“That none might have to eat alone”
Job 31:16-23, Acts 6:1-7, John 19:25b-27
Preached at Fairview Moravian on Senior Adult Sunday 9-13-09
Introduction: It is always good to be here at Fairview Moravian. I often say that a sermon is not really necessary at a lovefeast because the message is in the ritual and in the music, but perhaps I can add some food for thought to the coffee and buns you’ve shared. A couple of years ago Riddick helped me do a lovefeast for the divinity school, and it was very meaningful for the students, most of whom are Baptist. I decided to preach Baptist style without any written notes. I just got up and talked about what a lovefeast is and how they are a modern expression of the meals that Jesus ate during his earthly life. Pay attention when you read the gospels and you’ll see that much of Jesus’ ministry took place during meals. Wouldn’t you know it; I had more requests for a written text of that sermon than just about any I’ve preached, but I had no text to give.
We Moravians are so familiar with lovefeasts, that sometimes we forget what they mean. If you grew up Moravian, lovefeasts can make you nostalgic and bring back all kinds of memories. When I was a boy, lovefeasts were always more interesting than regular services, in part because unexpected things could happen. There was the time that my cousin ate his bun as soon as he got it and shouted out during the blessing “Momma, I want another hamburger bun.” There was the time we watched a bun slowly rolling down the middle of the aisle and then saw how embarrassed my mother looked. We won’t even go into the cruel tricks played on ministers during lovefeasts when they drink their “coffee.” Lovefeasts can be fun, but they can also be solemn occasions, just like family dinners have many meanings.
Nostalgia One of the dangers for Moravians is that we let nostalgia take hold of us during lovefeasts and forget what we are doing. American advertisers use the word “nostalgia” in a positive sense as a way to get you to buy products that remind you of your younger self, but did you know the word originally referred to a disease or illness. Greek doctors noticed that people who had left their homeland often grew sick and depressed. They called this distinct form of lethargy “nostalgia,” or home-sickness.
If you have ever been homesick, you know that it robs you of your ability to enjoy your new circumstances. Nostalgia is a type of homesickness – a yearning for a romanticized past when you were young and the future stretched endlessly before you. It is a yearning for a time when others were responsible for your welfare and you were never alone. A little nostalgia is normal, but if it saps your strength and prevents you from living in the present, then it is an illness. We Moravians are often guilty of nostalgia when it comes to traditions like the lovefeast. We want to recapture the feelings we had when we were children without taking responsibility for reaching out to others and caring about their feelings.
This morning, lets shake off wistful longings for an imagined golden age of our youth and take a look at the meaning of this lovefeast. You may have been wondering why I chose these particularly readings for this day. You may have had trouble finding a common theme. I’m pretty sure that these readings never appear together in the lectionary, but they seem perfect for our lovefeast this morning.
Job First we have a statement from Job in the Old Testament. Job, as you probably know, was a righteous and prosperous man who suffered unjustly. Almost everything was taken from him in a cruel fashion and he was left to mourn sitting in ashes. His wife told him to curse God and die. His friends, if you can call them that, tried to convince Job that he had been unrighteous and had offended God. Job repeatedly defended himself, and in one of his speeches he spoke the words we heard earlier in the service. Job protests that he has always helped the poor and needy and that he never “ate his morsel alone.”
This is a beautiful and vivid way of saying that Job never ate alone if there was someone who needed food. It was not simply food that Job shared; it was companionship during a meal. Job was rich enough to eat what he wanted when he wanted with whom he wanted, but he chose to share his bread and his table with those who were hungry and lonely.
You may not know what it is like to be truly hungry and have to depend on the mercy of a stranger, but I bet you know what it is like to eat alone. One of the worst moments during my divorce from my first wife was when I first went to the grocery store and bought food for one person instead of for a family. I cried in the grocery store. I’ve heard similar stories from people after the death of a spouse. One reason so many Americans dine out these days is so they do not have to eat alone. There is someone else there even if they are not at your table.
Our Moravian ancestors included this passage from Job in the Sunday Litany. Each week they prayed:
O That we might never see a necessitous Person go unrelieved,
O that none of us might eat his Morsel alone,
O that we might see none suffer for Want or Cloathing,
O that we might be Eyes to the blind, and Feet to the lame;
O that we could refresh the dejected Hearts,
O that we could mitigate the Burden of the labouring Man, and be ourselves not ministered to, but minister,
And to do Good, be our princely Repast,
And that the Blessing of him, who was ready to perish, might come upon us!”
I wish the litanies in our blue book of worship were so vivid and meaningful. I love the double meaning in the phrase “that none of us might eat his morsel alone.” It is a prayer that those who have will share so that no one be left alone and neglected. Doesn’t this put our lovefeast tradition in a different light? This morning we made sure that none of us ate his or her morsel alone. We waited until all are served and then broke bread together. The poor, the lonely, the nostalgic and depressed, widows and orphans, all are welcome at this meal. The Moravian lovefeast is training for the Christian life. This is the spirit we should take out into the world. What if we were as concerned that everyone in this city was served before we ate our morsel? What if none of us ate our morsel alone or let others eat in isolation and lonliness?
Dieners: The second lesson was from the Book of Acts, and it describes how early Christians restructured their administration in order to minister more effectively to those around them. This was the purpose of our synod yesterday, and it is nice to be reminded that the first Christians thought about administration, too. When the church in Jerusalem gathered for their lovefeasts, the widows were not being properly cared for. Widows were not considered very important in the ancient world, and there was no glamour in providing them food. It was easy to overlook widows, but when the apostles noticed that some were neglected, they took action. They appointed seven people to serve at the tables of the widows. This may be the origin of the office of deacon in the Christian church, but we tend to gloss over the fact that these deacons served food to elderly women.
The connection with today’s lovefeast becomes clearer if we use the German word “diener” instead of deacon. A diener is one who serves, and in our church it refers specifically to serving the lovefeast. We dress up and do this task with dignity, but I wonder if we think about dieners as living reminders of Christian vocation. Our dieners, like Stephen and the original deacons, express their love for Christ by serving food to those who worship Christ. If we combine this lesson in Acts and Job’s words about not eating his morsel alone, we have a picture of the true follower of Christ as one who shares his or her table with those who are lonely, neglected, rejected, and hungry. We see that the lovefeast is a powerful symbol of true Christianity.
Mary and John And that brings us to our Gospel reading. It is the one reading that does not involve food, but it is about a widow named Mary. The gospel of John tells us that when Jesus was dying on the cross he saw his mother standing there, grieving for the child she was losing. In the midst of that awful drama that we theologize so much about, Jesus cared about a single, elderly woman whose heart was breaking. He did not want her to eat her morsel alone or be crushed by her grief. He saw the disciple he loved most dearly and told him that Mary would be his mother. When we call each other brother and sister, we should recognize that means we have many mothers and fathers that we are called to love and care for. Open your heart and invite someone who is lonely and hungry to share your table. Then any meal can become a lovefeast. It is not buns and coffee that make a lovefeast; it is food shared with love in the name of Jesus.