As you may know, Joan and I were on a pre-anniversary cruise over the past two Sundays.
We’ve been on cruises before,
so it came as no surprise that as we walked the narrow hallway to our cabin,
we’d see trays of food outside the doors of several staterooms.
People had ordered meals and snacks through room service,
and the leftovers, sometimes it appeared whole meals, were left for stewards to dispose of.
No surprise, as I said, but no less disturbing to us to see so much food thrown away.
The same thing happened in the dining rooms, too.
Meals unfinished, untouched, or simply unsatisfying,
or sampled and then abandoned for something more appetizing…
mountains of food utterly wasted.
I suspect that one reason cruise ship food is so easily rejected is that cruisers think it’s free.
It’s true that on these huge floating hotels, there is no additional charge for meals and many snacks.
By the pool there’s a pizza place; pick up a slice or five…no charge.
Around the corner, ice cream cones…no extra charge there either.
Pastries in the piazza, same story.
And so easily tossed aside, since a) there’s so much of it, and b) you didn’t pay for it (directly).
But at the end of the cruise,
my son Jim and I stood on the cabin balcony as we awaited the signal to disembark.
Jim pointed out all the activity below on the dock,
and we watched several huge forklifts begin the process of restoring the ship’s stores,
that is, replenish the supplies for the next cruise.
And there were palates of watermelons and cantaloupes, fresh from farms and trucks,
being loaded onto the ship…a reminder that food is real, it has value, it is necessary.
Somehow, seeing the actual melons, round and green, prompted a vision of fertile fields prepared,
seeds planted, rain and sun and labor nurturing the living fruits and vegetables,
the harvests, and the shipping, and there the loading of fresh food from God’s good earth.
What a shame to see it treated as garbage left on trays outside one’s door.
If you’ve been on a cruise, or simply gone to a buffet-style restaurant,
you’ve seen the food stacked on crowded plates,
food served from bounteous, sneeze-protected stainless steel trays and platters.
What a rich variety we have to choose from!
Well, before I begin hearing the growling of stomachs as we inch toward the noon hour,
I want to set another table for you, as it were.
A sad and dramatic contrast to cruise ship dining and trashed trays of tasty foods.
[And, please…this is not at all to plant seeds of guilt for all of us who have so much
and who take it so much for granted.
My intention is to reflect on the word of God spoken to and through the prophet Isaiah.
Those verses about free food and drink.]
Yesterday, I asked Google for a list of the largest refugee camps.
The largest is in Kenya. And so is the second largest. And the third.
Also in the running is one (not surprisingly) in South Sudan.
I was wondering because when I looked in one of my commentaries at this Isaiah passage,
I found something I had downloaded many years ago when preparing a previous sermon.
It was a sheet from the Presbyterian News Service about relief efforts following the
Rwandan civil war (which tells you how long ago I filed the sheet in the pages of that book).
The article was written by Howard Cameron, an International Mission volunteer
in our denomination.
He wrote so that we would know something of life in a refugee camp.
His words now:
Go out in your backyard and choose a l0-by-l0 foot plot of ground. Choose well because
that's where you will live for a while. Get a 10-by-l0-foot sheet of blue or white plastic,
a cooking pot and a five-gallon plastic jerrycan for water.
Don't fill it yet-- That comes later.
Now you and your family (if you still have one) leave the house and move to that l0 -by-
l0-foot plot. Make yourself comfortable because that is where you are going to be tonight,
tomorrow, and many more tomorrows while politicians and military leaders play out their games,
which will decide if you can ever go back in the house and resume a normal life.
No breaks. No time-outs. No trips to the bathroom. Everything that happens happens
on that 10-by-10-foot piece of ground. If you are lucky, a neighborhood slit trench has been cut
into the rocky volcanic soil. Privacy? You learn very quickly that privacy is between your ears.
It's a state of mind rather than a closed door.
You can't leave your plot, except to go daily for a yellow jerrycan of water
or a weekly ration of beans -- 100 grams of beans per person per day. That means three (?)
ounces of beans. You can handle that except on the day when beans are handed out. Then you
have to make a choice. The water is so far away and the food line is so long that there's not
enough time to do both. [If you are by yourself], you must choose either water or beans. It will probably be beans, so that day no water.
If you or someone with you catches something (and there are plenty of “somethings" to
catch), no call to your doctor's office. You go down the hill and stand in line at a small clinic tent
set up by the Presbyterian Church. That line may be so long that you won't have time to get to
water and back afterwards. Pray that you aren't sick on bean day.
Are you beginning to get the feel?
Now, let's put you in a refugee camp. Take your 10-by-10-foot plot and put it in the middle
of a 100-acre field on a steep hillside. Scratch out a level spot with a stick. No shovel. Divide the
rest of that field into 10-by-10-foot plots and fill them with 10,000 people.
[By the way…that was the Rwandan camp; the largest camp in Kenya has 250,000 refugees.]
Understand that those others couldn't choose their plot as you, did. They took what they could find. Or maybe the one they found was occupied by a family who just died. They took the bodies down by the road so they would be picked up and they moved in.
