A Pastrami on Rye and the Bread of Life

Jon Reiner, a middle-aged father, husband, and long-time sufferer of Crohn’s disease, thought he was on the mend. He hadn’t had any tell-tale abdominal pain in over a year and his doctors were cautiously optimistic that his remission would continue. Until one fateful morning, just as he was about to sit down for breakfast, he doubled over in pain knowing instantly that something was seriously wrong. He went to the hospital and the doctors confirmed that Jon’s bowel had indeed ruptured, a life-threatening condition.

After touch-and-go, emergency surgery the doctors did prevail. Jon was stable, but far from out of the woods. Due to a high risk of infection had they done more, the repairs the surgeons made were only partial. Jon would have to let his digestive system rest in order for it to heal on its own.

And this is where our brave patient’s journey begins in earnest. Armed with a hopeful attitude and wisdom from dealing with similar, though less severe, complications of his disease in the past, Jon played with the cards he had been dealt. He was handed a backpack which contained a food pump that would essentially feed him intravenously while his gut healed, though no one was sure how long that might take. But no matter, Jon was assured that the pump would deliver all the nutrients he needed to live. He could go back to work and do everything he normally would--except eat regular food.

And the plan worked. At dinner time Jon sat on the couch and fired up the food pump while his wife and kids ate real food at the dinner table. And since his body was getting what it needed, he didn’t actually feel hungry--at least for the first couple of weeks. But then something strange began to happen. Although Jon was not actually starving, he began to crave food. During his time on the couch with his food pump companion he would conjure up his greatest food memories, one in particular of an unbelievable pastrami sandwich from a Jewish deli he had frequented. He would go online and search restaurant menus and fantasize about actually being able to ingest something.

After a couple of months it got to the point where he just couldn’t take it any longer. He had to do something. So he got it in his mind that if he could just walk to this one particular restaurant he loved and look into the window upon the diners enjoying their food, he might be calmed by some vicarious culinary experience. He took his walk only to discover that the restaurant had closed--no one inside enjoying a meal, instead only dust and plastic covering the walls and floor from a renovation. In Jon’s condition this was a tragedy, and he set out blindly in desperation, wandering the neighborhood streets searching for something, he knew not what, to ease his pain.

As dusk set in Jon caught sight of a smoking grill in someone’s backyard. Pork chops, he thought. The gate was open and no one was around, so Jon, in his exhausted, delirious state, took it upon himself to finish cooking this person’s meal. He opened the lid, flipped the chops, decided four minutes more and they’d be perfect. As he started the countdown in his head, the backdoor opened and a man in an apron, cocktail in hand, and a surprised look on his face stepped out. They looked at each other for a minute and Jon said the only thing he could: “I think they’re about done,” and he turned around to go home, back to the food pump that would deliver all the nutrition he would ever need to live.

We’ll get back to Jon in a minute, and rest assured, things do get better for the poor guy. But I do want to talk about the Gospel.

Food, glorious food. That’s what the people want. Over the past couple of weeks we have heard of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of thousands of people with fives loaves of bread and two fish, and we’ve seen the crowds track Jesus down still hungry and wanting more. They chased him and his disciples across the sea to Capernaum. And Jesus rebukes them (and you can hear the frustration in his voice), “you’re following me because you ate your fill and you want more food, not because you saw signs--not because you saw the deeper message I have to offer. Do not work for the food that parishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which I, the Son of Man, can give you.” And today we hear Jesus teaching the same message in the synagogue, and still frustration and confusion is the reaction from his listeners.

Admittedly Jesus’ plea is a little ambiguous. Neither the crowd nor the disciples really get it. Food is food, right? Moses gave manna from heaven to eat, Jesus gave bread and fish--all the nutrition anyone would ever need to live, right? Wrong. Jesus is talking about something more here. He’s asking us to believe in a possibility--the possibility that an encounter with him, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” is essential to our existence. Jesus desires not only that we think about him but that we feed on him, find food for our souls in him, implying that we could starve to death without him.

After Jon Reiner’s ill-fated evening stroll, he got sick again. His stomach was bothering him and the food pump was literally driving him crazy, so he found himself back in the doctor’s office. Same story: too great a risk of infection for another full-blown operation, he’s let his gut rest for awhile now, the food pump has been working and yet he’s still getting sick. The only thing left to do, the doctors say, is to try and eat something and see what happens. So Jon sets his food pump aside and gives it a shot. For the first few days things seem to go down well, but he can’t seem to taste anything. Turns out your tastebuds can get a little out of practice if they’re not used regularly. Well, one day Jon decides to go for broke, and he returns to his favorite Jewish deli and orders a pastrami on rye. And he concentrates hard on tasting this thing. And sure enough, after a couple of bites he begins to taste some of the salt in the meat, then the caraway seed in the rye. And all at once, he’s back. And the turns to the guy next to him and he says, “this is the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten!” to which the guy replies, “you think that’s good, you should try the meatloaf!”

I hear Jon Reiner’s tale as a Eucharistic experience. He’s a man who had easy access to all the nutrition he ever would need to live, and yet he was starving. And when he was finally able to take a bite of, and taste that pastrami sandwich a whole new world opened up to him--a life worth living again. And this is what Jesus offers us--the food we need not simply to live, but to thrive. As George Herbert famously puts it, God offers us an invitation: “‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’” Jesus insists that we find the true bread in him, in the Body of Christ--that is, in our encounters with one another, in our conversations, in our shared experiences, in breaking bread and passing the cup. And in eating our fill of this bounty we find relief from starvation and discover salvation.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Luke's, Hot Springs | August 22, 2021
Proper 16, Year B
audio

References

Reiner, Jon. The Man Who Couldn’t Eat: A Memoir. 1st Gallery Books hardcover ed. New York: Gallery Books, 2011.

Abumrad, Jad. “Gutless.” Radiolab. Accessed April 2, 2012. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/197243-gutless.


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