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Where We Feed Each Other: Sermon for September 9-10, 2023

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, year A Readings:

Long ago, in a poor country far away, a young woman once approached the wise woman of her village with a question: “What are heaven and hell like?” “Come, let me show you,” replied the wise woman, and the two walked into the forest, until they came to a house. The wise woman opened the door, and there they saw dozens of people all spread out, slumped weakly with their chairs pushed back against the walls, as far from each other as possible. In the center of the single room was a huge round table, about seven feet in diameter, covered with dozens of steaming tureens of delicious-smelling soup. Yet the people in the house were so malnourished they looked like abandoned dogs. Then the young woman noticed that the only utensils in the room were spoons with handles that were about eight feet long.

There was no way they could use those spoons to feed themselves. Some people had blisters and even wounds on their hands from trying to spoon the hot soup directly into their mouths. And like mistreated dogs, they were filled with the instinct to lash out. As the two women stepped inside, one fellow seemed to faint for a moment, and fell over onto the shoulder of one of the women seated next to them. With a vicious shove, that neighbor exclaimed “Get off me! Don’t touch me! Don’t I have enough trouble of my own?” and the man, awakened, slowly pulled himself up and slumped back into his seat. As the young seeker and the wise woman had opened the door and stepped inside, some of the people there began weakly, hoarsely demanding that the two women leave. “Go away!” they cried. “There already isn’t room for any more here! Leave us to suffer in peace!” The young woman’s eyes brimmed with tears at the sad scene. The old woman let her look a moment longer, then guided her back out the door so that they could talk freely. Once outside, she turned. “That,” said the wise woman, “is hell.” The young woman stifled a sob. “Now let’s journey a bit further,” said the wise woman. They walked deeper into the forest, and up to another house. The wise woman opened this door, and there again they saw dozens of people all gathered around a huge table piled high covered with enormous steaming tureens of delicious soup. In fact, there were three times as many people in the house. Once again, the only utensils in the room were spoons with handles that were eight feet long. Yet the people here were laughing and joyous. “Come in! Come in!” exclaimed several of them. “Dinner is about to start!” With some trepidation, the young woman and the wise woman sat down at the chairs pulled close to the table. One of the persons stood to lead the group in saying grace, and together they all thanked whoever had provided the delicious soup—the plants, the bees, the farmers, the harvesters, the chefs, ending with giving thanks for the blessing of those gathered around the table. After a hearty amen, half the people pulled up to the table took a hold of one of the spoons, and then filled it from one of the tureens. Then, in a staggered rhythm, each spoon-holder reached across the table and fed a person across from them. And then each person who had just been fed picked up their own spoon and fed a person opposite of them. Those who held the spoons chatted merrily with each other while they fed their companions. The young woman and the wise woman, too, were fed until they could eat no more. And yet the tureens never seemed to go empty. Eventually, the wise woman took the young woman by the hand and said it was time to leave, and they bid their new friends farewell. “Come back anytime!” several of the house’s inhabitants called. “There is always plenty to go around!” The young woman was stunned. “That was heaven, wasn’t it?” she asked the wise woman, and the wise woman nodded. “I don’t understand!” the young woman cried. “Why was it so different? Both houses had exactly the same tables, the same food, the same spoons!” “Ah, my child,” said the wise woman. “Hell is where, despite being surrounded by abundance, we isolate and think only about what we lack and don’t see what we DO have. But heaven-- heaven is where we feed each other, where the greatest abundance is love and care for one another.”

I have loved this fable since I read it in a book of folklore when I was a child. And the interesting thing is that versions of the Fable of the Long Spoons shows up in cultures all around the globe: In Jewish midrash, in Chinese fables (where the spoons become chopsticks and the soup becomes rice), in Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim tales. There is obviously universal wisdom embedded in this tale. In all of our readings, we hear about challenges in relationships with God, and with each other. In our reading from Ezekiel, the prophet is addressing a common, but mistaken, belief, then and now, that people suffer calamities due to their sinfulness. And while it is true that there are often consequences for bad behavior, we also know that sometimes hateful people flourish and innocent people suffer. And it’s human nature to try to figure out a system to it all—to figure out a system, so we can avoid that suffering.

