“Faith & Food”
“Faith & Food”
There’s a lot more juice in a grapefruit than meets the eye!
There’s a lot more to food than we might think.
We have just listened to a familiar passage from Christian Scripture. Jesus who was crucified and was buried is now alive again. He appears to his followers and he is hungry. Here are these disciples bewildered and totally at a loss, wondering what on earth is happening, and what does Jesus do but asks for something to eat. It seems that food is vital after death as well as before it; eating is essential for life to go on…
There is a parallel text earlier in Luke Chapter 8 when Jairus’ daughter has apparently died. Jesus speaks similar words: ‘Go and get her something to eat!’ Once again it is the need of physical sustenance which sits alongside matters of faith, hope and revival.
In reality, if we look carefully, every chapter of the Gospel we attribute to St Luke contains references to food or fasting!
These include examples of land and earth, water and ploughing. We find fields, sowing, reaping, vineyards, fruit trees, crops, harvests, good soil and even a manure heap. Jesus refers to food allowances and the importance of fair food. We can add to this flocks of sheep, doves, wheat, herds of pigs and goats, calves, poultry and oxen. Then there are cups, dishes, tables, banquets, feasts, spices and herbs, bread, wine, fishes, oils. Finally, we even read of finer ingredients such as seeds, beans, figs, yeast, flour, water, salt, dough, and crumbs.
We find a whole collage of foodstuffs that could almost come from a recipe book. For Luke food threads through his gospel to demonstrate the earthiness of God. Jesus, as incarnate saviour, participates in the farming and gastronomic culture of his day. His stories and actions relate to, and are drawn from, the ordinary world of eating and drinking. No ghostly messiah this. He is grounded in the cycles and rhythms of life, partaking of the same bread, water, wine and fish as everyone else from Galilee to Jerusalem.
And it is not only in Luke’s gospel. A number of biblical composers and writers make reference to food found from Genesis to Revelation.
Reading scriptures through the eyes of a farmer or a chef uncovers a long array of meals, products and lifestyles relating to edible fare. How we practically manage the planting and preparation of foodstuffs is part of the Covenant tradition. But also food is used as a rich metaphor or symbol.
Manna, feasts, miracles, a land of milk and honey, select diets, taboo foods, courtly menus, banquets, the Last Supper, food shortage and food storage, the detailed significance of breads and meats, sacrifice, fasting, and so on. Together these references inform us about what was produced and consumed in the area in biblical times, and how it was managed.
But what might all this mean for us here today? Are there certain messages, challenges and connections for us and for our own behaviour in modern society?
I would point to 3 key themes:
Firstly, in the biblical tradition, either explicitly or implicitly, food is always a gift from God and is provided through the Earth (Eretz). This Earth is entrusted to our preservation and if cared about and cared for well, it will provide for the needs of all. God’s grace works through the seasons and cycles of life as part of the ongoing Creation. That is why the fruits of the land are to be treated with reverence and respect. It is through the abundance of food that human life is sustained and that life is holy because it is given by God.
This is why historically we have food rituals – prayers for times of sowing, harvest celebrations, graces before meals, and food blessings.
The second insight is that we are charged to love our neighbour as well as ourselves, and especially to care for those who are most vulnerable. In terms of eating we can therefore speak of ‘food justice’. This means a more equal sharing of the world’s resources and the distribution of food for everyone and everything. Food is not to be dictated by greed, wealth or status - not to be hoarded for the benefit of the few, whilst the many go hungry and empty.
Traditionally, we express this through both charitable food giving and in campaigning for the eradication of poverty and hunger. We both give to the poor out of generosity and solidarity, but also ask the question why do we continue to allow inequality and systems that create poor communities and countries in the first place?
As the late Archbishop Helder Camara once said. ‘when I give to the poor, they call me a saint. When I asked why the poor exist, they call me a communist.’
Thirdly, I would like to suggest that good food, well appreciated and fairly shared expresses something of the peace of God. A combination of grace and mercy (beneficence and kindness) empowers us to be more wholly human. This is to say that ‘Shalom’ is a state of completion, of satisfaction, of fulfilment – of the hungry being filled with good things.
We know that as human beings who do not receive regular sustenance and sufficient food we are subject to illness, disease, death. At the same time, a lack of food may mean we also feel aggrieved and be provoked to violence, which in turn can escalate to conflict and fighting. The steps between Want and War can be very few.
So a more just sharing of the resources of the Earth is likely to lead to a greater sense of ‘enoughness’ and wholeness for us as a human race. We are more likely to live and sustain peaceful relations and to support the common good as God intends.
