Sunday, October 7, 2007

Mind your table ethics

Follow Christ. Question Culture. Love the Church:
Food and Eating

Genesis 1:26-31; Acts 2:41-47

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American culture is obsessed with food.
Diet books and cookbooks dominate the best-seller lists.
Food magazines never lack for subscribers,
nor Food TV for viewers.
And Mennonites love their food as much as any Americans,
probably more so.
Anyone at the Relief Sale yesterday?
Enough said.
Nothing gets Mennonites more pumped than the prospect
of eating lots of food to help the poor and hungry.
Yesterday, one of the children in our church said it well,
“The more we eat, the more we give.”
I am truly not knocking the Relief Sale.
I think it’s a wonderful thing
for the church to throw a huge party like that,
and invite the whole community to share in the fun.
And good parties need lots of good food.
And if the party brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars
for world relief,
we should all be rightfully happy and proud about that.

But on this subject of food and eating,
I could go a number of different directions this morning.
But let me tell you up front,
I’m not going to focus on the amount we eat,
whether too little or too much.
I’m not going to focus on diet and nutrition.
Those are important and relevant topics.
They are highly influenced by our culture.
They have moral and ethical and faith implications.

But we’re already talking about those things.
There are lots of good resources, inside and outside the church,
that can help us in those areas.
Instead, I’m going to talk about food from an angle
that is rarely a topic of church conversation,
and rarely even considered to be a faith issue.
I’m going to talk about the food system
that has come to be so much a part of our culture,
and that is held firmly in place by our cultural values.
And I’m going to raise some questions of our culture
and its food system,
from the standpoint of our particular convictions as a church,
as the body of Christ, in this time and place.

So let’s begin, as we have done each Sunday in this series,
by confessing our faith,
These confessions come from our shared commitment
to the scripture, and to Jesus Christ as Lord.

I chose just a few representative parts of our confession,
that have bearing, I believe, on today’s topic.
These come from the Mennonite World Conference
Statement of Shared Convictions,
and our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

  • As a church, we gather regularly to worship, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to hear the Word of God in a spirit of mutual accountability.
  • We believe the church is the new society established and sustained by the Holy Spirit, called to become ever more like Jesus Christ in its worship and the ordering of its common life. True faith means treating our bodies as God’s temples.
  • We believe that everything belongs to God, who calls us as the church to live as faithful stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. We commit ourselves to right use of the earth’s resources as a way of living according to the model of the new heaven and the new earth.
  • As we partake of the communion of bread and cup, the gathered body of believers shares in the body and blood of Christ and recognizes again that its life is sustained by Christ, the bread of life.

Am I off base here,
or does the way our food system and its industries work—
agribusiness companies, farmers, processors,
packagers, marketers, shippers, grocers, restaurants,
chefs, servers, and even cooks in the family kitchen—
does this have anything at all to do with biblical ethics
and Christian morality?
These issues of how food is raised and shipped and cooked and served—
are they really faith issues?
are they legitimate concerns of the church?
is it fair to ask, “WWJE...what would Jesus eat?”
or what would Jesus buy at the grocery store?

Obviously, I must think they are faith issues,
or I wouldn’t be asking these questions.
Let me tell you why I think they are.
It all goes back to what we just confessed,
especially the second-to-last part—
“We believe that everything belongs to God,
who calls us as the church to live as faithful stewards.”

Food is a wonderful and gracious gift of God.
We read from Genesis 1 this morning.
On the sixth day of creation, God pointed to all the growing things,
and said to the man and woman he had just created,
“See, I have given you every plant yielding seed
that is upon the face of all the earth,
and every tree with seed in its fruit;
you shall have them for food.”
Food is a gift from the hand of God.
All of creation is a gift.
God gave humankind dominion (that is, responsibility)
“over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air,
and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,
and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
We are responsible, as God’s stewards, God’s managers,
to care for the earth, and all life on this earth,
with the kind of love and care that God himself would have.

There is hardly any activity we undertake in modern life,
that is so directly tied to this primal calling
to be stewards of the earth,
as is the activity of eating food.
More so than any other goods in life that we deal in,
our food is physically and spiritually connected to
and dependent on this precious earth
that we’ve been asked by God to care for.
So do you think God cares about what we eat,
and how it was raised?
I just don’t know how anyone would go about making an argument
that God doesn’t care,
that our food production and consumption does not have
a deeply moral component to it.

So let’s ask some questions of the culture that created our food system.
As we have observed in the other topics in this series,
our culture is driven by its idolatrous worship of the gods
of individualism and independence and
unhindered freedom to pursue personal pleasure.

So, because we have the technology that makes it possible,
and the money to buy it,
we have been able to complete separate ourselves,
free ourselves completely from any constraints
that the earth itself might have on the food we eat.
We no longer have to wait for the right season,
or live in the right region of the world,
to enjoy certain foods.
Any kind of food we can imagine,
from any part of the world,
at any time of the year,
pre-cooked and packaged anyway we like,
is available to us,
by taking it off a shelf, and exchanging it for money.
Is this really a good thing? Is this something to celebrate?

We no longer have to be concerned about pesky things like,
delaying self-gratification,
or sacrificing something we want.
I wonder what the spiritual implications are of living in a culture
that forgets about the rhythms and seasons of the earth,
and that refuses to accept the fact
that we can actually do without something we enjoy for a while,
and still be happy and whole people.

