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A Way of Being/The Taste of Peace

Rev. Dr. Ute Molitor
Sun, Jan 22

The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Lessons: Mark 1:14-20

"It was the final meal of the Sabbath day, a holy day and a holy meal, and a number of devout men were gathered around Rabbi Wolf’s table.[1] They revered the Rabbi as a Zaddik, a righteous man who sought to align his life with the will of God. During the meal, these men spoke to each other in subdued and quiet voices because they were afraid to disturb Rabbi Wolf who was apparently rapt in deep in thought.

Being at the Rabbi’s table was an honor but it was not reserved for anyone in particular. In fact, the Rabbi insisted that anyone who wanted to join him at his table was welcome. A person could enter at any time and take a seat. On this particular night, a man came whom others in the village regarded as ill-bred and ignorant. The men around the table made plenty of room for him because no one wanted to sit too close. After a while, this visitor took a large radish out of his pocket, cut it into good bite size pieces and began to munch on them. Unaware of the generally quiet tone around him, he made loud smacking noises that reflected his unabashed enjoyment of this simple vegetable.

The other men were watching him in disgust and, eventually, one of them could not restrain himself from speaking out. “How dare you offend this festive occasion and meal with your foul manners?” he declared in disgust. The man who had brought the radish blushed in embarrassment. Just then Rabbi Wolf stirred from his quiet repose and proclaimed: “I just feel like eating a really good radish tonight. I wonder if anyone here could get me one.” Now the man who had brought the radish beamed with joy and reached right across the table to offer Rabbi Wolf some of the neatly cut pieces of his radish. Both men proceeded to munch and smack their lips with delight."

 I love this little story. I was struck by the humor of it to start with. It seems that many of the men have come to Rabbi Wolf’s table in the hopes of learning from one they respect. They even become protective of what they perceive to be the Rabbi’s need for silence as he appears lost in deep and no doubt magnificently important thought. I wonder whether the Rabbi was quiet because of the weight of their earnestness. Be that as it may, they adopt among themselves a certain ethic of propriety just as they do in other aspects of life. Interestingly, the propriety problem with the unwelcome visitor did not seem to be the lack of sharing (perhaps he did not expect that anyone would willingly receive something from his hand). It was his loud presence at the table, his vulgar smacking of lips, the way he risked disturbing the important Rabbi in important thought, that was so offensive.

Emily Post, our Miss Manners, might have been pleased with the way these men took offense and sprang into action! Somebody has to keep order after all. However, it is precisely their very pious and seemingly righteous propriety that gets them into trouble. In contrast, the Rabbi seems intent on preserving the dignity of every guest around his table and to bring everyone into the circle in a compassionate manner. Those who reprimand are not reprimanded. The Rabbi does not hold forth on abstract precepts and doctrinal teaching but simply focuses on meeting the man who had been isolated. He meets him in such a way that the very source of ridicule can serve as a vehicle for generosity and service. What is judged as utterly wrong and profane by some - this smacking enjoyment of a profane radish -becomes a sacred activity that brings strangers into relationship.

Bernard of Clairvaux, an 11th century theologian, once said: “Ubi autem amor est, labor non est sed sapor,” which can be translated as “Where love is, there is not work but taste.” In fact, Bernard thought that the Latin word for wisdom “sapientia” derived from “sepora” which means taste. Curiously enough, there is also a tradition in Buddhism that speaks of the dharma or wise teachings not as a set of doctrines but as something that resembles a particular taste we can experience.[2] What is worthy of love, attention and emulation is that which has the taste of peace, the taste of emancipation or freedom from the suffering we experience and impose on self and other.

