THE THRILL OF THE GRILL: A THEOLOGY OF BARBECUE
SCRIPTURE: Ecclesiastes 9:7; Luke 24: 40-43
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
With the warmer weather here in Wyoming, I thought it would be a good time to get our barbecue grill ready for use during the spring and summer months. About a month ago, I took our grill that was in the parsonage and placed it outside on the front step, and attached our propane tank. I went back inside to make sure the meat that was to be BBQ’d was ready and to get my utensils. I thought, “Oh boy, my first thrill of the grill in 2016!”
In the meantime, Andrea went out to see if the grill was getting hot. Indeed it was getting hot! There were flames shooting out of the valve on the propane tank. After a few seconds of amazement, astonishment, and, yes, thrill, I was able to turn off the burners to the grill and put out the fire. We found the fire extinguisher and put out the flame.
There was still propane leaking from the tank. If you were around the front yard of the parsonage, you probably wondered where the propane smell was coming from. The meat that was to be BBQd just didn’t have the same flavor fixed on the top of a stove.
This morning I would like to talk to you about the THRILL OF THE GRILL – A THEOLOGY OF BARBECUE!
More than any other cuisine in the U.S., barbecue is often served with a side of religious fervor. The atmosphere and language that surround barbecue, the words and phrases that food critics and aficionados use to describe it, are often rooted in things spiritual and holy.
Food writers, for example, gush about “the scales falling from their eyes” after eating superlative barbecue. Pit masters are likened to preachers, and their barbecue pits, pulpits from which the holy “word” is served.
A barbecue joint in Denver proudly claims to serve “nondenominational barbecue.” Rather than taking sides in the sectarian divisions of the barbecue world and committing style – Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas, Georgia, or Texas – this restaurant takes an ecumenical approach, drawing from each to create something new, something “quintessentially Coloradoan.”
Sacrilege? Not really. The author of the book of Ecclesiastes sets the tone for enjoying food that is good. Seize life! Eat bread with gusto! Barbecue fans and commentators are onto something. They recognize that religious words have power to describe things near-inexpressible, things that are important and that matter. Church matters, and so does food – especially, to many people, barbecue.
In short, whether adjective, noun or verb “barbecue” has a theological dimension that is deeply enmeshed in church culture.
I don’t know when the words “church” and “barbecue” were first joined, but the “church barbecue” has a rich and long history in the United States. In the late 18th century and the early half of the 19th century, Protestant Christian evangelists sought creative ways to introduce the gospel to the masses. Some hosted outdoor gatherings that lasted several days, featuring preaching, singing, worship and feasting.
Known variously as “camp meetings,” “protracted meetings” and “revivals”, these outdoor events paired perfectly with barbecue, the ultimate in outdoor dining. In the Big Bend area of Texas there is the Bloy’s Camp Meeting that is an annual event that draws people from all over the country. Local ranchers provide the meat from their herds for the daily barbecues. Like church itself the best and earliest barbecues with their scented smoke and sizzling meat, demanded a crowd.
Before grocery stores and restaurants, you couldn’t simply order a barbecue sandwich or even a rack of ribs. You ate barbecue only when the entire animal was cooked. To avoid waste, camp meeting organizers took a ”Y’all come” approach to both their faith and their food, inviting the general public to partake, often free of charge. The invitees were happy to oblige.
Camp meetings were particular effective in the South and among African-Americans. Camp meetings gave both free and enslaved African-Americans, as well as white Americans the opportunity to enjoy so many things that make us human: unfettered worship, the freedom to associate on equal terms with people of a different race, and an adequate, even abundant, amount of food, especially what we know as “barbecue”.
So we come to the “meat” of the matter – a theology of barbecue.
Barbecue, theologically speaking is about bringing people together, creating a space where we can recognize the divine in each other and reaffirm our individual and collective humanity --- here, now, not waiting until the afterlife.
Though the camp meetings drew large crowds, they were by nature temporary events. Yet the religious fervor they unleashed was channeled by evangelists into the more permanent work of church planting and church growth.
