Thursday, April 5, 2012

Memory of a Meal

Memory of a Meal
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Maundy Thursday
Northside Community Church
5 April 2012

If you were to look back over your life, and pick out some of your most cherished memories, how much would food feature in them?

Was there a special snack your mom would give you when you got home from school?

Was there a particular menu your family would enjoy for Thanksgiving or for Christmas?

Was your Easter picnic incomplete if your aunt didn’t bring her potato salad?

Do you remember how it felt to scoop pureed vegetables off your baby’s chin with an impossibly tiny spoon?

Do you remember how it felt for friends to bring casseroles when a loved one died? There wasn’t anything they could do to change the sad fact of death, but they did what they could do – they showed you their love with their food.

Food is such a primal fact of life that memories of it can connect us in the deepest possible ways to joy, and to grief.

I can’t think of my grandmother without being flooded with memories and more memories of food. I miss her fried cornbread. I miss her homemade biscuits and chicken gravy on Christmas Eve. I miss her homemade vanilla milkshakes. Mostly, I just miss her.

The year after she died, I spent some time experimenting with recipes for banana pudding, until I finally created one that tasted as close to hers as any I had ever tasted, and it made me want to cry. It was like she was with me, almost. Almost.

From our earliest days, the days before we can even remember, we experience a link between food and love, between food and family. Some of our best memories have food in them.

Some of our worst memories, too. A family fight. A ruined dessert. Food poisoning. Food is meant to be a source of nourishment and nurture, but it’s true that sometimes it is also a source of pain, even shame. Our feelings about food are complicated.

It’s one of the ways I suppose we are different from other animals. Our hunger is more than just physical. Our associations with food are also emotional, relational, spiritual. “To eat is to see, smell, touch, and taste God’s provisioning care.”[i]

Stories about food run all through the Bible. Food featured in the very first sin, of course, but there are happier memories, too. Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers into their tent, and served them a meal – turned out they were angels. God provided manna in the wilderness. Jesus dined with all sorts of people, and took heat for it. He also hosted a simple meal for thousands, out of just some bread and fish. In story after story, there is food.

But you can’t talk about food in the Bible without talking about the central feast of the Passover meal, the celebration of God’s deliverance of God’s people from slavery into freedom. Jesus would have participated in this feast every year, from the time before he could remember. Can you imagine him, a little boy at his mother’s knee, eating the bread, praying the prayers, singing the songs, hearing the story of God’s liberating work in the Exodus? “Why is this night different from all other nights?” the children are asked at the Passover meal. Every year the question is asked. Every year the story is told. The story becomes a part of the memories of those who celebrate. Even now, when faithful Jews gather at the Passover table, they hear and tell the Exodus story again, as if they were there when it happened.

We see this sense of remembering in Scripture itself. In Deuteronomy, we read, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…” and then suddenly the story shifts. What was about an ancestor now becomes about the teller, instead of saying “he” the teller says “we.”  “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted uswe cried to the Lord…. The Lord brought us out of Egypt.” (26:5-8). This is how the biblical story works – the old story becomes our story, as we tell it.

The young grandson of a friend of mine once prayed, “God, thank you for helping us cross the Red Sea.” And he was saying something true. This is how memory of the biblical story works – we weren’t there, but we were. This isn’t just someone else’s story, it is ours. God didn’t just deliver them. God delivered us.

Every year for 33 years, Jesus participated in the Passover meal and heard and told the stories of deliverance. What were his memories of this feast? Maybe he had memories of his mama setting the table, of his father pouring the wine, of his grandmother making the bread. Maybe he also had memories as old as time. As he heard and recited the Exodus story, these became his memories too – memories of a people set free, memories of a people on their way to the Promised Land.

And then, finally, on the last night of his life, he comes to the meal again. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This night would be different indeed. He would be betrayed, arrested, denied, tried, scourged, mocked, and crucified. But first, he would share this meal with his friends. And he would make the stunning claim that the bread and the wine were his own body, his own blood,[ii] given for us.

