Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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If anyone would have told me that my next sermon on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper would come together over a Bon Appétit blog on linguini von whatever means clam sauce, I’d have probably scorned him out of my liturgical kitchen. But a generous serving of culinary genius later, and here we are on Sunday morning.

It all began with last week’s email from the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Adam Rapoport. At the heart of this particular email was the conversation of three friends whom he’d met in Tuscany several years ago, when he was first reporting for Bon Appétit. Rapoport had headed over to Italy to write a story on a famous chef who “would escape for a month to the country that inspires her celebrated restaurant.” [1]The day Rapoport arrived, the chef and her staff were hanging out in the kitchen talking about linguini whatever-it’s-called. Each shared the elements that make his or her dish great: who relied on what ingredient; who leaned more heavily on something else; what to do with the clams and when. That sort of banter, “on and on,” he wrote, never coming to consensus; agreeing that it’s more about the feel than the recipe.

And so, in the context of today’s Gospel Lesson, which I had read to start my week of preparation for this morning, I immediately felt a kindred spirit with those chefs.

As a pastor, I hear so many of us bantering on and on about the substance of religion: some sections of scripture we read literally, because we know them to be substantiated in history books. Take Jesus’s crucifixion. We have historical evidence to believe that this occurred; now we talk about it with authority. We read some scripture with a grain of salt. Think of Paul’s exhortation that wives should be submissive to their husbands. A grain of salt, right? Because, we reason, that was two thousand years ago and things were, well, different then. We read some scripture metaphorically, reasoning that Jesus healed the blind man from his lack of understanding of what information was presented to him rather than healing him from not seeing the physical substance of what was standing before his eyes. Most Presbyterians read only a very few texts with intentional “feeling” though in context of a situation or circumstance or the privacy of our favorite spot on a park bench or ocean front, the feeling of what God intends interrupts our brainwaves and sends us reeling to a certain place and time—maybe even deep into the future, when we are to be at one with our Lord.

Our scripture for today is one of those texts that most of us don’t quite know what to do with. Smack in the middle of a chapter with John lifting up the immanent and the transcendent—the very present God and the one we seek to know, the one who fed the 5,000 and the one who walked on water—we hear Jesus telling us to eat. With the benefit of a book filled with good news, we know that this is a call to communion that we heard from Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But this time is different. He is not making this invitation to his last supper near the end of his life—one the night of his arrest. Rising in the middle of this Chapter of John; rising in the middle of his brief, three-year ministry, we’re invited into what reads to many of us to be a carnivorous experience with our supernatural Lord.

Suddenly, we are to suspend disbelief (or are we to suspend belief) and partake of an otherwise incomprehensible experience: eat his flesh and drink his blood in a manner and expectation of outcome akin to an ancient, Greco-Roman mystery religion, which would have you eat the sacrifice offered to a god you would like to experience more fully. Eat his body—his flesh and blood that is rich with meaning and hope for all people; food that will sustain us forever and carry us into eternal life. Is this another symbol or metaphor? Is this truth or the recipe for disaster? Heresy, possibly? Has Jesus gone mad? The people are curious. They find it difficult to understand.

It’s messy and it’s mysterious. Even with benefit of hindsight, we think so, too.

But the body of Christ should not be a mystery. The body of Christ to the Church of Jesus Christ living in the world today must not be a mystery. The body of Christ—the Church of Jesus Christ—must be very clearly experienced, where the very present reality and the longed-for future meet.

It’s that point of tangency that our City’s food insecure guests experience every Monday night at All Souls and Tuesday night at the urban outreach center at Jan Hus; Wednesday night at the Church of the Epiphany and Thursday night, right here, in the dining room downstairs at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and Friday night at St. James—five of our Upper East Side neighborhood churches, like so many churches around New York City, where a few hundred dollars stretches to feed up to 200 people who gather around the table each week in community, sharing joys and concerns, banter on, over a common meal in this City that never seems to have enough places for vulnerable people to eat.