As congregations were formed and buildings built, the creation of worship spaces had tremendous religious and social implications all over the country, especially in the rural South. Socially and culturally, across the South, rural church events were usually the only game in geographically isolated towns.
Even so, pastors knew that they faced competition from worldly distractions. Religious events with superlative food gave them a competitive edge. Although a variety of foods were served at these church-hosted meals –sometimes called “dinner on the ground”, “covered dish lunches”, “potluck dinners,” “carry-in meals”, barbecue was often the favorite, the source of salivating memories. As more and more rural churches hosted barbecues, these faith-filled events reinforced to congregants that they weren’t alone, that they belonged to something greater than themselves.
The Denver Times newspaper in August of 1902 wrote an article about the Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Denver entitled: “Barbecue Attracts Crowds: Southern Feast given by Campbell AME Church to Raise Money on its Debt Proves a Success.” The article goes on to say how the pastor clearly understood the religious dimensions of barbecue. “This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sabbath clothes. They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices.
Do I hear an “Amen”?
As the Denver Times article confirms, even the act of cooking barbecue, anticipating it, savoring the moment when it can be eaten, can create community.
In many ways, the challenges that evangelists faced in the days of the camp meeting are the same challenges that churches face today.
How do I as a pastor and preacher spark someone’s interest in God? How do we as a congregation hold together a sacred community, like we have here? What are the best ways to keep someone coming back?
Barbecue may not be the perfect answer to all these questions. But I can vouch for its success in bringing people together to embrace a faith-filled life. Barbecue, at its theological and culinary best, reinforces a church’s important social role; it enhances the communal experience of God, sharing in Jesus’ bounty through a delicious meal.
In the Gospel of Luke’s reading, Jesus had a very interesting weekend. Arrest and trials, being nailed to a cross, died and was raised from the dead. Then he shares a post-resurrection beach barbecue with his disciples (Luke 24:40-43. When you read that portion of Luke you might find some practical things that Jesus did when he shared that barbecue meal.
First, after worship this morning, we are having a “Carry-in-lunch”. I would hope that most of the food is homemade. The disciples were broiling fish outside, by the beach. I don’t know if the disciples had a favorite recipe for their fish, but they probably put their heart and soul into preparing. Second, Jesus considered others. Let us remember that the meal is not about getting our needs met (a full stomach), and it’s not about everyone getting what they want. It’s about people coming together in unity and doing what they can to demonstrate that other people are more important than themselves.
Third, Jesus was present. The best kind of barbecue parties include much more than what goes in our mouths. They involve celebration, laughter, conversation, and people being present in the moment. While food and drink should be enjoyed, so should the people.
Be where you are. Don’t rush through the moment. Interact with others…tell stories. About a month ago the choir and their family members had a barbecue “carry-in” dinner hosted by Holly and Eric Johnston. The food was great. There was a lot of conservation. Stories were told. Sometime I will need to tell you a story that was told about an electric branding iron. It was great!
When we do these things that Jesus did in that appearance with the disciples –share a homemade meal, consider others and being present, then we begin to understand and experience for ourselves why God values the celebration of a shared meal .
The Texas Monthly is a magazine that highlights different aspects of the Texas lifestyle, to include great barbecue places. Recently, the magazine appointed its first barbecue editor. How any Texas institution could have gone this long without recognizing the God-given status of barbecue is beyond me, but I suppose eventful acknowledgement and repentance is better than never getting this right.
The reality is that in Texas and some other parts of the country where I’ve lived—Georgia comes to mind – barbecue is well-nigh to a religious experience. There are folks who spend more on their barbecue grills, smokers and portable grills than on their cars. Trust me, I’ve seen some of those cars.
Whether it’s in their own backyard, tailgating at a college football stadium, or on the front step of a church owned parsonage --- another religious commitment for lots of folks – barbecue is an alternative lifestyle choice. I hope you have “theology of barbecue” and you experience a “Thrill of the Grill”.
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH