Deep Roots and Home Cookin’

[A Maundy Thursday reflection written for New York Avenue Presbyterian Church based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-15.]

grandparents

As I stared out the backseat window of my family’s old Plymouth Voyager, watching the highway wind its way through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, I sometimes felt as if these trips to my grandparents’ house were an adventure in time travel. For a Pokémon-obsessed, Nickelodeon-watching, Tamagotchi-toting 90s kid, my grandparents’ Mennonite community, nestled quaintly in the Shenandoah Valley, was something of a culture shock to say the least. Weekends like these meant playing checkers rather than Nintendo, singing hymns around the piano rather than cranking up the volume on my Walkman, and enjoying Sunday supper compliments of Granddad’s garden rather than a McDonald’s drive-thru. But even as I dreaded the slower pace and the “old-fashioned fun” my parents always promised, I inevitably found that the values of simplicity and hospitality struck a chord with me even as a youngster. No place was this clearer for me than my grandparents’ kitchen table. I never knew how she did it, but no matter what she was cooking or who came vistin’, Grandma always managed to have room for one more. She’d welcome you in with a smile and a glass of sweet tea, quickly setting another place without so much as a sigh or a raised eyebrow. After a long car ride, we knew we’d always be greeted with her specialty: meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. It was a meal my great-grandmother would often make for her guests — beloved recipes passed down from generation to generation, a family’s story recorded in flour and egg, potato peels and pie crust.

 
I like to think that Jesus was doing something akin to this when he gathered with his disciples on the night before his arrest. Sitting around a table, he shared not just any meal with them, but a recipe with deep roots – one that connected them to their family history through the foundational story of the Passover feast and the liberation of God’s chosen people. Stooping down to wash their feet, he extended radical hospitality, and in doing so, opened their eyes to a wholly unexpected though profoundly sacred way of living in the world. Christ knew that they would need these gifts to sustain them through the days ahead. In the Gospel of John we read that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world” and “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Out of this great love, Christ offers them bread for the journey and a ritual of remembrance to nourish their grieving hearts. He tells them that these gifts of bread, water, and wine are not just for them, but for those who come after them, the community of saints whom this ancient yet ongoing story has claimed as its own. “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” he tells them. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Reflecting on this ritual, this feast passed down through the Church in every age, Paul also writes, “For I have received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). In other words, this holy meal, this undeserved hospitality, these final moments with Christ’s most intimate companions, they’re part of us, part of our Christian story, part of what holds us all together and reminds us who we are. This, Christ tells us, is the recipe which nourished our past and sustains our future.

 

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These days my grandparents’ home looks a little different. Years ago they traded in their ranch and its mountain view for a spot in a senior care facility. As Grandma’s multiple sclerosis progressed, standing at the kitchen counter started to become too much, and Granddad, likewise, found that the ache in his back and the shuffle in his steps began to overshadow even the joy-filled perfection of biting into one of his homegrown tomatoes. Each of these little losses felt like a crack in the foundation of our family and an assurance that things will never be as they once were. And yet, as I stand in my own tiny kitchen, in a fast-paced city far from the silent gaze of those mountains which hold such deep history, I don’t have to pull out my cookbook. Four generations later, these recipes are etched indelibly on my heart. As it turns out, grief, seasoned with teardrops and paired with sides of ritual, legacy, and nostalgia, tastes a whole lot like meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. But then again, at least I know what to take with me when I go to visit next time.

 

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Encountering Miracle

[A sermon on Ezekiel 37: 1-14 and John 11:1-44 preached at Berwyn Presbyterian Church for the Fifth Sunday in Lent.]

As one might expect, I’ve seen my fair share of illness and loss through my experience as a chaplain in both intensive care and hospice settings. People don’t tend to call a chaplain when something really great happens to them. We’re called to the bedside when someone’s just received a terminal diagnosis or when family and friends have gathered to say goodbye to someone who doesn’t have much time left in this world. We’re called to the emergency department when a car accident means someone will be lucky if they walk again or when someone felt like their life was too painful to keep on living. We’re called to sit with parents whose little ones might not make it out of the NICU and to counsel families meeting to decide whether or not to remove life support. So, when my pager goes off, I can pretty reasonably assume that the people I’m about to encounter are having one of the worst days of their lives.

