August 21, 2016 | Romans 14:1-6; Luke 14:15-24 | Trevor Malkinson –
In 2009 I attended a day long Marcus Borg workshop here in Vancouver, at St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Kerrisdale. I’m sure many folks here also heard him speak at some point over the years. I was new to the church at the time, and had not yet decided (or had the call) to go into ministry. In fact, I was still a chef in the film industry, slogging it out on food trucks at ungodly hours of the morning. But something Borg said that day clicked for me, something lit me up in a way that called me forward. He said that there were many images for transformation/salvation in the Bible, but there were three key repeating motifs- the movement from exile and estrangement to return and connection; the movement from sickness and woundedness to wholeness and health; and the movement from injustice and violence to justice and peace.
These are powerful archetypal themes, and as I was getting deeper and deeper into the food movement and reading about food at the time, I noticed that in our current relationship to food in our Western societies, we were in the left hand column of all three motifs. We were in exile, estranged from the non-human world; we were sick in our bodies from the type of food we were eating; and we were perpetuating deeply unjust food systems, whether they were exploiting animal, worker or soil. But it also occurred to me that we could enact all three of these great journeys toward salvation through a renewed relationship to food. We could return home to the earth, we could heal our bodies and our ecology, and we could support new more just food systems.
And so it’s this journey I want to speak about today. I want to talk about the spirituality of food, the practices that we can engage in to bring about this much needed exodus towards wholeness, health and reconciliation with the earth. And the good news is that it’s something we get to do it one great omelet, one freshly baked loaf of bread, one juicy plum at a time. But before we get to that, I need to set a little context for how we got to where we are today.
With the growth of modern society and capitalist industrialization, came the eventual industrialization of our food supply. Food systems became more centralized, efficient and organized around rational principles. Traditional preservation techniques were turned into industrial practices, slaughterhouses were invented, and the mass production of food grew up alongside mass marketing techniques to sell it to consumers. The successes of this system should be noted- it had profoundly positive outcomes for those in many nations, particularly Western ones. Famines were finally eradicated by the late 19th century, and most of us in ‘developed’ countries now have a life expectancy much longer than it used to be. We also enjoy general levels of comfort and wealth never before seen in history.
But over time we’ve increasingly come to realize that this explosive material advance has come at a very costly price. Giant animal feedlots have become places of untold cruelty, and the use of antibiotics and other drugs to try and keep these crowded animals from getting sick, have had negative impacts on human health. The industrialization of fishing fleets, and the use of weapons of mass destruction such as bottom trawling nets, has torn apart and all but emptied the oceans. The reductionist modern view that the only thing plants need to grow are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, led to the creation of chemical fertilizers, which have polluted waterways and stripped soils of their fertility, soils that took thousands of years to reach their level of richness and complexity. The nutrient levels in our vegetables have been in steady decline for decades, as food corporations choose or create varieties based on their color, shape and shipibility, but not on their taste or nutrient quality. Hence the cardboard tomatoes and strawberries we so often find in the supermarket. Obesity and food addictions have skyrocketed as food manufactures realized that humans were evolutionary hardwired to crave sugar, salt and fat, because these were in low supply during much of our evolutionary history, so we were wired to eat as much of it as possible when it was in supply. There’s a reason you can’t just eat one Pringle. It’s been designed that way.
Through this modern food system and culture humans have become profoundly sick. Food writer Michael Pollan says that, “The chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food…Cancer and heart disease and so many of the other Western diseases are by now such an accepted part of modern life that it’s hard for us to believe this wasn’t always or even necessarily the case. These days most of us think of chronic diseases as being a little like the weather- one of life’s givens”. Think about the toll all this illness takes on families, communities, and the general fabric of society, not to mention the health care costs that also come along with it.
This is a description of general exile. To use some old time religious language, we might say that this is a society of the damned. Theologian Norman Wirzba, who wrote a book called Food and Faith, writes that, “The scope and scale of today’s ecological degradation is one of the clearest signs that the memberships of creation are broken”.
So how to we repair those memberships? How do we walk out of the shadow of this valley of Death, and find our way toward a new wholeness?
