Peasant Wedding (detail) 1567, Pieter Bruegel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
A sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2012. The lectionary readings are Proverbs 9:1-6, Psalm 34:9-14, Ephesians 5:15-20, and John 6:51-58.
Why is it that food just tastes better sometimes?
After a long day at the beach, you’re sunburned and tired, but no matter what you put on a grill, it tastes better.
Or in other seasons (that will be here before we know it)—raking leaves on a chilly day, or shoveling snow on a frigid day. The soup, the lasagna – whatever it is, just tastes better.
Or days like yesterday at All Souls. At one point there were twenty-one of us cleaning. In addition to a handful who were outside weeding and watering, pruning, and mowing grass; inside we were repairing things, vacuuming, polishing, painting, clearing out, throwing out, and moving things—we were like a small army. And so, a little after noon, the food arrived: pizza and some sandwiches, nothing all that special. And yet, as we gathered—tired and sore, with paint in our hair and silver polish under nails, dusty and dirty— the food tasted better than usual, better than ever, maybe.
The food tastes better, I think, for at least three reasons. It tastes better because we come tired, because we come hungry, and because we come in need.
And it’s those same three conditions that draw us to another table, to another meal, to a meal in which the superlative has less to do with taste than it does with substance. At this meal, we receive life. We gain the life of Christ, now and eternally.
Sometimes we come to Holy Communion tired, tired from what the great prayer calls those things “we have done, and those things we have left undone.” Sometimes, we approach the altar with a feeling of having had a good day, or a good week. We’ve done our best. We’ve thought of other people. We’ve shared. We’ve offered help. And so we approach the altar tired, needing a little renewal, a little push to keep on.
But other times, we’ve maybe fallen down a lot during the week. Things have not gone well—we have mis-spoken and we have mis-stepped. Maybe we’ve even stepped on others. And so, again, we’re tired, we’re beaten down, and so we almost limp through the liturgy and reach for the table. We come tired.
But we also come hungry. Often we “travail and are heavy-laden,” and we look for refreshment. We’ve eaten too much of the junk food of the world, and so we look for nourishment, for things are taste like what they are, rather than what chemicals or preservatives have made us imagine. Some starve for friendship, for healing, for work, for purpose.
A friend of mine was recently in a car accident. She’s fine now, but has hospital bills. The day after her accident, her mother was walking in a parking lot and was hit by a car. And so now, my friend is dealing with two insurance companies in two states, neither of which wants to pay out. She has three lawyers—two for the accident claims, and one helping her sort out the estate of her father, who died only four months ago. My friend hungers for justice. She hungers for vengeance. She hungers for some relief.
I don’t suggest for a minute that Holy Communion would magically fill her with what she needs. But I would suggest that Christian community—the mutual hunger acknowledged by prayer and support and love, all of which leads to the table of Christ—can put her on a track to healing and wholeness. It can gradually and over time transform the bitter taste of the world into one that has texture, and flavor, and sweetness.
In the last twenty or thirty years, the word, “umami” has been borrowed from the Japanese to describe a kind of “fifth taste,” beyond sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It’s a pleasant, savory kind of taste. It’s brothy, and meaty, and mouth-watering. As the Umami Information Center says, it is “subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.
I think the Bread of Heaven has a kind of spiritual “umami,” to it. It fulfills a kind of hunger, offers its own taste, and while it satisfies, it also encourages us to want more, to ask for me, to live for more. This brings us to the third condition we bring that makes food so good. If we’re honest, we bring some kind of need.
I say, “if we’re honest,” we acknowledge a need. Sometimes we come already full—full of ourselves, full of resentments (against God or other people), full of thinking, or full of emotion. Sometimes we can come to the altar full of expectations, expectations for which there is not god big enough to meet.
But Christ feeds us most when we approach his table empty-handed, in the humility of saying simply, “I need.” How we fill in the blank almost doesn’t matter as much as our saying—our praying—our need. While our culture frowns on neediness of any kind, here at church, in worship, at this Holy Table, we have a place to bring our need—all of it, whether petty or seemingly insignificant, or overwhelming and larger than life itself.
The Gospel today tells us about a meal, and the first two readings work almost as invitations to the meal. They speak of wisdom, but it’s a homey, kitchen-table kind of wisdom. In Proverbs, Lady Wisdom has dinner ready. “Turn in here,” she says, “ lay aside all the baggage you’ve got. Leave all that outside, and come in, sit down, eat and enjoy.”
The Reading from Ephesians continues with the added advice of how to arrive at the feast, what to bring, and how to act. Don’t be foolish. Don’t drink too much. “Make the most of the time.” In other words, leave regrets and expectations behind. Don’t try to run away from the moment, but live—live fully, live soberly, live NOW, here.
One of favorite newer hymns in our hymnal is one that sings of this message of Ephesians:
Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;
Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;
Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,
Jesus says, “I am the living bread.” The people of his day worried and wondered what it meant to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The apostle Paul writes that some misunderstood this to the point that there were rumors about the Christians being cannibals. The Church ever since has tried to place Holy Communion on the spectrum between completely symbolic or completely literal. St. Augustine put it well when he wrote, “That which you see is bread and the cup, which even your eyes declare to you; but as to that in which your faith demands instruction, the bread is the body of Christ, the cup is the blood of Christ … these things are called sacraments for this reason, that in them one thing is seen, another thing is understood.” At its most faithful, I think, the Church has lived somewhere in-between, in the middle, in place of faith, a place of “spiritual umami,” the place in which the Real Presence of Christ is Now—not yesterday, not this afternoon, but NOW.
I’ve invited you to think about times when food tasted especially good—after a long day of work or an exhausting project. But just imagine, for a moment, the feast that awaits us after a life well-lived. Imagine the table, the tastes, the company, the eternal goodness of it all when we meet God face to face with totality of tiredness, a life of hungering for the good, and a need only for God, who greets with a smile, saying, “Life forever begins now. Bon appetit.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.