Sermon: Elisha’s Soup Kitchen–Sabbath Economics in Hard Times

A sermon given by guest preachers Ched Myers and Elaine Enns on July 29, 2018 (tenth Sunday after Pentecost).

Elaine:  Ched and I are delighted to be with you all this weekend, celebrating the wedding of Pastor Joanna and Eric yesterday, and this morning having the opportunity to circle around the Word here at First Mennonite.  We join with you in blessing the newlyweds in their life and ministry together.  We bring greetings from Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, and small gifts expressing our solidarity with two issue for which we share deep concerns with you: Watershed Discipleship and Indigenous Justice. 

When Joanna invited us to speak this morning, she encouraged us to sing as well as preach, so we are mixing in a few songs.  We would like to open this morning’s theme with a call and response song that we learned from the Wilderness Way Community in Portland, Oregon.  

Song: “Come Gather Round” 

Come gather round my friends 

Welcome everyone, To the wilderness

Come you who hunger, Hunger for justice

Welcome everyone, To the wilderness

Sabbath and jubilee

Welcome everyone, To the wilderness

Ched: Since Joanna is nothing if not unconventional, we thought we’d offer a bit of an unconventional lectionary focus this morning, which is to give today’s somewhat obscure Hebrew Bible text priority over the more famous loaves and fishes tale according to John.  After all, the story of Jesus’ feeding crowds in the wilderness—a prominent tradition which appears in all four gospels—is in fact a midrash on the ancient tale of Elisha’s conjuring of soup and bread.  And this strong thematic strand illuminating the principle of “enough for all” in scripture offers a compelling invitation to our churches (and synagogues) to embrace the biblical vision of Sabbath Economics in our world of continuing social disparity.  

Elaine: Now few things are dearer to my Mennonite peeps than soup and bread.  For my community of German speaking Russian Mennonite settlers on the Canadian Prairies, borscht and brown bread lie at the center of food culture.  Not only were recipes brought over from Russia and Ukraine; my grandmothers, coming as refugees in the 1920s, sewed hard reischecha dry buns into the hems of their skirts for the journey.  Growing up I have strong olfactory memories of the thick, molasses smell of my mom’s fresh out-of-the-oven whole wheat loaves, cooling on the counter.  It seemed like our house always smelled like bread. When I went away to college, mom would send me off with individual frozen portions of borscht.  And on visits home, I and my friends would go through multiple loaves of bread in a sitting!  Of course, those are memories of the shared abundance enjoyed by our relatively middle class family in Saskatoon.  This morning’s Bible story tells a very different tale.

Ched:  Our reading comes from the Elisha miracle-cycle sequence, which narrates multiple demonstrations of power in order to establish that Elisha is the inheritor of Elijah’s prophetic mantle.  Leading up to our text in 2 Kings 4 is a series of water wonders—parting the Jordan, purifying salty wells, and rehydrating dry wadis—followed by two interventions on behalf of widows.  This sequence makes it clear that Elisha indeed received “a double portion” of Elijah’s spirit when the latter ascended to heaven (2 King 2:9).  But these mighty deeds also suggest that Elisha is concerned to respond to concrete situations of hardship among his people, to address felt needs, especially among the marginalized.

So our text begins with the terrible and poignant phrase: “When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land.”  Keep in mind that in the Bible, famine is usually portrayed not just as a natural disaster, but also as a socially engineered crisis resulting from human economic systems of greed.   During cycles of famine the elites commandeered and consolidated scarce resources for themselves, intensifying the plight of the poor.  We read about this very phenomenon for example in the last chapters of the Genesis story, in which Joseph manages scarcity on behalf of Pharaoh, manipulating markets so that his Israelite relatives must sell off their land, grain and animals, finally forced into Egypt as economic refugees.  

Elaine:  This power of centripetal economics, which is to say, the rule of the imperial center over the margins, is still at play in our world.  Indeed it is the cause of the desperate migrations that bring many to our southern border, where their vulnerability is further exploited by hard-hearted U.S. immigration policies.