The other refugees couldn't even choose their clothes. When they heard shooting and
screaming down the street and realized gangs were shooting and hacking to death friends, neighbors
and family, they ran with what they had on. Maybe they grabbed a pot and something else. Maybe
not. They ran until they only had strength Ieft to walk
Some walked for six days with little or nothing to eat. Their water was roadside puddles,
small streams and rain. Thank God for the rain. It was fresh and clean. And bone-chilling.
Finally, they crossed into [a neighboring country]. Some stood around and tried to understand what had happened.
Some tried to mourn, but were too numb. Some simply lay down and died. The trauma and the
trip killed them. Some quietly died from gunshot or machete wounds. Some were loaded on
trucks, driven into rough hillsides to places called “camps” and told to find a 10-by-10-foot home.
They were given a blue plastic tarp and yellow jerrycan.
And there they are.
God bless the Howard Camerons of the world, and of the church,
for they remind us of the power of God’s word to the exiled people of Israel,
a people who had abandoned hope for a tomorrow that would bring
any relief to their hunger, and slaking of their thirst, any light in their darkness.
They had seen glimpses of promise before;
but so many times had led to disappointment that it seemed easier to abandon hope altogether.
Until Isaiah’s voice spoke God’s word of invitation, saying “Come!”
In fact three times, the word Come is spoken, or shouted, or exhorted, or whatever…
and that’s just in the first verse!
We can only imagine the hunger, the thirst of that nation of exiles.
And here is God offering relief, renewal of life,
gifts not only for their deepest physical emptiness, but for their very souls.
Listen again to the invitation, and imagine you are in exile, or in a refugee camp:
All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!
Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat!
Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!
2 Why spend money for what isn’t food,
and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me and eat what is good;
enjoy the richest of feasts.
3 Listen and come to me;
listen, and you will find life.
Here’s the thing: we human beings have all different kinds of hunger and thirst, don’t we?
Yes, the poor we will always have among us, Jesus says.
So, when he says he was hungry and we fed him, and thirsty and we gave him something to drink,
and when he says a cool cup of water given to one of the “little ones” who surround us
will bring a reward…
these are not mere metaphors.
These are teachings that are concrete ways to serve sisters and brothers in need.
Maybe especially strangers…exiles, refugees, the faceless, the nameless,
the neighbor whom we have never met.
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize the gratitude you would have if,
when you were hot, parched, desperate for something to drink,
someone offered you a tall, cool glass of water.
Slaking and quenching are such good words!
Maybe your imagination is still stuck at the buffet line on that cruise.
Well, put yourself back in that 10 by 10 plot
and watch the sky for the parachuted food dropping from relief agencies ,
or the white trucks with red crosses rolling into camp,
with the most basic of foodstuffs to be shared among neighbors.
Isaiah’s prophesy is still echoing through the centuries and the continents.
Everyone come to God’s table.
Feast on God’s bounty.
But wait…there is another level to explore.
That line from the third verse of Isaiah 55 says”,
“…come to me…and you will find life.”
The Hebrew says, “Come to me that your soul may live.”
This promise involves not only the stomach but the spirit.
For we do have other kinds of hunger in our lives, do we not?
We know that there is a thirst for justice.
A hunger for freedom.
We could break into small groups and come up with long lists of the things we long for,
hunger for…the ways we yearn to be filled, the solutions to our emptiness.
Knowledge, understanding, acceptance, human rights.
The Psalmist knew those deep hungers.
“O God, you are my God.”
I seek you “with a heart that thirsts for you
and a body wasted with longing for you, like a dry land, parched, devoid of water.”
When soul and body thirst, it is God and God alone who fulfills our greatest needs
and satisfies our deepest hunger.
But both Isaiah and Jesus would want us to know that we play a part
in satisfying both kinds of thirst, body and spirit, and both at the same time.
When I was an adjunct professor at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education,
one of our students there was Elena Delgado.
After earning her Master’s Degree there, she went to seminary and was ordained
a Presbyterian minister, and I was excited to learn she was serving a Rochester church.
Her work also took her to Kenya, to the Crossroads Springs Institute,
a primary school for children orphaned by AIDS.
Elena saw the great need for clean water both at the school and in the children's homes.
Elena started to search for a solution and found one
when a church member mentioned a simple water filter system to her.
Friends and church mission committees eagerly supported Elena's vision
to bring health and hope to the children of Crossroads Springs
and their contributions resulted in more than 300 portable filters being delivered
to the staff and students there.
Four years ago Elena founded an organization called Water=Life.
Its goal is "nurturing the human spirit through the gift of clean water."
Now Water=Life is at work in Haiti.
It’s amazing to me that a simple water filtration system,
or wells drilled by Living Waters for the World,
or cisterns that capture rain water
can make such a difference in slaking thirst, preventing disease,
and restoring health, wholeness, and hope to villages filled with our global neighbors.
This Isaiah passage speaks of not just the bare necessities,
but the luxuries of wine and milk.
This is a sign of God’s unconditional love and grace offered to all
who hunger and thirst, gifts offered at a table open to everyone who will come.
I have always appreciated the fact that in Presbyterian churches we have no altar.
We have a table.
And today it is set with little in terms of material or physical abundance.
A morsel of bread, barely a taste of grape juice.
But it is also set with true grace,
undeserved, satisfying, and strangely empowering for the mission that awaits us,
to feed the hungry, support the weak, and join in the liberating forces of Jesus
to free the captives of every race and clan and camp.
Thanks be to God.