11/16/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Giving Thanks for Shared Meals

On Thanksgiving Day, most Americans will gather with family members or friends and share a meal. As many as 24 million people will endure crowded airports and packed planes to participate in this feast, and others will travel to their destinations by trains, buses and cars. Americans have a deep desire to gather around tables with loved ones, even if relationships are sometimes strained by the experience. Deep inside us, we sense the importance of shared meals.

Churches need to grasp this truth and act on it, on holidays and throughout the year. Eating together not only fills stomachs but builds community, as people come together for food and conversation. It can even break down barriers of income, race and culture.

Off the west coast of Scotland is a small island containing a Christian community that has existed in various forms for the past 1,500 years, currently as the progressive -- but also deeply traditional -- Iona Community. Hospitality begins at a table in the Iona Abbey dining hall, sharing tea and cookies with people from a rich variety of backgrounds. One Tuesday afternoon, I heard the life story of Scotsman Alan Watt, and then I watched as he engaged a number of young guests in conversation, asking questions about their experience at the Iona Community's youth conference.

On a Wednesday night, I sat in the dining hall after worship, and was approached by a teenager from Oklahoma who was spending the week at Iona with his youth group. I marveled at the confidence he showed in approaching me, and realized that his ability to reach out had been shaped and strengthened by his time in the community. Over tea, we talked about why we came and what we were learning. On Iona, the expectation is that people will make connections around tables, with both friends and strangers.

Welcoming congregations know the importance of gathering people around food and drink. It is when people share a meal that they become close to each other and close to God. From the time of Jesus to today, hospitality has almost always involved eating meals together -- think of Jesus sitting down with tax collectors and sinners, hosting the Last Supper for his disciples, and feeding the 5,000.

In the 1990s, I served Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Va., a congregation that was culturally and racially diverse. What brought members together were international potluck dinners, in which spicy stew from Ghana was enjoyed right along with Southern fried chicken. There, I discovered that the clearest path to unity is through the stomach. It is when people sit down to eat and drink together that God's presence will be felt, relationships will develop, community will grow, and people will be reconciled to one another.

Yes, even reconciled. At the First Christian Church in Falls Church, Va., a day shelter called Safe Haven has developed relationships between church members and homeless neighbors as they have talked around tables. One rainy day, a homeless man, uninvited and dripping wet, shuffled into an elegant reception being held at the church after the funeral of a long-time member. His presence could have been considered a distraction or an annoyance, with swift action being taken to escort him out of the building until the Safe Haven program resumed its operations.

But the pastor greeted him and then smiled as three members of the congregation rushed up to welcome the man, making sure that he quickly had a plate of food. This hospitable response was certainly based on the bonds that had developed through Safe Haven, and it illustrates how shared meals can reconcile people of radically different backgrounds.

In most cases, only a little food and drink is required -- not a full Thanksgiving feast. In the Bible's book of First Kings, the prophet Elijah visits a poor widow in Zarephath in a time of drought and says, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." She stops and shakes her head, saying, "I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug" (1 Kings 17:11-12). She has no bread, not even a morsel to offer.

But Elijah believes God's promise that a widow will feed him, so he does not give up. "Do not be afraid," says the prophet to the widow; "For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth" (vv. 13-14). Sure enough, they discover that they can eat for many days.

Here is the promise of hospitality: With God, a little goes a long way. Like the widow of Zarephath, we have an opportunity to set tables and share what we have. Like the prophet Elijah, we have a chance to trust in God's abundance, and to believe that the Lord will meet our needs, even in difficult times. Good things happen whenever people sit down together for a shared meal, a truth we should remember in our homes and in our congregations, on Thanksgiving and throughout the year.