In our story about the Rabbi, the radish, despite its sharp and bitter taste, comes to represent the taste of peace and freedom. By joining an outcast in his enjoyment and inviting him to share more fully, the Rabbi creates an opportunity to taste peace and to offer freedom and relationship. The man and the Rabbi eat of it heartily. The others have yet to learn what they should really hunger for. What really makes for a good life in right relationship with God and their neighbor is a kind of authenticity and presence that fosters in self and other a taste for grace and peace. It fosters the possibility of growth and transformation, the possibility of a future beyond the challenges, successes and failings of the present moment.

The story embodies for me what Jesus announces in the beginning of our passage: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Essentially, the time is always now when we are invited to experience and taste this kingdom, which I sense as an experience or taste of community and well-being of the whole rather than a place to go after we die. It is this taste, which allows us to turn our lives around. This story also fundamentally portrays what Jesus meant when he invited his first disciples to go fish for people. As fishermen, they are now invited to use the gifts they have in a new venture of catching people and bringing them into the net, or rather, the network of belonging and grace. This way, everybody can come to taste how good God is.

The call to follow comes at a cost and requires the courage to step into the unknown, familiar fishing metaphors not withstanding. They are moving beyond the social conventions of propriety when James and John leave their father behind in the boat to continue the family’s work with the help of hired hands. They risk ostracism, ridicule and loss of connection for the sake of creating a broader circle of connectivity.  They take on this challenge without fully knowing what it means and who this Jesus really is. As their story of following unfolds they have much to learn just like the eager men who have gathered around the Rabbi’s table in our story. In fact, the disciples have to get caught by grace over and over again themselves.

Their Rabbi, Jesus, does not hold forth on abstract dogma but teaches through his actions, which are focused on inclusion, healing and liberation from what binds people. The disciples encounter Jesus as one who heals the sick, drives out demons, invites outcasts, takes time to pray, challenges anyone who makes out of salvation a source for power and business gain, imparts dignity and hope especially in the context of meals whether he is dining with sinners, feeding multitudes or offering himself symbolically at the last supper.

As we will hear in stories throughout the church year, the disciples stumble and fall along the way as they get caught up in wanting the wrong kind of power, in falling prey to their own fears and their ideas about propriety. Eventually, they even abandon Jesus in his greatest hour of need. Yet, despite themselves, they become the recipients of Jesus love and grace over and over again. In some resurrection stories that offer of forgiveness even involves Jesus preparing a feast of fish for these weary fishermen who then really come to taste grace and freedom as their own.

First Church has been a place for me where I have tasted that grace and peace spiced with a humility that knows that the journey of faith, discovery and growth is always ongoing. I have tasted grace and freedom when I have seen you engaged in caring for each other, for people in need and many other worthy causes – and there are too many to list them here without risking that I might forget some. You are always seeking to grow in embodied faith and love that invites deeper relationships and risk being vulnerable with each other, emotionally and economically. I have tasted this desire for peace and freedom also in many conversations with people who needed to share about personal wounds, unhelpful habits, questions of faith, and relational struggles. I have certainly personally tasted how good God is through your loving embrace and support when I have shared from a vulnerable place or struggled in some way.

While we will not be walking on the journey of faith together anymore in an immediate sense, I know I will take a taste of the feast of love of this place to nourish me along the way. I pray that we will all continue, wherever the journey takes us, to look for how Christ wants to draw others and us into his net of love. May we all have the wisdom to go after the bait of unconditional love, to chew on the gift of grace and make a loud smacking of lips so that others may hear and come to see how good God is. Amen.

Benediction

Hear the benediction in the words of the poet Hafiz:

How did the rose ever open its heart
and give to this world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of the light against its being,
otherwise we all remain too frightened.[3]

May the light of God’s love continue to shine on you so that you may be encouraged to keep giving the world all your beauty and light with open hearts, free from fear, full of grace. Amen.

[1] This story is taken from the book Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit & the Heart edited by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman.

[2] See Masao Abe’s chapter on Buddhism in Our Religions, edited by Arvind Sharma.

[3] David Ladinsky, Love Poems to God, (New York: Penguin, 2002), 161.

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