Innovations in eating

John 6:24-35

            Over the past century, huge changes have been made to the way food is prepared and delivered to us. From drive-thru restaurants to driverless cars, our eating and drinking have been transformed by innovation. Food delivery began in 1922. Telephone-based food ordering started at a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, and spread rapidly. Now, delivery is a $43 billion business in the United States, involving apps such as Grubhub and Postmates.

Drive-thru restaurants first appeared in 1948, when In-N-Out Burger allowed people to order and pick up food without ever leaving their car. Today, up to 70 percent of fast-food sales are drive-thru, and even businesses such as Starbucks and Chipotle are in on the act. The McDonald's system was created in 1955, using consistent preparation methods and a dependable supply chain. Now, almost every fast-food restaurant develops a similar system, with a newcomer called Just Salad bragging that its employees can toss a salad every minute.

Molecular gastronomy was developed in 1987, when a microbiologist made ice cream with liquid nitrogen and invented the popular treat Dippin' Dots. Similar innovations, such as cooking vacuum-sealed food through a process called sous vide (pronounced sue-veed), is being done at Panera. Then, Instagram appeared in 2010, establishing a new relationship between food and photosharing. Now, we don't only eat food, we send and receive pictures of it!

And finally, in 2017, robots became the latest innovation in eating. Chowbotics is a salad maker, Cafe X is a robot barista, and Domino's Pizza has announced that it will be testing delivery via self-driving cars. "Customers grab their order from the back," reports Fast Company, "no human interaction necessary."

That's kind of odd, isn't it? No human interaction necessary. At the same time, the history I just shared does clearly point in that direction. American culture has changed the nature of sitting at table for a meal. No longer is the table necessary, is the human interaction necessary, is the knowledge of where the food came from necessary, or is building of human relationship necessary. Or is it? Like much of the rest of our society, eating has a tendency to be viewed as utilitarian or transactional, rather than relational or foundational.

I think back to my childhood. It was important for our family to sit down to eat dinner every evening. Because my mom was a piano teacher, she had a limited time frame in which to serve and eat dinner – typically only 45 minutes from the conclusion of her afternoon lessons to the start of her evening lessons. I remember that some of my parent’s biggest sources of tension were when my Dad had to be late coming home from work, and missed part, most or all of dinner with Mom and we kids. Having family dinner was important, a priority, foundational. And yet because of the brief time frame for that dinner, dinner was not a time when we spent hours talking together, building deeper relationship together. My parents made dinner a priority time and did the best they could with their schedules, but I do think we lost something by that hurried meal time.

Those child hood experiences of sitting at table are deeply foundational to who we are as people, how we eat, and how we spend time together at table. So, for the next five minutes, I would invite you to join with a person or two sitting near to you to talk about your experiences of sitting at table to eat family meals at children. Talk about any reflections, memories, or priorities from those experiences, and how those impact you today. Be thinking of one or two words that define your experience with eating meals, either in the past or present. I’ll call a close to that time when we reach five minutes. Turn, and talk with your neighbor in community.

I’d like to hear some of those words you discerned about eating a meal together. Share them aloud, and I’ll try to repeat them.

Jesus was a true innovator in the world of eating, but he always had a human touch. In all four gospels, we find the story of Jesus feeding thousands of people by the Sea of Galilee. The numbers of people differ and the amount of food varies from gospel to gospel, but the general idea is the same. With just a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish, Jesus creates a meal in which everyone gets as much as they want, and all are satisfied.

What we see here is that food is important, but so is community. The food is not sustenance, but a way of connecting people to one another, to him, and to the message he sought to convey. Remember that these were many of the same people who the disciples ministered to when Jesus sent them out into small towns around the Sea of Galilee. Clearly, the disciples had shared the message of their teacher and the miraculous nature of the teacher himself. These people wanted to have a look and a listen, but also were in need of a taste of food, in order to hone their focus on Jesus.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Food helps us to function. There was a term that emerged a few years ago – hangry. It’s a combination of hungry and angry. Truthfully, there are times when we all get hungry, and sometimes there hunger causes our bodies to get irrationally angry. Then, once we’ve eaten, the food gives our bodies the equilibrium it needs to adjust. Whether hangry or hungry, Jesus wanted the crowd to be physically fed, so they would be spiritually fed by his words and by the cohesive community growing around them.

Following the feeding of the crowd, Jesus uses the bread as a metaphor of their growing relationship with him. God gave their ancestors manna, which molds and withers, but Jesus is the bread of life that will sustain them forever. It’s a simple metaphor, but with a powerful and complex application. How do we imagine a person as sustenance? It’s clear the crowd is also confused, as it takes Jesus several times to explain his meaning. It’s not his body, his flesh and bone that he means. It is his teaching. And these teachings are not intended to be solely for each person individually, but as a collective. It was a challenging concept, then as now. It was innovative, and yet traditional; cutting edge, and yet timeless. Much like Jesus himself.

I think Jesus recognized that sharing a metaphor so closely connected to food, to eating, something we spend time and routine on each day, would offer powerful kinship for us. Eating is something we do daily. Pursuing our connection with God is also something we are meant to do daily. It’s much the same relationship as spirit with breathing. These functions of our bodies allow our minds and souls to ponder the nature of God’s creative force and love more deeply.

That takes us back to how and what we eat and with whom we eat. As a culture, I think we miss the mark as our innovations in eating lead us to faster meals with less human interaction. As a contrast, take the slow food movement, which began in Italy, but has spread quickly around the developed world. Italians pride themselves on locally sourced ingredients, like those we will be sharing at table following worship today. They also pride themselves on savoring those foods, enjoying their flavors, enjoying the company with whom they are eating, spending as much as three hours or more in the simple act of sitting at table together. It’s a reminder that food is not fuel, but an invitation, a catalyst, for relationship with others and by extension, with God.

Food is about community. We know that whenever we have a potluck here at the church. We know that when we see initiatives, like one that my spouse Kimberly is involved with, that uses relationships and eating together to foster discussions across racial and ethnic barriers. There’s a reason why bread loaves, ice cream containers, and watermelon are all so big. They are not meant to be eaten alone. They are intended to be shared in community.

Which is exactly what Jesus had in mind. A few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. No one in their right mind would think that would feed a dozen people, and honestly, it didn’t. It fed thousands. It would have been easy for Jesus to just feed his disciples with those meager portions, but he didn’t. He intended these common provisions to be shared in community, and not only were there leftovers of food, but I suspect there was an abundance of community building that happened as well.

Food is about community. Jesus is about community. Any innovations we bring to either are at their best when viewed through that lens. Earlier, you reflected on your childhood dining traditions. Following worship, you have the opportunity to enjoy a locally sourced, organic food meal with this congregational family. While you enjoy the feast that will be before us, I invite you to share your hopes for how we can create new innovations in eating in community here at Beacon Heights. Amen.