Ched:  In our scripture story, the traveling school of prophets is struggling to find something to eat, and some of them are out foraging for food in the wild.  In fact, this is how poor people have always survived hard times, turning back to older ways of hunting and gathering.  But this is a tragic vignette, because in this case, these prophets have clearly lost those traditional competences, indicated by the fact that they gather poisonous gourds, because they are no longer able to discern what is edible.  This testifies to their colonization by imperial food markets, which have displaced them from their traditional lands, forced them to work as tenant farmers growing for export, and eroded their formerly sustainable and symbiotic lifeways.  

Elaine: Again, this destruction has long characterized the bitter history of colonization around the globe, especially over the last half millennium.  Indigenous peoples who have survived have nevertheless seen their traditional self-sufficient reliance on the buffalo or salmon or wild rice atrophy as settlers took more and more habitat.  And this process continues today all over the world, from Honduras to Hawaii, and the Sudan to Siberia, relentlessly undermining local economic cultures, and forcing herding, horticultural and foraging societies to become export cogs in the command economy of empire.  And this biblical scenario speaks to we modern urbanites, too.  After all, how many of us could name 3 edible native plants within a 5 mile radius of this church?  Imagine what we might bring home if we were frantic and fraught with hunger, clueless whether what we foraged would fortify us or kill us?

Ched:  So Elisha encounters a scene in which local people have been driven to desperation by famine and economic marginalization.  “But while they were eating the stew,” we are told, “they cried out, ‘O man of God, there is death in the pot!’”  We can consider this to be a euphemism for the early warning system our bodies offer for food that is bad for us.  In other words, everyone is running for the outhouse.  Elisha’s response is another healing; this time, he heals the soup pot.  He sprinkles some flour—symbolizing an edible staple—into it, which some-how makes it tolerable.  Shamanic medicinal strategy, or miracle?  Hard to say.

Our text follows this soup story, appropriately enough, with a bread story.  Apparently word is out about the dire straits facing the prophetic school, and a man brings a wagonload of bread—must have been with Mennonite Disaster Service or MCC.  He comes from Ba’al-shal’ishah (I love to say that name, but keep in mind it refers to a cultic site of Ba’al).  We’re told that the loaves are made from “new grain” (4:42).  This infers that they were offerings of first fruits to be used in the early Israelite harvest feast of Shavuot (see Lev 23:15ff).  This allusion to the “Feast of Weeks” gives our story further significance, since this festival celebrated natural agricultural abundance.  Its seven week time frame echoes the symbolism of the Levitical Jubilee: 7 X 7 = 50.  However, though these first fruits were destined to be offered back to God by the priests on Shavuot, in this crisis Elisha “redirects” them toward those in need.  

Elisha instructs the provider to “Give the bread to the people to eat” (II Kg 4:42).  The gospel story of the wilderness feeding has Jesus quoting this very line to his disciples, a command which is met here, as in the gospel account, with incredulity (4:43).  So much so, that Elisha has to repeat himself.  No, really, he insists: this bread belongs to hungry people.  Then he adds that Creator insures not only that there will be enough, but even some left over!   And indeed, the “Word of Adonai” prevails, transforming this situation of artificial scarcity into a restoration of God’s natural abundance: the story concludes: “They ate and had some left” (4:44).  It is this very transformation that Jesus centuries later re-enacts in the wilderness, in another time of too few loaves and too many impoverished people.  

Elaine offered a song here to celebrate Creator’s great love for us as expressed through Creation.  Our dear friend Rev. Robert Two Bulls, an Oglala Sioux Episcopal priest, brought this song entitled “Wakantanka,” to our Bartimaeus Institutes from Taize, where he helped translate the words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer into Lakota.  Bob has encouraged us to share it.

Ched:  We are pleased that Joanna and Sheri have worked with some of you through our little BCM booklets on Sabbath Economics.  We published these popular pamphlets in 2001 at the request of the global Jubilee 2000 movement, which accomplished historic advocacy and organizing to win relief for the most highly indebted nations.  In the Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics I contend that the story of manna in the wilderness represents the archetypal lesson on how to transition from imperial captivity to the liberation of community sufficiency—ancient Israel’s, and ours today.  In the old Exodus story, the Hebrews have been sprung from slavery, but must now face the harsh realities of life outside the Domination system.  The problem is, the ancient Israelites – like modern North Americans – couldn’t imagine an economic system apart from the Egyptian political-military-technological complex that enslaved them.  They famously complain: “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!  But you have led us into this desert to die of famine!” (Ex 16:3).   Note that in both Hebrew and Greek, the word for famine and hunger is the same. 