I wonder what the spiritual implications are of living in a culture
that doesn’t think twice about the question of stewardship
when making business decisions about food.
that believes it’s perfectly normal and good
to ship fresh vegetables from Asia and South America
in petroleum-powered airplanes, ships, trains, and trucks,
and sell them in plastic packaging off the shelf,
even when some of those same vegetables are in season
in our own community.
Just a few weeks ago, in Costco,
I saw plastic bags of whole green beans, grown in France.
Stop and think about that. Green beans, from France,
shipped to the fertile Shenandoah Valley, in September!

And I wonder what the spiritual implications are,
of accepting as perfectly normal and good
to pay for water in small plastic bottles,
when it’s virtually free, clean and on tap in almost every home.
According to Time magazine,
in one year, Americans spend $10.8 billion on bottled water.
And only one-fourth of those bottles get recycled,
which means that 2 billion pounds of plastic water bottles
end up in landfills each year.

What are the spiritual implications of our decisions
about what we eat and drink in this culture,
when we base those decisions primarily on
what’s convenient, what’s cheap,
what tastes good, what’s fast,
and what requires the least amount of work on our part?
What have we given up, spiritually,
by so completely separating what we eat and drink,
from any direct interaction with the earth it came from?

Barbara Kingsolver, recently wrote a book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
in which she explores the spiritual and social and physical costs
of this separation.
She told about her own family’s experiment of spending one year
eating primarily what they raised themselves,
or was raised in their surrounding community.
She also wrote an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post.
She said we’ve gotten to the place where we think of working the soil
as poor persons’ work. We’re above it.
Some of us even we think we’re above touching the stuff.
We rarely cook anymore.
The real physical and spiritual labors of keeping a family fed
are thought to be tedious and irrelevant.

She was at a NY dinner party recently, where a woman, half-bragging,
said, “Honestly, who has time to cook anymore?
My daughter will probably grow up wondering
what a kitchen is used for.”
That comment might be unremarkable, except that the speaker was
head of one of the largest homemaking magazines in the country.

As a culture we’ve separated ourselves in so many ways,
from the earth that God instructed us to care for.
To the point where we now have a food system that is
highly industrialized, highly mechanized,
and highly dependent on long-distance transportation.
Does God care about that?

Well, it’s interesting to note how much the Bible says about food.
We ignore most of it now.
We dismiss it. It’s ancient ritual law, irrelevant to our time.
Sure, many of the laws don’t make sense to us,
based on the knowledge we have today.
But the fact remains that God apparently cared a great deal
about how his children prepared and ate their food.
Our context is way different today.
But I can’t believe that God stopped caring about these things.

In both the Old and New Testaments,
the dining table had a central place in the development
of God’s covenant people.
Look at all the festivals that involved food preparation and eating.
Look at all the stories that involved food.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and every generation after them.
Jesus with the Pharisees, with the tax collectors, with the disciples.
In story after story,
the pivotal action occurs at a table with food.
The table is where the stranger and sinner was welcomed,
where hospitality was given and received,
where confession, forgiveness and reconciliation occurred,
where miracles happened,
where teaching was given.

We would not be a people of God without the table,
where we share together God’s gift of food.
And nowhere is this more obvious than at the Lord’s Table,
where the Communion meal is spread.
More than any other, this is the meal that defines us as a people.
Where we celebrate and share the gift of life in Christ.
This is the table where we come to partake of God’s gifts
of grace and forgiveness.

Over the years, Communion has become a highly ritualized meal,
but in the early church, it was an everyday occurrence.
The text we read this morning from Acts 2 seems to indicate that.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers...
day by day they spent much time together in the temple,
they broke bread at home
and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”
They were a community, because they regularly communed.

What a contrast with how we treat the table in our homes today.
Tables are just as likely to be flat surfaces
to collect bills, magazines, and junk mail,
as to be places where we sit with family, friends, or neighbors,
and share a leisurely meal, conversation, and laughter.

Now, I don’t want you to go away and think I’m asking you to
to boycott the food industry,
and not darken the doors of Food Lion and Burger King,
throw away your frozen pizzas,
and take your hoe and start digging up
every empty space in your backyard.
I don’t plan to.
I have no intention of being legalistic or joyless about it all.
I may want to raise my own food,
but I balance that with realizing my time and energy is limited.
Convenience and efficiency is a good thing sometimes.

But, I think it’s okay to sometimes ask the stewardship question.
It’s good to be more aware of where our food comes from,
and to consider whether our food buying decisions
reflect good stewardship, not only of our money and time,
but of the earth, and of our physical and spiritual health.
It’s good to ask more questions,
to think more carefully,
to seek to be faithful to God in all the choices we make.

And then to lean on the grace of God.
To come with joy and abandon to the table of the Lord,
where there is mercy and grace in abundance.
And coming to the table
includes what we’re doing today, celebrating communion.
It also includes coming to our shared space as a people of God,
a space of mutual encouragement, discernment, and accountability.
These questions we ask of culture,
the questions we ask about our own practices,
they are not questions to be asked in privacy and solitude.
They are questions for the community.

So take the questions I raised today,
and your objections or challenges to what I said today,
the further questions you see in your bulletin today,
and bring them to the table of our faith community.
Discuss, discern, pray.
Support each other in the choices we are making.
Choices to follow Christ, question culture, and love the church.

—Phil Kniss, October 7, 2007

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