Satisfying Meal

“Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’”

John 6:10-12

What would you say are the ingredients of a satisfying meal?

That is, what makes a satisfying meal that satisfies both our physical hunger and our spiritual hunger, our soul hunger?

Obviously it’s not just a matter of the quality or quantity of food.

For we know it’s possible to partake of the most heavenly, eye-popping, mouth-watering gourmet delicacies and still have one’s personal and spiritual hunger unsatisfied.

We know that it’s possible to eat one’s fill of marvelously prepared and tasteful food until one is foundered and still have a ravenous spiritual hunger.

It seems that one indispensable element in a really satisfying meal is a certain quality of companionship–

a quality of companionship that comes as a gift beyond all deserving and expectation, that comes as grace–

a quality of companionship that puts us at ease, that heals and rejuvenates us.

And don’t we get the picture that in the meals that Jesus presided over, whether at someone’s home or out in the open as in today’s gospel reading, that food and companionship were inseparable, that what was offered to hungry people along with food was a quality of welcome and mercy that staggered them?

Somehow a satisfying meal–food and companionship–seems to be a natural expression of Jesus’ gospel message.

And we might be so rash as to say that whenever someone partakes of a truly satisfying meal, that person, whether she knows it or not, has encountered the gospel.

Let me tell you a couple of true stories about satisfying meals.

A woman in her fifties could not remember any time of happiness in her childhood.

Her family lived in an old, run down house on the outskirts of a small Indiana town.

This family with its six children constantly teetered on the edge of poverty because her father was often sick and unable to work.

She described the atmosphere as grim and tense.

Her parents didn’t get along–her kind but passive father increasingly withdrew to the seclusion of a room off the back porch which he kept his wife from invading by constantly producing a barrier of cigarette smoke which she couldn’t tolerate.

Her mother was fretful, often hysterical, and always overwhelmed.

As the eldest child, this woman was early on pressed into duty as a full-time baby sitter, housekeeper, and little scullery maid.

As she looked back on it, her growing up years, except when she was at school or asleep, seemed to consist of unrelenting, unending toil.

It greatly distressed her that she couldn’t remember any occasions of happiness during these early years.

Then one night she had a dream.

She dreamed she was ten or eleven and was at her grandmother’s on a Sunday afternoon.

She was playing in the back yard with her brothers and sisters, cousins, and kids from the neighborhood.

They were running around, rolling on the grass, chasing each other, playing tag, kick ball, and tug ‘o war, climbing the one big tree in the yard.

And she was in the midst of it all, sweaty, red-faced, whooping and hollering, laughing, thoroughly enjoying herself.

When she awoke, she remembered that when she was a child, she and her family had indeed spent many Sunday afternoons at her grandmother’s.

And she suddenly recalled that as soon as she went through the front door, she felt this immediate sense of relief and liberation.

For here Grandma ruled the roost, and her grandmother’s one wish and expectation was that the children be turned loose and given free rein to play to their heart’s content.

Now it was a major revelation for this woman to discover, to remember, that there had been this happiness in her childhood.

And then she began to wonder what had inspired this dream.

It took her two days to figure it out.

The day before her dream she had made a huge pot of chili for a church supper.

After her dream, she remembered that whenever she and her family would visit her grandmother on Sunday afternoons, her grandmother would have ready for them a great container of chili that was more than enough for everyone and that the kids could dip into whenever they wanted.

For this woman, chili had become a sacrament of remembrance and celebration; for even though she didn’t realize it, she had preserved a sensory, tactile memory of chili as a sacrament of childhood happiness and companionship.

The second story concerns an Englishman named Michael Young, otherwise known as Lord Young of Dartington, who died in January of this year at the age of 86 and whose son wrote the following:

In spite of the fact that my father died on Monday night, I feel strangely lucky. Over the course of the past 20 years he had battled three types of cancer but, right up until the last day of his life, he made absolutely no concessions to old age. Indeed, he made very few concessions on the last day, firing off thank-you letters to various doctors, tidying up his affairs, playing with his five-year-old granddaughter. He did perhaps six hours’ work, instead of his usual 10. Not bad for a man of 86.

The last time I saw him – properly – was over dinner at Marine Ices last week. It was his idea to go to Marine Ices, an Italian restaurant in Chalk Farm that specializes in home-made ice cream. We hadn’t been there since I was a teenager. My sister and I had arranged to have dinner with him and he unexpectedly announced that he had a craving for Milanese, a Marine Ices specialty. Apparently, he hadn’t had this particular dish for 60 years, but it was something he remembered liking very much. He wasn’t disappointed. He wolfed it down.

This inevitably led to a discussion about his favorite dish of all: Heinz tomato soup. Oddly, his fondness for tomato soup – he often had it twice a day, for lunch as well as supper – contains the key to his whole character. In a peculiar way, it’s intimately bound up with his extraordinarily productive life: his pivotal role in the creation of the welfare state, his groundbreaking work as a social scientist in the East End, his creation of the Open University – all are connected to his passion for this cheap, orange gunk.

His love affair with tomato soup began with a memorable evening meal when he was seven years old. He’d arrived from Australia with his mother by ship that morning and his father had been at the dock to greet them.They hadn’t seen him for over a year. My father was particularly anxious about this meeting because 12 months earlier, when his parents had split up, they’d talked about giving him up for adoption. This had left him with a crippling fear of abandonment, a fear that had only increased as he’d witnessed his mother’s daily struggle to survive. They went back to his father’s rather modest flat – he was a journalist on the Sunday Express – where he’d prepared some food. Seeing his parents together for the first time in 12 months, my father was suddenly filled with hope. Maybe, just maybe, they’d get back together! His fear of abandonment began to subside and, for a brief, fleeting moment, he felt secure again. Inevitably, this feeling of safety became inextricably linked with the meal his father served up that night: tomato soup accompanied by liberal quantities of bread and cheese.

Such chronic insecurity isn’t something you’d wish on anyone, but if my father had had a happier childhood it’s doubtful he would have had such a dazzling career. This primordial fear – a fear of being alone in the world, abandoned and unloved – never left him; it was the wellspring of everything he achieved. All the organizations he set up, from the Consumers’ Association in 1956 to the National Association of Sick Children in 1993, were designed to provide a home for people otherwise left out in the cold. The last organization he set up, Grandparents Plus, which was launched last year, was intended to make it easier for grandparents to foster their grandchildren in the event of their parents’ death. Michael’s paternal grandmother was the only relative willing to take him when his parents first aired the possibility of having him adopted.

His compassion never left him, even when he was in need of some himself. In December he spent some time in hospital, having been diagnosed with bone cancer. However, rather than dwell on his own misfortune, he spent the time dreaming up ways to improve the National Health Service and writing letters, packed with suggestions, to hospital trusts. He was particularly concerned about the plight of those at the bottom of the hospital food chain: the ‘dinner ladies’, the underclass who wheel the food trolleys around at mealtimes. I quote from one of his letters: ‘They are Africans, with almost no English. They are apparently employed by a contractor, as are the cleaning staff who are a notch higher. Do they even get the minimum wage? There seems to be little or no interaction with the various kinds of staff higher up in the hierarchy. Is any effort made to teach them English? I doubt it.’ (His son concludes his remembrance by adding) It’s no coincidence that these ‘dinner ladies’, many of whom my father befriended, were the people bringing him his beloved tomato soup every day.

So it is that a certain kind of food–chili, tomato soup, bread and wine–becomes a sacrament of a satisfying meal, a sacrament of redemptive companionship that comes as a gift beyond all deserving and expectation, that comes as the grace of God, that welcomes, heals, and rejuvenates us.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
7 Pentecost