church, travel

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

church, internship

Six flags over Samaria

Meditation on John 4:1-22

I’ve been in El Paso now six months, serving two eastside churches, one of which is about six blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. I live downtown, about eight blocks from the border, in a building where every apartment includes people who are bilingual, people who regularly cross the border to visit family, to work, to worship, to play. I drive down Delta Drive past so many reminders of the border. Patrol agents sitting in Jeeps, a steel mesh fence along the riverbed. Chamizal National Memorial, which commemorates the supposedly peaceful settlement of a border dispute caused by the movement of the Rio Grande riverbed between Mexico and the United States.

Imagine Jesus crossing the border into El Paso, sitting near the Rio Grande at Chamizal, a man with different skin, different clothes, a different accent. He’s a close approximation, but not quite at home here. He meets a woman going about her daily work, perhaps on her way to preach at a nearby church. Jesus has lived in the area a long time, he’s a Chihuahua desert native. He knows this place. But he knows that he is in a country that does not claim him. A nation of people that conveniently forgets how many times this very spot of earth has changed names, changed ownership, been surrounded by different fences and barriers. The man knows that his ancestors, too, walked this land, claimed this water.

The woman knows immediately that the man has crossed the border. She is wary. Does he have legitimate business here? Can she cross the street to avoid contact with him? How far away is that border patrol car? Is he going to speak to her? Doesn’t he know that this is her home? She is supposed to feel safe here. The confidence of a person who knows she belongs inside these borders, shaken by the presence of a person who clearly doesn’t belong.

We know when we have crossed borders. How then should we be transformed by them?

Since moving here, I have encountered many many unexpected mixes of cultures and faith traditions. My whitebread upbringing is not enough to understand all I’m seeing: Protestants with Virgin of Guadalupe candles in their home shrines. Catholics who speak in tongues during prayers. None of this is technically Presbyterian. And my initial reaction was one of discomfort. If I’m a pastor of a Presbyterian church, what am I supposed to know or believe about the Virgin of Guadalupe?

I have found that many U.S.-siders don’t know Guadalupe’s story. It varies, but generally follows this line: In the 1530s, around the time the Protestant reformation was starting in Europe, a peasant, an Indian, an indigenous person in what is now Mexico City, saw a vision of a young woman, a virgin with brown skin, who told him that the church should build a cathedral on the hill above the city. Juan Diego went to the local Catholic bishop and told him of the vision. The bishop asked him for proof. So Juan Diego returned to the site, and the virgin reappeared, transforming Juan Diego’s plain poncho into a brightly colored mantle, and giving him an armful of flowers, roses, out of season, to return to the bishop. One hundred years later, in the 1600s, this was recognized as a miracle, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a cognate of the Virgin Mary, eventually became the most beloved saint in Mexico, venerated among Catholics and non-Catholics.

What I find most beautiful about this story, and most relevant the story of John 4, is that the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe probably didn’t originate in the Catholic church. Many scholars equate her with Tonantzin, or a goddess of the mountain on which the Catholic cathedral in Mexico City was built. She was a goddess of the land, the earth, fertility, of providence. Tonantzin was and still is venerated among indigenous people there. She was transformed by the borders that were colonized and reformed around her.

Even our gods know when we have crossed borders. How then are our gods transformed?

Our woman meeting the man near Chamizal; the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus: No one knows the meaning and transforming power of crossing borders more than they. The Samaritan woman has held tightly to her beliefs, her indigenous identity, despite centuries of occupation and religious co-opting by foreign powers, her “husbands,” Assyrian and Roman resettlements. Shrines to Yahweh had been forcibly replaced by shrines to Greek gods, and then later to a Roman Christian church.

The woman meeting the migrant at Chamizal has forgotten this history. She thinks she owns this land, that the U.S. passport card she carries gives her right of occupation, gives her right of truth, right to pass freely. In a way, she is right. But the man she meets at Chamizal will remind her: You are not the rightful owner. You don’t belong here in the way you think you do. This alliance, this marriage, this spouse of yours, this homeland, it is not truly your husband.

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)

To be on the side of the empire, the northern side of the border, affords me a particular blindness, blindness to truth, to love, to justice. I don’t have to worry about immigration reform because it doesn’t have to affect me. I often forget that I am lucky to be able to cross the border freely. I can claim a Christian sisterhood with Christians across the border, who in all possibility once were “Americans” or “Texans,” or “Spaniards,” or indigenous pre-national peoples. But I have the luxury of being able to forget that many of them may not legally cross into my home; I cannot or do not welcome them here, although I am welcomed there with all hospitality.

If my Samaritan woman had been traveling to Jerusalem, would she have been afforded the same courtesy that our migrant Jewish rabbi was afforded? Would she have been given a drink, or would she have been shunned?

Our migrant Jesus, sitting near Chamizal, with the northern woman, what hospitality will he be afforded?

We Christians know the power or borders. We El Pasoans know even better. Will we open our eyes and hearts to be transformed by their crossing?

P.S. These musings originated as a sermon I gave at First Presbyterian Church of El Paso