Soul food. You know the kind of food that doesn’t just touch the depths of your stomach but the kind that touches your soul. Soul food. Candied yams. Dirty rice. Greens! And it doesn’t really matter if it’s collards or mustards, just add a lil bacon to it and it’s all good. Soul food. That honey glazed ham garnished in pineapple slices or that baked mac and cheese with the crust at the surface. That deep fried Cajun turkey; have you ever had a deep fried Cajun Turkey? If you haven’t you don’t know what you’re missing. What about that pot roast that’s so tender you can cut through it with a butter knife? Yeees now I’ve got your attention; I’m talking about soul food ya’ll! That home cooking that’s so good it brings a tear to your eye; but even more than tears of joy, soul food brings families together. It brings communities together. Soul food.
But just when did our food inherit soul? For black folks in particular, food has been an integral part of our culture. The sharing of food is an intimate experience for us. Sometimes food is the only thing we have to share, and even that can be very little. Whenever I go home to Houston I never intend to spend money on food. My aunt always says, “I might not have much money to give you but I’ll always make sure you eat,” and I haven’t left Houston hungry yet; because someway somehow we find ways to turn nothing into something. When did our food inherit soul? Was it when we were brought to this country to slave in the field and in the kitchen; black women preparing lavish meals for master’s family only to be given scraps to feed themselves, their children, and their men. Bread pudding didn’t happen on purpose ya’ll, bread pudding was a result of only having bread crumbs, a lil brown sugar, and a lot of brown love to feed the multitudes. Yet and still, black folk were not the first folk to turn a little into a lot to feed the multitudes. Likewise, Black folk were not the first folk to give food soul. I’m here to tell you that my main man Jesus did that!
Our gospel (Matthew 14: 13-21) this morning tells the story that when Jesus heard of the beheading of John the Baptist,
“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.”
Now if that doesn’t sound like a good old fashioned fish fry I don’t know what does?! Black folk might not have been the first folk to give food soul, but Jesus was surely exhibiting Black-ish tendencies when he pulled off the greatest fish fry of all time, on the spot. All jokes aside, this story of feeding the five thousand draws many parallels to our present day context. You see just as our food inherited its soul out of necessity, so was the case in this gospel text. Jesus didn’t go around performing miracles to show off or impress people. Jesus performed miracles out of need. So then we must ask why were there so many hungry and sick people in the wilderness?
The first century Roman Empire was one of oppressive rule. Famine and inequity was rampant in the land and the economic gap was one of very few “haves” and a surplus of “have not’s.” Power and elitism were often reflected through access to food and resources, therefore lack of food was one of the ways Israelites experienced the injustice of this disparity of power. Doesn’t that sound much like the South and West Sides of Chicago where 60% of the city’s grocers are located on the north side of the city, creating food deserts in or communities? For example, in the West Side neighborhoods of West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Austin, one in three people is food insecure. Auburn Gresham, West Englewood, South Shore and Roseland on Chicago’s South Side each have more than 15,000 individuals who are food insecure. In the south suburbs, food insecurity rates include 34 percent in Harvey, 39 percent in Robbins and 48 percent in Ford Heights. So there’s this reality reflected in our present day context that parallels the scripture, as to why the crowds were hungry.
But the scripture also says that when Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd and had compassion for them and cured their sick. So not only were they famished but many of them were also ill. We know that nutrition and health outcomes are directly linked. If most of the population was living below subsistence level with inadequate caloric and nutritional intake, then most of the population would likely be unhealthy and subsequently sick. That’s why we see so much sickness in the gospels and that’s why Jesus couldn’t even take a walk out in the wilderness to clear his head, without having to heal somebody; the need was that great. It reminds me of the 5 million out of 11 million child deaths annually that are attributed to malnutrition worldwide. This biblical narrative resembles the 160 sick days a child who is poorly nourished will suffer per year versus a child that is food secure. This harkens back to the commercials we see pleading for our help to feed the millions of children around the world in poor health because they do not have enough to eat; you know the tagline: just one dollar a day can feed a hungry child in Africa, or India, or Haiti.