Food is God’s gift from the Earth; we are called to promote food justice and fairness for all; and food is an expression of God’s Shalom or fullness.
For those of us Christians who find the Communion Service or Eucharist significant, these three elements come together. There is the obvious recognition of bread and wine, treated respectfully and sensitively. This is followed by ‘just and equal’ sharing through which the gifts of God are offered to the people of God, and whose table is open to all. And we are made peacefully whole through this re-enactment of the Last Supper.
This is a meal which is preceded by a call to pursue all that makes for peace and builds up the common good. It is only after we make peace with our sisters and brothers that we can commune with God. And it is followed by a commissioning to go out and do likewise in the world: ‘Let us go in peace, to love and serve God.’
It is one religious ceremony amongst many based on the sharing of food and drink.
So what might this all mean in today’s world of global consumerism, where we are encouraged to share little, throw away much and compete for everything?
In contrast to the Biblical ideal of all of us sitting under our own grapevines and fig trees, our current society treats food as a commodity or a fuel with scant reference to the bigger picture or the longer term.
Probably in Britain most people have never had it so good. The supermarket dominated food supply system seems unlimited and unending, so it is easy to take food for granted. The majority of us will not know personal hunger or starvation today.
We do not often ask deeper questions about where products come from, how they are processed, or what they do to people and the environment, let alone their significance for us as physical and spiritual beings. It is interesting that we pray for sick people in church but do not usually encourage healthier diets and lifestyles that might avoid illness!
In effect, we have for the most part become detached from the natural cycles of life and disconnected from the Earth. We are also living lives detached from one another, not readily sharing in a community. Do we notice the trends of food security until they become crises? Who was worried about our local water supply 12 months ago? Who is prepared for food shortages next winter? Where is the political honesty about food and energy supplies? What if some people have to choose between warmth in their homes or food on the table?
Every day in Exeter we throw away about 30% of the food we purchase, mainly through excess consumption. This is incinerated or goes to landfill - wasted - but on the whole ignored.
The gap between the producer or grower and consumer is unhealthily wide in today’s world. We see unnecessary food miles, wasted fuel and extensive agricultural practices which do little for local communities.
The relationships of trust between farmers, growers, butchers, shopkeepers, kitchen cooks, gardeners involved in the food cycle has largely broken down.
Our food supplies are determined by cheap energy prices which are now growing at about 10% every year. Lack of water will lead to higher food costs too, some of which are still unforeseen.
There are many food scares – links between poor diet and poor health. Obesity, anorexia, food-related heart and circulatory disease, even the consequences of fast food and lack of exercise on mental health.
Climate Change in southern countries is already bringing about a loss of farmland as sea levels rise and rainfall patterns become unpredictable.
These are but a few of the food challenges we face across the globe at this time.
Yet we are Easter people, led by a resurrection-centered faith which encourages us to act in hope and to transform our world to be more in keeping with the Reign of God, symbolised in the sharing of fish and bread.
So how might we look for creative ways forward and re-connect and deepen our relationship with food, just as Jesus did after the Emmaus Road?
I would leave you with 3 areas of action where we might yet make a difference in our wider society:
Baking cakes or biscuits is a tradition well linked with our churches. Can we rediscover it? Worship that brings together food and people, creation and creativity – agapes, feasts and festival meals…
I suggest we begin by encouraging ourselves to share more food with others. This might involve sharing our surpluses with the local Food Bank; or sharing more meals at home with others (friends and those we do not know). It could be supporting the work of the Devon and Cornwall Food Association in Exeter (stopping good food from being destroyed). We can develop more breakfast clubs and community cafes. We can campaign against excess imported foods which lead to hunger elsewhere, or for the redistribution of land rights so people can feed themselves better. We need to recall the words of Gandhi when he said ‘There are so many hungry people that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread’.
Food, as a gift of God, carries with it certain responsibilities. It is to be grown with sensitivity to the ecology of the planet and to be shared more fairly across societies. It is to be disposed of in ways that replenish the earth and not to threaten the sustainability of future generations.
Food forms a basis for stories that enlighten our faith and enhance our humanity. Let us re-discover food as a way of connecting to one another, to the Earth and to God.
Traditionally for us, food not only nourishes our bodies and minds, but also holds us together in communities. ‘Companionship’ is literally a sharing of bread together. So how we handle and prepare food must go deeper than gross consumerism, but bring us back in touch with ourselves, our world, and with a God who shares in the eating of fish and drinking of wine, before and after apparent beginnings and endings.