Grandpa’s Punch


Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

Wayne Danielson

May 18, 1997

Grandpa’s Punch

Matthew 2:1-12. After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked. “We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.”  When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. “At Bethlehem in Judaea,” they told him, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, for out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared and sent them on to Bethlehem. “Go and find out all about the child,” he said,”and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.” Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.

Mark 1:14. After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. “The time has come,” he said, “and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.”

Luke 17:20. Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was to come, he gave them this answer, “The coming of the kingdom of God does not admit of observation and there will be no one to say, ‘Look there!’ For , you must know, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Luke 22:14. When the hour came he took his place at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; because, I tell you, I shall not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

Then, taking a cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and share it among you, because from now on, I tell you, I shall not drink wine until the kingdom of God comes.”

I Corinthians 11:23-25. For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you. That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:

And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”

After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, “This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”

When I cook, I seldom use a recipe.

Oh, I may have a cookbook open in front of me. But if I don’t have one of the ingredients, I just put something else in its place. I’m not a slave to a recipe. Not at all. I’m an independent cooker. I suppose that’s why having dinner at our house is always an adventure. LaVonne can never be sure what she’s going to get. It’s unpredictable.

Take my chili, for example. I may start out using Wick Fowler’s Two Alarm Chili, but I’m never content simply to follow the instructions on the package. I always add a few ingredients of my own. A little additional red pepper here. A little extra chili meat there. Perhaps a touch of corn meal. Maybe even some bean juice out of the can, although I usually stop short of using the actual beans the way they do up in Iowa. I’ve learned that much about Texas chili — beans go on the side. My chili is different every time. The imperfections make it interesting, I think. It’s complicated.

Last week, I made a beef and vegetable stew for dinner. I had the cookbook open before me. But I had left my glasses in the bedroom, and I didn’t read the book very much. The recipe, insofar as I could make it out, seemed too Midwestern. It was entirely too mild. LaVonne likes a bold, Fort Worth taste to her stew. She likes her stew spicy and steaming. I decided to put in some extra black pepper. I didn’t measure it exactly. I just opened up that big hole on the pepper can and kind of poured it in until, before I knew it, the stew turned gray all over. I cooked it down for a while. This made it even more peppery, I discovered. After I added the vegetables, the stew seemed watery, so I put in some pepper gravy mix to thicken it up. Well, the stew that resulted was hot, hot, hot. We had to serve extra glasses of ice water with the meal. I hadn’t planned on serving a dessert that evening, but after eating that stew, we both decided that some ice cream would be good to kind of cool down our innards. The imperfections of the stew made it interesting. It was complicated and rich.

One of my favorite books is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I make a bread I call Way Bread. It’s named for the bread that Frodo, the main Hobbit, took along with him on his adventures. Way Bread is a kind of hard tack. Its main virtue is that it has an indefinite shelf life. Tolkien doesn’t tell us how Frodo made it, but I decided that he must have used whatever he had around his house before taking off, and that’s the way I make it.  I put in two tablespoons of every kind of flour I can find in the cupboard. That usually includes white flour, whole wheat, rye, bran and corn meal. Then I add a few leftover cereals — some shredded wheat or some frosted flakes or some Cheerios. I put in a teaspoonful of baking powder, a teaspoonful of butter, a teaspoon of sugar, and a handful of almonds or pecans, if I have any, and enough water to turn the whole thing into a kind of paste I spread out thin on a cookie sheet and bake until it turns brown. Sometimes it’s delicious. Sometime’s it’s — well — just interesting. And sometimes its not fit for a hobbit. I never can tell exactly what I’m going to get when I make Way Bread. It’s intricate and involved. Sometimes one flavor dominates, sometimes another. It’s never the same.

Probably my most famous concoction is Grandpa’s Punch. It’s more or less in line with what I have outlined so far. I start off with one can each of whatever I can find in the freezer — orange juice, lemonade, grape juice. I add water as indicated and the remains of any bottled juice I find in the refrigerator — cranberry, grapefruit. To this, I add whatever sparkling water I can find — Sprite, Seven-up, ginger ale. Then I put in sliced fruit — apples, oranges, lemons, limes, pears, grapes — anything that’s available. I just slice it and dump it in there. Finally I add chipped ice and mix it all up. The punch is always beautiful to behold. It is composed of many colors. It has something for everyone, you might say. People who come to our parties usually wind up drinking it in preference to the more conventional drinks we serve. The grandchildren like it too, but they kid me a lot about it.

“Your punch is never the same, Grandpa,” they say. “We never know what it’s going to taste like.”

“That’s the point, isn’t it?” I always say. “That’s what makes it interesting. That’s what keeps you coming back for more. It’s the imperfections. The unpredictability. It’s like a fine wine. It’s never the same twice.”

