough for everyone, but, if they hoarded it, if they saved more than they needed, it instantly spoiled.

Despite appearances to the contrary, we are all wanderers in the wilderness, dependent on God’s manna in each moment. Professor Craig Koester puts it this way: “Our lives are not self-generated or self-sustaining. Life relies on what we receive from the Giver and can only be stewarded as a gift.”[1]

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians underscores the idea that there is profound freedom in embracing our dependence on God and each other. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. This passage is not a demand that we deny our grief or minimize the world’s suffering. It is not a call to be grateful for the terrible things that happen to us and around us. Instead, this verse is a promise of manna in the wilderness, nourishment that we receive as a gift, and that we share in community with each other.

Joetta Schlabach, the author of the cookbook Extending the Table, relates her experience of learning at the global table:

As I was growing up, Sunday was a day when my family put an extra board in the dining room table. My father was a pastor in a remote village on the Michigan shore of Lake Superior. My mother routinely prepared extra food, sometimes for invited guests, other times for unexpected visitors we would invite home from church. . . . Years later I traveled to Honduras as a college student in an international study service program. There I found myself in the home of another pastor in another small village. . . . Gonzalo and Lilian Aleman lived with their six children in a small, two-bedroom house. For seven weeks they gave me one of their three beds, all to myself. Dona Lilian had neither a kitchen sink nor indoor plumbing, no counter space, and only a two-burner gas stove. Her table was not large enough and she did not have enough dishes to feed the entire family at one time. But she graciously served food to any who stopped by at mealtime. . . . I thought I knew what it meant to be hospitable and generous before I went to Honduras, but the Aleman family taught me much more. To learn from them required the uncomfortable task of simply being a guest and receiving their sacrificial gifts. Two tables. One in a setting of plenty, the other in a setting of poverty. At one I learned to give, at the other I learned to receive. At both I learned that taking time to share the stories of our lives is as essential as sharing food and shelter. (p. 18)

Eating together at God’s table has political consequences. The simple act of sharing food calls us toward a world of justice and equity. Extending the Table invites those of us with plenty to consider what we must learn from our encounters with those who have little. At our global table is incredible generosity, hospitality and joy. At our global table is killing hunger. When some of us hoard the manna God gives for the life of all, then the manna rots and poisons our bodies and our souls. A peasant in El Salvador puts it this way:

I worked on the hacienda over there, and I would have to feed the dogs bowls of milk every morning, and I could never put those things on the table for my own children. When my children were ill, they died with a nod of sympathy from the landlord. But when those dogs were ill, I took them to the veterinarian in Suchitoto. You will never understand violence or nonviolence until you understand the violence to the spirit that happens from watching your children die of malnutrition. (p. 57)

The book of Acts describes the early Christian community as a hospitable home—much like that of Gonzalo and Lilian in Honduras. All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 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. Who knows whether this is the way the church actually was, in those early days, or if it is presented as an ideal model for the church to embody. But the prayer of Jesus, the ministry of Jesus, the death and resurrection life of Jesus calls us toward this vision of community, toward the true freedom of depending on God’s manna and sharing it with one another.

Having “all things in common” is not simply an economic system, socialism in place of capitalism. It is a spiritual wisdom that guides all that we do, and all that we are. Indigenous cultures, and ecologists, recognize that the earth itself is a “commons.” The Catholic theologian John Hart calls God’s creation a “sacramental commons.”[2]

We do not create or own this commons. We belong to it. Its waters, its land, its air, its creatures and peoples, are not resources to be exploited or wealth to be amassed. Reducing the commons to a commodity that can be bought and sold is sinful; it reveals our alienation from all that is sacred. The commons is God’s heart, God’s body, rained like manna from heaven to nourish us.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.

God’s will is not some grand plan. It is not the negation of our own initiative. It is a vision that nourishes us, a hope that roots us, a possibility that animates us. God’s will is that we honor the sacredness of all the earth, that we recognize the “heaven” of God’s own being alive in every moment, every person, every place. God’s will is that we sit together at the table, because, as the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said: “There is no such thing as ‘my’ bread. All bread is ours and is given to me, to others through me, and to me through others. For not only bread but all things necessary for sustenance in this life are given on loan to us with others, and because of others and for others and to others through us.” (Extending the Table, p. 67)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1]https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1703

[2]From an article is based on John Hart’s keynote address, “Water: A Sacramental Commons.” Workshop sponsored by NCRLC in Washington, D.C., February 8, 2003.