So we hear from Matthew this morning of this tremendous miracle performed by Jesus and now we have some context for which the miracle was carried out. It’s important to note that this miracle was so significant that Matthew isn’t the only evangelist to tell the story; in fact the miracle of multiplication is the only miracle mentioned in all 4 of the gospels. So allow me to do it justice by spending the next few minutes preaching on the subject: “Jesus’ Soul Food for Thought – How to know your food has got soul;” and I want to do so using the 3 key role players in this story: the Roman Empire, the disciples, and the crowd, with Jesus in the center. Three key messages between Jesus and the 3 key characters, and then I’ll take my seat.
Message 1 is from Jesus and the Roman Empire: In order for your food to have soul, your food has to be life-giving. In the verses that preceded our gospel text this morning, beginning at verse 1 of chapter 14, the gospel according to Matthew tells of a story where King Herod ordered the beheading of John the Baptist per a vow he made to his brother’s wife’s daughter as a reward for the pleasing performance she put on during Herod’s birthday feast. You see John the Baptist had condemned Herod from marrying his brother Phillip’s former wife, Herodias, saying it was not of God’s law for him to do so. Well Herodias didn’t appreciate John messing up her game so she asked Herod to kill John. Herod imprisoned John instead, fearing if he killed him, the people would riot because they believed John was a prophet, however John would go on to be beheaded by Herod anyway, and his head was brought to him on a platter during the feast. So here we have this faction of power celebrating its superiority over a lavish meal that quickly becomes a repass for John the Baptist, with his head being brought forth to Herod on a platter, the same way in which the feast has been presented. Jesus knows the circumstances under which John has been killed, and understands that Herod associates Jesus with John the Baptist as another prophet who can potentially disrupt the balance of power through the will of the poor. Yet, Jesus still chooses to heal and feed the multitudes of poor without fear of the consequences of reprimand by Roman-allied rule that had just murdered his disciple. The contrast of Herod within the comfort of his kingdom, celebrating death over an abundance of food while just a few miles away in the desert, thousands are sick and without nourishment, are collisions of the ruler and the prophet; the rich and the poor; the power of imperial rule and the power of God. Jesus hosts not a death-bringing meal contextualized by tyranny, but a life-giving feast embodying the gracious abundance of God. Is your food death-bringing or life-giving?
[Obesity is America’s #1 public health issue mainly because it leads to so many other issues like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. 2 out of 3 Americans are either overweight or obese, and Blacks have the highest rates of obesity at almost 50%. We all could probably stand to exercise a bit more, but the truth is our physical is only defined by about 20% of what we do, but 80% of what we eat. You are what you eat, and in some cases we are eating ourselves to death. Gluttony is one of the 7 deadly sins for a reason; we’ve ceased to eat for nourishment and instead eat for comfort, and quite frankly it’s killing us. So before you set your next table ask yourself: this feast I’ve prepared – does invite death? Or is it life-giving; celebrating the gracious abundance of God as the feeding of the 5000 did?] Then and only then will you know if your food’s got soul. That’s message 1 from Jesus and the Roman Empire.
