In the early 1980s, a quick-serve Chinese restaurant opened at the Glendale Galleria mall. The owners, Andrew and Peggy Cherng, called it Panda Express. A few years later, Chef Andy Kao developed their signature dish, Orange Chicken.
The business began to grow. The 100th restaurant was opened in 1993. The 1,000th in 2007. Today, they have more than 2,000 restaurants in nine countries. With more than $3 billion in sales, they serve more than 90 million pounds of Orange Chicken every year.
At Panda Express, you are going to get “American Chinese food quickly and cheaply,” writes reviewer Kevin Alexander. Plus, “if you choose the winning dishes, you’re going to have a very enjoyable meal.”
They even have fortune cookies, although one customer found hers to be empty. That’s unfortunate … un-fortune-ate.
Surprisingly, the top dish is Teriyaki Chicken, which isn’t even Chinese. Alexander considers the best things on the menu to be Teriyaki Chicken, Beijing Beef, and Kung Pao Chicken.
The famous Orange Chicken comes in fourth.
Now, nearly 40 years after its founding, Panda Express continues to evolve. The restaurant recently introduced a plant-based version of its signature dish – Orange Chicken without the chicken.
They call it “Beyond The Original Orange Chicken.”
Panda Express is also expanding its philanthropic work. Fast Company magazine reports that a division called “Panda Cares” was established in 1999, and it has raised more than $305 million to help children in need. In recent years, conversations around race have inspired the company to create the “Panda CommUnity Fund.” Since being launched in 2021, more than $2.3 million has been contributed to organizations that support people of color and other marginalized communities.
“We are a company founded by immigrants,” says Andrea Cherng, chief brand officer. “We continue to look outward.” They are trying to answer the question: “How do we best serve our people and the broader community?”
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus and His disciples are shocked by the news that Herod has killed their friend John the Baptist. Needing to grieve and pray, Jesus climbs into a boat and retreats to a deserted place across the Sea of Galilee.
But the desperately needy people of the region follow Jesus on foot. Although He himself is suffering, Jesus isn’t irritated or annoyed that His retreat has been interrupted. On the contrary, Jesus cares deeply for these people who are in need and unable to help themselves.
Matthew tells us that Jesus has compassion for people in the crowd – which means, literally, that He “suffers with” them (Matthew 14:14). Jesus is moved with pity from the depth of his heart, feeling a sympathetic awareness of their distress, combined with a strong desire to provide some relief. In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus has compassion because they are “like sheep without a shepherd; and he [begins] to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Jesus becomes their Good Shepherd, one who orders the people “to sit down on the grass” (Matthew 14:19), just like the Lord of Psalm 23 makes his sheep “lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:2).
Jesus has compassion for every one of His people, regardless of their background or circumstances. Jesus is the Good Shepherd promised by the prophets, the one who teaches his people, heals their sick and injured, and provides them with food. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” promises Isaiah; “he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (40:11). “I will set up over them one shepherd,” says Ezekiel, “and he shall feed them” (34:23).
It’s like a Jesus Express on the seashore – and even better than the Orange Chicken at Panda Express.
The feeding of the 5,000 must be important, because it is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four gospels. The feeding reminds us of God’s gift of manna to the ancient Hebrews. It also points forward to the Last Supper, especially in the blessing and breaking of the loaves (Matthew 14:19). The disciples only had five loaves and two fish, so Jesus introduced a new version of a signature dish. He multiplied the loaves and fish, and “all ate and were filled” (v. 20).
When we receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in worship, we share bread just as Jesus and the people did, gathered on the grass by the Sea of Galilee. We feel the compassion of Jesus in the meal, and we discover that our hearts are filled.
Communion is the top dish at Jesus Express. Nothing else comes close.
The feeding of the 5,000 reminds us that the Lord does provide. Not millions of dollars for children in need, but physical and spiritual nourishment for people around the world. When we find ourselves in a lonely and deserted place, Jesus meets us and has compassion for us. When we feel spiritually empty, Christ breaks His bread and feeds us. When we are worn out at the end of a long day, Jesus does not send us away to fend for ourselves. He invites us to lie down in green pastures, and He gives us what we need for life.
Jesus also encourages us to extend His compassion and His nourishment to others. He wants us to continue to look outward, and to answer that question raised by Panda Express: “How do we best serve our people and the broader community?”
Notice that the disciples are resistant at first. They want Jesus to send the hungry crowd away, so that they can acquire some food in neighboring villages. But Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (v. 16). The disciples are mystified by this, since they have only five loaves and two fish, but after Jesus blesses the bread there is enough for everyone. And Jesus doesn’t feed the crowd Himself — He gives the loaves to the disciples, and then the disciples feed the people. You never see the Lord work until you step out in faith.
That’s the challenge of the Jesus Express: To take what Jesus gives us, and then to share it with others. “You give them something to eat,” He says, and then He gives us what we need to feed the world around us. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about 10% of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2021. That means that one in 10 households across the country is forced to eat a less varied diet, participate in a federal food assistance program, or get food from a community food pantry.
We respond to the challenge of Jesus when we do something to address this need. Concrete actions could include contributing to a food pantry, cooking meals for a feeding program, rescuing food that might otherwise be thrown away, or taking action in the community to eliminate a “food desert” – area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Actions to fight food deserts can include creating a community garden, supporting a farmers’ market, or advocating for the expansion of public transportation to areas in which there are adequate grocery stores.
“You give them something to eat.” Such feeding and sharing can go beyond putting food in hungry stomachs. Giving can include regular tithes and offerings to the mission of the church. Giving involves welcoming visitors to worship and sharing communion with them. Giving can extend to creative work on issues of affordable housing and homelessness.
Remember that Jesus was famous for eating with people He did not know, and He was criticized for sitting down at a table with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-13). He did not consider people to be strangers when it came to sharing food and fellowship. When He reached out to the people around Him, He always showed generosity and compassion. Since Jesus has given us what we need for a good life, He wants us to share that goodness with others.
Does this mean that we will be depleted by our sharing? Not at all. Notice that when everyone in the crowd eats and is filled, there are 12 baskets of food left over – one for each of the 12 disciples. Sharing with others never depletes us, never hurts us, never robs us of what we need for a good life. In the wonderful abundance of God’s generous gifts, there is always enough for all.
When we visit the Jesus Express, we discover that Jesus meets us in our deserted places and offers us compassion. Like a good shepherd, He gives us what we need for life – abundant food, drink and protection. And then, because He wants us to be his disciples, He asks us to feed others with the resources that He has given us. We join Jesus in compassion and in innovation, looking outward and caring for a world in need.
At the Jesus Express, there is always going to be enough. The Lord does, in fact, provide – for us and for the people around us.