All four gospels tell us the story of that night. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he tells it again. And for 2000 years, churches everywhere have told it not just on this night, but every single time we gather to share in this meal. We call the retelling of it “the words of institution” – on the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the same way after the meal, he took the cup, blessed it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Drink from this, all of you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

We tell it every time we eat the bread and drink the cup. This story is our story. We were not there that night, but in the telling of it, we were, in a way.

Do this in remembrance he said. He knew the power of memory. He knew how our remembering could put him at the table with us, every time we eat. It’s funny, how divided Christians have become over the centuries, about this meal. People argue over exactly what happens in this meal, and big theological words get thrown around – transubstantiation, consubstantiation, sacramental union. Baptists typically view this meal as “memorial” or symbolic. And we sometimes put the word “just” in front of that – it’s just a symbol, it’s just a memorial. But there’s no reason to put the word “just” in front of something as powerful as a memory and a meal. Something holy happens when we remember. Something hopeful happens when we tell this story again, and eat this bread and drink this cup, and do it together. He is at this table with us, because we are remembering him.

Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians while they were in deep conflict with one another, and one of their big problems was that they had privatized their faith and worship. They had lost the sense that the life of faith is a life of community. [iii] He writes to remind them of the importance of this meal, how by it we have become one body. In receiving the bread and the cup, we are partaking of the body of Christ, together we are becoming the body of Christ. Elsewhere Paul writes, “The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we the many are one body.” (10:16-17)

How is this night different from all other nights? Well, for one thing, Christians all over this globe – separated by language and custom, separated by theology and practice, separated by bias, suspicion, resentment – Christians everywhere are gathering at this table, his table, tonight. His bread and his cup unite us. His body and his blood are what make us one with each other. Tonight, we all remember the same thing – his life, poured out for us. His love, poured out for us.

He becomes powerfully present to us in this meal. He becomes powerfully present through us, by this meal. And it’s worth remembering not only that he gave himself to us, but that he gave himself for the whole hungry world. As members of his body, we are meant to keep giving ourselves for the sake of this world.

What are you hungry for? Connection? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Friendship? Meaning? Comfort? Purpose? What are you hungry for? You will find it at this table. What are you thirsting for? You will find it in this cup. We will find what we are looking for when we come to his table, because he is here, too.

Who do you miss? They are at this table, too. We receive this bread and this cup, three churches, together, an important symbol that all God’s people are meant to gather as one around this gift. That includes that great communion of saints who share in the heavenly feast on another shore. They gather at this table, too. We may look like only a few people here tonight. But imagine multitudes. Because that’s what we are. Multitudes of God’s own people, coming to this table, all of us one body in Christ. You, me, Simon Peter, Doubting Thomas, Mary Magdalene, the Apostle Paul, my grandmother, all our grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith. Imagine Christians in China, Botswana, the Ukraine, Malawi, Mexico, Morocco, India Israel, Palestine. They are with us, too. Some of them under threat of persecution, yet still they come to this table. And there are some who need this table, who need what Christ brings, but they don’t yet know where to find it. And how will they, unless we share the great nourishment we’ve been given? There is room and more room for all at this table. We are meant to share.

How is this night different from all other nights? It is different because of what he did for us, what he does for us, what he gives to us. It is different because in his self-giving love, he invites and empowers our own self-giving love. He makes us one with him. He makes us one with each other. He makes us one in ministry to the whole world. This is not only what we remember. It’s what we keep coming to this table for. To be made whole, and to be made one, and to be made ready to give our own selves in love for a hungry world.

