**Originally preached at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., on April 30, 2017. In memory of former Pilgrims pastor Rev. Jeff Krehbiel, who died on April 27, 2017.**
In December, I officiated a small graveside funeral service for my grandmother, two days before Christmas. Afterwards, I was standing with my mom and my stepdad, and some of my mom’s good friends who had shown up to be a comforting presence for her. It was that awkward moment where all the formal choreography of grief that had taken up our week was over, and we were left wondering what to do with ourselves next.
Soon we found ourselves sitting around a large table at Mary Mac’s Tea Room for lunch. Mary Mac’s is a historic institution in Atlanta. A soul food restaurant with walls covered in photos of the famous people who have dined there, and a woman whose entire job appears to be visiting each table and offering folks a back rub. My family has gone there for years, and it was one of the places my mom and I sometimes took my grandmother out to lunch when I was home visiting.
So on that day we ordered mimosas and toasted my grandmother’s life, and then I asked my mom what she was thinking of getting and she said, “I’m actually thinking about chicken tenders.” We shared a look, and a weighty smirk, that only made sense to the two of us.
See, as my grandmother’s health and memory declined over the last decade or so and her memory started to fade, those lunches with us became one of the few activities that got her out of the house. We’d go to one of several places around town, and no matter where we went – she always, always ordered chicken tenders. I don’t even think she realized that she always ordered the same thing, because every time she would thoughtfully scrutinize the menu, only to eventually say, “you know, I think today I’ll get some chicken tenders.”
It made us laugh, my mom and me — I think because there was just something so her about it.
And I must have inherited something of that from my grandma, because every time I go back to visit Atlanta or Austin or Chicago, I always have a list – not only of restaurants I must return to — but specific menu items at each place that I must order.
There has always been, for me, a sense of joy and home in the routine of good food and table fellowship. I grew up in the land of comfort food. Of church potlucks, and casseroles, and meat and 2 veggie meals most nights of the week. To this day, when my siblings and I return to my parents’ house, the first place we gather is the kitchen. And after opening some wine and stirring up some cosmos and pulling out the chips and dip, we begin to list out — each of us — our must-have foods for the time we’re together. My sister always says broccoli casserole. Like clockwork. It’s tradition.
On Wednesday of this past week, some of us gathered here at Pilgrims for a prayer service, to communally process our feelings about Jeff’s transition into hospice. We didn’t yet know what the following day would bring. We washed hands, we read scripture, we sang songs, and prayed, and of course, we broke bread together. All the familiar routines of worship. At the beginning, Ashley reminded us all of the power of ritual. That we do these things over and over so that we know them by heart, and they anchor us — so that when all else in this world becomes strange to us, these rituals remain familiar and recognizable and dependable.
I imagine that many of us relate to this notion of the world being turned on its head and becoming strange to us. Especially this week. We grieve the loss of Jeff and other loved ones. And we grieve a country and world that seems in many ways to become less and less familiar to us everyday, more and more plagued with injustice, corruption, and suffering.
And if you, like I, have come here today feeling this way at all, we find ourselves in good company with these two disciples who walk the Emmaus road. In a sermon she preached years ago, former Union Seminary professor Barbara Lundblad suggests that the unnamed disciple who walks along with Cleopas is, in fact, meant to be us. It’s not hard to imagine that today.
So often in our celebration of Easter we forget that it comes in a moment of abject grief. These disciples are heavy with it. They are slowly trudging along this dusty road outside of Jerusalem, trying to process with each other what has happened — what they’ve lost. At first I’m tempted to question why they’re even going to Emmaus — Jesus has just died! — why are they doing anything?? But that’s how it goes, isn’t it? Life continues, despite grief, there are errands to run, to-do lists to conquer, journeys to take, even if you must drag yourself along.
I suspect, because I’ve known the feeling myself, that these disciples feel a little bewildered in their grief. A world that made sense to them so recently, no longer does. Familiar roads become unfamiliar. Even light and time seem, somehow, different. Perhaps that’s why they don’t recognize Jesus when he draws near. Or maybe they didn’t recognize him because they know he’s dead, and thus their minds will not allow them to consider that he’s alive, even if he’s right in front of them — even if it is what all the prophets declared.
