Nourishing Our Souls
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 24, 2008
Some of you may know that I like to cook. I also like to eat (though I eat quite differently now than I used to). I’m not sure if I like to cook because I like to eat, or whether I like to eat because I like to cook. I’m not sure which came first; it’s a sort of chicken and egg kind of thing. Maybe it doesn’t have to be an either/or; after all, many of us like to eat both chickens and eggs, after all—so who cares which came first!
Anyway—many of you may know that I like to cook. But probably not as many of you know that I grew up with Julia Child. Not physically, of course: a good 40 miles by road separated us. I grew up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island; Julia inhabited the much tonier neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I never actually met the woman. When I was at Harvard Divinity School, though, she lived next door from the school—on Irving Street (the Divinity School was on Francis). I will confess that I spent many a lunch hour during those three years strolling around the block, just hoping—maybe even praying (though I wasn’t much of a pray-er back then)—that maybe—just maybe—the Great Julia would “happen” to be out in her garden (I didn’t even know if she had a garden), and that she’d take pity on this poor, struggling graduate student, and invite me in for tea or lunch something.
Well, it never happened. As I said, I never got to meet Julia Child.
But nonetheless, I always had this feeling that I had grown up with her, and that moreover, she was the one, mainly, who taught me how to cook (along with my father, too, I must say).
From an early age, you see, I was addicted to her original television program, The French Chef. Even though, as the snippy Madeline Kaman used to say, Julia herself was “neither French, nor a chef”, she was a wonderful teacher. I don’t know, really, how she would rate compared to the truly “great chefs” of all time—probably not that high. But all those old measuring sticks didn’t matter to her because she loved food—and she loved cooking—and she loved sharing food, and sharing her joy of cooking—with others, even with me. That kind of joy is infectious-- and habit forming. So, as the years went by, as I entered adolescence, and my teen years, and into my 20s, I wouldn’t miss a show. Saturday night, it was just Julia and me, and The French Chef on the TV (which might also tell you something about my social life back then, but that’s a different subject).
Julia actually taught me a lot about how to cook. When I watch the DVDs I now own of those old French Chef programs, I’ll see her do something (like measuring a teaspoon of salt or herbs or baking power in the palm of her hand; or folding egg whites into a batter with that particular motion of plunging, turning, pulling the spatula up along the side of the bowl, so that your egg whites don’t deflate), and I’ll say: “That’s where I got that from.” From Julia. Way back then. Lessons that have lasted a lifetime.
Why did her teaching make such a deep impression? Because they touched deep chords within me: notions that have to do not just with cooking, but with life at its deepest; ideals that stir my very vision of what is meant my ministry; of what being church is all about.
It’s about bringing together a wide assortment of different ingredients in creating something completely new—something that’s more than the sum of its individual units—something that fits together in such a way that it is pleasing to the senses, and nourishes us, and gives and sustains life. Who would ever think that bringing together a list of ingredients as diverse as humble yellow onions, butter, oil, salt, a bit of sugar, a couple tablespoons of flour, some bouillon or stock, white wine (of course!), salt, pepper, a few slices of old, crusty bread, a bit of Swiss or Parmesan cheese, just a drop of cognac perhaps—could create something as luscious as Soupe a l’Oignon Gratinee—delicious oven-baked French onion soup?
Who would ever think that bringing together a group of men and women as humble and down-to-earth, sweet, spicy, salty, endearing, maybe even crusty-- as all of us—young and old, men and women, hearty and frail, liberal and conservative, you name it—could create a church as vital and vibrant as this one is? At our best, we, as a church, fit together in ways that are more than the sum of our individual beings; in ways that please the senses, and nourish and in-spire (give life to) one another.
And it’s about not having to do it perfectly, all the time. In each half-hour episode of The French Chef, Julia would strike out boldly onto the culinary playing field (or battleground, perhaps), and, come hell or high water, come overheated oven or spilling-over pots, she would complete the task before her, whether it was Vichyssoise a la Russe, or Blanquette de Veau, or Mousse au Chocolate. For ten years, every episode of the show was basically videotaped live, in one take, before a rolling camera. In ten years, or somewhere around 150 episodes, they stopped the camera a grand total of three times. Of course, there were flubs, and soufflés that wouldn’t rise, and cakes that got stuck in the pan, and eggs dropped on the floor, and chickens that emerged from the oven just a bit—burnt. But Julia would take it all in stride. She’d either take it all in stride; or use the experience as a teachable moment about how not to do something; or show us how to cover it up and go on (“A bit more whipped cream along the edge there, and that cake will look as good as new!”) Perfectionists might have cringed; but the rest of us nodded our heads, and smiled, and said, “Yeah, we could do that.” If Julia could do it, then so could we.”
Churches are about doing it to the best of our ability—reaching for that which is greater than we are—fully engaging our hearts and hands and spirits. But they’re not about doing it perfectly. If churches were only for perfect people, then we wouldn’t need any churches. Along the way, in preparing this great cauldron of church soup we call our own, we’re going to have missteps and miscalculations and even downright failures. The pot will boil over, and may even run dry. But the flame will keep burning; and we’ll keep adding our ingredients—our time, talent, and treasure—to the cauldron—till its cooking fine again.
And it’s about doing it together—doing it for others, and with others. You never had a sense that Julia was making all those lovely meals just for herself and her husband, Paul, back in Cambridge. (They used to say at WGBH in Boston that the technical staff always wanted to get scheduled to work when Julia was taping—the leftovers, apparently, were superb!) There was always a sense that the whole idea of cooking special things was to be able to share them. I know that nothing gives me a greater sense of personal power than feeding other people—whether it’s physically, or spiritually, or intellectually. Cooking for one is seldom much fun. “One Christian is no Christian,” said the French philosopher Charles Peguy. We can broaden his remark to include any of our religious persuasions. We are in this boat with one another.
We are meant to share our gifts, together. We who are called to prepare this feast and also called to share it. And we each have different dishes to bring to this great feast—this extraordinary pot luck—which is our church, which is life.
And it’s all about joy. People started watching Julia Child way back in 1963 because she was so obviously having fun at what she was doing. There was a joy in her way of doing things, in her very being, that leapt from the television screen, and connected with viewers everywhere back then, and down through the generations. She had within her a palpable enthusiasm for cooking which everyone who saw her could feel.Enthusiasm in its original Greek root means “to bring forth the god that is within” (en-theos). In sharing her joy so enthusiastically, Ms. Child brought us into the presence of the joyous face of God.
That’s what our enthusiasm for our church does—our joy at being here. It’s a joy we demonstrate every time we are together; in every worship service; every meeting; every gathering and activity. Yes—and it every instance that we pledge our time and energy, our talent and money to our church.
The simple sharing of our lives together in this little church might seem at times like no great thing, no big deal. It is but a simple meal of bread and soup; a simple sharing of the most basic elements of who we are; a simple sharing of our most basic and fundamental aspirations of all that life can be.
This is the kind of connectedness for which we all yearn. It is a holy act, eating together is. It is a holy act to share this spiritual feast together, as a church. It is also one worth supporting from the fullness of our beings.
"Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights,” Julia Child once said, “one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal." Soul-satisfying and eternal: like the spiritual search we share together in this dear church.
So, Bon Appetit, my friends. Guttes essen. Buon appetite. And, as always, amen.