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Good News in Bad Taste
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
December 8, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
One of the joys of the Advent season is that somewhere in this building there is always a cookie. Sometimes it’s a Christmas sugar cookie — this week Jan called me into the main office only because she had on her desk a box of what she proclaimed to be the best Christmas cookies she had ever had, and I was skeptical and then I tried one. Or maybe it’s a gingerbread, or a cinnamon, one of those delicious allspice-y flavors that come to life here in December as we count down the days. This season can a delicious season, and for those of us who appreciate a snack, especially a baked snack, this really is the most wonderful time of the year. At least for me, with one major exception. Because every once in a while, this season brings about the worst kind of holiday snack, at least in my personal opinion, that one gooey mess that goes uneaten even when all the other cookies are long gone, and of course I’m talking about fruitcake.
The fruitcake has been a bit of a running joke for a while now — if you are young enough, you may not even know what this thing is, this sort of thick loaf saturated with dried fruit and nuts that have all been soaked in syrup or alcohol for days — it makes for an incredibly durable holiday cake, because all of its ingredients have been preserved for the rest of time — so you can put it under the tree for this year, or next year, or ship it halfway across the country. But that doesn’t make it good. Johnny Carson used to joke that “the worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Though I can attest that there are at least four, because I think we had at least that many show up simultaneously at our house on more than a few childhood Christmases. I ate a slice or two. For me, that was enough. And so with good reason I think fruitcake has fallen from grace in spectacular fashion. You’d be hard-pressed to find an elegant fruitcake on the dessert menu at Austin’s finest restaurants. In a lot of ways, we have left this thing behind.
But there was a time. What we call the fruitcake probably began in earnest during the era of colonial expansion, when sugar from the Americas began to find its way in mass quantity back to England’s bakers. All of a sudden, they had a cheap way of preserving harvest fruits to be eaten all the way through the winter — by soaking it in sugar and baking, the fruit would stay safe for consumption. And then, the more sugar they got, and the further those ships went around the world, the more exotic became the possibilities of the ingredients that could be used, and by the turn of the 18th century, parts of Europe had actually outlawed fruitcake entirely because it was considered too rich and too luxurious. And then tastes turned. And over time, there, again, was fruitcake, served at Queen Victoria’s afternoon tea every day for decades, right before it started getting factory-made and shipped across the country to anybody who aspired to a bit of industrially manufactured class.
All of which is just a reminder. It’s one thing to talk about food. Fruit and sugar and grain have been going together to make some rich dessert for hundreds if not thousands of years and some of those fruitcakes are better than others, but they’re all basically in the same family. It’s all basically the same food. But taste is something totally different. Taste, as we move through this Advent season with our senses alive, taste isn’t about the sweetness of the dried plums, nor is it about the texture of the brandy-soaked loaf. Taste is barely about food at all. Instead, taste is about us, about the complicated ways that we decide what gets to be delicious and what gets to be popular and what gets to be desirable, and what gets to be acceptable. Taste is about who gets to be in and who gets to be out. Taste is about who gets to be cool. Believe it or not, fruitcake was cool — when the Queen wanted it every afternoon, fruitcake was cool. But once everybody could have it. Once all you had to do was open the catalog and point. Then, taste has a funny way of changing. Because taste isn’t really about food, at all. It’s about us.
Even in our reading for this morning. Mark the Gospel-writer is a man of few words. Mark’s Gospel is almost neurotically efficient, with no time for redundancy or loose poetics. Mark is going to tell his story as quickly as possible, and the quickest way for Mark to describe John the Baptist is to describe his taste. We know he’s a celebrity — we’re supposed to know he’s a celebrity; Mark’s original audience might have already heard of John the legendary Baptist. But just in case, Mark reminds you that folks from all around were going out to the Jordan to get baptized by John, but that doesn’t tell you much about him. That doesn’t give you character or personality. Mark needs in his most efficient disposition to tell us just enough about who John is, which is to tell us what John likes, which is to tell us that John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
Now, we could talk about the popularity of locusts over time, or whether or not in fact these insects were really some sort of Judean delicacy that history has now forgotten, but there’s no real need. Mark has already told us everything we need to know. If John were eating the same thing as everybody else, it would hardly merit a mention. The whole point is to mark the difference. The whole point is to make John scandalous. The whole point is to signal as quickly as possible that all over Judea, and all around Jerusalem, people are going out to get baptized by a weirdo. And as it is now, so it was then — the easiest and quickest way to identify a weirdo to his audience is to talk about taste. John the Baptist has bad taste. He eats bad food. He dresses is bad clothing. He is not fashionable. He is not acceptable. His taste is not satisfying whatever arbiters of taste pass for the fashionistas of Jerusalem. And yet, this weirdo is where the Gospel begins. This weirdo is where the story of Jesus Christ begins. This weirdo is where the good news begins. Good news, in bad taste.