The manna story—like the Elisha tale we’ve just looked at—is not primarily a feeding miracle, nor a morality tale about trust (as is usually taught in our churches), but an object lesson, a didactic story illustrating Yahweh’s alternative to the oppressive Egyptian economy.   In Exodus, “bread raining from heaven” symbolizes the earth’s fertility as a Divine gift.  The manna, in turn, represents a “test” to see if Israel will follow instructions on how to “gather” and distribute this gift.  The people’s first lesson outside of Egypt, in other words, is about economics—a lesson both Elisha, and still later Jesus, reiterate centuries after.

The “instructions” of Exodus 16 are threefold, and give us the defining characteristics of God’s alternative economic practice.  First, we told to gather just enough bread for our needs (Ex 16:16-18). In contrast to empire’s condition of social disparity, here “Those who gathered more had no surplus, and those who gathered less had no shortage.”   In God’s economy there is such a thing as “too much” and “too little”—which contrasts radically with modern capitalism’s infinite tolerance for wealth and poverty.   

Second, this manna should not be “stored up” (16:19-20).  Wealth and power in Egypt was defined by surplus accumulation—thus Israel’s forced labor consists of building “store-cities” (Ex 1:11) into which the empire’s plunder and the tribute of subject peoples was gathered.  (As Marx once quipped: “Accumulate, accumulate, accumulate – under capitalism, this is the Law and the Prophets!”)  In contrast, we are enjoined to keep wealth circulating through strategies of redistribution, not concentrating through strategies of accumulation.  

The third instruction introduces Sabbath as a communal discipline (Ex 16:22-30).  “Six days you shall gather; but on the seventh, which is a Sabbath, there will be none” (Ex 16:26).  Torah’s communal Sabbath regulations are God’s strategy for teaching us about our dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit.  Thus Sabbath keeping is the central rhythm in the public life of Israel, as reflected for example in the first fruits feast of Shavuot.  The Jubilee legislation in Lev 25, in turn, represented the ultimate expression of “Sabbath Economics”: a communal restructuring to conform to the principles of equality and sustenance for all.  I hope those of you who were in the study group were able to grasp how the footprints of this Sabbath Economics ethos run throughout our scriptures—not least in our reading this morning.

Elaine:  So Elisha’s “redirection” of resources expresses the central imperative of Sabbath Economics: food—no matter how sacred or proprietary, belongs to hungry people.  We’ve called this text “Elisha’s Soup Kitchen.”  We hope you don’t think this is trivializing.  Among justice minded folk, soup kitchens are sometimes dismissed as “mere charity.”  But that is to overlook how they express the radical principles of a gift economy in the spirit of Sabbath Economics.  For almost a century, for example, the Catholic Worker movement has responded to those in felt needs with soup kitchens which also defy capitalist orthodoxies.  

Here in the City, Martin de Porres House on Potrero Avenue has been witnessing to Sabbath Economics since 1971.  It is a free restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch during the week and brunch on Sundays.  Eating is a right, they say, not a privilege, and feeding the hungry is a matter of justice.  Some people see Martin’s as a miracle.  Others see it as a problem because “the poor” are not always pretty, and it is easier if “they” are invisible.  But many of those folks see Martin’s as the one place where someone calls them by name.

We might say that Elisha started the soup kitchen movement in his “miracle” of broth and bread in a time of hunger.  Jesus of Nazareth then cemented this witness into the heart of his gospel by both showing and telling Sabbath Economics in his wilderness feeding.  And people of faith and compassion have been following this way ever since.  

“You feed them,” said both the prophet and the messiah to their followers.  Friends, how we grow, harvest, distribute and consume food is a discipleship issue.  Food production and justice have rightly become central concerns for a new generation of activists. Our churches are well positioned to engage and support this work locally and globally, as we know you at First Mennonite endeavor to do. But each of us, and together, we can always deepen our personal and political practices and disciplines of food justice—none are too small, none are too large.  May our Eucharistic table ever keep these matters before us, and may we always listen to the story that soup and bread have to tell.