Jesus in a fish stick, a burnt piece of toast, or in the knot of a tree. His mother, Mary, on a grilled cheese sandwich. No, this is not a new church marketing scheme, and no, this is not another one of my crazy ideas to have a broader community presence—although I still think the roof-top chapel is a viable option for us, but I digress. This is actually about how increasingly, Jesus, Mary and even angels have chosen to forego traditional theophanies, or conventional methods of communication, and have instead revealed themselves in plant life, and culinary mistakes.
Fred Whan, an Ontario man in Kingston, after burning his family’s dinner, found, with the help of his son, the face of Jesus on a fish stick. He then froze it and put it up for auction on eBay.
Diana Driscol of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, declared she had found an image of the Virgin Mary on her burnt grilled cheese sandwich. She, too, auctioned it off, selling it to GoldenPalace.com for $28,000. In her eBay ad, she wrote: “I would like all people to know that I do believe this is the Virgin Mary Mother of God. That is my solemn belief.”
Elsewhere, halfway around the world, Remona Peterson of Lavender Hill, South Africa, saw the silhouette of Christ in a knot hole of a tree.
And believe it or not, just this morning, I had this encounter with my breakfast!
Now I apologize for being flippant with how others have encountered the divine—although I do wonder if it is spiritual inspiration or opportunistic greed that is behind a person sharing with the EBay world a burnt fish stick or grilled cheese sandwich.
So what do we make of this? Has God abandoned God’s usual means of revelation and come to us in these obtuse and unconventional ways? Or have our imaginations just run away with us? Reactions to these images of these divine have been mixed. Some have poked fun at the images, especially those found in the “miraculous” food items. Others apparently, based upon someone spending twenty-eight thousand dollars, feel differently. No matter what you think about these “miraculous” images of the divine, these latter-day theophanies do point to a yearning in our culture to find and encounter Christ.
Pastor Dan French explains, “We’re all looking for the same thing, some faith-worthy sign to give us at least a fleeting clue on how to live our best lives and be our best selves in a confused, nearly unnavigable world.” Which is true. We dream of touching what we know only by faith, and whether it be in an old sandwich, some burnt fish sticks, or our own church altar, these images let us glimpse, with our own eyes, the unseen Christ.
The problem here is that these cheesy images also pose a real danger to our faith. How in the world do you lift up a God worthy of praise and thanksgiving when you’ve just found him on a fish stick? Where is my faith for a transcendent God when that God is not much more than a commodity on eBay?
After all, a God we have to save from the garbage disposal or that emerged from our own culinary mistake does nothing worthy of praise. Thanking a God we can sell or own or that we can reproduce with cleverly wrapped tin foil is a waste of our time.
And again, this is not to disparage the faith of those who genuinely marvel at the images they find in off places or objects, it’s not to say that their faith isn’t fervent. But perhaps we can grow beyond this. Maybe instead of pawing through a pile of potatoes to find one that looks like Jesus, maybe there is a better way to encounter the divine in real and tangible ways.
Psalm 100 urges us to prepare for the coming of the Lord by calling us back to: worship, thanksgiving, and praise. Not surprising, there is no hint that we should look for images of the divine in potatoes, fish sticks or sandwiches. But it does offer instructions and direction to follow so that we can see the divine.
This is a Psalm of Thanksgiving, imploring us to make a joyful noise in song, to enter God’s gate with thanksgiving and praise because: God made us, God loves us, we belong to God, and because God is all around us. God is our maker. God is not made by us. Those “miraculous images” of Jesus and Mary were all made by human hands. The sandwich was made by a mother. The fish stick was made by a dad. The tree was pruned by a worker. All done by human beings.
But the things that matter, the things that have meaning and purpose in life—our families, our very being, every breath we take, the blessings that give life to life—these are all created and formed and given by God, and they are all a gift—not created by us, not seen only if you turn something one way and tilt your head the other. They are sometimes not even seen, but can only be felt and experienced.
Scripture tells us: “…in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” We are God’s creation. God is not our creation. And as God’s creation, we thank and praise God because our understanding is limited. We only know for certain that it was God’s hands that fashioned us together. Everything else is theory and mystery. God is not ours to possess, and certainly not ours to sell for profit.
Years ago, Readers Digest ran an article about a doctor who used to see a lot of patients who struggled with depression and general failure to thrive. This doctor would include in his care not just medications, but he would also prescribe a “Thank-you” regiment, which requires his patients that for the next six weeks to say “Thank you” for every good thing that happened to them—no matter how small. If someone opened the door for them—thank you. If someone complimented their clothing—thank you. If someone invited them to lunch, gave them a gift, helped them in anyway, let them go ahead of them in line at the grocery store—whatever it was, they were to offer thanks.
But the “Thank-you” regiment didn’t stop there. Additionally, patients were to write down, in a journal, every instance with details. By the end of the six-weeks, patients had pages and pages of reminders of how blessed they were. After years of this practice, the doctor reported that the recovery rate for those who were depressed and failed to thrive was remarkable.
Journalist Nancy Leigh DeMoss wrote about this concept in an issue of Just Between Us, a magazine that focuses on lives of faith. She writes, “For those who may be deficient in the gratitude department (which includes all of us from time to time), I’d like to coin a new word and term: ‘gratitudinal change’, a play on the term ‘institutional change.’ In appealing for ‘gratitudinal change’ I am not calling you to something that’s trivial and inconsequential, much less something that’s contrived or insincere. When gratitude becomes your default setting, life changes… the whole world looks different when you yourself are looking different—i.e. looking at the same thing differently.
A problem that used to bury you now takes its rightful place behind twenty other blessings that are bigger than it will ever be. A recurring issue that once brought out a whole range of pent-up emotions now only produces a new excuse for praising God with greater fervor than ever, knowing God is true and trustworthy.”
It seems that Nancy Leigh DeMoss has read Psalm 100, which, again, ends saying, “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
We give God thanks and praise for the sole reason that God loves us so much. God went into death itself to claim us as God’s own. God loved us before we even began to love God and for this God deserves our thanks and praise, and it is in doing this—giving thanks to God for all that gives life life—that we can see the tangible reality of God—the tangible images of God.
Now come Thursday—and whenever this windbag preacher gets this service over with—we will all celebrate the blessings of life through our Thanksgiving celebrations. We will gather together to watch a parade, a football game or two or three, we will carve a turkey, mash potatoes, and relish cranberries. (See what I did there?!)
It is my prayer that instead of looking for images of Christ in turkey carvings or mountains of mashed potatoes and gravy, instead of praying for signs from God through the securing of Black Friday “must-haves”, we will look for Christ in those around the table with us—because if we long to see Christ, we need only to look around.
Christ can be seen in the faces of our neighbors. Christ can be seen the ones who serve us, and keep us safe, healthy, and well. Christ can be seen in the stranger. Christ can be seen in the child. Christ can be seen in the sick, lonely, and homeless. Christ can be seen in the brightest of days and in even the dimmest of nights, when we fill ourselves with the reality and the sights of the blessings that give life life.
It is not surprising to see people clamoring for a glimpse of the divine in everyday life. Lord knows we see enough hate, despair, outrage, and greed day in and day out. We long to see the divine because we need such an image to remind us that in a world that seems determined to destroy itself, that God has not giving up, that God is still at work creating life.
So if you want to see the divine—forget looking in culinary mistakes, and instead, look for the divine in all that moves you to say “Thank you.”
For it is in those places when images of the divine can be clearly seen.
Happy Thanksgiving. Amen.