[i] Norman Witzba. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. 180.
[ii] In her article “Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?” Wil Gafney, Ph.D., who answers that question with the word “maybe,” writes that “there is one aspect of Jesus’ last meal that does not have a parallel in a regular or Sabbath meal, Jesus’ re-identification of the bread and wine with himself, his body and his blood. Jesus’ words would have also been stunning at a seder. They remain extraordinary.” 
[iii] J. Paul Sampley. “1 Corinthians.” New Interpreter’s Bible. 934.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Unless a Grain Falls

Unless a Grain Falls
John 12:20-36
5th Sunday in Lent
25 March 2012

One of my favorite church events of the year is the darkest thing we do. We gather every year on Good Friday, at nighttime, to walk through the story of Jesus’ last hours, to meditate on his crucifixion, and to sit in silence, in the dark, together. The service stands in stark contrast to my other favorite service, which happens on Christmas Eve, and is filled not with silence but with song, not with darkness but with light. On Christmas Eve we rejoice that God has come among us. On Good Friday night, we mourn God’s absence, the death of Jesus at our own hands.

One Good Friday, about nine or ten years ago, Paul and I were hustling around getting ready for the service, which involves a lot of attention to logistical detail. The lights have to go off at just the right time, the candles have to be snuffed out at various intervals throughout the service, readers have to do their readings, in the dark. For a service that is about crucial existential issues such as darkness, anguish, abandonment, death, and emptiness, there are an awful lot of pedestrian details to tend to.

On this particular evening, everything was finally in place, and we were ready to go. But just as I was about to enter the sanctuary to begin the service, a 6 year-old girl stopped me. “Pastor Stacey,” she said. “I understand that Jesus had to die on the cross. But what I don’t understand is why. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Why did Jesus have to die?”

Oh, mercy.

Why, indeed?

What the little girl didn’t know is that she was asking one of the core questions of our faith, one that theologians have wrestled with for centuries. It is the deepest mystery, the darkest center of our faith. What does it mean when we say that Christ died for us? What exactly happened when he did? What happened for God in that moment, and what happened for us? How was anything made different, how was anything made right?

These are questions for which I could have offered elaborate theories worked out by long-dead theologians. I could have used words like “ransom,” or “substitute,” or “sacrifice,” or “moral influence,” or, my favorite, “Christus Victor.” I could have said things that made it sound like the whole thing was some sort of neat equation, that, once understood, was easily assimilated into right living. I didn’t say any of that.

Truth is, I don’t remember what I did say. I just remember her question, and how it hollowed me out. How it drew me up short. How it resonated with my own sense of wonder and longing. I remember finally going on into the service, and listening to the old story again. I remember sitting in the dark.
Sometimes lately, as I’ve been reading current news, I have felt a sense of pressing darkness. Reading the story of innocent civilians in Afghanistan – many of them women and children – asleep in their beds, in their homes – gunned down by an American soldier. I can’t bear it. And I think about that soldier, and what darkness must have taken hold of his mind, his soul, in the moments when he perpetrated such horror. And I think about his family. And I think about all the soldiers on all sides, and all the families, and all the civilians with war all around them. It’s too much.

And then this week, reading and hearing the story of Trayvon Martin, innocent, unarmed, 17 year-old kid, on his way to a friend’s house with some Skittles and an iced tea. Gunned down by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman because the guy thought Trayvon, a black kid in a hoodie, looked “suspicious.” And the gunman hasn’t been arrested because he claimed self-defense, against an unarmed kid. And I listened to the 911 calls, with Trayvon begging for help in the background. And I think about his mama. And I can’t bear it. The darkness, the hate, the fear – I want to look away. I want all of it to go away.

And I know these two stories are just two out of thousands, out of hundreds of thousands, of horrors and hatreds that happen every day.

Where is Jesus, in all this darkness? What did his death do, after all?

Some foreigners came one day to Phillip, one of Jesus’ disciples. They were Greeks, in Jerusalem for Passover. They came to Phillip and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” And Phillip told Andrew, and together they went and told Jesus. And here is how Jesus responded to this request – he told them he was going to die. “We would see Jesus,” they had said. “You want to see? See this: my suffering, my death.”

He tells a little parable. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

What does a seed do, but go down into the dark? It falls down, into the deep, into the dank earth. And it dies. It cracks open and gives itself up. And it does this not for the sake of dying but for the sake of living, for life to spring out of it. And this is how Jesus responds when the Greeks say they wish to see him. Look at this, he says. Look at the seed, how it falls, how it dies.

