August 27th – Steve Jungkeit
Texts: Psalm 23;
Luke 15: 11-24
Thou Preparest a Table Before Me
No audio available – sorry.
The day is May 24, 1942. The morning finds a young German literature professor, named Daniel Decourdemanche in a German prison, composing a letter to his parents shortly before his execution. He was, to put it mildly, unsympathetic to his country’s xenophobic ambitions, and so in return, his country became unsympathetic toward him. His letter is remarkable for its steadiness and resolve. He admits that religion has not been the place he has turned for comfort. He declares his love for his parents, and urges them to care for a woman he loves. But then his letter takes a turn toward something both surprising and not: food. He asks that a menu from a restaurant near Versailles be sent to his lover’s parents. But then Decourdemanche continues:
“All these last days I have thought a lot about the good meals that we should have together when I was free. You will eat them without me, all the family together – but not sadly, please! During these last two months of solitude without even anything to read I have run over in my mind all my travels, all my experiences, all the meals that I have eaten. I had an excellent meal with Sylvain on the 17th. I have often thought of it with pleasure, as well as of the New Year’s supper with Pierre and Renee. Questions of food, you see, have taken on a great importance.”
What does it mean that hours before he dies, Daniel Decourdemanche is rehearsing the meals he has tasted? What does it mean that shortly before facing the end, he wishes to send a menu to a friend’s parents? What does it mean that in his final moments, Decour (as he was known), took comfort in the imagination of the meals his family would share after he was gone?
Let’s broaden the questions. Let’s frame it this way. What’s the relationship between food and troubled times, between pleasure and struggle, between taste and crisis? I confess that at times, I’m tempted to believe that those categories are wholly at odds with one another. I’m tempted to believe that when confronted with questions of moral or spiritual urgency, it’s frivolous to concern oneself with something like food. I confess that even this week, as I imagined speaking about this topic today, I wondered if I was being irresponsible as a preacher and minister, given all the other urgent concerns around us at the moment. Here’s my self talk this week: “White supremacists are marching and organizing and garbing themselves not in sheets, but in designer clothes and with economic and social theory. They’re out there staking a claim in universities with endowed chairs and they’re gaining voices of prominence in local and national office across the land. They’re arguing that preachers shouldn’t object to any of it in church, because it’s, you know, too political, and you, Steve, want to use the time granted to you as a follower of Jesus to talk about….what, swapping recipes from Rachel Ray? Casseroles? Cupcake wars? Burgers and dogs on the 4th?”
To which, another part of me can only respond: “You’re damn right.” You could, of course, raise the same objections about poetry, or fiction, or the visual arts, or music, or dance, or virtually any of the arts as secondary or tertiary to human consideration in a time of trouble. You could do that, as many have and as many do, but it’s not long before all of life takes on a gray and depressed hue, while spirits everywhere become as flattened and two dimensional as a cardboard cutout. God forbid. Decour knows something that we need to learn, or recall, a truth everywhere echoed throughout our faith tradition. Food is precisely what we need in a moment of uncertainty. To risk pleasure, even if for an instant, is precisely what we need in times of upheaval. As one writer puts it, the table, and the conversations that take place around it, is the raft on which we sail through the strains, stresses and storms of life. It’s over food that we so often work things out. It’s over food that we so often celebrate life passages. It’s food, as often as not, that marks the still points within our day. It’s food that provides strength and encouragement in the midst of danger.
There’s a telling and important scene in the recent film Selma, when MLK and other leaders of the civil rights movement are gearing up for the conflict ahead. Before they take to the streets, they gather at a home for one of those Southern breakfasts that makes me want to hop in my car and drive 15 or 20 hours to experience it – coffee and biscuits and gravy and eggs and bacon, all done up just so. They know they’re about to take a beating, but there’s laughter and delight around the table. It’s as if the biscuits themselves are great doughy lumps of courage and wisdom. It’s as if they’re saying, “You’re about to pass through an ordeal of epic proportions, but take heart in the pleasure you find here, now, and remember that other such moments await you, in the midst of your struggle, after your struggle. Take your lumps for the sake of justice, those biscuits say, but take your lumps of pleasure as well, because that too, that too, is a reminder of what it is to be human.
