Maundy Thursday: Always Enough

The food writer Michael Pollan offers a number of rules or guidelines about eating. He lists them and develops them in his books, articles, and website. His overall rule is simple enough: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” But he gets more specific and offers guidance.

“Don’t eat anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce.”

“Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot,” he advises. “There are exceptions — honey — but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren’t food,” Pollan says.

The food rule of Michael Pollan I’m thinking about tonight, and exploring theologically, is the one that says, “Always leave the table a little hungry.”

Now this is not advice that Pollan, or me, or anyone else would give to a person who is truly hungry. But it is advice shared across cultures. The Japanese suggest you stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. The Prophet Muhammad described a full belly as one that is 1/3 food, 1/3 liquid, and 1/3 air. When the French are hungry, they say “J’ai faim,” “I have hunger.” But when they’ve had enough, they don’t say, “I’m full,” but instead, “Je n’ai plus faim,” or “I have no more hunger”—which is a very different thing, isn’t it? (Food Rules, Rule 46.)

The Season of Lent is one in which many of us have given this a try—in fasting, in paying attention, by noticing some of our many addictions, cravings, and binges (whether fantasy or realized.)

The scriptures tonight are enough to make anyone hungry, but don’t they also invite us to leave some room? The Passover meal of the Jews is highly symbolic, and there are different foods involved. A friend mentioned to me that every Passover she has attended, everyone left stuffed—and I’m sure that’s true. But notice the original one. It’s a meal for a journey. It’s fast-food, to be eaten in a hurry, with your shoes on and your walking stick at the ready. Get rid of the left-overs and be ready to move. It’s just enough to get started, because the journey ahead—out of slavery in Egypt and eventually into a Promised Land—is going to be a long one. In the wilderness, the people will get hungry and they’ll be given manna. But remember manna? Michael Pollan would have been very pleased with manna because it had a shelf life of one day. It had to be consumed or it would become mealy. The lesson of the manna was that the faithful would look to God to provide, to God to fill their bellies, but also their hearts and minds and whole being.

Now, I know this might not be my most popular sermon—suggesting we leave the table a little hungry. My friends who enjoy Passover Meals won’t appreciate it, and I can tell you that whenever I go to an Easter buffet, I aim to get my money’s worth. But Pollan’s rule does point to our need for more, and our fear of having less. It invites us to notice when our mindset of scarcity that blinds us to God’s promise of abundance.

I think Judas Iscariot was terrified of scarcity. Remember how he resented Mary of Bethany’s offering of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus—how dare she waste that! Judas betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Judas can’t begin to see the common good and bounty of Jesus’s presence, because he’s so worried about himself.

The scriptures tell us that with God, there will always be enough. Enough for me. Enough for you. Enough to share.

When Jesus gives the prayer that we call The Lord’s Prayer, he includes that phrase, “give us today our daily bread.”

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on this in a meditation where he writes about this phrase:

…At least some people in the early church understood [this phrase from the Lord’s Prayer] it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow; “give us today tomorrow’s bread”. . . Give us a foretaste of that great banquet and celebration where the universe is drawn together by Christ in the presence of God the Father. And so … Holy Communion is, at one level, bread for today, it’s very much our daily bread, it’s the food we need to keep going; but it’s also a foretaste of the bread of heaven, a foretaste of enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven, at his table, at his banquet… (Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer)

Jesus says, “Look to God for the true bread from heaven. Look to God for the bread that comes down and gives life to the world.” And then Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

There are several themes to Maundy Thursday. One has to do with Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet. In that we’re not washing each other’s feet this year, that aspect of the day, in some ways, is both emphasized and de-emphasized. But even when we include it, the washing to feet should not be disconnected from the meal that Jesus shares with his disciples, and the sharing of himself.

The way John describes it, the supper is going on, the drama around Judas is beginning to play out, and Jesus is talking with the disciples. Jesus interrupts the meal, it seems like, in order to wash the disciples’ feet, and then comes back to the table. He and continues talking, sharing, and encouraging. The bread of service, the bread of Jesus’s Body and Blood, and the Bread of Heaven are the same—broken, shared, and enjoyed. Like the story of the feeding of the thousands, the miracle of multiplication begins in the Last Supper, as the disciples eat, but stop short of becoming full. They know that Jesus is not finished with them yet. That God is not finished with them yet.

Last year, during Holy Week, we went without sharing the Body of Christ in Holy Communion. This year, many of us break bread together but are still painfully aware of those who join us spiritually—those at home, and those who have died over the last year. We have been hungry this year—too many in our community and the world have literally hungered for good. Too many continue to hunger for justice and fairness and decency among all people—in Minneapolis and in Manhattan. Many hunger for peace. Many hunger for healing.

As we eat, we receive what might seem like just a very little. But it is a foretaste, a promise from him who fills us with all that we need.

During Communion, the choir will sing words of St. Thomas Aquinas set to music by Olivier Messiaen.

O sacred banquet! in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory to us is given. Alleluia.

A pledge of future glory. The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion—by whatever name we know it in our hearts—is food for the journey and a promise that there will always be more, for our journey with Christ through this life, and our journey with him through death and into eternal life.

Thanks be to God for this feast—which, even when spare, is more than enough.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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