Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church August 1, 2021
Texts: Isaiah 58: 1-12; John 6: 35-40
Like many southern white women, my Aunt Ruby did not serve turnip greens. In fact, I don't believe she even served turnips. Turnips, especially the larger ones, were fed to Susie, the old sow that was large and fast enough to run down a Sherman tank. Susie would just munch the turnips down, tops and all, and look at me on the other side of the fence for more.
Once, when I wanted to hold one of her babies, I threw a turnip into the middle of the pen, climbed over the fence and picked up a cut cuddly pink pig. That's when I learned how fast she could turn around and run. After that day, I always had the good sense to stay on the other side of the fence.
We didn't eat collard greens or mustard greens at Aunt Ruby's table either although she did serve okra, which I always considered slimy and without any real taste. She referred to all those foods she didn’t serveat as “colored food,” as if it were not good enough for her and her family. It wasn't until the 60s when I first ran into the term soul food that I had any idea that those foods she disdained had any real value – or taste.
Related to mustard and radishes, turnips have been cultivated since ancient Greece. The poet Sappho called one of her paramours Gonglya her turnip, suggesting that the relationship was one that had the same bitter overtones of that plant. The resourceful African slaves brought over their foods with them, such as collard and mustard greens, okra, and combined with the discarded parts of animals, such as pig's feet, intestines, and offal, created the cuisine now known as soul food.
The most famous of the soul food entrepreneurs Sylvia Woods opened the first Soul Food restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem back in 1962 and created an entire line of seasonings, cookbooks, and a scholarship foundation for promising students in Harlem. What was once a small luncheonette became a national symbol of ethnic identity through food, a must visit for aspiring politicians. When she died in 2012, her death rated a full half page obituary in The New York Times.
Although the term soul food is thought of as primarily an African-American term, in reality it belongs to all kinds of ethnic foods brought by our immigrant ancestors, including 365 ways to cook an Irish potato, incredible Scandinavian pastries that even put the French to shame, and tacos, burritos, and empanadas, not to mention the foods of the almost 200 nations that make up our American culinary landscape. And if you have no idea what all those strange looking items are on the local Shop Rite, just check out the cookbook section at Barnes & Noble or downstairs at the AAUW Bookstore.
The real soul in soul food, however, is not just the variety on the table, but sitting down and sharing the food with one another. No question about it. Eating together is the second most intimate activity we have as human beings. Even at a white tie dinner, once the food is served, our pretenses drop and at times trying foods we've never eaten before, laughing over our surprise at how it tastes, sharing our joys and sorrows we unwittingly bare our souls.
The early Christians knew that. They always ate meals, sharing food with one another, as an integral part of their worship experience. As early communities grew into an organized church, the question arose about eating. Peter's dream in the Book of Acts is in large part a response to the growth of the message of God's redeeming love in the Gentile community. The message is clear: nothing God made is unclean. God made food to be shared with slaves and aliens. The expansion of the vision applies to the food; Torah and prophecy always opened the sharing to widows, orphans, and foreigners.
In his letters to the early communities, Paul is always chastising those who would use the meal as a form of social distinction. It is the ultimate social equalizer. There is the meal where food is shared with all and there is the Lord's supper, the frosting on the cake, so to speak. In that form of soul food, we are all equal before God, rich and poor, good and evil, citizen and alien. As Paul wrote, there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, but all are one. God makes no distinction.
Bread, of course, is central to any meal. It has always been so, whether it is the chapati of India, the pita of the Mideast, the wheat, barley, and rye breads of Europe, or the cornmeal based breads of the Americas. The writer of John's Gospel understood this very well, of course, when he has Jesus use the phrase “bread of life.” Without bread, life was considered unsustainable.
In refugee camps, the most important things that are disseminated are the ingredients to make some form of bread, such as flour, oil, sugar. Both advocacy and feeding programs incorporate the term “bread” into their names, such as Bread for the World, Bread of Life, and when they don't use bread, they use the term manna, reminding people that God saved the people in the midst of their hunger.
We tend to think of international agencies such as CARE, International Rescue Committee, or Church World Service as only feeding the body – if you can call the paltry amounts that they are able to give “feeding.” But as Gandhi once said, “Some people are so hungry that they can only see God in the form of bread.”
Our soul food should be the practice of feeding others and advocating for policies that enable all to eat a sustainable meal. We nod in silent agreement, but in order to do that, we need to get up and do something. Our charitable organizations are still struggling to provide something approximating basic needs. And governments still hold their vested interests close to their chests.
“I am the bread of life,” John's Jesus says, “No one comes to God except through me.” In this statement, Jesus did not state a test of specific beliefs, did not frame a creed, but went out and fed people. He just didn't sit down on a mountain and ruminate. He got up and acted. If he had only just talked, no one would have paid any attention. Jesus understood that real soul food was action. He took on the powers and principalities of his time and paid for it dearly. But beyond his death, there is a new life in the way that he showed us God's love in this world. When we celebrate new life through love at the Lord's Table, we are called to share in this soul food so we can share it with the world beyond as did the one who showed us how to live.
Let us pray: We come to you, Holy Creator, who gave us the earth with its bounty to share among all your children. May we do so in memory of the One who is your symbol of love. Amen.