Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Casseroles, Cakes and Grace Abundant

Olivia Hamilton
Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C
April 10, 2016

It has been my experience that in times of great shock, or sorrow, or in times of transition more broadly, food plays an essential role. I remember last January when my niece was born, and my partner and I traveled to Tennessee to meet the baby and to help out around the house as my sister and her husband settled into the shock of this new life as parents. It was oddly quiet those first few days, and there wasn’t much for us to do, all we could think of to make ourselves useful was to cook. We probably made a dozen trips to the grocery store while we were there that week, and far more soups and casseroles and cakes than anyone in the house could possibly eat.

This is a seemingly universal tenant of human life: when a friend is in a state of shock or sorrow or newness, we get out the pots and pans. We reach for the time-tested carrot cake recipe. We order the pizza, extra cheese, or invite them over for ice cream and bad reality TV.

As many of you know, Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite novelists, was here giving a lecture on Monday. I found the lecture dense and perplexing, and hearing it solidified that Robinson’s fiction does more for me, spiritually and intellectually, than her essays. Either way, in preparation for her visit, I recently re-read Housekeeping, my favorite novel of hers, and perhaps my favorite novel ever, and I have been thinking about why this book occupies such a profound position in my imagination as a Christian.

Housekeeping is a somewhat somber story about the repeated abandonment of two young sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are raised first by their mother, and then when she dies by their grandmother, and then when she dies by their two ill-equipped great aunts, and then by their peculiar aunt Sylvie who drifts into town after years riding the rails. The narrative is one of loss and transience and “other-ness.” The chaos of the girls’ lives sets them apart from their peers, and Sylvie’s poor housekeeping, among other odd habits, make them the talk of their small, flat, prairie town. Towards the end of the novel, this tension between them and the rest of the town comes to a head when a group of church ladies arrives at the house in order to check-in on the girls, and to attempt to keep them from running away -- becoming drifters, like their aunt Sylvie. The women come bearing armfuls of cakes and casseroles, and also with motives “complex and unsearchable but all of one general kind,” Robinson writes through the narrator, Ruth. “They were obliged to come by their notions of piety and good breeding, and by a desire, a determination, to keep me safely indoors.” Needless to say, the casseroles and cakes are never eaten by the girls. Ruth says, “the food they brought couldn’t fill the hunger I had.”

If Housekeeping is a story of transience and abandonment and insufficiency, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, another one of my favorites, is one that elicits rootedness and belonging and abundance. The novel is a long love letter written by an aging minister, John Ames, to his young son. He reflects on the joys and challenges of ministry, ancestral folklore, and even the way light looks coming through the trees. Where Ruth and Lucille are perennially abandoned by those that should love them, John Ames’ letter to his son – which he knows he won’t read or be able to comprehend until after he is dead – is a soliloquy of gratitude for a life well lived, an acceptance of a fate that is in God’s hands, and perhaps most of all, a way of expressing a deep sense of the abundance of home amid the transience of the changes and chances of this life.

In John Ames’s letter, he recalls countless casseroles that were brought to him over the years by church ladies, but this time they seem, in a way, to be redeemed. It is in these well-intentioned meals that he has found comfort over the years. They are emblematic, I think, of the goodness of people, and of the Church at its best – a network of people nourishing one another in thought, word, and deed, even in the face of instability and uncertainty. There is a scene that I remember well where the minister John Ames feeds his son bites of all of those lovingly-delivered casseroles, a bean salad made by Mrs. Brown, a fruitcake made by Ms. McNeill, and he writes “I thought of the day I gave you communion. I wonder if you thought of that also.”

Robinson uses these characters and storylines, their casseroles and cakes, to explore deeper questions about the human experience: how are we able to cope with loss and abandonment? How do we come to terms with the abundance we’ve been dished? How is our daily experience, our eating and drinking and sleeping and moving, shaped by the knowledge that death will not have the final word? How are we as individuals, and as a Church, called to live into our ministries?

In the scene from John’s Gospel, the disciples encounter Jesus for a third time after he had been raised from the dead. You’ll remember the moment I told you about when I went to visit my niece for the first time, and all I could think to do to stay busy as my world was being radically altered by this new life was to go to the grocery store? I think this moment is an iteration of that same story line. We know that the disciples know that Jesus is alive. We also know that all they can think to do, when faced with the shock of the new, is to mill around the beach until finally Peter suggests…I guess we should go and try to catch some fish? In the unfamiliar territory of life after death, the disciples seem to cling to the mundane rhythms of their old lives, unsure of what to do with their time, without a clear sense of purpose. So, naturally, they focus on food. They lower their net into the water, just as they have done a thousand times before, hoping to catch a handful of fish. Yet when they do, they find that the water is barren. I love the humanity of this moment: the disciples know on some level that their world has been radically altered, yet they still can’t imagine the goodness and grace and abundance, in short the new way of being and living, that Christ’s Resurrection makes available to them. They still cling to old ways of thinking and living.

I also love that Jesus, having just been raised from the dead, chooses to then do this profoundly simple and tactile thing; to eat fish and bread on the beach with his friends. Like the casserole that John Ames feeds his son, the breakfast on the beach is not necessarily a Eucharistic meal, but in a way, it too embodies precisely what this sacrament is about for us – gathering together, disciples ourselves, being nourished and sustained by one who loves us and gives us life. UCC minister and writer Nancy Rockwell writes about this scene, saying “[The season of] Easter is [like] a day at home. And days like that are about nearness. Nearness isn’t about acquaintances, or social friends, or party lists. It’s about the people who stop in and sit at the kitchen table with you when you have your bathrobe and slippers on.” Here is Jesus at home.

She goes on to say, “Easter is about being together, the joy of nearness that lives beyond all other things.” For me, that joy of nearness is so profoundly expressed when Peter - who we remember had denied Jesus three times - saw him on the shore. Rather than hiding in shame, he jumped off the ship and into the water, arms paddling gleefully and urgently toward Jesus. We don’t see Jesus here as some faint or phantom-like figure, we know him instead in this scene as the incarnate friend the disciples tenderly loved, and whose own love for the disciples was enough to dissolve even the deepest shame.

Perhaps this is the moment, for Peter at least, when the newness of Resurrection suddenly becomes real to him, and instead of idly passing the time, he understands that his life is full of purpose, and full of grace. The abundance of fish are a miracle, to be sure, but it’s the abundance of grace, I think, that we are really invited to pay attention to here.

In some ways, I think, the grace of Resurrection is too daunting for us to accept all at once. And perhaps this story highlights the ways that grace is known to us in small moments; a meal with friends that brings you back to the present moment and back to your body when you’ve been adrift in barren waters. Or, like with Peter, forgiveness from someone you’ve betrayed and an unexpected opportunity to express love where before there was harm. These are the moments that allow us to come to terms with the joyful shock of Resurrection, the reality of life after death.

Both the gospel text and Marilynne Robinson’s novel wrestles with similar questions about the human experience: questions of loss and abundance, transience and home, grace and purpose. It seems to me that something about being human means that even though we see indications of Resurrection all around us all the time, we keep living as if this isn’t the case. We keep dropping our nets into water where nothing lives or moves or has its being, and coming up empty, refusing to see that there is another way, needing to be reminded over and over again that God’s plan for us is yet unfinished, or that life after death is a possibility. 

But then when it seems like all hope is lost, something about our encounter with the risen Christ tells us to put the net in again, and next to come and eat. And then to go out into the world with our casseroles and our cakes, or with whatever we have to offer that might bespeak of Christ’s nourishing love, and to feed.


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