When I think about our Gospel reading this morning, I imagine we could probably say the same about Martha and Mary, sisters frantically seeking a miraculous cure and then grieving a loss they feel could have been prevented. It’s safe to say that this passage gives us a window into the worst few days of their lives. From the very beginning, John tells us that Jesus knows how this story is going to end. But that’s small comfort to Martha and Mary, who feel that Jesus’ delayed arrival, his unwillingness to drop everything and come to them immediately, has cost their brother his life. They’re angry and indignant, and each goes to confront Jesus, saying, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” “Jesus, how could you? How dare you?” they demand. “Hasn’t our friendship meant anything to you? You stop in the middle of a crowd to heal strangers and outcasts, but you abandon us when we need you most?”

Their reaction is understandable. We can’t help but feel for them as we bear witness to this heart-wrenching moment of accusation. Many of us share similar feelings when a sudden heart attack sends shockwaves through our family or routine test results reveal a cancer diagnosis. When faced with illness and loss, we often ask tough questions about God’s role in our suffering as we examine what we believe in the wake of some of the most difficult experiences of our lives. As we confront our own mortality, we search for a hope outside ourselves – for some people it’s the newest, cutting-edge treatment or the clinical trial that boasts incredible outcomes despite major risks, for others it’s the second or third or fourth opinion from specialist after specialist, and sometimes it’s simply hoping for a miracle, the chance that God may intervene at the eleventh hour.

In fact, I’ll never forget the day when a patient’s husband, I’ll call him Bill* asked me, hopefully, if I’d ever seen a miracle recovery in my time as a chaplain. Bill had been married to his wife for forty-some years, they had a small but close-knit family, and he loved his wife even more than the day he’d married her. She’d been a patient in my ICU for almost a month with sepsis, a respirator breathing for her, medications keeping her blood pressure artificially elevated, feeding tubes, IVs, and catheters managing her bodily needs, unable to talk or interact. As her organs began to fail, and the medical team began to talk about withdrawing life support, Bill wanted to hold onto hope. Whenever I’d walk by her room, there he’d be, faithfully by her side, often reading Scripture or offering a prayer or just sitting silently beside her while holding her hand. A new grandbaby was on the way, and she needed to be around to welcome him or her, he told me. “Chaplain, have you ever seen a miracle in a situation like this?” he asked me, earnestly.

I thought about it for a minute, feeling deeply for him, and wanting to be both honest and compassionate in my response. “Yes, I’ve seen miracles,” I told him. “I’ve seen them in this hospital, this ICU, this very room even.” He looked skeptical. “I’ve seen families brought closer together despite years of conflict. I’ve witnessed people discover how the love and support of their community can hold them up even on the most difficult days. I’ve watched people smile and laugh, even in the face of death, as they told stories and shared memories at the beside of a loved one who’s reached the sunset of their life. I’ve met nurses who stay long past their shift to sit with someone who never gets a visitor. I’ve been with families donating lifesaving organs, finding the strength to think of others even in the midst of their grief. I’ve noticed strangers praying together in waiting rooms. I’ve looked on as clinicians double checked a calculation which ended up saving a life. I’ve seen the healing that comes through tears and the love that is stronger than death. Bill, I see miracles every day.”

Friends, this story of Lazarus is so much more than a divine resuscitation. There’s miracle in the fact that we can come before Christ fully ourselves, sharing all of who we are, all of our emotions – our tears and our sadness, our anger and our accusations, our hopes and our doubts. There’s miracle in the outpouring of support that we receive in times of crisis, those who come to console us, to cry with us, to share in our grief and sorrow without the need to fix it. There’s miracle in the fact that a transcendent, all-powerful God, would come among us, feeling our pain, experiencing our losses, and shedding tears of grief for the ones he loved.

And just like I’ve seen miracles in intensive care units and the homes of hospice patients, I’ve also seen miracles here at Berwyn Presbyterian Church. I’ve seen the way you rally around one another in times of need. I’ve seen your resilience in the midst of transition. I’ve seen flexibility and grace when you encounter bumps along the road. I’ve seen people from all different cultures and backgrounds come together to worship and to serve. These are the miracles through which God breathes new life into dry bones and renews us as we author this new chapter in ministry. The miracle of resurrection is the promise of God’s abiding presence made known through these simple, everyday moments of faithfulness.

Rather than notions of a transactional, vending machine God, who steps in and intervenes to save the innocent, cure the cancer, or stop the unthinkable from happening, we claim a God that walks alongside us in our suffering, a God whose tears were the first to fall, a God that knows what it’s like to journey unto death. And so, we hold fast to the assurance that in life and in death, we belong to God, that we are cradled close to God’s heart, and eternally wrapped in Gods loving embrace. And that’s the greatest miracle of this story. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.