Jesus, cannibalism and chicken feet

Adapted from a sermon preached Aug. 16, 2015, at First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Ky.

Recently I visited a former seminary classmate who lives near Los Angeles. He’s of Filipino and Chinese descent, and we went to have dim sum at one of his favorite restaurants in Chinatown. We ordered chicken feet. I have eaten and liked them before, in Korea, where they are eaten in mounds as bar food, like rubbery, gelatinous French fries, and doused in the spiciest of sauces. There is one big difference, though: The feet I’ve eaten before are deboned.

Chicken feet in Daejeon, South Korea.
Deboned chicken feet in Daejeon, South Korea.

Not the case with Chinese chicken feet, at least those at this restaurant. They’re full of hard, tiny bones. They’re really hard to eat. My friend explained that I’d have to bite off a whole toe, and then gnaw the bones clean with my teeth and tongue, and then spit out the bones. This is not bar food. My friend told me his theory about why this difficult-to-eat delicacy is so immensely popular: “I think Chinese people like food where there’s some sense of adventure. It’s not just food, but it’s an accomplishment.”

So when you imagine the meal in this passage of the gospel of John, imagine eating chicken feet, nibbling the flesh off tiny, hard bones, chewing the rubbery covering, swallowing the flesh, spitting out the bones. It takes about five minutes to finish two mouthfuls. You can’t eat fast, you might choke. The eating of these feet is a communal experience. You’re passing dish after dish of dim sum between yourself and your companions, everyone taking a bite or two at a time. “Try that,” someone says, pointing with chop sticks. “Pass the tea,” you say. Bones are discarded from the chicken feet, banana leaves are unwrapped from sticky rice. Different combinations of sauce are tried and retried.

When Jesus talks about eating the bread and water of life, his flesh and blood, imagine this kind of meal. Imagine munching on tasty morsels of dim sum and chicken feet. Imagine not a sterile passing of a thimble of juice and a tiny piece of bread. Imagine a savoring, a crunching, a slurping, an enjoying of friends. Imagine a meal.

The wisdom of the gospel is a meal.

The wisdom of Proverbs 9:1-6 lays a meal; she is a person the reader gets to know, sensually, bodily, viscerally. Some scholars say that the writers of Proverbs probably characterized Wisdom as an alluring woman in order to attract the young men who were studying the scriptures in priestly and scribal schools. Woman Wisdom is not offering a metaphorical meal, or an intellectual one. The meal is bodily. Wisdom is a person, and she has laid a table. She calls us in to partake.

Wisdom is a meal.

From its first verses, the Gospel of John associates Jesus Christ with the divine person of Wisdom. At the start of John 6, Jesus is feeding five thousand people a miraculous meal of bread and fish. The five thousand people lay in the grass, in the sunshine, near the sea. They ate until they were satisfied. It was in the context of a meal, a satisfying meal, in which Jesus was understood. We can’t understand Jesus as the bread of life, unless we understand this satisfying meal.

This is the kind of understanding that can’t come from our brains, from a book. It is an understanding that arrests us with its graphic nature. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” This visual image is as disturbing to me as it was to the people hearing Jesus preach in the synagogue.

What does it look like, in today’s world, to abide in Christ, for Christ to abide in us? How are we to partake of a meal with the body of Christ?

This is not a story about believing in Jesus. This is not a story about understanding a metaphor about Jesus. This is the Gospel of a meal of Wisdom and true life, true bread, true flesh and blood. The gospel of Wisdom is a meal, a satisfying meal, with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of relationship.

To understand this meal, we have to crunch on some things we don’t normally think of crunching on. We have to eat with people we don’t normally like or want to eat with. We have to recognize that Christ is welcoming all to his table. We will only “get it” when we’ve sat down with strangers and “others” and people who believe different things, and found the body of Christ abiding in them as well as in ourselves.

First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Ky., has been my home for more than 11 years now. When I arrived in Lexington, I was this stranger from out west, moving to a new place out of college, and my grandmother called up her old childhood friends and asked them to invite me to church. The way I came to love this church and the people in it was over meals, studying and arguing together—yes arguing—because through the weekly Bible studies that I joined, I found friends I knew cared about me, despite our differing politics and generations and lifestyles.

As we munched the food we made for each other every week, we ruminated on the scriptures, and we came to see Christ abiding in each other.

What happens when Christ abides in us? What happens when we abide in Christ? We share in Christ’s divinity. We also share in Christ’s vulnerability. The vulnerability part is a necessary piece. When we are Christians, we agree to be in relationship with people we don’t normally hang out with.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a trip with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through Mexico and Central America. During a walk along the U.S.-Mexico border, a pastor in Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Sonora, described the experience of meditating on the stations of the cross, or celebrating Communion, across the border fence that divides the town. Before the fence was built, it was easier to pass bread and juice across the divide. Now steel mesh in many places prevents completion of the simple sacrament. Meanwhile politicians in the United States want to build higher, bigger, and more dangerous.

Celebrating a meal with people across this border now seems futile. Unwise. The gospel here looks like UNwisdom. What will it change to allow Christ to abide in us? To peer through the fence and see Christ abiding in another person? The truth is that it’s unlikely to change much on the border. But it will change much inside us.image

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Preparing to preach on bread and wisdom …

“All throughout John 6, Jesus has tried to help us embrace that God’s wisdom — to steal a word from Proverbs — is not so much knowledge to be explained and understood as it is relationship to be trusted and embraced.”

via John 6:51-58 Commentary by Craig A. Satterlee – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL).

