Raising New York since 1929, or earlier.
I was at Eisenberg’s the other day. You know Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, on 5th Ave and 22nd street, which claims to be open since 1929? Their motto is "Raising New York's Cholesterol since 1929". The place was packed, 26 counter seats and every table filled with people looking to be fed. I was there with a former student, who was fascinated that the first thing on the menu was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for “three fitty”. He got “The Jake”, some kind of chicken and cheese deal, and I got a Cuban sandwich. We both agreed that the food was de-lish. We both loved the humility of the little restaurant and the humility of its simple food, and we both knew how good it is to be fed like that. And as my friend was eating and talking across the table from me, I suddenly recognized him in a different way than I had before.
Like many of my students, this kid was always hungry for food, and his body was probably still growing then, but he was also hungry for much more. A hunger to understand the world, to discover his own unique gifts and path, a hunger most especially to be loved. Sometimes I’d look out at my students before we started class, watching them chatting with each other, flirting at times, some lost in their worries, some organizing and preparing, some looking very alone, and I‘d think about how much we are alike, students and professors, all of us sitting at the table, hoping for a good meal to satisfy the existential uneasiness and apprehension of our lives.
After Eisenberg’s we walked around in the beautiful sunshine yesterday, finally sitting down in a park to talk. The conversation got deep—it always does with this young man—and he expressed his skepticism about any kind of existence after we die. He was raised in Catholic schools, but like so many, he can’t buy the key story of Jesus—resurrected life. It all seems like a fairy tale to him. And yet, as we spoke about the purpose of our lives, about his own future with a wife and children, I sensed that he hungered for more than, well, just this. What’s the purpose of creating more life if you really believe that we are just a biological accident, that none of us, none of this…universe has any meaning other than it just is for now? I believe that there will come a moment, maybe when he has endured the joys and trials of parenting, after he has weathered serious losses in his life, when my young friend may be able to recognize the answer that his hunger has always been seeking.
I was thinking about that piece of fish that Jesus ate in front of his frightened friends in today’s Gospel---a Gospel, by the way, which I like a lot because what Jesus does is so normal that it’s ridiculous. He astonishes his friends by suddenly appearing to them where they are hiding---abracadabra—and in the middle of this fantastic magic show, he asks them if they have any eats, like he was famished from all the resurrecting he had gone through. I imagined that the disciples looked at each other with a ‘what, is he kidding?’ expression on their faces, and then they gave him a piece of fish to eat, and he ate it and kept on talking. That had to be weird, and funny in a way too. But afterwards, after he had disappeared again—abracadabra—and the disciples were all alone by themselves trying to figure out what just happened here, I wonder if there was a piece of that fish left over—you know, like Jesus took two bites of it or something and put the rest of it down on the table as he continued to talk…I wonder if there were some leftovers of the fish with his teeth marks still on it. And if there were, surely the disciples would have held onto that leftover piece of fish, proof of his appearance to them in that place. It would have been a relic—look, here are Jesus’ teethmarks in this piece of fish, he ate this in our presence after the resurrection. I remember a friend of mine who bragged about a meeting he attended where he sat right next to Richard Nixon, and he had a napkin that he said Nixon had used to wipe the sweat from his brow. At first it sounded pretty cool, but then afterwards we were all a little skeptical. Sweat on a napkin is a little sketchy, even if it was Richard Nixon’s.
I was at a wedding not long ago, and the ring-bearer was a cute little kid named Ryan, all of four or five years old. During the wedding, Ryan’s mom looked on proudly as he walked up the aisle. His dad wasn’t there. He was a firefighter and had died in the line of duty, trying to save people trapped in a fire. Ryan did a great job, got the rings to the altar, charming the whole church in the process. He handed over the rings, threw both his hands in the air and said “Yipeeee!”.
Later, when the Mass and the wedding was over and the bride and groom were in a receiving line at the back of the church, I was cleaning up around the altar, and Ryan came over to talk to me. “Hi,” he said. “Hi,” I said back. He hesitated, looking at me doing my thing, but I could tell that he had something on his mind. “What up, Ryan”, I asked. He suddenly got shy, and looked at the ground, kicking his feet on the wedding runner. Then he blurted it out. “I saw my Daddy.” I stopped my business, and went over to him. “You did?”. “Uh huh,” he said. “Where did you see him?”, I asked. He pointed way up high, above the choir loft. I hadn’t noticed before, it was a big church, but there was a statue of Jesus spotlighted up there, both hands up in the air. Jesus, resurrected. “What was he doing, Ryan?”, I asked. He said that his daddy was standing next to Jesus, that they were talking to each other and laughing, and having a good time and eating M & M’s. “Do you like M & M’s?”, I asked him. “Sure, he said, and pulled some out of his pocket to show me. Nice, I said. Then Ryan blurted out, “My daddy waved at me.” Really, I said. Uh huh.
He looked up at the statue. So did I. Jesus was standing there, arms raised. He looked happy, and peaceful. I asked Ryan if his daddy was still standing there with Jesus. “Of course not, silly,” he said. I pretended not to be as stupid as I sounded. “Yeah, of course not,” I said. “What was I thinking?” He took another look at the statue, and then he said, “OK, I gotta go.” OK, I said, see ya. And he went running to the back of the church to find his mommy and receive all the oooos and ahhhs that little ringbearers receive at a wedding.
I really want to believe that little Ryan’s Daddy and Jesus were eating M & M’s above the choir loft. Sometimes I’m as hungry as that little boy, and that’s the reason why I’m standing before you right now. And as I look out at all of you, I think it’s the reason why you are here as well. We are hungry to make sense of this often confusing and difficult world, hungry to know who we are, hungry to know who we belong to, hungry to know what’s the right thing to do with our lives. You and come here with the hope that we will be astonished by his resurrected appearance at this very humble meal. It’s perhaps the best way to make sense of our incomprehensibly bewildering universe. It’s perhaps the only way for us to make sense of the joys and the trials and yes, the suffering of our lives. Jesus comes to us right here, revealing himself in a humble little meal at this counter, resurrected and starving to be with us in our very human lives.
And here’s the good news: just a little bit of resurrected life gives you an appetite for more. Like little Ryan, it helps you to carry on through days of trial and days of challenge, following the trail of M & M’s—or more appropriately, the Bread of Life---that leads you to the Love that transcends death of this flesh and blood.
It’s Easter season, and we have another 35 days or so to absorb the meaning of these astounding, mind-blowing, breathtaking resurrected appearances. That includes what happens here at this table. Do not be deceived by the humility of the meal or of the place. Do not treat it as routine ritual. If we look upon it with little Ryan’s eyes, we will receive all the love of eternity in our hands and on our tongues, so that we can share it as true disciples and apostles in the name of Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, we can make his Love evident over a peanut butter sandwich at Eisenberg’s, coining our own motto: Raising New York since 1929... or Maybe Earlier.