Before I turn to specific practices to take up, I think there’s an important conceptual shift we can make to frame and help spur on this new spirituality of food. Norman Wirzba’s next book after Food and Faith was called From Nature to Creation, and in it Wirzba argues that Christians should shift away from the term nature and back to the more biblical term creation. When we talk about God’s creation, it immediately shifts our relationship to the world around us. It’s hard to conceive of savagely strip-mining the oceans when we are consciously talking about strip mining God’s immanent presence in the world. It’s harder to do, it tweaks our conscience in a different way. It can actually seem downright blasphemous.
Wirzba asks what would happen if we instead saw “eating as receiving God’s creation”? What happens when we see creation as God’s gift? What happens if we look at a fresh picked tomato, cut in half and salted, and take it into our mouths with the same gratitude we bring to the Eucharist? The writers of the Psalms speak in this way. Psalm 145 says, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing”. Psalm 65 says:
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
There’s an awareness here that sees the world as supported and permeated by the divine. It is God’s ongoing gift. This is an awareness largely lost on the cold material rationalism of modernity, and one that I think needs to be rediscovered going forward. So I think this shift from nature to creation that Wirzba promotes is an important one. It helps to frame and support our practice of the spirituality of food. It sets the tone, the context, and it starts to free us from the more shadow elements of the modern worldview that are no longer serving us, or creation.
The other place we can turn to inspire and guide us in our journey into the spirituality of food, is the story and teachings of Jesus. Food was central to the life of Jesus and the metaphors he chose to teach by. He did call himself “the bread of life” after all. In his book Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel, Robert Farris says that, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal”. But more than this, the way Jesus ate at these meals is what eventually got him killed. In Jesus’ table ministry everyone was invited to the table, even the socially unclean. This was a radical hierarchy-destroying gesture that scandalized the religious leaders and made him an enemy of social stability. For Jesus, as we read today in our parable from Luke’s gospel (Luke 14:15-24), all people were invited to God’s feast. Nobody was to be excluded.
It’s my view that today we are being called to not only uphold Jesus’ table ministry, but to draw the circle wider still. It’s time that all of creation is welcomed at God’s feast, including the plants, the animals, the insects, the water and the soil. These are the very things out of which we were formed, and on which we all depend. All of this is to be part God’s kingdom on earth, all of creation is to be included in the cosmic process of redemption and salvation. Christians could be a powerful force for a cultural shift in this direction. And as with Jesus, if we’re doing it right, I’m sure we’ll make a few powerful enemies along the way.
So what then can we do to make this happen, what practices maybe we bring into our daily lives?
We can start by simply making more time for cooking again. This is something that has been in steady decline over the past two generations. But cooking with whole foods is healthy, it’s economical, and it can be an important social space if we include kids, partners or friends in the process. Time is the enemy of our culture I know, but if we make food a high value and priority then cooking can become central to our lifestyle, not just something we do to fuel up on the way to the next activity in our busy lives. Michael Pollan says that the most important thing he learned when learning to cook was the three words- “patience, practice, and presence”. He says it was about learning to “really BE in the kitchen, without fighting it — without thinking about all the other “pressing” things you might be doing with the same time”. This allows for cooking to be more enjoyable, and it creates the space for us to really start receiving creation as God’s gift. St. Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians (10:31), when he writes, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”. Do everything so that you allow for God’s presence, his splendor, to be seen, to be felt, and to be tasted. That’s great advice. So cooking itself, given the right time and presence, can become a form of spiritual practice.
The next things we can do are eat at a dinner table more often, and eat together as much as possible. Too often now we eat alone, or at separate times then our family members, and this has a decaying effect on society. The family dinner is actually a very old and cross-culturally important institution. It’s where kids are civilized, they are taught to share, to listen, where they hear adult conversation and the news of the day. Several studies have been published showing that kids who eat more often at the dinner table with family have much better long-term outcomes in life. They are less prone to high risk behaviors, to depression, are more resilient in the face of challenges such as bullying, the list is a long one. Food is for sharing and fellowship, and eating together breaks that separation that is such a key part of our current state of exile.
