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Psalm 104:1-35

In 2009 I attended a day long Marcus Borg workshop in Vancouver, at

St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Kerrisdale. I’m sure some folks here also

heard Marcus 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 (we could think of the Exodus story); the movement

from sickness and woundedness to wholeness and health (for example,

the many healings of Jesus); and the movement from injustice and

violence to justice and peace (a vision held by many of the prophets, and

the Book of Revelation).

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’re in the left hand column of all three motifs. We’re in exile,

estranged from the non-human world. We’re sick in our bodies from the

type of food we’re eating. And we’re perpetuating deeply unjust food

systems, which exploit animals, workers and the 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 can return

home to the earth, we can heal our bodies and our ecology, and we can

support new more just food systems.

And so it’s this journey that 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 one great omelet, one freshly baked loaf of bread, and 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 (1).

 

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 (2).

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 (3). 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 (4). 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 (5).

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” (6). Think about the toll that all of

this illness takes on families, on communities, and on 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” (7).

So how do 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’re 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”? (8). What happens when we see creation as God’s gift?

What would happen if we looked at a fresh picked tomato, cut in half

and salted, and took it into our mouths with the same gratitude and

presence 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 in those words that sees the world as supported

and permeated by the divine. It’s God’s ongoing gift. This is an

awareness largely lost on the material rationalism of modernity, and

one that I think needs to be rediscovered going forward. So I think this

shift from nature to creation is an important one. It helps to frame and

to support our practice of the spirituality of food. It sets the tone and the

context, and it starts to free us from some of the 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 are the stories 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” (9). But more

than this, it was the way Jesus ate at these meals that 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 all people were invited to God’s feast. Nobody was to

be excluded.

It’s my view that today we’re 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

humans were formed, and on which we all still depend. All of this is to

be part of God’s kingdom on earth. All of creation is to be included in the

ongoing cosmic drama of redemption and salvation. Those who follow

 

the way of Christ could be a powerful force for a cultural shift in this

direction. And as with Jesus, if we’re doing it right, we’re sure to make a

few powerful enemies along the way.

So what then can we actually 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’s 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

while learning to cook were 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” (10). 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

1st 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, God’s 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, where they’re taught

to share and listen, where they hear adult conversation and the news of

the day (11). 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 (12). Food is for sharing and fellowship, and eating

together breaks that separation that is such a central part of our current

state of exile.

 

Another thing we can do is to say grace before meals. For those of us

who go to church this might seem like an obvious one, but I know from

experience how hard it can be. 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 animalswe

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 and heal this rift. And there’s more and

more research coming out that gardening cures depression and is

generally healing for the body-mind (13). Planting, foraging, preservingall

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, because it will be more expensive, 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 he advises his congregation in Rome 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, it

only creates discord and division. 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 to his place and put

them on a lamb burger I made for him. He ate the tomato, and asked,

“What the heck is that?!” And I said, “I know. It’s a tomato”. After eating

out of the industrial food supply, it really is a revelation. My brother-inlaw

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 people who go to church, and try and follow in Christ’s way, 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’re only so many and these are giant and powerful

industrial systems we’re up against. How can things really change in the

full way that’s needed? I invite you to 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 live 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

that’s 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 something 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)

~~~~~~

Endnotes

(1) For this paragraph Cf. Ed. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo

Montanari. Food- A Culinary History. US: Penguin Books, 1999.

(2) Cf. Grescoe, Tara. Bottomfeeder- How to Eat Ethically in a World of

Vanishing Seafood. Canada: HarperCollins, 2008.

(3) “To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK [nitrogen,

phosphorus, and potassium] represented the scientific method at its

reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities;

biology gives way to chemistry...When we mistake what we can know

for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the

face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can

treat nature as a machine. This reductionist science works by breaking

such systems down into their component parts in order to understand

how they work and then manipulating them — one variable at a time”.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. US: Penguin, 2006. Also: Dave

Montgomery- Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.

Link to the Video Here!

(4) In his book The End of Food, Thomas Pawlick begins by investigating

the sad quality of North American supermarket tomatoes, with their

thick outer membranes and their cardboard taste. He interviews some

of the biggest tomato producers in the United States, and asks them to

give a list of the top seven things they look for in the tomatoes they

produce. The answers included- yield, large size, uniformity in shape

and color, disease resistance, and shipability. Not once did a producer

mention taste or nutrient content, both of which have been declining for

decades. Pawlick, Thomas F. The End of Food. Vancouver: Greystone

Books, 2006. Ch.1.

(5) Amazon.com blurb- “From a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative

reporter at The New York Times comes the troubling story of the rise of

the processed food industry -- and how it used salt, sugar, and fat to

addict us. Sugar, Salt, Fat is a journey into the highly secretive world of

the processed food giants, and the story of how they have deployed

these three essential ingredients, over the past five decades, to

dominate the North American diet. This is an eye-opening book that

demonstrates how the makers of these foods have chosen, time and

again, to double down on their efforts to increase consumption and

profits, gambling that consumers and regulators would never figure

them out”. Moss, Michael. Salt, Sugar, Fat- How the Food Giants Hooked

Us. US: Signal Publishing, 2013. See also The Dorito Effect by Mark

Schatzker.

(6) Vancouver Sun. ‘Michael Pollan Interview’. November 3, 2010.

http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2010/11/03/michael-pollaninterview/ Click Here

And: Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. US: Penguin Books, 2008.

(7) Wirzba, Norman. Food and Faith- A Theology of Eating. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 2011. p.80.

(8) Jon Tschanz. ‘Feeding Bodies and the Theology of Taking Lives- An

Interview With Norman Wirzba’. The Other Journal. June 13, 2011.

http://theotherjournal.com/2011/06/13/feeding-bodies-and-thetheology-

of-taking-lives-an-interview-with-norman-wirzba/

(9) Karris, Robert A. Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel. Minnesota:

Liturgical Press, 2006. p.14.

(10) Tracey Taylor. ‘Pollan: We teach kids about sex, why not cooking?’

berkleyside.com. March 15, 2013.

http://www.berkeleyside.com/2013/05/15/michael-pollan-we-teachkids-

about-sex-why-notcooking/?

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