I’m not sure that the grandchildren are mature enough to understand that yet. It takes a little bit of growing up to realize that imperfections are essential to any art that is truly interesting.

When I was “baching” it in Georgetown a few years back, I realized that I needed some feminine advice on decorating. I used to ask Evelyn Jacobsen to come and help me buy the things I needed for my little house, and she always was willing to help. I wanted to buy a quilt for my bed, for example, and I had one all picked out at the store up there that sells handicrafts made by Georgetown people. It was a beautiful quilt with Texas wildflowers on it. But I was put off by the price — $400. I asked Evelyn’s advice, and she drove up and took a look at it and told me that it was an excellent quilt, and $400 wasn’t too much to pay for an original piece of art. I pointed out that one of the names of the wildflowers was misspelled on the quilt. It said “annual astor” instead of “annual aster.”

“That’s not bad, that’s good,” Evelyn assured me. “Quilt makers always put a mistake in every quilt that they make. That’s the way you know it was made by a human being and not a machine.”

She was right. Imperfections. Something less than perfect. That’s what makes a quilt really interesting and valuable. That’s why I bought it and why we still use it now that I have my own design consultant.

We’re making a Japanese garden in our back yard. To tell the truth, we’ve been making it for the last three years, and it’s not done yet. It’s hard finding Japanese plants that Texas deer won’t eat. I’ve read many books about Japanese gardens, including some about the famous Japanese gardens that go back hundreds of years. These wonderfully conceived gardens, I was surprised to learn, are not tended by professional gardeners — they are tended by old men or teen-age boys. That’s so the gardens won’t be perfect. Teenagers are naturally sloppy, and will miss a few leaves here or there or will leave part of a walk unraked. Old men might want to do a perfect job, but they’re inclined to be absent-minded — they’re sure to leave a broom leaning against a tree or a pile of dead branches on the edge of a path.

“It’s important for the garden not to be perfect,” the Japanese say. “That’s what makes the garden interesting.”

What made Elvis a star? He was a great musician to be sure, but he didn’t sound like one. He had his imperfections. He put too much butter on his grilled cheese sandwiches. We know that. Most of us thought that if we practiced we might be able to sing “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Houn’ Dog” as well as he did. In fact, we still see lots of people running around pretending to be Elvis, don’t we?

Something similar could be said of Marilyn Monroe. When at Madison Square Garden she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John Kennedy in her breathless, lisping voice, most of us probably thought we could sing that song just as well or maybe even better than she did. Moreover she closed her eyes when she sang because one of her eyes was lazy and kind of went off in another direction. She had imperfections to be sure. She had to be sewn into the dress she wore that night. But, upon reflection, we had to admit she had a great appeal — an unmatched style — perhaps because she wasn’t perfect. She certainly was an interesting person, more complicated than she seemed at first, and more of an artist than we ever suspected. As with Elvis, you never knew exactly what Marilyn might do.

It may seem to be quite a jump from Elvis and Marilyn and Grandpa’s Punch to the Holy Scriptures, but that is exactly the leap I took this week. And that is the idea I invite you to consider this morning.

The underlying question is, of course, what makes the Holy Scriptures so interesting? What makes them a treasure that priests and preachers and ordinary men and women have mined for thousands of years and without exhausting their meaning? These texts can be read again and again and, with each reading, yield new intelligence, new knowledge and new wisdom. I suppose that this is why we call them holy. These writings have a kind of mystery about them. They have a kind of magic. They have something that is missing in all other literature. Their interest cannot be exceeded by Milton or Dante or Goethe or even Shakespeare. What is their secret?

No one knows the answer, of course. And I certainly claim no ability to penetrate the depths of their mystery. But it seemed to me this week that some of their ability to stimulate our imaginations lies in their incompleteness, their complexity and their unpredictability. They are like Way Bread or Grandpa’s Punch. They are different every time we approach them. We can’t predict what we are going to find in them. We can’t predict how we’ll react to what we read.

Take, for example, the story of the wise men. How many wise men were there? Who were they? Where did they come from? How did they travel? What were their names? What was the star they saw rising in the east?  Did other people see it, or was it a special star only they could see? Why did they need to pay a visit to Herod if they had a star to lead them? How could a star stand over the place where Jesus lay? Stars don’t do that, do they? Why did they decide that Jesus was the king? Why did they give him those particular gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh? What was the warning they had in their dream? What did the dream say? How did they go home “another way”? Where did they go? How come we never heard from them again?

