The Amateur Gourmet

Ancient Testimony ~ Matthew 14: 13-21

May 10, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

When I first moved to New York, over three years ago, I spent a lot of time in an exquisite disorientation. During previous visits and stays in New York, I had always been uptown. A little sabbatical at Columbia. Friends on 106th Street. The God box. Union Seminary. Even the old UCC offices and the old New York Theological Seminary offices were north of here. As a result, I was oriented north. I would leave my house on East 18th Street and walk north to go to work. I assumed I was living in another past and another place, a north place, and that to go downtown I had to go uptown. I don’t know why my muscle memory was so wrong, but it was. North was my internal GPS. After a while, it became silly. I would even start to wonder why the street numbers were going up when they were supposed to be going down. I had to force myself to turn around, and eventually I did. Now I leave my house and walk south and it makes sense. But for a long time it didn’t make sense. I had a past and it was telling me what to do.

Today I want to talk about reorientation and how sometimes it takes an act of will to reorient ourselves.

Last week, Michael Ellick preached a really good sermon about reorientation. Among other take-away nuggets, he told us that his generation did not have the same past as my generation. Whereas my generation was liberating itself from authoritative religious voices that turned out to be false, if not mean, his generation was liberating itself from parents who were liberated from authority, false or not. He has a different past than I do. Likewise, the front page cover of the New York Times Book Review was written by another Michael, or another kind of Michael. There a young writer named Touré tells us about a new definition of blackness: “A decade ago they called post-blacks Oreos because we didn’t think blackness equaled ghetto, didn’t mind having white influencers, didn’t seem full of anger about the past.”1 Ah, to not be full of anger about the past. That is a goal worthy of achievement.

It appears that Ruth Reichl has also achieved it in her new book, Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way.

She realizes that her whole life she has been trying not to become her mother. She was trying not to be like her past on behalf of something different. Then, lo and behold, she discovers in her dead mother’s attic a box of hand-written letters from her mother to her mother’s friends. In these letters, Reichl reads that her mother’s entire life was about not becoming like her mother and that her fondest hope for Ruth was that Ruth not have to become like her. Well. The past has a way of doing things to us, doesn’t it?

Jesus made an artistry of escaping the past. In the story for today, we find him doing magic with five loaves and two fish. He takes the history of there not being enough to go around and turns it into a present of enough to go around. Now the author of this text and Ruth Reichl would have a lot in common. Both of them talk about how the women don’t count. In the Matthew text, “Those who ate were about 5000 men, not counting the women and children.” Reichl notices and knows that what was wrong with her mother’s life was sexism, specifically the excruciating version of sexism that ruled the Fifties, when women were a great ornament on the lawn of life. Useless, emotional, unsteady, filled with silliness. I love the way Reichl has turned around on her mother in this very affectionate book. Before this book she did nothing but make fun of what a bad cook her mother was. Reichl, by the way, is the editor of Gourmet magazine. No connection, I’m sure. In this book, she makes peace with her mother and actually comes to have respect and affection for her. You might argue the same pattern in all four of my opening stories.

Touré is making peace with a certain kind of past.

I, in my reorientation in New York, was making peace with my past.

Reichl is making peace with the past.

And surely Jesus was making peace with the past by changing it. You think there will be no food for you; instead, here is some food. You figure. Some people I know would have shown up at that feast and not eaten, so convinced would they have been that lots of food can’t come from a little, so injured by their own past would they be.

Two more thoughts before we turn to the reorientation. Note that Arthur Schlesinger, the great historian, often talked about the pastness of the past, how important it is that we let some things just be there and not grant them the power of prediction. Note also the new German school of film, reported in the Times last week. These are filmmakers who want to tell stories about the present rather than excavating the past. Their stories are pretty boring, often about villages left behind by the monumental conflict of German history in the 20th century. The money is gone, the spotlight is gone, and the village is just a closed factory, a closed church, and some apartments. One of the love stories told in one of the films is “Dare I love here?” A romance of course ensues, just as five loaves and two fish become a feast, just as Reichl learns to respect her horrible cook of a mother, just as Touré learns to be post-black and imagine a world dominated by something beyond racial injury.

There is also a new history of famine. Corman Ó Gráda’s Famine: A Short History emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between famine and a plethora of other social ills, including crime, slavery, infanticide, and prostitution. In some cases, shameful traffic may have been the price paid for the better survival chances of women during crises. Women may not count or be counted, but we appear to survive famines much better than men. Famine is different than hunger or malnutrition and is defined by massive death from starvation, the kind that happens when too many people are lined up for too few fish. Traditionally, famine has been the result of a poor harvest. Twentieth century famines, on the other hand, have most often been a consequence of war and ideology, not just good old-fashioned crop failure. Thomas Malthus famously considered famine an inevitable and necessary evil, “the last and most dreadful mode by which nature represses a redundant population.” Ó Gráda thinks Malthus is both wrong and right, but that is a whole other story.

I guess Jesus didn’t read the history of famine. He thought crops could succeed. He thought men and women could survive a shortage of food. He even thought war and ideology could be repressed. If we take this text for what it is on this particular Mothers’ Day, I think we can start by saying it is an anti-famine text. Famine, it says, is not necessary. Moreover, just because famine has a long history, you don’t have to predict famine in the future. You can take another look at your past and your present, a deeper look, and reorient yourself.

