Scripture: Luke 4:21-30; Sacred Signposts: Meal
In July of 2004, I came from my home in Rhode Island to Chagrin Falls, Ohio to interview with the search committee of an exciting-looking church looking for a senior pastor. It was a wide-ranging interview, with serious and intense conversation about a diverse array of subjects. Of the many dimensions of that process, one that was crucial to me was to engage with the committee directly about the heart of the faith. So I led them in an encounter with a story from the Bible.
In the story we looked at together that day, the prophet Elijah goes to a widow in the town of Zarephath in Sidon, in the country of gentiles, where a terrible famine has struck, and where her son is on the brink of death. Before he heals her dying son, Elijah asks her to bring him a little cake (I Kings 17:1-24). As a way of inviting the search committee to enter the story imaginatively, I asked them to picture it in as much detail as they could. When it came time for me to talk about what I had noticed, I told the committee that when I pictured the widow feeding Elijah, I pictured her bringing him a chocolate cake. I know it’s anachronistic and that she certainly didn’t serve him a chocolate cake. But you know me, and you are not the slightest bit surprised that this is how my imagination entered into the story!
The sharing that happened in that time with the search committee was remarkable, with abundant thoughtfulness, laughter and tears. So we finished that part of our mutual discernment, the committee and I, and as the day came to a close, I was taken to dinner by two members of the committee, Bo Burr, who died a few years ago, and Maren Koepf, our current moderator, both of whom have been bright lights in Federated’s life. When we had finished dinner, the server came to our table and asked if we would like dessert. Without skipping a beat and without checking with Maren and me, Bo said, “Do you have chocolate cake?” The server said, “Well, it’s not on the menu, but tonight we just happen to have some. And there are two pieces left.” Bo said, “We’ll take them both.”
And that’s the reason I am here at Federated! Well, that may not be the entire reason, but it was in those exchanges that a mutual sense of vocation and rightness had arisen. We had discussed serious subjects, we had explored what Federated needed and I offered, we had connected deeply, and we had sensed a budding rapport. And a notable part of that connection had happened over a story about a meal and over a meal that just happened to include cake. Meal played a notable role in my call to this church.
If you’re like me, so much in the way of relationship is deepened and cemented over food. When I was growing up, my family and I shared dinner every evening sitting at the booth that was tucked into the corner of our kitchen. The same ritual happened in the home Mary and I made with our two sons. I have vivid memories of family dinners and coffee ice cream in the kitchen of my grandparents’ summer home in New Hampshire, and of countless meals with our extended family. I have shared meals with many of you, in which we connected in a way we hadn’t before. In the course of all those meals, I have been nourished, I have laughed, I have cried, I have found my life deepened.
Meals can be the setting for any number of memorable events. Nearly twenty years ago, I developed a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot to the lung, a situation that is sometimes fatal. When Mary sensed that a blood clot was perhaps the reason for my back pain, she whisked me off to the hospital. As we were leaving, our then twelve- and ten-year-old sons were playing in the yard with our neighbors, and we told them as nonchalantly as we could that we were going, that the neighbors would care for them, and that we would see them later.
Fast-forward two weeks. The four of us are sitting at dinner together, and something comes up about my earlier trip to the ER. And much to Mary’s and my shock, both boys started to sob. Wracking tears. In between which they were able to choke out, “When you left, we didn’t know whether we’d ever see you again.” Mary and I had had not the slightest idea about the terror that had engulfed them that day. And it was over an every-day family dinner that the fear was expressed and lifted.
Not every dinner is like that—thank God!—but what a gift that a dinner could provide the setting for that fear to be named and its power lessened. Lobster dinners, breakfasts of sweet milk pancakes and succulent maple syrup, lunches filled with the sort of laughter that parts the shadows: meals are so often places where life is really lived.
Jesus knew that. It’s no surprise that he chose a meal at which to remind his friends that he would always be with them, that his broken body, tasted and experienced in the broken bread and the poured-out wine, would always be present in whatever fear and brokenness they would come to know. It was at that same final meal that he told them that nothing was more important, once he had left them, than that his followers figuratively wash each other’s feet—that they make it their very purpose, in other words, to serve each other, to put each other first, to care for each other. Meal, in Christ’s church, means both divine presence and call to holy service.