Message 2 comes from Jesus and his disciples: In order for your food to have soul, it’s got to be creatively prepared with service and discipleship in mind. The disciples were reasoning with Jesus that it was getting late out there in the desert and He needed to send the crowd back to their villages to buy their own food, because all they had with them were 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. But Jesus resists saying not to send them away and to feed them. You can’t really fault the disciples here because they were operating on logic, much like I do. I imagine the conversation went something like: “Listen Jesus…we’re in the desert, it’s getting dark out here, and we ain’t got enough for them. Let them fend for themselves. We need to go on and send them back before the village McDonald’s closes so they can eat. As a matter of fact…we need to get out of here too because I don’t even think these 5 loaves and 2 fish are enough for us!” And Jesus says “nah I’m not sending them anywhere, in fact, you feed’em. Go’on just do it!…Here I’ll even give you a hand.” And then Jesus performs a miracle. See the disciples lacked creativity. They had no imagination. Instead of focusing on what they had in Jesus, they were caught up in what they didn’t have in bread and fish. But sometimes you’ve got to just do it, trusting God will make a way out of no way as long as you are living out your call to service and discipleship as a follower of Christ. God likes to see an effort on your part before he intercedes, as an exercise of your faith that if He brings you to it He’ll see you through it, as long as you are willing to believe and put forth initiative. Just do it! And when you do it, use your imagination. Be creative in your discipleship.
[Don’t just host the same soup kitchen everyone else is hosting…instead plant a church community garden where all can be fed from the fruits of the earth for the next 5 harvest seasons. Don’t just send your kids to the village McDonalds when they can already identify the golden arches before they’re old enough to even read; send them out into that garden that you just planted a sentence ago and teach them to identify broccoli and carrots and cabbage. Use your imagination.] How do you know your food’s got soul? Your food has got soul if it’s creatively prepared with service and discipleship in mind. That’s message 2.
And the 3rd and final message comes from Jesus and the crowd and that is: in order for your food to have soul, all must be welcomed to the table and all must feel welcomed at the table. Before Jesus performed the miracle he insisted the thousands make themselves comfortable on the grass as if they were honored guests in His home. Not to mention, he went on to “bless the bread, break it, and give thanks” in the same manner in which He would during the last supper with his disciples, making this moment; this meal, feel even more special and significant. Perhaps as a result of the intimate setting of fellowship created by Jesus’ blessing, no one in the crowd feared there wouldn’t be enough, thus not thinking about their own needs but rather the needs of those around them.
[Have you ever been to a restaurant that you heard had the best steak in town…but when you got there you didn’t feel welcomed? Maybe you were underdressed and patrons let you know by staring. Or maybe you just happen to leave home with the wrong color skin on and it was evident in the horrible service you received. That steak is no longer as appetizing now is it? Don’t get me wrong, we’re not always victims of poor hospitality either. Sometimes we as church folk extend the same kind of poor treatment and don’t even know it. We see it in our original text Matthew 22 starting at verse 9 where the king commands his servants to:
“9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
We stand at the alter and say “The doors of the church are open!” That is until homeless Harry comes in not having showered in a few days and sits next to you on your favorite pew, only for you to turn your nose up. When we proclaim, “The doors of the church are open” we usually do so with good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. My brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t just intend to be inclusive, be intentionally inclusive.] How do you know your food’s got soul? Your food’s got soul if all are welcomed to the table and all feel welcomed at the table.
In January I stood in the church of the Multiplication, the site believed to be where Jesus fed the 5000, and I could envision the miracle taking place around me as it had 2000 years ago. Just being there was a miracle; to walk where Jesus walked. But I didn’t have to go all the way to the Galilee to be a part of a miracle. There are miracles happening right here, all around us. It’s a miracle that he woke us up this morning, because some He didn’t. It’s a miracle that I’m standing in this pulpit, because I surely didn’t plan to stand in anyone’s pulpit; I don’t deserve to. There’s a miracle happening right here on the corner of 91st and S. Jeffrey at Bethany Lutheran church where your doors continue to be open despite all of the devil’s attempts to lock you out. I didn’t have to go all the way to the Holy Land to be served Soul food, because “when I was hungry you gave me something to eat. You fed me food that’s life giving, right here; food that’s creatively prepared with service and discipleship in mind, right here; food that all are welcomed to, served at a table that all feel welcomed at, right here. The miracle is right here, right now. The dinner has been prepared, the oxen and fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; so come to the banquet and let’s eat; just know that THIS church is serving Soul food. Amen.