Regardless of their lack of recognition, Jesus does come to meet them on that road, in their grief. And he stays with them a long time, even past evening. It’s worth noting, I think, that these are not two of the Eleven. These are not the famous disciples. These are just two random followers of Christ, who earn no mention anywhere else in scripture, but who are nevertheless worthy of Jesus’ real, unrushed presence on the very day of his resurrection. He loves them. And if we see ourselves in this story, I hope we remember this part.
And in that love, he gathers with them at table. He takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. And then they recognize him. Why in the breaking of bread? Well because this was their ritual, wasn’t it? They had seen him bless and break bread a hundred times before. He’d done it only a few days earlier. This was their comfort food.
And so in a world gone strange and cloudy with grief, they return to this old habit, this comforting routine, and discover in it that Jesus is with them, still and always. Indeed, he has been with them, for awhile, even if they didn’t know it.
The miracle of that first Easter long ago was undoubtedly Christ’s resurrection and conquering of death. But the moment where we recognize Christ with us, always with us, is in the ordinary act of breaking bread at table.
This is the power of Jesus Christ sharing in human life. To allow ordinary life, ordinary acts, to transcend the extraordinary and then, in turn, become extraordinary themselves.
In all the rituals Christ enacted and taught — in baptism, in washing, in storytelling, and serving others, challenging injustice, and above all at Table, in cup and bread, we are reminded again and again, that Jesus is as familiar to us, as present with us, as the daily need for food and drink, even when we cannot recognize it. He is never far away, but always with us – in the ordinary moments and in a world turned strange. Walking alongside us. Sharing our pain. Filling us where we are empty. And inviting us to join in his work.
This story — this road to Emmaus — teaches us that the Table where Jesus meets us is not off somewhere far beyond us, waiting to welcome us when we arrive, good and ready to eat. Jesus and his Table come to find us and meet us, wherever we are.
Two weeks ago, a man named Ledell Lee was executed by the state of Arkansas. In place of his last meal, he requested communion. This story struck me and has stuck with me, I think because it reminds me of a truth I am so sure of: that whether Ledell had requested communion or not, Jesus was there with him. There is nowhere Jesus is not with us. He is present with the one who cannot chew or stomach food because of ability or illness. He is with the one who is dying. He is on dusty, heavy roads with weary walkers, and he is in the dark heart of grief and pain.
In the ordinary act of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving bread — Jesus transcends extraordinary boundaries of distance, death, and time. He calls us to follow him and promises us a new life that transcends those boundaries too. We participate in the rituals he taught us — rituals that Jeff enacted so well in his lifetime — we tell stories, we serve others, we challenge injustice, and we gather at Table. When we do these things, we do them remembering Christ, and with Christ, and with all those who have and do seek to follow him.
The promise of Christ is that one day, we will all gather at God’s Table — all of us and all those who have gone before us and all those who will come after. We will join together at the Table where all things are made new. But the promise of Jesus on that Emmaus road is also that every time we look for familiar comfort in these rituals he taught, and every time we gather at our imperfect Table here to break bread and remember, every time the Table finds us, we are also somehow — by the Grace of God — already there at that once and future Table. Whether we recognize it or not, every time we come to the Table, including today, we are with Jeff and with the great cloud of saints, and we are all with Jesus.
In this ritual, we are bound together across extraordinary circumstances, by Christ’s ordinary Grace.
Jesus meets us at the Table, he meets us where we are. And takes, blesses, breaks, and gives so that we remember he is there and remember his promise. That promise is always bread, but not only bread. It is the promise of life that overthrows death, of gathering us all up together in his embrace, filling us where we are empty, blessing what is broken in us and in this world, and making from brokenness, from broken bread, from broken hearts, and broken us — something newly and forever whole.
Thanks be to God. Amen.