Soon my first Panera Rewards notice arrived in my Inbox. It was designed as a personal invitation. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line there was a miscommunication about my name. The email started out, Hello Frances! It made me wonder if the person who thought I looked like a Frances, instead of a Fred, was bending my gender and saw me as female, or somehow effeminately gay, which amused and flattered me no end! Or maybe the person behind the counter who miss-heard my name, simply had a guy-friend called Frances or Fran? But anyway, the sandwich of the week that Panera was inviting me to, about Fresh Avocados, was even more eye-catching to me: Hello Frances, There's something special about avocados, especially this time of year. They're creamy, buttery, and just perfect for the NEW Roasted Turkey & Avocado BLT. You can almost taste the sunshine in this creative recipe that showcases the light, fresh and simple goodness of avocados.
Certainly sounded good! Turkey, chicken and bacon meats, enhancing the creamy, buttery avocados – ummh, fresh, if not truly light!
Lady Wisdom in our first reading from Proverbs sends out a similar invitation: “she has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table… her servant-girls… call from the highest places in town… Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed..!” Later, in a bit of gender bending of his own, Jesus would step into this wisdom tradition and fill Lady Wisdom’s shoes, “Amen, amen, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you… I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”
So when Panera sent this personal invitation to me, Frances, I didn’t expect that they would have known about, the Summer that Avocado sandwiches Saved me and my friends. It was after my first year of seminary, where I had heard about Crossroads Africa, a non-church organization started, ironically, by a Pastor. Its mission was to build cultural bridges between American students and African communities, one at a time, sort of like a mini-Peace Corp. Originally my group of seven was assigned to Zanzibar, that island paradise off Tanzania, but the project fell through for lack of funding, and we were reassigned to western Kenya. It was a very rural area and we helped to build a two-room-secondary-school that was just underway as we arrived. Our village was tiny, and our arrival, being cobbled together at the last minute, had not been well thought through. The town motel, our accommodations, was a cement-made encampment with about six rooms on each side facing one another in a courtyard, with a big cistern on the far end. No electricity, no furniture in our rooms. We slept on the floor, and our water supply for drinking, cooking and bathing was that Cistern full of rain water, which we pretty much drained in that summer of record drought.
Every morning after breakfast we walked across the field to the building site on the edge of the river and worked hard carrying buckets of water up from the river’s step embankment to mix into concrete and pour into the forms that made the blocks that we would carry to the local project manager who laid them, one row at a time, as the edifice took shape and grew into itself, a big window on each side of the two-room secondary school, that the waiting children of the village, were eager to inhabit.
At lunch break we dragged our beaten bodies back to our abode. There were no restaurants in this berg, btw. Every day we went to the village trading-post, a store right out of Little House on the Prairie, but with a much darker skinned clientele. And every day, we soon found out, as we bought supplies for lunch, it was the same fare, and rarely changed! Because of the drought, the shelves were half bare, but somehow they always had two things, avocados and bread. I had never eaten Avocado in my life, not even Guacamole, but that summer, I learned to love avocado sandwiches! Perhaps it wasn’t a Panera Roasted Turkey BLT, and avocado sandwich, but as hungry as we were, they tasted like steak sandwich! Of course, truth be told, by the end of the summer, like a boring room-mate at the end of the semester, I was ready to try a new one!
When I returned home from Kenya, and my family greeted me, they were shocked! I hadn’t realize it myself, but slowly and surely, I had lost weight. Avocado’s are eaten as a vegetarian sandwich in a number of African countries, because of their distinctly high fat content among all vegetables. But I guess building a two-room secondary school in combination with, avocado sandwich, is still not quite enough to maintain. I must have lost 10 or 15 pounds, and I guess it showed. At our Kenyan motel, however, we had no scales to measure, and no mirrors to see!
And so, it made me appreciate, all the more, the one lavish meal I was served while in Kenya, the day our local friend Robert invited me to his home. A thatched one-room hut, he sat with me, while his mother brought in a large bowl of rice and beans, but mixed with generous portions of meat. It was delicious, piping hot, and must have cost them a lot. Later I learned it was goat meat. They had killed the fatted goat, for me, the white man guest – given me their finest, to welcome me to their village and thank us for our help. While the country grew thin, the land parched for a drink, I ate like a king. No Rewards Card could touch that moment with a ten foot pole! My aching back, from carrying buckets of water and cement blocks all day, suddenly melted away.
In the tradition of Lady Wisdom, Jesus offers us the finest of meals, I am the living bread that came down from heaven… whoever eats me will live because of me. The obvious connection, of course, is with our meal of Holy Communion that the church has eaten every first day of the week since Jesus instituted this meal with the Apostles, at the Last Supper.
Today, Jesus turns the message of the Bread of Life reading away from the spiritual food he offers to us, toward his flesh and blood, to remind us it is not just other-worldly, but incarnational. Jesus is the incarnate word, or wisdom of God, came down from heaven to live an embodied life as one of us. Our faith life is nothing if it does not take on flesh and blood, just as Jesus did. As God’s own, we are given scales to measure, and mirrors to see. We can talk about how much we believe in God and Jesus, but if we do not feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, are we really, of God?
The summer that avocados saved me and my friends, I gave thanks for the avocados of life that came down from heaven to our little village, while, my family and friends back in the states, who worried about me, as they read in the papers about the severe drought in East Africa, gave thanks when they saw my fleshly body return, however slight.
In Lady Wisdom’s invitation in Proverbs, just as in Jesus who followed in her impressive footprint, there is an urgency to the offer. The offer is always an invitation to the fullness of the life of God, right here, right now. Do not waste your time on the things that are not of God! The bounteous banquet set before us, that costly meal served to us in love, for free, is our life-blood, why would you not turn in here, as Lady Wisdom says?! Jesus, our complete meal, picks up her call, Come, he says, Come Francis, come all! Eat of my bread and drink of the wine…! Come, eat like kings and queens. In the midst of drought, and malnutrition, and the threat of death, why wouldn’t you put some meat on your bones, and walk in the ways of God, the way of insight and life?! Jesus, the wisdom-Rewards-Card to end all Rewards Cards, has become for us a self-giving, fleshly, avocado-rich, incarnate meal, of justice and peace, filling us with life, today and always!