Sermon: Savoring the Presence of Jesus

“Savoring  the Presence of Jesus”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 22, 2018

Luke 24:41,42. Jesus ate chargrilled fish with the disciples. Tilapia & pita bread with wine. Pastel 290W x 210H.
Psalm 145:13b-19
 God, you are faithful in all your words,
and gracious in all your deeds. 
You uphold all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down. 
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season. 
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing. 
You are just in all your ways,
and kind in all your doings. 
You are near to all who call on you,
to all who call on you in truth. 
You fulfill the desire of all who look to you;
You also hear their cry, and save them.
Gospel: Luke 24:36-48

While they were talking about [the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus], Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

It may not be obvious at first, but this morning’s Gospel passage is actually quite funny.

This passage picks up right where last week’s left off: The two disciples who walked to Emmaus, accompanied by a Jesus they didn’t recognize until he shared a meal with them, have run back to Jerusalem to share the news that, just as the women at the tomb said, Jesus is alive! They are all discussing this amazing turn of events when Jesus shows up – and although they’ve just been told, twice in one day, that Jesus is back, instead of being thrilled that they, too, get to experience the risen Jesus in person, they think they’ve seen a ghost!

Can you imagine, from Jesus’ point of view, trying to assure the disciples? “Guys, it’s really me. I promise, I’m not a ghost.” Nothing. “Come on, touch my hands and my feet, since ghosts don’t have real bodies.” Hold out hands. “No? Nobody?” Look around. “Anybody got something to eat? Thank you, Bartholomew. You can pick your jaw up off the floor now.” Starts to chew; mouth full: “See? Ghosts don’t eat fish, do they?”

That must have convinced them, because that’s when Jesus launches into the theology lesson, “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.” (By the way, if any of you have qualms about not being knowledgeable enough to attend Bible study, this should erase them – if the disciples had to have Jesus explain it to them, it’s okay for us to want some guidance, too.)

I love that fish is what did the trick. The act of eating – something they must have done hundreds, maybe thousands of times with Jesus as they traveled the countryside with him – suddenly brings everything into focus, lets everyone take a breath. It’s so ordinary – which is maybe why it’s so reassuring.

After all, it’s something we all do. We eat, we share food, we break bread. Yet twice – last week in the breaking of the bread, and this week in the sharing of the fish – it becomes the very act which opens our eyes to the divine, standing right next to us.

Although our family has really loved being back in New England, there are some things I miss about Atlanta – for example, it has been in the 60s and 70s most of the week there – with one day that hit 84. Just sayin’.

Another thing we miss is our favorite restaurants – Chris and I have joked that whenever we go back to visit friends, we’re really just going to plan our itinerary around eating at our favorite spots. My personal favorite is the tofu banh mi at Lee’s Vietnamese bakery chewy, delicious tofu with tangy pickled carrots and daikon on fresh French bread with just the right amount of thick, creamy mayo, topped with crisp cilantro and fresh jalapenos – for $3.50 a pop – or, what we more normally ordered, buy 5 get the 6th free. I am not ashamed to say that the woman at the counter knew me by sight, voice, and name. “Hi, can I get 6 tofu banh -”  “Yeah yeah okay Leah, your order will be ready in 20 minutes.” Click.

We ate those sandwiches countless times, when we were too tired to cook after church or when family came to visit. We bought them in bulk to thank generous friends who helped us move into the first home we owned. We had them for lunch on the day I went into labor with Davie – it was the only thing that sounded good, a bite between contractions. And we brought them along with us to christen the new home of dear friends just before we moved here, sitting on the floor around their coffee table since there was nowhere else to eat, not wanting to finish the last flaky bite because we knew it meant it was time to say goodbye.

I think Jesus knew that even though food is so everyday, it can also be sacred, marking moments of connection and revelation. Think of the favorite dish your grandmother always made, the funny-looking animal pancakes you cooked for your kids when they were little, the first time you tasted Brussels sprouts roasted instead of boiled, the holiday meals that mark the gathering of family and the passing of the years.