In the case of Ezekiel and his audience, the people of Israel believe that God has punished them for their lack of faith in God by having them be conquered and their leaders carried into exile. Yet the prophet assures them that God does not desire the punishment of anyone. God DOES expect us to examine ourselves, and where we do things that do not serve ourselves or others well, to turn aside from those harmful behaviors and repent—which literally means to choose a new path. Our psalm portion tells us exactly how to have the perspective to do this: by studying, with humility and gratitude, God’s revelation to us, God’s wisdom offered for us, starting with scripture. Taking that wisdom as our own, and focusing on that revelation as a gift to guide our choices and relationships in all that we do. That’s one of the reasons why Christian education, and regular study and prayer over scripture is so important as a practice, if we really want to flourish and grow as children of God and the best people we can be. The next reading meant to deepen our wisdom and guide our relationships comes from Paul writing to the beleaguered Church in Rome. His first sentence itself is a wonder: Owe one another nothing…. EXCEPT to love one another. We all know that another word for debt is “obligation.” Friends, love is the greatest obligation of them all! And yet it is also the ground of everything good and beautiful and true. We are literally made for love. Paul had spent a lifetime even before his conversion studying scripture. And before his encountered with the risen Christ, he had been an aider and abettor of the persecutors of the followers of Jesus. But when the lens of Christ was added to his knowledge of God’s specific commandments, he suddenly saw the universal light of Christ woven into everything and every person, and urges all of us who hear his words to do the same. But then we come to our gospel. The situation described here seems grim. There is injury within the tiny community of Christ followers to whom the author of Matthew belongs. So Jesus advises a way to address the wrong and seek restitution, reconciliation, and healing. And I have seen this specific teaching be used to absolutely devastating effect by being misinterpreted in church and our common lives together. And especially right now. I want to ask everyone to concentrate on the fact, that Jesus first urges us to try again and again to confront issues in our relationships openly and lovingly. Repeatedly. To persevere in trying to maintain acknowledgement of where we all fall short in loving God and each other—and remember loving each other is one of the main ways we show the world we love God. So being loving and compassionate in our relationships is often the boldest witness we make as to who Jesus, the Son of God, is. And that benefits not just others but ourselves. To remember the lesson of our fable, by feeding each other, we ourselves are fed. But let us remember, first of all, that the specific issue being addressed here is behavior that directly hurts another. Not our “disapproval” of another person or of ways that they are different from us. This is supposed to address real injury, not looking down on those who don’t look like we do, or dress like we do, or use the same pronouns as we do, or love the same way we do. Then there is this key statement: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Oh hey! There’s the chance to start enforcing some codes of exclusion, right? Everybody knows that Gentiles and tax collectors were considered to be enemies of the people, yes? Let’s remember: Gentiles were non-Jews, often soldiers or citizens of the Roman empire or descendants of the Canaanites or Babylonians or Persians, all representatives of the Jewish peoples’ oppression just like in Ezekiel’s time. And tax collectors were those who collected taxes in the name of that regime, economically squeezing revenue out of an already desperately poor people. Yep. All that is true. So does that mean we can cast out and hate and oppress those we consider to be sinful?

And let’s be clear, too often right in what is going on around us right now, that “sinful” label really means “those who don’t live and look and dress and love how we think you should live and look and dress and love.”

But how does this very real tendency we have to bash those different from us line up with Paul’s insistence that Jesus taught us that we should owe each other nothing—except love? The key is to ask one very important, very much overlooked question: How did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? Did he urge violence against them, ostracism, excommunication? Did he urge the passage of laws to strip them of their humanity? Or did he have long conversations with them, teach them, heal their loved ones, praise their astounding faith, sit down to eat with them and even bless them? In fact, does anyone know what the author of Matthew’s gospel was supposed to have had as his occupation before becoming a follower of Christ? Matthew 9:9 and Mark 2:14 state that Matthew, also known as Levi, was sitting in his booth collecting taxes when Jesus walked by and called him to follow him. Matthew himself was a tax collector—and was not just NOT outcast by Jesus, or stoned to death by him, but called to be one of Jesus’s earliest followers. As we finish up a week that included a secular holiday dedicated to a reminder of how much we all depend upon each other’s common labor, I hope we can see this passage in Matthew’s gospel with clear eyes and a clear heart. How does all of that stuff early in our reading about approaching those who have sinned against us end? With this statement, so important that it is in our prayer book prayers at the end of the morning prayer liturgy: where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. When ever even a handful of people gather, in the name of Jesus, which means in the example and imitation of Jesus, Jesus is there in the midst of them. When we hold tight to our relationships with each other, rather than looking for ways to cast people out, Jesus is right here in the midst of us. When we tend to our OWN sinfulness and error first, and stop trying to distract ourselves by pointing the finger at others, Jesus is in the midst of us. When we are willing to stop believing that each other is the enemy, and instead start feeding each other, then Jesus is in the midst of us.

And all of us will be fed. Heaven, my beloveds, is where we feed each other.


Top Image: Hunger, by Walter Ufer, 1919.

Middle Image: Long spoon, from the collection of the British Museum

Lower Image: Parable of the Wedding Feast, Peter Artsen, 1550.

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