So far this Epiphany season, in our series on “sacred signposts,” we have lifted up several distinctive signposts: water; prayer, praise and worship; and word. And today, as we lift up “meal,” our scripture story may seem oddly unrelated to the theme. What does Jesus teaching about a reading in the synagogue have to do with a meal? As it happens, it’s a subtle but stimulating and marvelous connection. When Jesus proclaims that he is the one the people have been looking for, he is greeted at first incredibly warmly (“Ah, Joseph’s son! He’s made good!”). Then, though, he tells them they’re probably not going to be too thrilled with his message. He reminds them that the prophet Elijah had been revered by the people. But then the prophet had done something that was beyond irritating.
What had Elijah done that so ticked the people off? He had gone to a widow in Zarephath and over a meal, he had healed her son. The problem? The widow and her son weren’t Israelites. They were gentiles. Elijah had broken the rules and healed an outsider rather than his own people. The cake Elijah received and the healing he performed had quite simply stretched the boundaries too far for the people, and they didn’t like it.
Jesus knows that meals are meant to be shared. And what so enflames the people in that synagogue is Jesus’ conviction that meals are meant to be shared with everyone. Not just your family and mine. Not just your people and mine. Everyone. The rules go out the window. The doors are flung open. Grace supplants law. Love displaces pinched moralism. If meals aren’t places of wide and warm and indiscriminate love, in Jesus’ eyes they miss the whole point. Meals, Jesus seems to say, are a place,
maybe the place, at which people can be brought together across all dividing lines. Meals heal and unite.
My wife Mary’s brother Mike died last weekend. It was extremely sudden and unexpected, likely the result of a massive stroke. He was only sixty-two, and the loss is eviscerating. Mary and I have spent the bulk of this week in Maine grieving and attending to his death. Many of you have had to deal with similar losses. How we wish we didn’t have to do it.
And in the midst of our grief and tears, I find myself remembering, too, the richness of our time together. Mike and I were different from each other in many ways. We had entirely different cultural, religious and political perspectives, and sometimes the distance between us felt like a chasm. At the same time, though, we had an unbreakable family bond. And that bond was never richer than at the meals we shared.
Mike was a man of huge spirit and energy. He was also a fabulous cook. He would bring lobster to a family dinner, and present it with a special flourish. He would prepare a savory Chilean sea bass, or provide a special wine. He frequented Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, looking always for something unique and delectable. And nobody enjoyed eating more than Mike did. He would figuratively dive in and devour the meal, with gusto and great joy. It was a sight to behold, and something we all loved in him. I never felt closer to him than when we were relishing a great meal together.
Jesus knew how rich were shared meals. Hence his institution of what we call his “last supper.” He knew that we could make it a regular part of our life together to share this figurative meal with each other. At Jesus’ last supper, both the bread and the wine had yeast in them. Yeast is effervescence. It makes things rise. It represents vitality. Meals can be yeasty places, places of great joy. They’re places where we can be real together. They’re places where we can laugh and cry together. The yeast represents the spirit of Christ animating these simple foods.
And like the story of Elijah with the widow, not only do meals convey Christ’s yeasty effervescence, at their best they also undermine the status quo, they break down barriers, and they connect people at a fundamental level. We have experienced that here at Federated with a dinner last spring with Muslim neighbors from the Chagrin Valley Islamic Center. We experienced it two weeks ago with a shared meal on Martin Luther King Day with members of the predominantly African American Mt. Zion United Church of Christ in Cleveland.
Each time we share in communion here, we are reminded that God calls us into a relationship not just with the people we like, not just with the people with whom we share much in common. No, God calls us into relationship with those from whom we feel very different. As I’ve said before, God gave us eleven-foot poles so we could reach out to those whom we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. This is something we can be aware of at coffee hour here, for example—who in that room have you never talked to before; what new guest needs your kind words and warm smile? It’s also something we can be aware of in our social gatherings outside of church—who might relish a dinner invitation from you; could a shared meal be a vessel of peace-making or forgiveness?
Meals are places of healing. They’re places of grace. Most of all, they’re places where Jesus is present. In this communion meal today, and in your eating with others in this coming week—maybe at a Super Bowl party this evening—may Christ be richly present. And may we be transformed by grace to embody the rich vitality and inclusiveness that Christ models and makes possible. It’s all grace. It is all grace. And we are blessed richly in the eating and richly in the serving. Thanks be to God.