“We want to see Jesus,” the Greeks say. “We want to see Jesus,” we say. And Jesus says, “Look at the dark. Look at this death.”

We would rather not, truth be told. We would rather make neat theories about what his death does, than to actually look at him there, hanging on the cross. It’s safer to theorize than to ponder the agony of his suffering, the horror of his death. It’s safer to make the cross a puzzle to be solved than to let our own hearts be pierced by his pain and by the pain of the world God loves.

Jesus saw his death coming, and John makes it very clear that he gave himself to it, he was no victim. It was what we came for – to give himself completely, in love. The grain falls to the ground and dies so that the wheat can grow. His death, like that of the seed, is necessary, and it is life-giving.[i] What’s more, in John, “fruit” is a way Jesus has of talking about the life of the community of faith.[ii] The saving power of his death will result in the blossoming of a community of believers who will redefine the meaning of life on the basis of Jesus’ death, on the basis of his self-giving love.[iii] If he hadn’t died, we wouldn’t be here. The seed of his life would fall to the earth, be buried, sit there in the dark, hidden, until it swelled, cracked, and broke open with new life,[iv] blooming into fields of wheat, blooming into a community of the beloved, who would offer their own lives in love, too. 

He speaks of his death in this way – like the necessary self-offering of the seed – but then he moves from talking about what is hidden in the earth to what will be up high and visible, his cross. He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John points out that he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. And those words are meant literally – he will be lifted up, on a cross, strung up there for all to see, nailed to two pieces of wood, to suffer, to bleed, to thirst, to die.

He was speaking of the manner of his death, but he was speaking also of its meaning, and of its power: he would be lifted up – raised, exalted, elevated over all other powers. He would be lifted up –to show us the very heart of God, impaled upon a cross. This is what we need to see when we look at his death – God, broken like us, broken for us, broken with love, bearing all our sickness and sadness, and drawing it all into himself, and then drawing us all to himself.

In his suffering and death, Jesus absorbed the worst the world could do and he didn’t do any of it back. It was put to death with him. Which is not at all to say that bad things don’t still happen, but that in his death he broke their power over us.[v] He conquered their ability to define us - or our response. In his death, the power of God’s transforming, self-giving love was lifted up over every other power.

We hear the news in our world, of suffering and death, and we want to look away. This is not what we want to see. We say with the Greeks, “We want to see Jesus.” And he tells us where to find him – look at the darkness, look at the cross.

Look at those innocent lives cut down in their beds in Afghanistan. Look at the soldiers, their families, so much pain on all sides of every war. Look at Trayvon Martin, look at boys like him everywhere, under suspicion, under threat of violence, for the color of their skin. Look at so much darkness and you will see God, cruciform. Christ, suffering, dying, but still lifted up, still drawing it all into himself and drawing us all to him, to love. Do not look away from the pain of our world – Christ is in it all, crucified. And Christ must in our response to it all.

The truth of the cross is that ours it not the only heart that breaks over this mad world. God’s own son laid down his life in solidarity with all the pain that ever was and that ever would be. The cross is the form of God’s love over our lives. The cross is meant to become the shape of our love in response.

All the suffering in our world is lifted up into God’s breaking heart. The cross reaches into every hidden place of pain or guilt, its arms span all suffering, all loss, all sin, and all death. The cross reaches all of it, and somehow, somehow will transform it all. Look at such love as this. Be drawn by such love as this. And then let our hearts, like his, crack like seeds that fall to the ground, so that what comes forth is more love, more life, his life, in us.

[i] Gail O’Day. New Interpreter’s Bible. “John.” 714. R. Alan Culpepper. The Gospel and Letters of John. 194.

[ii] O’Day. 711.

[iii] O’Day. 714.

[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Unless a Grain Falls.”  God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering. 64.

[v] Taylor. 64.