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A Food Network Soap Opera

“A Food Network Soap Opera”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Matthew 14.13-21

"Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children."

            Eddie Rosen, my neighbor and unofficial Jewish grandmother, asked me to take her granddaughter on a date.  An arranged match.  I was seventeen; Rachel was sixteen. Rachel was pretty and kind, gracious and intelligent, but there was absolutely no possible future for us.  No chemistry.  This was a one and done.

            But that date, the afternoon spent with Rachel, changed my life.  It was transforming.  During the awkward day spent in downtown San Diego struggling to make conversation, on this awkward day we finished our obvious lack of potential in a small café where I ordered raviolis.  I had never had raviolis like this, fresh raviolis, and I thought now was the time to try.

            Those raviolis undid everything.  The taste, the texture, the shape; its simplicity: rocked my world.

            The pasta was paper thin, which is so important.  There was parmesan and a bit of ricotta in the filling, but not much—just a bit.  And the sauce?  The sauce was simply butter.  No cream, no spice.  Not even a sprig of parsley, nor hint of red pepper.  To my knowledge there was not even a bit of garlic.  But this simple dish was transcendent; life changing.  This was the moment I tasted life.  And it was really good.  Life tasted good.

            I have had this experience many, many times since.  The moment where you taste life.  Thanks be to God only a few of these many moments were in the midst of awkwardness or suffered by my complete lack or courtship skills.  You never know when or where it will happen. I have experienced this in alleys and from a pushcart of a street vendor in huts in Africa eating my hands. 

            In 2018 Kathy and I were in the extremely beautiful and charming cliffside village on the western coast of Italy known as Cinque terre.  We had just arrived, dropped our bags and headed to one of the busy cafes lining the narrow streets.  There I ordered fresh anchovies marinated in lemon juice. There, right there, was a moment so sublime.  The place was beautiful, I was sharing the day with my lovely wife, and the anchovies were to die for.  So fresh, so much flavor and yet so subtle, so pure to the palate.

            You may be thinking, what in the world are we talking about?  This is a sermon, the word of God, a reflection meant to illumine the bible.  And if you are wondering this you can’t be more wrong.  I am not saying this is a great sermon, but in terms of reflecting the bible you are not far from the stuff of God’s word if you are talking about food.

            The bible, especially the Old Testament, is about food.  It gets mentioned without fail; it is a kind of lietmotif of every scene, especially the Exodus, the departure from Egypt to the Promise Land.  It’s all about food.  Quail and manna, water from the rock, a land flowing with milk and honey.  And before the Exodus when angels come to visit Abraham and Sara, she makes bread.  When Cain kills Abel it’s about food: his sacrifice is fruits and vegetables and Abel’s sacrifice is meat.

            I mean the whole sacrificial system of the tent and then temple, the offerings and gifts of the people are all about food, think barbeque.  The animals sacrificed were eaten. Hence I take my love of food as an obvious sign I am well suited to a priestly path. 

            I could keep going.  What is the first thing Noah does after the flood, he plants a vineyard and makes wine. 

            If you have never read the bible and your impression is that it is a long series of pious discussions or examples of godly living meant to inspire godly behavior, I’ve got a bit of insight for you.  There is nothing like.  All the characters are deeply flawed and provide no good example. 

            I see this clearly in weddings: couples getting married see how difficult it is to find something nice from the bible to read in their service.  It’s hard because the stories about people who are married are terrible.  I mean if you wanted to assign some bible readings at a culinary academy, there would be too much to choose from, too many passages about dishes and tastes, food and drink.  They are everywhere.  Nice stories not so much.

            This really came clear to me in Malawi.  I will never forget the first time I saw an offering.  A choir rose and sang and danced acapella and as their voices grew stronger and the rhythm got more intense the pastor would shout out the names of local villages and then people would walk or dance forward.  Some brought money, very modest amounts.  But others brought a bowl of rice or beans or a melon.  I have seen people bring a fish or a chicken.  It was all very biblical.

            Most of the bible is about three things: food, sex, and violence. 

            I was teaching a midweek bible study in our first church and for some unknown reason we were simply reading the Old Testament together.  We were going from chapter to chapter, book to book.  One morning a few years in reading the stories of the kings of Israel, Dottie Galloway protested.  She was someone who often began a conversation with a great explosion, like, O good Lord!  She shouted something like this and then said, “this is worse, worse than my soaps.  It’s just like a soap opera.  Someone is always fooling around and someone is always trying get revenge and kill someone.  Good lord.”

            Having grown up with the cast of All My Children, I joined the chorus of affirmation.  The stories were just like a soap opera.  Now, I would modify Dottie’s insight by saying it’s like a Food Network soap opera.  There is plenty of bad behavior and a lot of food.

