Sermon for April 15th, 2018
It’s November 1948, a U.S. diplomat and his wife land in Le Havre, France on their way to begin a new assignment in Paris. After collecting their luggage and heading down the road, on their way, they stopped for lunch in the city of Rouen. The lunch was a simple meal really; oysters, fish, salad, cheese and coffee. It may not have sounded very exciting, but this was France, and in France, the man explained to his wife, good cooking is part national sport and part high art.
The fish was sole meunière, a very simple dish really: just a fresh fish sautéed in butter with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of parsley. Not overly exotic; but with one bite, the woman realized that her life would forever be changed. She called it an epiphany and a revelation. She had eaten fish plenty of times, but this was the first time that she really experienced fish. One little bite of buttery fish and this woman realized how powerful and important food can be, not just as a fuel for our bodies, but as a thing of beauty and joy that gives life to our souls; she realized that sometimes a piece of fish isn’t just a piece of fish, but the symbol and the taste of something far greater. She would spend the rest of her life trying to help others understand that same thing.
The diplomat’s name was Paul Child, but no doubt you are more familiar with his wife: Julia Child. That little lunch in Rouen would be a moment that would change her life forever. It was a revelation, an epiphany, and now she had a mission to share with the rest of the world that sometimes a piece of fish, wasn’t just a piece of fish, but rather a taste of heaven. When Julia Child was writing her memoirs late in life, she ended by again urging her readers to put time and care into their food, because (and this is how she concludes her life’s story):
“A careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience. Such was the case with the sole meunière I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany. In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite.”
The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite…or at least they can be. That was Julia’s revelation. The joy of that piece of fish remained with her long after she had cleared her plate. It was a joy she held on to her entire life, all the way to the end…and maybe even beyond that.
I don’t know who is exactly listed among the saints in glory. The church has always held up some individuals as being exemplars of the faith, worthy of respect and admiration; there are people that we have good reason to believe stand before the throne of God, but the precise list of names, well that is known to God alone. I’m not here to say that Julia Child was a saint; I don’t really know anything about her faith or her relationship with God (although, I must admit, a few years ago I found a tall votive candle with her picture on it in a kitchen store in Manhattan that says “Saint Julia, pray for us” I keep it in my kitchen next to my collection of cookbooks). What she believed about Jesus I can’t say, but knowingly or unknowingly, I do think that her life’s work was in some sense a ministry of his.
When Jesus was being tempted in the desert, he very famously quoted the book of Deuteronomy saying: “Man does not live by bread alone.” True enough. Jesus would never advocate putting one earthly pleasure or joy in the place of God, the source of all joy. We still get into trouble if we allow a fleshly urge or impulse to reign supreme. But Jesus cared a lot about food. I think he loved food and took great joy in it, and I think he also understood how powerful it is for people to sit down and enjoy good food together. I think he understood that food isn’t just something that provides fuel for our mortal bodies; it is a foretaste of the kingdom; it is an experience of joy and connection. Food doesn’t just connect us to the chef in the kitchen or the person sitting across the table. It connects us to people long dead.
The author Marcel Proust in his novel Remembrance of Things Past, famously took a bite out of a little Madeleine tea cake and was transported back to his childhood. In the Disney movie Ratatoullie, Chef Remy the rat, wins over critic Anton Ego by serving him ratatoullie that reminds him of his mother. I know that anytime I sit down with a baked potato or a serving of corn casserole, the taste brings back to me the joy of sitting and eating with my grandmother. Food is not God, but make no mistake, God uses it. God uses it to give us joy and to bind us together.
Think about Jesus’s life for a minute. His first miracle was at a wedding feast, turning water into wine. Although he was the son of a carpenter, his first followers were all fishermen, men that worked at gathering food. When 5,000 people gathered to hear him preach, he told his disciples to give them something to eat, and then famously multiplied then loaves of bread and the fishes. His parables and stories were full of references to food and feasts, and of course he often told them when he was sitting at the dinner table. His great prayer, the Our Father, includes of course a petition for daily bread. He even cursed a fig tree that didn’t have any fruit on it when he was hungry. This is a man who loves food and understands its power. No doubt that is why he would choose a meal, food, to be the means by which he would convey his life to his followers down through the ages. Communion with God, for Christians, happens primarily through a meal; communion; bread and wine that is really so much more than bread and wine. Food matters a lot to Jesus; it is the primary means by which he unites his followers with each other…and it is how he unites them with God. Food is so much more than just a cure for hunger.
So remembering how important food was to Jesus as he lived and taught during his earthly life, I find the stories of his resurrection appearances fascinating. In this morning’s gospel, a couple disciples had just run back to Jerusalem from Emmaus, a village a few miles away. They had been telling the story of Jesus’s resurrection to a stranger on the road. They invited the stranger to dine with them, and as he broke the bread at the table they suddenly realized that it was Jesus, there dining with them. Then he disappeared. As they are telling this story to the other disciples, Jesus appears again. Assuring them that he is not a vision or a ghost, but flesh and blood. They can touch him if they want. And then what does the resurrected Lord ask them? What do you have to eat?!
What do you have to eat? We are talking about a man that was crucified and died and buried, come back to life, defeated death and that is what he says to his disciples! What’s for supper? So they bring him a piece of fish, which obviously Jesus must be very fond of, and he eats it. Was he just trying to prove a point? Was he actually hungry? Or is there more going on here? Might this be a case where a piece of fish is more than just a piece of fish, but a symbol of pleasure, life and joy that doesn’t get left behind after the resurrection? Joy that isn’t left in the tomb but is a part of the resurrected life? Could it be that Jesus is trying to show us that the next world will not be some cold, spiritual sterile place, filled only with thoughts and ideas, but rather a lively world of redeemed creation with sights, sounds and even tastes that are all familiar to us from this world, but now fully reflect the true and infinite joy that comes from God?
This wouldn’t be the only time that the resurrected Jesus would be seen eating. In the Gospel of John, after the resurrection Jesus actually cooks for his disciples (again fish) and then leaves Peter with the parting words: “Do you love me…then feed me sheep.” Is Jesus only concerned with filling the holes in people’s stomachs or is food about more than that? Maybe Jesus and Julia understand that food, when treated with respect and care, can be a thing of infinite joy and beauty; a powerful agent that draws and binds people together, across continents and across time, and gives them a glimpse, a foretaste, of what heaven is all about. Maybe a piece of fish, is not just a piece of fish.