And I think Jesus even suspected that food has the power to open us up to change. I’ve told this story before, but it’s such a good one that I’ll tell it again: There is a great scene in the animated movie Ratatouille where an icily superior food critic, aptly named Anton Ego, tastes some ratatouille and is transported back to a childhood memory of a bicycle accident and skinned knees. Like Proust and his madeleine, Anton vividly re-lives standing on the threshold of his boyhood home, lower lip quivering and eyes filling with tears; in his mind’s eye his mother turns toward him, and when she sees his disheveled face and scraped knees, her face melts with tenderness. She gently ushers him to the table, gives him a hug, and comforts him with a steaming bowl of ratatouille.  Back in the present, something is unlocked inside Anton Ego, and his smugness and disdain suddenly give way to joy, curiosity, and enthusiasm. His entire being is transformed by a mouthful of food.

Did you notice the commission that Jesus gives the disciples at the end of his theology lecture? He tells them “that the Messiah [was] to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” and “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [my] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

He is essentially telling the disciples to spread the word about a new understanding of God: One who forgives us and sets us free from the things we thought had poisoned our lives forever; One who wants to upend our worlds with the idea that God’s love is stronger than death; One who invites us to reorient ourselves around that kind of God, that kind of love, so that our lives might be completely transformed, like Anton Ego thawed out from his bitter, detached emptiness into a life of joy and conviviality and relationship.

(Metanoia, by the way, the Greek word we translate as “repent,” simply, literally means to change one’s mind, one’s orientation. Jesus isn’t talking about groveling on your knees; he’s talking about opening your heart to new possibilities.)

And it’s not just their fellow Jews, understood to be God’s chosen people, who will get the chance to transform their lives – this opportunity is for all nations, ancient speak for eeeeeeverybody.

That’s me. That’s you.

How does this work? In some ways it’s as simple as eating a sandwich: we can rush through our food, eating drive-through in our cars or stuffing our faces as we scramble to get out the door in the morning; or we can take in the sights, the smells, the flavors of our meal and savor each bite and the people with whom we are eating. We can rush through our days, thinking of what’s next on our to-do list or dwelling in the fear of what people will think or stuck in the patterns of resentment and pain we activate without any thought; or we can pause, breathe, and sink into God’s good presence, savoring God’s love for us, God’s healing acceptance of us just as we are – as often as we eat or drink.

Communion is the ultimate version of that meal – one that may not get high marks for flavor or generous portioning, but rather is stripped down to the essentials so that we might focus ourselves on opening our hearts to the transformation that comes when we are assured that we are not alone, that we are freed, that we are loved, that things can be different.

Returning to this morning’s scripture, we may chuckle at the disciples’ slack-jawed disbelief because we have the benefit of knowing how the story ends – it really is Jesus, guys. Come on, get with the program. But don’t we all fall prey sometimes to living like Jesus is a ghost, an unbelievable figment of our imagination instead of a presence as real as our food, One who can reorient us, at every moment, to the good news of new life in God’s all-encompassing love for us?

Though I usually like to “just say no” to stress and “what ifs,” I don’t have enough fingers to count the times in the last few weeks when I’ve gnawed on my worries like a dog with a bone: that my sermon wouldn’t get written because I couldn’t find the right story. That I wasn’t thoughtful enough with the wording of that email and someone was going to misunderstand. That I wouldn’t have time to make the pastoral visits I wanted to make and that dear people in this community would feel neglected. That I wouldn’t have enough time to get everything done today.

To listen in on my thoughts lately, you would’ve thought Jesus was a ghost, a phantom flitting in and out of my life with no real substance.

Luckily, today after worship we’ll gather to take communion and I’ll be reminded that Jesus is as real as bread (or fish), and that his abundant spirit is real enough to calm my fears and to let go of my anxieties and to ease my guilt over things undone. I’ll be reminded that Jesus is as real as that tofu banh mi – which, although it’s not right in front of me, I can picture in such detail that it makes me salivate.

All I need to do is picture Jesus’ face, smiling, maybe even tenderly laughing at how hard it is to convince me he’s alive; his hand reaching out to show me it’s true. Maybe you, along with me, will be transformed once again by the sharing of a simple meal.