June 11th, 2018
The Church of the Savior
The Reverend George C. Wong
June 10, 2018
“A Seat at God’s Table”
Mid-week, I attended a preaching conference held at the Episcopal Claggett Center just outside Frederick Maryland. Google maps guided me across Central Pennsylvania through a sea of crops, content dairy cows and soon to be open and expectant produce stands.
As I was driving home, I was shocked and saddened to hear on the radio about the death of Anthony Bourdain’s in Paris. Almost immediately, I pictured his lanky 6’ft 4” inch frame bounding across Pennsylvania farm country walking into diners sampling the best rhubarb pie or BBQ pork or the local specialty. Raised in suburban New Jersey, he would eventually explore over 100 countries, basically eating around the globe. He seemingly traveled everywhere in his ongoing quest, so I could imagine him in rural PA as much as any other place around the world he traveled.
If you have not heard of Anthony Bourdain, he was the author of a number best-selling books on the restaurant industry as well as the host of several long-running travel food shows including No Reservationsand Parts Unknown. If he wasn’t in Buenos Aires, then he was in Burma. If he wasn’t in Paris, he was in Phuket, or Pamplona. He was intrepid when it came to sampling all manner of foods, he seemed to authentically appreciate and embrace foods that nourished and fed others often with great joy.
People responded to his openness and curiosity about their cuisine and lives by treating him like a visiting ambassador. In many ways, the world was his oyster.
He made his name in great part by allowing millions to tour the world of food. But, he was much more than a passing tourist or gawking visitor. Bourdain exhibited a deep curiosity, respect and fascination for the places and about the daily lives of the people he visited. When he visited Burma, he spoke with a local chef about both food and the softening of the brutal decades old Burmese regime. He insightfully commented upon how the Burmese share a meal but allow each person to tailor their meal with an abundance of side dishes, sauces and toppings. Everyone at the table starts with the same dish, typically noodles, then made very much to their own taste.
That made sense to me because the perfect meal may be the kind of meal you tailor to your own liking while in the company of ones you care for, who also get to eat the meal they enjoy. Whether it is Burmese soup noodles or a burger cooked just the way you like it with all the fixings you like, there is a joy in having it your own way all in the company of others who are similarly fulfilled by their own culinary creations.
Even though I was not a frequent viewer of his shows or a reader of his books, there was a strange comfort in seeing him amble around as a kind and gentle ambassador of food and culture. I have found myself thinking a lot about his death since I heard the news. I can’t know for sure, because I only knew of him from afar, but I believe that he hungered for something that could not be served up on a plate.
In a telling 2016 interview, he confessed that while his job involved communicating that he felt isolated and alone when not working. His fame, fortune and success mean that some were bewildered by the fact that he seems to have taken his own life. I have noticed comments on social media to the effect that Bourdain was selfish, weak and one who led a privileged life and who therefore does not deserve any compassion in the aftermath of his passing.
Those kinds of comments are callous because they do not attempt to understand what might have actually led to this man’s depression and death. From what I have read, I don’t think his despair and hopelessness was so much the result of a personality defect, or character flaw or weakness; rather, his desperation pointed to a deep hunger. The irony may be that Bourdain was literally surrounded by food yet he died from starvation. He was surrounded by people yet was desperately alone. His long-suffering and depression suggest that he was not getting all that he needed to thrive in life, in spite of his talent, fame, money and success.
Bourdain’s experience shows that even if one could travel the whole world sampling of all the most interesting, most savory, most exquisite cuisines…even if one could mix in ample portions of fame, monetary gain and an audience of millions, one might still experience the pain and isolation of spiritual malnourishment. In the end, his soul starved for something more than the experience of great food, interesting people and places and acclaim. He searched the world for that which would satisfy his hunger.
This is not a new challenge or quest for humanity. Our Old Testament reading today reminds us that looking for food to make us complete can result in disastrous consequences. Adam and Eve ate the apple believing that there was an earthly meal that could feed them eternally—separate and apart from God.
We can no more find a meal (or anything else) that completely fills us than did Adam and Eve. We might search the ends of the earth and still come up empty. But there is good news. That is that God offers us the sustenance we need when we gather for the Eucharistic meal. At each service of Holy Eucharist, we gather together to be fed spiritually by the Body of Christ.
Jesus offers us the gift of the bread of life which we take together in the community as the Body of Christ.
We need not search the world for the meal that fills us, because it is here in the bread.
Whoever eats this bread is transformed by the real presence of Christ.
Whoever eats this bread is fed not just in the moment, but for eternity.
Whoever eats this bread is given both a taste of and a hunger for justice, mercy and compassion.
Whoever eats this bread is filled with a peace that overflows from us into the world.
Let us break bread together today and become the sacrament that we eat.
May God bless us and those who are no longer with us at this meal whom we pray are gathered at the eternal banquet table.
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George C. Wong
is the Rector