Sensing the Gospel 3: Taste

When Pat asked me to take one of these Wednesday evening services

and asked if I would do the one on “taste,”

I began thinking about what tastes I first associated with our church.

Immediately Mrs. LeClair’s spaghetti sauce came to mind, more to the point-- to my salivary glands.

When I was in the youth group back in the early 1960s,

one of the sure-fire fundraisers for youth programming was having spaghetti dinners

in the then brand-new fellowship hall.

The place would be packed with church folk and people from the neighborhood,

and I can still see the steam filling the kitchen as the pasta cooked and the sauce bubbled up.

So, yes, rich, savory, tomato sauce!

The second taste that came to mind had still another connection to fundraising by and for the youth.

I can still see the stack of round, green metal tins that held mouthwatering mint candy,

those melt-in-your-mouth peppermint pillows.

Now the minty taste is the more pleasant memory,

but also associated with those six tins is Al Bombard’s scowl

when he persisted in asking for the money for the cans I sold…or didn’t sell.

I think I may have sold one, and that was to my parents.

I probably ate my way through the others,

and hoped Al would forget the bookkeeping part of this project.

He didn’t. But the candy was fresh and minty enough to open sinuses.

Oh, and to add one liturgical taste to the blend: grape juice at Communion.

The bread was forgettable, tiny white cubes of nondescript dough.

But the grape juice was sweet and fruity, and much appreciated as the 11 o’clock worship service

ran over the noon dinner hour and David Cook and I were glad for anything to drink at that point.

The sacrament was theologically beyond our reach, I guess,

because one Sunday Dave and I got giggling as we pictured the minister’s wife stomping on the grapes

in her bare feet. (But I digress.)

Those were the first tastes I got of church as a kid.

Now I have put away childish things and realize how significant food and drink are

to the life and fellowship of the Christian crowd, apart from youth group fundraisers.

The scriptures are full of references to the shared palates, plates, and pantries of the people of God!

Bread, fruits, vegetables, dairy products were the staples of Israel,

and of course, for everybody on God’s green earth.

For the average Israelite, meat was part of the diet too,

but was too expensive for anything but special occasions.

And, we know there were lots of fish in the seas.

Besides providing sustenance, food was connected with social bonding and relationships.

Covenants were sometimes sealed with food, people received food as wages or paid off loans with it. Food was an offering made to God, and came to have rich symbolic and theological value.

Look at the Seder, for example.

Generation after generation, as Jews celebrate the Seder meal...tastes are both real and symbolic…

Wine is the symbol of joy and happiness.

Karpas...onion or boiled potato, dipped in salt water which alludes to tears;

matzah is thebread of poverty;

bitter herbs remind those at the table of the tribulations of God’s chosen people.

And roasted eggs...why? A rabbi once said that the egg symbolizes the Jew…

The more an egg is burned or boiled, the harder it gets.

We needn’t list here all the mentions of things to taste in the Bible, but we can summarize,

noting that in the Hebrew scriptures, there are references to rich wines, appreciated but cautionary. Psalm 104: the Lord is praised for the gift of bringing forth food from the earth,

and wine to gladden the human heart.” But too much gladdening was frowned upon!

We know of the land flowing with milk and honey… of manna, berries, and breads.

And Isaiah’s prophesy adds these ingredients to the mix that is salvation:

“On this mountain the Lord All-Powerful will prepare for all nations a feast of the finest foods.

Choice wines and the best meats will be served.”

(Though there is no mention of Mrs. LeClaire’s spaghetti sauce for some reason.)

The menu isn’t all that different in the New Testament:

Lots of mentions of grains and wine again, but add some fish too.

In fact, I’ve always loved that post-resurrection appearance of Jesus

offering his version of Doug’s Fish Fry

to the disciples coming from their fishing boats onto the beach.

But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves on this Lenten path.

Let’s go back:

Jesus in the wilderness, famished, coveting bread.

How quickly we read those familiar words about Jesus fasting, without thinking

about how he must have yearned to smell the dough baking,

feel the texture of the warm bread,

and taste the rich hunks of  that which satisfies  the hungry and fills the needy.

Of course, we need not be reminded that we do not live by bread alone,

but we DO live by bread most certainly.

At the end of his time among us, it was bread dipped in sauce that signaled his betrayer.

Back to wine: remember, early on in his ministry, Jesus produced the finest wine at a wedding...

after just one taste, the steward pronounced it the very best offered at the celebration.

And then, at the end of his ministry, on the night when he was betrayed,

he poured and shared the wine at the last supper,

and we all share in that cup that signifies the new covenant in his bloodline.