Decours knew that and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement knew that. But the Bible knows it too. It’s inscribed right at the center of our faith tradition. Think of the meal that Jesus takes great pains to prepare, and then to share, with his friends just before he faces his own execution. Why does he do that? What’s food doing in that scene? Think of the meal he prepares on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection – why does Jesus become a chef in that of all moments? What’s the role of food in that moment? Think of the meal that the father of the prodigal prepares when his lost son returns after what must seem an enormous betrayal – the father, it turns out, is just as prodigal as his son. And think of that all important phrase from Psalm 23, the phrase that I’ve chosen for my title this morning: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
In that most beloved and well known passage in all of the Bible, those two realities – food and crisis, eating and conflict, are explicitly joined. The image moves in two directions. By placing food and struggle together, it suggests, perhaps, that difficulties with others might be overcome not through preparation for battle, but through the preparation of a table. Sharp edges are softened when bread is available. That’s one direction, but here’s another. I’ve come to believe that the enemies in question might also be understood as the internal voices that sometimes war within us, the voices that erode our sense of confidence and well-being. I’ve known them, and maybe you have too – the ones that say: “I’m not worth all that much. I don’t have anything of value to contribute or offer. I don’t make much of a difference. I don’t matter. I’m a mess, and I make other people’s lives messy too.” Those are voices that can and do speak within each of us from time to time. And of course, they can be magnified by real voices that do speak around us, voices that really do devalue human life and dignity based on the color of one’s skin, or one’s age, or one’s body shape, or one’s national origin, or one’s economic status. For some of us those voices are noisy and insistent. For others of us, they’re mostly kept in check. But those internal voices can become enemies that wither our spirits, shrinking our souls. I like to think that the Psalm is a kind of intercession within that self talk, a way of saying, “You’re worth it. Even as all those voices can and do assail you, here’s a meal, here’s food, to remind you just how valuable you are. Here’s a loaf of bread to remind you just how beautiful you are. Take and eat. Because good Lord, you’re worth it. Might those enemies, those voices, be put to rest, at least for a time, by the care of a well prepared meal?
A final thought, a final parable. One of my habits of late is to keep a list of the America’s Classic Award Winners handy, restaurants honored year by year by the James Beard Foundation for their longevity, ambience, and cuisine. These aren’t fancy places. Sometimes they’re dives, but they’re uniformly good. Every time our family rolls through a new town, we check the list to see if anything is listed, and then, if fate and time allow, we chase down the lead like hounds trailing a rabbit. There was the old Polish place in Cleveland, and the Mexican joint in Albuquerque. There was the all in one car wash and breakfast stand in El Paso, and the sno-ball stand in New Orleans, the hot dog counter in Providence, the hot chicken shack in Nashville. Over the years we’ve collected those experiences the way some people collect stamps or coins. This year, as we rolled past Birmingham, we caught wind of an old Greek restaurant on the list called The Bright Star. It was in a suburb outside of the city that had seen better days, a place where Greek and Italian immigrants had once resided alongside African Americans, exiles and outcasts all. We had already driven about 6 hours that day, everyone was tired, and we were all, to be frank, a little bitchy with one another. The kids didn’t want to be there, and we were on the verge of one of those meltdowns that you see sometimes in Target or Walmart, the kind that make you wince and sympathize at the same time. Inside, the place showed its age, and it smelled a little funny, which didn’t help the situation. We were right on the edge of becoming our own enemies.
But then a server with an upbeat and gracious demeanor appeared. We made some decisions, and shortly after that two warm and buttery loaves of bread arrived, and we passed it around and took a bite, and each and every one of us, from 5 to 43, went, “Whoa!” And then a couple of deceptively simple but delicious salads arrived, with anchovies on top and feta cheese and an oil based dressing that made both Rachael and I go, “Whoa!” And then plates of food arrived that weren’t frilly or fussy but were just straight up perfect – plates of pasta for the kids, a perfectly cooked steak, and more of the bread to soak up all the drippings. When that was done, pie was served, which was so lush and rich that the next day I added a couple miles to my morning run as recompense. But here’s the little miracle of it all. We had entered the restaurant on the brink of a fight. By the time we left, we were giggling and a little giddy and glad to be together and grateful for what seemed like a gift, like grace. The gift was a delicious meal, but really, the gift was the pleasure we suddenly discovered in one another. If, perish the thought, I were ever forced to write a letter such as the one Daniel Decourdemanche wrote, that’s the meal that I would reference, and that’s the menu that I would send.
Sometimes it’s the table, and the ordinary pleasures it provides, that calms a weary soul, that comforts a person in distress, that bestows courage in a time of struggle, that draws a fractious and tired family together. Sometimes it’s bread that softens the sharp edges around us. Sometimes it’s a meal that can orient us toward things that matter. Sometimes it’s good to quit talking for a little while, and to just eat and drink with one another. Take and eat.
 Gopnik, Adam, The Table Comes First (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), pgs. 3-4.
 Gopnik, pg. 9.