            The New Testament is not as filled with food images as the Old Testament, this is true.  But the gospels do their fair share.  I mean what are the key moments of sacrament: water, wine, and bread.  What is the first miracle of Jesus: changing water into wine.  What is the last night of Jesus with his disciples: the last supper.  And there is the persistent mention of fish and fishing and fishermen.  The Gospel of John ends his message of good news on a beach with a charcoal fire where the resurrected Jesus makes breakfast for everyone. 

            And our reading today the feeding of the five thousand and the soon to follow four thousand, this is about food, people being hungry.  And it contains one of the few times Jesus directs his disciples to do something for others.  He says, you should feed them.  Sometimes I wonder about the great commission, where the resurrected Jesus bids his disciples to go out in the world and baptize people in his name.  I wonder if there was a missing piece Matthew didn’t record.  The missing piece would have been: baptize them “and feed them.”

            On a different day we will explore the persistence of betrayal and violence that the gospels record.  There is a fair bit of soap opera in the New Testament.  Not as much as the old, but the New Testament only records a few decades of life where the old testament spans millennia.  Lot more time for foolishness.

            Let’s get back to food.  I love to eat it, but even more I love to make food, cook food.  It is a meditative experience for me.  I am not being facetious.  When I cook my knife is very sharp and the pans tend to be quite hot, so I am focused.  For my part I have reached a level where cooking is a matter of heat and liquid and the timely application of spice or salt; it is rending of fat or the control of the flame.  It is a rather Buddhist path of being present in the moment, tasting the moment.  This is a very esoteric way of saying I tend not to follow recipes.  I chase the taste I am looking for.

            Before the pandemic I was working on one more attempt to find that taste in raviolis I had with Eddie’s granddaughter so long ago.  The recent iteration is goat cheese combined with roasted jalapenos and finely diced shrimp filling very thin fresh pasta made into the shape of a disc.  I added some heavy cream to the butter, lemon juice and cilantro.  Tasty, but still a work in process.

            I was not very kind to my mother when she would make a dish that my father would eat which meant the absence of spice or robust herb or seasoning.  Noticing my displeasure she would often protest, “but it’s made with love.”  To which my lack of compassion would respond, “love is fine, but salt is better here.  Salt the love next time.”

            The feeding of the five thousand is about food.  People want to turn the story into a kind of solidarity moment, where the hidden food carried by the people is brought out by the love of Jesus. The people feed themselves, share with one another.  I have heard that sermon before, may have even preached it as a new pastor.  It’s not bad; it’s just not true.

            And there is the temptation of spiritualizing bread and fish as the word of God and the teachings of the church.  In this interpretation the actual bread and fish are just metaphors of spiritual food we offer.  The actual bread and fish don’t really matter, they are just symbols. We spiritually feed people.

            I once wrote a sermon on the proper creation of scrambled eggs.  It is actually more of a challenge than you may think and the sermon made clear how often scrambled eggs are just poorly cooked.  No.  The scrambled egg is a true moment of mastery; you must practice it.  It took me two years to achieve.  The key to mastering the scrambled egg is to not overcook them.  They should appear almost uncooked really.  Most people make metaphorical scrambled eggs, more of a symbol than a reality. 

            The feeding of the five thousand is not a testimony to a shared life nor a symbol of our theological endeavors.  It was bread and fish and more than enough for all to eat.  There were leftovers, many, many leftovers.  This is completely consistent with the life of faith and devotion of the Jewish tradition.  The meals might have a metaphorical component or symbolic meaning, but somebody needs to eat the fish and eat the bread.  It’s not just there for show. 

            There is though a deviation, a change in our text from the way of food and relation in the Old Testament.  It is a very simple line, it happens to be my favorite line in the New Testament.  He had compassion.  He had compassion.  That’s it. This is the gospel of Matthew so it doesn’t say he loved the people or that God loved the people or that we should love each other.  It just says he had compassion.  He had compassion and he fed them.  That is it.

            Our reading today is the only story all four gospel tell of Jesus in Galilee with the people.  The gospels have common stories of his baptism and his crucifixion. But this one story of ministry, this is it.  So really important.  Of all the stories to share, this is the one they chose.  He had compassion and he fed the people.  I dare say, this is the measure of a life of faith.  Do you have compassion and do you feed the hungry?  That’s it.  No doctrines, no cosmic appeasement of angry gods, no visions of purity or glory.  He had compassion and he fed the hungry.  What if that is what we too must do?  Have compassion; feed the hungry. Just that.  Amen.     

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

January 9, 2022
Matthew 14:13-21

Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Senior Pastor & Head of Staff

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