On the cross, the taste was that of vinegar offered on a sponge.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus ate and drank with all kinds,

and was roundly criticized for it.

The religious elite didn’t like that he ate with sinners,

or that his disciples munched on grains on the Sabbath.

Jesus was even accused of gluttony and drunkenness (Matt. 11:19),

so often did he find himself enjoying food and drink with all the saints and sinners he loved.

And now look at us, his modern day sinning and saintly disciples.

We can barely show up at church with munching, lunching, and crunching.

It’s obvious that the place of food in our lives is more than just digestible sustenance.

Our mere consumption of meals and snacks and the liquids that wash them down

contributes to the strength of community spirit and fellowship.

Sacramentally, yes, we have our “Holy” communion, but even in so-called secular settings,

we find something of the sacred when we share a meal.

Remember that book Eat, Pray, and Love. (Gilbert, 2006)

While visiting Italy, author Elizabeth Gilbert helps prepare a birthday meal for her friend Luca.

His birthday coincides that year with America’s Thanksgiving Day,

which the author describes as “a day of grace and thanks and community and—yes—pleasure.”

An American friend Deborah and several others gather at the table,

and after several bottles of Sardinian wine,

“Deborah introduces to the table the suggestion that we follow a nice American custom…

by joining hands and—each in turn—saying what we are most grateful for.

In three languages, then, this montage of gratitude comes forth, one testimony at a time.”

In that brief excerpt is found what one might describe as a spiritual meal, full of ritual

(requisite wine, hand-holding, and personal testimony) and communion,

yet by no means a formal religious feast as defined by doctrine or commanded by law.

While the context of that particular meal may have been “secular,”

the elements of food and fellowship provided an experience that fed the spirit as well as the body.

My monastery experience and place of food at table.

I sat at table in the Guest House of Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist Monastery in Berryville, Virginia,

with the guest master Father Stephen at the head of the table,

and six other retreatants gathered round.

After Father Stephen had offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the food we were about to enjoy from the bounty of God's creation, he stabbed his fork into his vegetarian salad,

and encouraged the rest of us to pass the large platter of roast beef around the table.

The meat had come from beef cattle the monks raised on their 1200 acre farm

along the Shenandoah River, just yards from the Guest House.

Stephen abstained from meat, following the sixth century rule of St. Benedict:

“Except the sick who are very weak,

let all abstain entirely from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.”

Yet, the monks’ livelihood came from raising beef for others to eat.

Stephen’s traditions included spiritual fasting as well as observing Roman Catholic “feast days.”

As the lone Presbyterian at the table that day, my own eating habits

were less guided by religious ritual, health issues, and even conscience than by my physical appetite.

Many things have changed in the thirty-five years since that meal.

The monks found raising cattle to be less than profitable, and even stopped baking Monastery Bread, though they use the ovens for brandy-fueled fruit cake production to support their religious vocation.  And I am far more aware that the food I choose to eat not only directly impacts my health,

but has profound ramifications for the health of the planet itself, as well as that of my global neighbors.

I also have come to value the rhythms of feasting and fasting that help pace one’s spiritual journey.

One thing has not changed as I look back to that monastery meal:

though from different ecclesiastical traditions which cannot yet share in the bread and wine sacramental supper we both refer to as “Holy Communion,”

there was a sense of spiritual union and fellowship around that dinner table,

friendship created and nurtured in the context of tables set, plates passed,

food tasted and appreciated,

and dishes washed by hand. 

Had a Buddhist joined us around the table, he or she would have shared in the salad, but not the beef.

A Jew would have enjoyed the beef, but passed on the pork had it been offered.

And a Taoist might have cautioned us with words from the Tao Te Ching,

"To take all one wants is never so good as to stop when one should."

Well, enough said.

Now, let us share in a tasteful experience of communion, not the Church’s sacrament,

but the building of fellowship among those who have this in common:

We have heard the exhortation to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Taste as in try, sample, test the Lord, and see how good it is that we are together.

But lest we forget the literal gift of taste with which the good Lord has endowed us,

I invite you to come to the table and take a small item that represents the wonder of fresh bread,

the sweetness of grapes on sale this week, and, of course, a food that escaped the Bible but not us,


Take a sample of one, or two, or all three.

But no gobbling, no thoughtless ingestion of these common foods.

I invite you to taste, really and truly, and thoughtfully, and prayerfully taste these foods,

one at a time!

And then give thanks to God for the pleasure that comes from God’s good earth and loving grace.