I preached at my home church yesterday and afterwards we shared a pot luck meal called “Every Dish Tells a Story . . . .” We asked people to bring food that had a story attached to it, and then we ate together and talked about our lives. We had a great day. Here’s the sermon; you can also listen to it here.
A Sermon for First Congregational Church UCC, Guilford, Connecticut
April 8, 2018
I learned a lot of important things from my father.
A number of them had to do with food—but I’ll have to save those for another time. I learned to love to read by watching his example. He devoured books. And he remembered them. As a child, Doctor Seuss was a favorite at our house, and of the one he loved best was called On Beyond Zebra. The story centered around one boy telling his younger friend how much more he could imagine if he refused to be confined by the prescribed alphabet: there were words and worlds to discover if one kept going “on beyond zebra.” Dad read it as a metaphor of faith. He was on to something.
“In the places I go there are things that I see
“That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
“I’m telling you this ’cause you’re one of my friends.
“My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!”
For us to show up today to mark the Second Sunday of Eastertide is kind of like coming to terms with a new alphabet. Up until Jesus’ resurrection, our alphabet ended at death. But Jesus’ life and death and resurrection requires language that is new to us, as we can see in the gospel stories of those who encountered Jesus after his resurrection. Listen, now, to one of the stories on beyond Easter.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
Alright—I’m going to begin with pointing out my favorite detail: Jesus did something on beyond Easter that he had not done before: he cooked. He carried out his earthly ministry, endured the cross and the grave, came back from the dead, and made breakfast. I love that.
Jesus had made three or four other appearances to those whom he loved before we get to this moment on the shore, but his followers were still reeling. He spoke with Mary in the grave yard, walked along the Emmaus road, and showed up twice in the room where everyone was gathered—the second time to make sure Thomas got to see him. Each time, including our story for today, they didn’t recognize him at first. Things were not as they had been before his death. He was alive, yes, but they weren’t hanging out or taking trips together. He wasn’t with them all the time. The Resurrection had not erased the grief. They were all indelibly marked by the Crucifixion and all that had happened around it. Judas was dead. Peter still carried the weight of his denial. There was Before; this was After. They had the memory of their last supper with Jesus, but that things had not been right since. They had run out of letters in their alphabet of hope. So they went fishing. They went back to what they knew how to do, hoping something would make sense.
They fished all night and had nothing to show for it as the sun was coming up. Who knows why they didn’t catch anything, but the futility of their enterprise appears to have been excruciating. Things were broken and they couldn’t be fixed. Life was never going to be like it was before ever again.
Then they heard a voice call out from the shore, asking if they had caught anything. When they reported their failure, the person told them to cast the net on the right side of the boat. They had nothing to lose, so they followed the instructions that came our of the fading darkness and came up with a net so full that it almost sank them.
Peter said, “It’s the Lord.” No one, it seems, had recognized who was calling out to them until that moment. He dropped his net and swam to shore, where he found Jesus cooking fish on the beach over an open fire.
Maybe it mattered that the last time a charcoal fire showed up in the story, Peter was in the courtyard denying he had anything to do with Jesus, or, perhaps, he had been around one of those fires at every day since. Maybe it mattered that Jesus served bread and fish, much like the lunch the little boy had offered when they ended up feeding over five thousand people and had baskets and baskets of leftovers, or, perhaps, they ate fish at most every meal. Maybe it mattered that they caught one hundred and fifty three fish and, perhaps, they just caught as many as the net would hold. Maybe it mattered that Jesus asked Peter if he loved him three times — as many times has Peter had betrayed him — or, perhaps, it mattered, mostly, that Jesus made breakfast and fed the friend who had disowned him, offering him the grace to know his betrayal was not the last word, and to know that there was something on beyond the courtyard, the cross, and the cemetery, even on beyond the fretful night they had just lived through.
The gospel writers offer us two incredibly important meals that happen within days of each other. One we mark regularly. The Last Supper became the Lord’s Supper and is, for many Christians, both primary meal and metaphor. It is the one thing that happens across denominational and cultural divides. We have come to the Table in an unbroken line since that night when Jesus first broke the bread and poured the wine and said, “As often as you do this, remember me.”
In the first couple of hundred years after Jesus, the communities of faith gathered around a meal. The shared supper was less like the silver trays we pass and a lot more like the pot luck meal we will share together after worship. They told old stories, new stories, and remembered—they put themselves back together again in Jesus’ name, much like Jesus did with Peter and those gathered around the fire that morning. Paul even wrote to the church in Corinth and said, if you have something wrong between you and someone else, make it right before you come to the table. Give yourself a story to tell.
I want to tell you a story about the dish I brought for lunch today: my mother’s taco salad.
As many of you know, I grew up in Africa. My mother was willing to give up lots of things to move ten thousand miles away from her Texas home, but I think the thing she missed most were Fritos corn chips. After three or four years, she wrote the president of Frito-Lay, whose headquarters were in Dallas, and told him her story and we received two boxes of Fritos, in vacuum-packed in coffee cans. There were eight cans to a box. She gave each of us two for our personal consumption and kept the rest in the kitchen to make Taco Salad.
When we moved back to the States for good, we had it every Saturday.
When I was in my twenties, my parents and I had a hard time finding a way to communicate effectively. However distant I felt from them, or even angry, I was reminded of what I needed to remember every time I walked down the potato chip aisle. Now that they have both died, the meal offers healing in a different way, on beyond Saturdays, on beyond Fritos, and on beyond being an adult orphan.
Though pretty much every one of the disciples bailed out in one way or another when Jesus was arrested, the two that get the spotlight are Peter and Judas, the denier and the betrayer. Such harsh words. I don’t think either one was malicious. Peter was in the courtyard because he was trying to stay close to Jesus and he just outran his courage. I think Judas expected Jesus to actually take on the oppressive government and was trying to call Jesus’ hand and make him act. Whatever their motivation, the biggest difference between the two is Judas never made it to breakfast. If he had, there would have been forgiveness for him as well.
Each time Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter answered, “Yes, Lord,” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep,” leaning into a metaphor Jesus used throughout his ministry. What I hear in his words is, you know what it feels like to completely screw up; you know what it feels like to feel hungry for hope; you know what it feels like to be fed by grace, and to be loved back into being. Now go do that for someone else.
Our story today makes me wish we observed not only the Last Supper but also the First Breakfast as a part of our sacraments and rituals. We don’t need more silver platters, and we don’t necessarily have to grill fish. But we do need to hear the call to go on beyond Communion, on beyond the Cross, on beyond Easter, and meet each other for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to re-member one another in Jesus’ name, to keep looking for new ways to say, “I love you,” “I forgive you,” and “Forgive me”—“Now pass the potatoes.” Amen.