When Kim and I got married, it was a very home-made affair. After 4 years of college followed 4 years of seminary, we were in debt, not yet employed, and couldn’t afford a lavish celebration. Nor did we ever envision one, really. We liked the idea of inviting our seminary community, students, staff and faculty, the Saturday before our graduation, to a little pre-party at the seminary Refectory. The marriage service was home-made too, featuring our class-mates, and recent graduates, in the roles of officiant, organist, bread and cake bakers, table setters, photographers, and wedding party. After vows were exchanged, there was a home-made parade from Bond Chapel back to the seminary, carrying our green LBW hymnals on the way, marching behind the home-made banner Kim’s sister created for us.
Originally however, the reception was in doubt! When I told Jerry, our beloved seminary chief, that I wanted to include raw beef and onions on the menu, he looked so offended, I thought he was going to throw us out! But, this is a long and cherished tradition in my family, I explained, we can’t be married without it! Really, raw beef and onions? Are you serious, people eat that? How do you keep it from spoiling and making everyone sick, Jerry finally asked, understandably his greatest concern?! Well, no one ever got sick before, I said, as Jerry rolled his eyes! Long story short, it was delicious, and, thank goodness, there were no reported cases of gastro-intestinal distress! Raw beef and onions is a delicacy to some, and an abomination to others. If you like it, you don’t even notice it sitting there – an obvious affront to vegetarians, and a public health disaster waiting to happen! You need, an inspired heart, a flexible mind, and especially, a steady stomach, to walk up to that mound of red meat adorned with onion, spread it on rye bread, and casually gulp it down!
In the last days of Kim’s mom’s life, before the fast growing small cell lung cancer did its worst, we called Hospice and asked for their help, as they told us we should. That very afternoon, a hospital bed was set up in the middle of the living room and Kim’s mom was lovingly positioned there. Kim’s two brothers soon arrived, joining her sister, Kim and I. At first, walking into that room was a rude shock. You can’t miss a hospice bed in the middle of the living room, a sign that death is near – maybe not today, or even tomorrow, but soon. She was already on a morphine pump, feeling no pain, and in and out of reality. Silence was the most common greeting Kim’s sibling brought as they walked in, along with nervous laughter, and of course, tears. But gradually, the view took on normalcy, you forgot the constant hum of the respirator machine in the next room giving her oxygen. And the nurses were wonderful, appropriately lively or concerned, helpful and ever reassuring. And so our somber conversations turned to birthday celebrations in the family, and teasing with Kim’s mom about her political tastes, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld kept coming on the evening news, cheerfully updating us on the progress of the Iraq war!
But the real miracle was, it became the first time Kim’s siblings all stood together civil-y in the same room since they were kids. And from that was sparked an anniversary celebration every year after, which would have made Kim’s mom very pleased! Over time we came to recognize that while dying was surely happening in the living room, a lot of living was taking place in the dying room. And we learned to see more clearly, that the signs of life are all around us. (Audrey West)
The crowds around Jesus have some definite confusion in their ability to see Jesus as the bread of life in the 6th chapter of John. “Isn’t this the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” It seems that, producing a feast from just a few barley loaves and fish is one thing, as long as your stomach is full, but claiming to come down from heaven, to be born from above, is quite another. They, of course, had not had a chance to read the Prologue to John in the very first chapter, that, “The word became flesh and lived among us.” It’s sort of like a hospital bed, interjected in the midst of the living room. The often missed scandal of Jesus offering his flesh to save us, in the very beginning of the story, John’s take on Jesus’ nativity and birth, is now thrown right in our faces! It is his whole life, Jesus himself, offered for us in love, for the life of the world! We have since come to call this word made flesh something more palliative – the Incarnation, or a sacramental communion meal, and of course, the bread of life.
Why don’t you just give us the bread you promised, the crowds say, and we’ll leave you alone! Their stomachs were filled on the hillside, but now Jesus tells them, they missed the point, just like their ancestors who ate their fill of manna in the wilderness, and who grumbled all the way to their death, never reaching the promised land. “I am the bread of life… for the world,” says Jesus.
Last week I pointed out how bread, and a lack of it, in 2010, led to the Arab Spring in 2011. The bread of life, can sometimes be the bread of death when not shared, not respected and cared for. But that is only half the story, actually less than half. In this increasingly global world we live in, wheat is in the minority, and it is rice that is the staple crop of over half the world’s population, and 95% of developing nations, of The South. India the largest producer is followed closely by China and Indonesia. And, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin American, also live by rice as their staple. For them, the bread of life would make little sense. Jesus would have to be the rice of life! Rice is the elephant, or bed, in our American living rooms! As Christians in a multi-cultural world, country and city, we can’t afford to look past this sister symbol. Living deeply into the metaphors of the faith, is not for the faint of heart. You will need an inspired heart, a flexible mind, and a steady stomach.
Christ is calling us to ever new ventures by the power of the Holy Spirit, on a journey to a new land, nourished at the table of our justice-and-peace-making rice cake of life. We are transformed by the shocking metaphors of death beds turned life giving, and raw beef turned into lovely wedding fare.
Already in pre-Columbia Mexico, el Día de los Muertos, or, Day of the Dead, was celebrated at the end of July-beginning of August, which now happens around All Saints Day, Oct 31 to Nov 2. It was, and still is, a joyful gathering, with parades and costumes anticipating and celebrating the time when the veil of death is so thin that our ancestors and loved ones, come back to visit. And one of the traditional foods is “bread of the dead,” shared with them, humorously shaped into skulls and crossbones, and sometimes used in games where the one who discovers toy skulls and crossbones inside, wins a prize. The Day of the Dead faces up to the cycle of life, the bed in the living room, to remember, re-live, and enjoy, life, even as we recall the death of our loved ones.
Here, around this table, we are not only deeply grateful for Jesus sacrifice on our knees, but standing and joyfully dining, we are uplifted by the bread, and the rice, of life which brings us together and unites us, our banquet that fills us up with leftover baskets, overflowing. What was dead is now living! The flesh that shocks us, the unpalatable death bed in the living room, now brings us together, as we live, for the life of the world. As we live deeply into the metaphors of our faith, with an inspired heart, a flexible mind, and a steady stomach.