On the ‘dangers’ of female travel

Be not afraid, women.

Road Essays

This could just be a story about countries deemed dangerous for women to travel to. But it’s more than that. This is a story about our perception of danger and how we’re told time and time again that the unfamiliar and the foreign are more dangerous to us than what is on our own doorstep.

A couple of months back, British tabloid the Daily Mail ran a story in their travel section titled ‘Sex attacks, muggings, and harassment: World’s most dangerous holiday destinations for women (and some of them may surprise you)’. The top ten list declared India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya to be the most dangerous countries for female travellers.

We’ll get back to that shortly.  First I want to tell you about a strange encounter I had in Medellin, Colombia in 2001.

After a hard couple of days travelling…

View original post 1,090 more words

Who Does Slum Tourism Benefit? — NOVA Next | PBS

I didn’t know at the time that “slum tourism” was what I was doing, but my first experience of this phenomenon was in 1993, at age 13, visiting various kinds of neighborhoods around San Miguel, El Salvador, with my uncle, who is Salvadoran. He wanted to impress upon me and my younger sister the vast disparities in lifestyles experienced by rich and poor in that country; we were very sheltered, relatively wealthy white kids. Our experience in El Salvador was life changing, and one of the reasons that I am an avid traveler, unafraid of going almost anywhere or meeting anyone, a former journalist, a seminarian, and a border dweller.

Some question the very premise of slum tourism, calling out the ethics of privileged people paying to witness others’ misfortune and suffering. Experts, however, point out that slum tourism, for better or worse, is almost certainly here to stay. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/earth/slum-tourism/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=pbsofficial&utm_campaign=nova_next

One of my mentors on one of his mentors

Pastoral identity: Lessons from Janie

Our pastoral identity should be grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and obedient above all else to Jesus. We should live as whole persons — not bifurcated — saying and living what we believe the gospel requires of us. 

For Lent, both a via negativa and a via positiva

The priest who says Mass at the hospital where I work, on Our Lady of Lourdes day, preached on the humanity of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is a venerated woman, a saint with iterations in many cultures. She approaches divinity in the minds and hearts of many faithful Christians. However, the priest said, we must beware of prioritizing her divinity such that we forget she is a woman, a human creature, whom we can relate to.

The next week, the priest said Mass on Ash Wednesday, which is the day after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday is a day when Christians often give up things they have binged on during Mardi Gras. We give up pleasures and indulgences in order to remind ourselves to be penitent and mindful during the 40 days and nights Jesus spent wandering in the desert, enduring temptations, at the start of his ministry. This 40 day period culminates in Holy Week, when the Last Supper, trial, Crucifixion, death and Easter Resurrection occur. Then we feast again.

Many people give up alcohol, or meat, or chocolate during the time of Lent. But Father Bob, the priest at the hospital, suggested instead of giving something up, we add to the goodness of the world. Instead of giving something up, increasing the dreariness, suffering, and drudgery of the world, why not make the world better? What good can you do for other people; what good habit can you cultivate that will make you more whole? Instead of the “via negativa” or negative way, can we practice the “via positiva”?

I saw recently a play, Testament, by Irish playwright Colm Tóibín, in which Mary is portrayed as a very human mother of a just-Crucified Jesus. She is being guarded and interviewed and watched by Jesus’ disciples in Ephesus, where according to legend, Mary lived out her life after Jesus’ death. She describes the wedding at Cana, considered the site of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine, in very human terms. She interacts with her son at this family wedding and realizes that he is becoming more distant and larger-than-life, that the folks at the wedding are attributing to him a miracle, when she knows him as her son, a rabble-rousing delinquent who was always bringing his gang of friends to the house.

The Mary of Testament is incensed that her interviewers think that Jesus’ father is God. Jesus had a father, Mary said, and Mary misses him dearly. (The play doesn’t explain what exactly happened to the father.) Mary understands Jesus to be nothing more or less than her son. The aspirations of being God’s Son are ridiculous to her.

Did this mother give up anything to bring her son into the world? Maybe. Many human mothers make sacrifices. But I know very few mothers who would give up more if their child were more special, or more powerful, or more divine.

My feminist sensibilities don’t sit well with the idea that a Godly love can be evident in self-emptying or pouring out. God’s love is filling and life-giving. Turning water to wine, the fullness of pleasure in giving a feast to your children, taking joy in their goodness and happiness, knowing that their goodness and happiness does not take away from your own, but adds to it, indeed is your reason for being.

But there is always a via negativa. There is always a path to holiness that involves sacrifice. Does a mother feeding her children with her own food, and not from a bounty, diminish the holiness of her gift? Does a child’s prison sentence diminish the holiness of the mother’s tears, or her willingness to sacrifice for her child’s comfort and well-being?

These two ways, the positive and negative ways, of devotion, of love, they are not mutually exclusive. They are always in all of us. We are created to hold both, in the image of God.

The Mary of Testament has a very human, and very powerful, motherly love of her son that is made no more or less powerful by the idea that Jesus might be divine. The love of this mother knows nothing of achievement or divinity or titles or worth.

It is a perfectly human love.

Mother Mary's perfectly human love.
Mother Mary’s perfectly human love.