Another thing we can do is to say grace before meals. As Christians this might seem like an obvious one, but I know from experience how hard it can be. Moving fast, I often slide down onto my chair at the table and start in for my meal, when I remember about saying grace. And I often don’t want to stop either, a little part of me actually gets annoyed. It’s hard in our busy world to even allow this momentary gesture, but doing so brings forth gratitude as we remember all of the creatures and plants and human hands that helped grow this food and bring it to us. If we can eat consciously and slowly in this way, and not in front of a screen- another difficult one- we come naturally into the realm of what Christians call doxology, or the praise of God and creation. Hallelujah, this bread and jam is amazing.
Another thing we can do is plant something, even if we only have a small amount of room for herbs on a windowsill. This brings us back in touch with the sun, with seasons, with plants and with soil. We evolved for most of our history in intimate relationships with plants and animals- we even lived in the same dwellings as our livestock for thousands of years!- but the industrial food supply and the urban modern world have profoundly severed us from this important connection, another contributor to our exilic condition. To plant something, or go foraging, are ways to reconnect again, to heal this rift. And there’s more and more research coming out these days that gardening cures depression and is generally healing for the body-mind. Planting, foraging, preserving, all these arts restore a lost connection to the world, and are part of a spiritual practice of food.
Knowing where our meat comes from, if we choose to eat it, is an important part of supporting the growth of food systems that are more just when it comes to animal welfare, not the mention the consequences to the environment of these giant feedlots. This will inevitably mean eating less meat, but the flavor of properly treated animals is far superior, so I think it’s a welcome trade off. Buying local produce when possible also feeds the growth of local and sustainable food systems, increasing food security and building community connections, and produce that’s been recently picked is higher in nutrients, so there’s a healing dimension to eating local vegetables too.
As Michael Pollan has famously put it, we get to “vote with our fork”. There are few issues where three times a day we get to directly affect the systems that surround us by choosing what we give our money to. The growth of the food movement in the past 15 years has fueled an explosion in farmers markets and the growth of regional and small-scale farming, and this has grown off of the backs of more and more people voting with their fork.
We might ask at this point, what can our churches do in this whole area of food? A few suggestions would be: we could pair with a local food justice organization, and work with them. We can plant some garden boxes on our property and have it be a part of children’s church, and if there’s bounty, share some with a local food bank. We can continue to serve meals to the least of these, a long term practice of the church. We can do more congregational meals, so we can break bread together and get to know each other in a different setting. We could host interfaith meals. These are just a few ideas, and I’m sure we could come up with many more together.
Lastly, when it comes to the practice of the spirituality of food, I think Paul is onto something when advises to not judge what others eat (Rom. 14:1-6). No one likes a self-righteous so and so getting up in our face about eating the right foods or whatever. That doesn’t serve the growth of the shift we’ve been talking about, not at all. But it’s also not necessary. It’s not necessary because properly grown food in well treated soil, tastes better. As chef Alice Waters put it, this is “a revolution that tastes good”. I had this experience with my brother-in-law. I didn’t lecture him on going to the farmers market and buying good meat etc., I just brought some big strangely colored heirloom tomatoes over and put them on a lamb burger. He ate the tomato, and asked, “What the hell is that?!” And I said, “A tomato”. After eating out of the industrial food supply, it really is a revelation. My brother-in-law was off to the races after that, and now gardens and has transformed his relationship to food. No judging lecture needed. Just the glory of a beautiful tomato.
So as Christians, I hope we can take the leadership in this shift from nature to creation, and to seeing creation as God’s gift. But you might be thinking, well this is all well and good, but we are only so many and these are giant and powerful industrial systems we are up against, how can things really change in the full way that’s needed? Well consider fermentation. The process of fermentation can take something like wheat, that would give us zero nutrition if eaten raw, and transform it into a substance (bread) that people can life off of indefinitely. Isn’t it interesting that the two symbols Jesus chose for the Eucharist, bread and wine, are two fermented foods? And more than that, he describes the kingdom of God as like leaven (Matt. 13:33), which is a remnant of fermented dough used as a starter for a new batch of dough. So the kingdom of God is something that starts small, but ferments and grows to create something much bigger, and life sustaining. Let’s be that leaven then. And let’s enjoy it one great omelet at a time.
May it be so. Amen.
“The boundary between living and nonliving is actually removed in food. Food is natural communion- partaking of the flesh of the world. When I take food, I am eating world matter in general, and in so doing, I truly and in reality find the world within me and myself in the world, I become part of it”. – Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy- The World As Household (1912)