What I have always loved about this feast story is that it is anti-agricultural. It is also anti-experience. I don’t know about your experience at the lunch table in school, but I remember mine very well. The only way you got something out of somebody else’s box was if they didn’t like it or you had something to trade. Human beings are not necessarily generous. But that, of course, is the picture of the past we have which makes our present so difficult. Think Schlesinger: Can’t we let that past be past? Think Touré: Do all black people have to be angry black people and base themselves in a racist history? Might it be nice to be black and reoriented? Or to choose your orientation? Might it not be nice to make a film about an Eastern German town just the way it is today, without the past taking up all the picture’s space?

To me, this text advocates what I call the “Amateur Gourmet.” You take what you have and do something with it. You become a “frugalista,” one who make the necessity of being frugal into a fashion statement. I am personally very excited about how we are repositioning our past from one of shortage into one of feast. I love the fact that we have a full registration for our Community Supported Agriculture project, difficulties notwithstanding. I love the clothing and goods (and information and services) swap we have on the last Sunday of each month, the Really Really Free Market. I love that Julia Mbue’s mother sent me this dress from Africa. I know it is not my usual style of one very nice plain T-shirt with one very nice pair of pants, but isn’t it wonderful that an African mother would dress an American mother? I wanted to save it to wear on Mothers’ Day because that’s what Mothers’ Day means to me. It means counting the women and the children in the feast. It is making sure we get the feast. It also means my linkage—only by tears but sometimes that is all I have—to the Sri Lankan woman who died nursing her child in a would-be-refugee-filled boat. Did you see the story in the Times?2 The boat was adrift for nine days. An 8-month-old baby, Kuberan, survived only because his mother somehow managed to breast-feed him until just hours before she died. Now that is motherhood. The child survived. In a certain way all motherhood and fatherhood and all past-hood is on behalf of the next generation. Whatever it takes to give them a better history: that is what most of us are really doing. One of the ways we give our children a better history is to let the past be past. That child who survived will need to let his past be past. That is what his mother would have wanted for him.

We keep renaming our Underground Economy program. We keep giving it a new past. We now call it our Emerging Economy program (“Underground Economy,” it seems, evoked, for too many, images of drug running), but we could call it our Frugalista program. It is the A Lot with a Little program. It is a Fashion Statement While Being a Feeding program. Most of you know that we want to do something on Wednesday nights, after the mid-week service, that feeds hungry people. We know they’re out there. Believe me, we know they are out there. So we want to do something on Wednesday nights, but we don’t have the money. We, like everybody else, used to be good at getting grants. We’re not any more. Soup kitchens, which are much better organized than we’ll ever be, are facing the same difficulty. So we have these five loaves and two fish in the form of an idea to have a Wednesday night feeding and a 15-cent Wednesday night movie. It’s just a little loaf. But we want to break it and turn it into a feast. This miracle, we could call it the Wednesday Night Miracle, is providing food for about 50 people for about 50 bucks. Frugalistas would know how. Ruth Reichl would know how; her mother would not. Touré would know how. Famous German filmmakers would not know how to film it, but the new German school, the populist one that makes movies out of unimportant subjects, would. The largest step in doing something different like this is in the break with the past and its thinking. The thoughts are “it won’t do any good,” “we can’t do it,” “we don’t have a stove,” plus “we don’t have any money.” But Jesus never looked at his crowd that way. He never said, “You people have been hungry for a long time. What makes you think anything is going to be different?” Instead, he turned a corner and figured out a way for people to do something with what they had.

Do we have 50 bucks a week to feed 50 people? Okay, I’m looking for a miracle. We also need a good cook, a better clean-up crowd, and an even better security force at the door. I don’t mind if somebody wants to go out and raise real money for this program. But for now, frugalista is the name of this game. Now please understand that we are doing this for the people who have been looking for a miracle for a long time. We want a miracle for the people who didn’t get one yet. Like that woman that took her infant on the boat out of Sri Lanka, we want a new future and a different present and we want to let the past be past and stop colonizing our brains.

Because we all have different pasts, we can all go ahead being angry at our different pasts. Or we can turn a corner and walk another way, letting the past be past. We can realize that we are not in Kansas anymore or uptown any more but downtown, here, now, with hungry people outside.

It could be that we need to disappear from our past if we can’t just plain rid ourselves of it. In 1926 the mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Berkshire, England. Her abandoned car was found in a chalk pit seven miles from her house. The whole country was fascinated, and the story got lots of media attention. Police and ordinary citizens alike organized huge search parties.

Then, eleven days later, Agatha Christie was found in a luxury hotel. She was staying under a different name, and she claimed that she couldn't remember a thing. It had been a hard year for Christie: her mother had died, and her husband had left her for his young mistress. To this day, no one knows if she had legitimate amnesia, or if it was a publicity stunt to raise book sales, or a way to publicly expose her husband's infidelity. But all the media attention made her even more famous, and she ended up as one of the best-selling authors of all time. Whatever it was, it had style.

Another Brit, Susan Boyle, has pulled just about the same trick; you think I’m something, I’m not. Christie just forgot her past… and now no one really knows who she really was. When you change the way you think about the past, you become somewhat mysterious. You change, and then the way people see you changes. You get over your mother on behalf of living in the now, fashionably, with vigor, making miracles. You also rewrite the history of famine, which is at least about crop failure. The crop failure we have right now may start with a failure of ideas, with us failing to let the past be past. Five loaves meet two fish. Amen.

1 Touré, "Visible Young Man," New York Times Book Review, May 3, 2009

2 Somini Sengupta, "Boat to Safety Is Death Trap to Sri Lankans," The New York Times, May 6, 2009, A1

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844