It’s that point of tangency that vulnerable people from all walks of life should find in the church that should exist to put salve on the wounds of the brokenhearted and combat the oppression and injustices that people all around our City and, in fact, the world experience every single day.

Unfortunately, studies on religiosity in America would affirm that, while nearly every single person in America acknowledges the presence of the church (especially for particular purposes like weddings, funerals and baptisms), further digging might suggest that a good percentage of those people wonder from time to time if not every day, “Does the church care?”

As vulnerable people from all walks of life walk by our doors; as vulnerable men, women and children contemplate suicide if not take their own lives; as vulnerable people from all walks of life, whether they are food insecure, or housing insecure or chemically dependent or emotionally bankrupt; people from all walks of life who need a spiritual lift, a friendly word from someone they wish they could meet, don’t know what they can find in a Church of Jesus Christ. To them, the body of Christ remains a mystery. This means that those of us who are engaged in the life of the church; those of us who have had the privilege of being a part of the body of Christ for years if not for a lifetime; those of us who have read and heard and celebrated the stories of Christ’s saving life and death have a job to do.

But, we have an uphill climb.

The church is climbing against a secular culture that prioritizes playgrounds over housing. The church is up against a secular culture that questions with its actions if not its words that all people should have a right to speak out and be heard. The church is up against a secular culture that denigrates men and women, boys and girls, for their relationship preferences, their resolve over who they will marry and their choices of pronouns that suit them best. The church is up against a secular culture that dictates the definition of opportunity. And, too often, the church yields the right of way.

A majority of the population in the United States doesn’t wonder about the presence of the church. The majority of the population wonders if the church cares. We have an uphill climb, because, too often, we have yielded the way. Rather than leading the march for the rights of all people, the church has too often stumbled behind secular culture, subordinating the rights of many segments of the world’s population out of convenient misrepresentations of the good news.

Deference to a less than Christ-like interpretation of scripture has encouraged the church to lag in its decisions to affirm the rights of all people and effectively care for those against whom it is much easier to hold a bias: women, and people of color, people who are too old or too young, people who are queer, people who are financially poor, people who are mentally fragile, people who are physically less able. Deference to a secularly-grounded mindset against the less privileged—a culture of injustice that continues to permeate society today—has dragged the church’s heart away from those who need us most—most likely some who are sitting here today—and enabled the church to become a weekend place of respite rather than a day-to-day carrier of the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of God. The church becomes a cautious voice, a hesitant voice, a patient voice, a diplomatic voice, and ultimately a delinquent voice, while bias of all sorts are left un-confronted, and suffering persists in clear and less visible ways. It becomes a morally-artful dodge that enables the church to put off for tomorrow what the dominant voices of the world would rather not address and correct today, leaving too many people to not realize that the body of Christ has been broken for them, too.

How does it feel for you to be in communion with Jesus Christ? How does it feel for you to be at one with our Lord, who came down from heaven and gave of his life for the world?

The church of Jesus Christ in the world today and into eternity is a complicated and evolving recipe, but it need not be a mystery. The Church of Jesus Christ—including you and I—must be living testimony to the world made flesh, dwelt among us. The body of Christ in the world today must live at that point of tangency where world’s most pressing needs and Christ’s transcendent truth for all people resides. The church right here and on my own congregation’s site, only a few blocks away, must have the goal of feeling at one with Jesus Christ, who lived and died and reigns not only as a presence on the church on nearly every third street corner of our nation’s cities, but also as the bread of life and the overflowing cup of salvation for the world. This is the table of contents that has been set for us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Adam Rapoport, “Let’s talk about linguine vongole,” found in Bon Appètit, http://links.newsletter.bonappetit.com/servlet/MailView?ms=MjE0NzIxNjQS&r=MTk2ODg3NTUwM1S0&j=MT14MzYyNjk4OQS2&mt=1&rt=0, August 13, 2018.