The story is incomplete, isn’t it? It is imperfect. It leaves many unanswered questions.  It has blanks that we have been filling in ever since Matthew wrote it We have supplied the number of the wise men — three. We have changed the wise men into kings. We have given them names — Caspar and Melchior and Balthazar. We have given them personalities. We have made one of them a black man.  We have supplied them with camels to ride to Bethlehem. We have “explained” the significance of their gifts. We have even tried to explain the star. We have worked and worked on that story to answer its unanswered questions. And, I think, we haven’t improved on the original a bit. The original story is interesting, fascinating, because of what it doesn’t say, because of its omissions, because of its imperfections. The story as told by Matthew heightens the mystery of the birth of Jesus instead of lessening it. It stimulates our imaginations.

Consider for a moment the idea of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of Heaven as Matthew sometimes called it.  The word kingdom in kingdom of God is never capitalized. The kingdom of God obviously was an extremely important concept to Jesus. He talked about it often. But where was it? Was it on earth or in heaven? Was it in existence now or was it to come? If it was a kingdom, who was the king? Was it God, or was it Jesus, or both? What was the nature of the kingdom? What were its boundaries? Who could enter it? What would be the nature of its citizens? Were the answers to these questions clear to the original followers of Jesus? Hints in the Book of Mark tell us that they were. Were the answers edited out by later scholars, seeking somehow to protect the early church? We don’t know. One can only say that the holy scriptures as we have them do not answer these questions definitely for the average reader. Sometimes one thing seems to be the case and sometimes another. The scriptures dealing with the kingdom of God are indefinite, complex and unpredictable.  We can read many things into them that may or may not truly be there. What remains forever is a mystery, a shining kingdom that Jesus saw, a precious kingdom that Jesus knew, and that he wanted all of us to know too. He urged us to pray for its coming just as we prayed for our daily bread. He urged us to “lay up treasures” in this kingdom. The fascination of the teachings about the kingdom of God lies in the perfection of their imperfection. It is left to us to fill in the blanks.

The great missionary Paul said that he himself saw the risen Savior on the road to Damascus. He saw him as a light so bright that it blinded him. He was taken into the Damascus where he was adopted and cared for and taught by early Christians, people who had known Jesus himself and who were witnesses to his death and resurrection. Paul must have heard hundreds of stories about Jesus. He talked about “clouds of witnesses.” But, interestingly, Paul almost never quotes Jesus in his letters. Why is this? About the only words Paul quotes -- and these words are from Luke’s account in Acts -- are the words Paul heard on the Damascus Road, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”

This sentence and a few words about the last supper, quoted by Paul himself in his first letter to the Corinthians, are about all we have. Paul’s letters are among the earliest Christian documents. They are earlier than Mark and Matthew and Luke and far earlier than John. Some of them may have been written in the ’50s, within 20-25 years of the crucifixion. And yet, where we might have expected to learn the most about the actual sayings of Jesus, we learn the least — what we have in Paul’s letters is a reflection of the thoughts of Jesus, not the words of the master himself.

We do not know why this happened. We do not know why Paul wrote his letters in the way that he did. We are given Paul’s brilliant theology. We are given Paul’s framework for the structure of the infant church. In his writings we are given the nascent liturgy of Christianity, the definitions of who Jesus was and his meaning for humanity. But of the person himself, of the man Jesus, we are given almost nothing. In Paul’s letters, Jesus is simply Christ Jesus or the crucified Christ or the risen Christ. “I teach Christ crucified,” Paul tells us, and everything else is cloaked in mystery. Paul puts no boundaries on Christ. Paul sets our minds free to imagine the historical Jesus. Thus out of incompleteness, out of imperfection, out of omission is born Christianity itself.

Not all things beautiful are perfect. Indeed, a little imperfection adds even more to our perception of beauty. Imperfection adds a touch of humanity, a touch of mystery. The exact recipe for my chili has never been written down. The recipe for Grandpa’s Punch varies from day to day. The constituents of Way Bread depend on the condition of my pantry. All hand-made quilts contain at least one error. The care of every masterful garden in Japan is left to a gardener who can make mistakes, will make mistakes, and is intended to make mistakes. Elvis and Marilyn had their imperfections. And the magnificence of the Biblical stories depends as much on what these stories do not tell us as on what they do tell us. We don’t know who the wise men were. We don’t know for sure what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom of God. We don’t know what Paul actually knew about the man Jesus and his history and his teachings. We do know that in incompletion and unpredictability and not knowing, God preserves in the holy scriptures the beauty and wonder of life and the glory of faith. We do know that in this the most wonderful of all literature, we are set free to imagine God and Jesus Christ. We acknowledge that to know all is God’s prerogative. To know in part is to be human. To know in part and remain faithful is the way that leads to the kingdom of God. As Paul put it, “For now we see as through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.”