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.