In the fall of 2018, a pop-up shoe store sprang into business in a chic shopping mall in Santa Monica. The store was called Palessi, and to celebrate its grand opening, Palessi invited a whole range of California trendsetters and Instagram celebrities to its launch, they put their wares out for display in this expensive-looking storefront, they put a little champagne out for the crowd, and the response was overwhelming. These taste-makers loved what they found — they praised the look, the craft, the materials of the shoes they picked up, all of it exceptionally promising feedback for this new brand looking to make a splash. Over two nights, eighty invitation-only guests sprang for thousands of dollars in new sales, including Palessi shoes for $200, $400, and even a pair of Palessi boots for $650. The only problem was that Palessi is not a real company. It is, instead, something of an elaborate corporate prank. Every pair of shoes in that store was available somewhere else for about $20 bucks, because the entire pop-up was just a prank played by Palessi’s secret identity, the discount super-chain known as Payless Shoes.
Payless, of course, is filming the whole thing, which means you can go watch this footage. You can watch very fashionable people ooh-ing and aah-ing over these discount Payless sneakers set out on some Apple Store-looking display. And then you can watch the horrible reveal, the moment that some offscreen interviewer tells them the terrible truth, that they have accidentally broken the most sacred covenant of taste, that they have accidentally expressed desire for something far beneath them, that perhaps they themselves do not belong in the insiders club on which taste so regularly relies. But of course the story isn’t just about them. The story isn’t just about the insiders. The story is also about the folks across town who are scrounging pennies just to save up twenty dollars for a pair of sneakers. The story is also about the folks working long days day after day just to save up forty dollars for a pair of boots. The story is about the folks we see every Tuesday morning at UPLift who need that pair of boots just to get a chance to get even. The story is about them and for them, and everybody ever left on the outside, to say “your shoes can also be beautiful. You can also be beautiful.” The story itself is good news, in bad taste.
Just like our story. Just like this story, this Advent story. Just like the story of this child coming into the world. It’s a story that begins in bad taste, with this camel-haired prophet purporting to speak something of the word of God. It’s a story that thrives in bad taste, the story of a Messiah born among the farm animals, of a healer who lives among the outcasts, of a king who rules from the margins. The story of man who spent time with sinners and lepers and a whole bunch of folks scrounging pennies together to buy shoes. The story is that Jesus was born in bad taste. Jesus lived in bad taste. Jesus died in bad taste. Which means somewhere along the way we probably need to question what possible point there might ever be in having good taste. Or maybe we should just be thankful that Jesus’ taste is bad enough, or broad enough, or open enough, or wide enough, to include you and me. I’m so glad you don’t have to be cool to be loved by God. I’m so glad I don’t have to be fancy to be a child of God. I’m so profoundly glad for God’s terrible, terrible taste.
And so we gather around this table yet again for a sacred meal of bread and cup. The table here at UPC is hand-made, lovingly crafted by a woodworker here in Austin, entirely unique, custom-built for this space and it is priceless to us. And then we set on that table these beautiful silver communion pieces, custom-engraved for this congregation, given for our use as an act of love and devotion, equally priceless again in their own right. And then we take this elaborate beautiful table and these elaborate beautiful silver pieces and we use them to serve a meal of Welch’s Grape Juice and three-dollar King’s Hawaiian bread, straight from H.E.B. It is intentionally simple. It is a meal of the common cup and the common loaf. But you know what, I think the King’s Hawaiian tastes pretty good. I like the King’s Hawaiian. I’m totally happy using the King’s Hawaiian for communion, and, to be honest, it also makes for a good roast beef sandwich. If anything, I wonder whether maybe it tastes a little too good. I wonder whether we need something every once in a while, to remind us that this story, our story, this Advent story, God’s story, I wonder whether we need reminding that this story starts in terrible, terrible taste. Maybe every once in a while, we should use a fruitcake.
Thanks be to God.
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