In writing this sermon I have leaned on a great article by Norman Wirzba, entitled ‘Saying Grace’.
We continue today looking at the daily grind. And doing so this morning we have to ask: what could be more basic to everyday life than eating. Most of us eat three meals a day – and when you consider all the snacking in between, we spend a lot of time eating. On top of eating itself, there’s preparation – stirring the soup; heating up leftovers in the microwave; cutting up carrots; roasting a chicken. When you add it all up, eating and preparing to eat take up a good chunk of our waking hours.
Again this morning we also come back to that vital question: What is the relationship between our faith and the everyday activities of life. In terms of our theme for this morning the question is: How does our Christian identity relate to that basic human activity of eating? What is the relationship between faith and food?
Now for us Presbyterians, faith and food don’t obviously go together. Mostly, we think of other religions when we think of a link between food and faith. Within Judaism and Islam, for example, we remember there are prohibitions on eating certain foods, or prohibitions on combining certain foods. Closer to home on the religious spectrum, we might also think of Roman Catholicism where abstinence from meat on Friday’s often meant that fish was eaten on that day of the week.
But when it comes to the Reformed theological tradition, to our own Presbyterian heritage, there is no obvious link between faith and food – aside, perhaps, from our love of the potluck supper. There are no daily food practices or rules that go hand in hand with our faith in Jesus.
Now the question of why that is the case is an interesting and complicated one. If Christianity in some sense flows out of Judaism – if Jesus himself was Jewish, and if the first followers of Jesus were Jewish – why don’t we follow the food rules of Judaism? We don’t have time to explore this but our New Testament reading gave a bit of a hint. We read from Acts that strange vision of Peter. A large tablecloth full of food is lowered from heaven, and the food laid out on that tablecloth is food that Jews were not permitted to eat – yet in his vision Peter is commanded to eat. A voice declares: “Nothing God has made should be called unclean.” In other words – in the community of those who know and follow risen Jesus, the food rules of Judaism don’t hold in the same way. In the earliest church of which Peter was a part, it was especially a question of whether non-Jewish followers of Jesus had to follow the food rules of Judaism – and the answer given was No. So here we are, two thousand years later, followers of Jesus without any faith-based food practices – no obvious rules governing our everyday eating.
Nevertheless, we are going to try and draw some links between our faith and our food. But we’re going to get this issue in a roundabout way – beginning by talking about prayer. Specifically, by talking about prayers we say before our meals. We often call it grace – “saying grace”. Who’s going to say grace this evening? Now even to raise the subject of prayer before meals is a bit awkward, since praying before meals is much out of fashion. We live in a culture where religious faith is on the wane – we live in a culture that insists that the observable material world around us is it – that’s all there is. There is no one else out there with whom to have a conversation. If people have any memory of saying grace before meals, it’s seen as a quaint relic of a bygone age. Some are in fact quite embarrassed at the idea of bowing their heads in prayer before a meal.
Thinking about this habit of praying before our meals, let’s first say something about where this practice is rooted. In terms of our faith in Christ, we recall that when Jesus feeds the multitudes he begins with prayer. Those classic words: “He looked up to heaven, blessed, and broke the bread.” The Apostle Paul also, in his letter to Timothy, speaks of the importance of receiving our food with thankfulness to God. In this, both Paul and Jesus are simply continuing the older tradition of God’s people, Israel, who expressed prayerful gratitude for the good things laid before them. Our contemporary practice of prayer before meals – our offering of thanks to God before digging in – is in continuity with the ancient practices of those who understood where every good gift comes from. As the hymn-writer Matthias Claudius puts it in that familiar chorus: All good gifts around us are sent from heav’n above. Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.
But pushing just a bit deeper, what do we do when we give thanks? Do we repeat memorized words without paying much attention to what we say, without paying much attention to the one to whom we speak? Sometimes yes – it’s not easy to remain intentional and fresh in our prayers. But even when at our best in offering thanks to God – what is that we are doing? Very simply, we are acknowledging that it is not our strength, or our ingenuity, or our wealth, or our productivity that has brought this food to our plate. We are acknowledging God’s priority and grace in that chain of provision.
But let me suggest something more. This: that to truly offer thanks for something, you must know the thing for which you offer thanks. To offer thanks to God takes us out of ourselves – to offer thanks draws us out of ourselves into the presence of God, yes. But to offer thanks also draws our hearts and minds out of ourselves to the thing for which we give thanks – which is to say that we cannot thank God for something if we don’t really know the thing for which we offer thanks.
Think of it in terms of this congregation. When we thank God for the life of this congregation, can we think only of KCKF as it is here and now? Not really. When we thank God for this congregation we must be mindful of much more than what we see and participate in here and now. When we thank God for this congregation,
we are thanking God for those who first bought property in this neighbourhood to build a church
we are thanking God for those who first had a vision to gather a worshipping community here.
we are thanking God for those who over the years have given time and resources and spiritual gifts to build up the Body of Christ.
To be thankful for something, anything requires that we know in some measure what exactly it is that we are thankful for.
Which brings us to the bowl of carrots that are here this morning… If these carrots are to make their way into a salad on our dinner table – or are to make it into a lovely carrot, ginger soup – or into a carrot cake for dessert – if these carrots make it into our meal, what does it mean to thank God for them.
This year and year our family has participated in Community Supported Agriculture. As I’ve mentioned before, through community supported agriculture, you enter into a contract with a local organic farmer, and you buy a share of the vegetables the farmer will produce through the growing season. So every Thursday for sixteen weeks, just down here on Grand Boulevard, our family picks up our box of vegetables. In the spring there lots of greens – lettuce and spinach. In the early summer there are beets and beans and basil. In the later summer and fall there are tomatoes and squash and potatoes.
Every year Jamie and Nora, who own the farm, hold a potluck supper for the members. And so last Sunday afternoon our family headed into the Chateauguay valley – it was a beautiful day. The deal is that you work and then you eat. And what was the work we did? – we pulled up carrots. These carrots, in fact, were pulled up last Sunday afternoon, from a field in the Chateauguay valley.
What more can I tell you about these carrots? Well, I can tell you that they were weeded with a long-handled hoe – last summer, in fact, I went out for a day and spent some time weeding the carrot bed. These carrots were also at one point hand-weeded. I can also tell you this morning that the seeds from which these carrots grew came from an organic seed producer call High Mowing Seeds in Vermont. I know who planted these seeds, who watered them through dry spells this summer, and can tell you that the soil in which they grew was a mix between clay and some lighter sandy soil. No chemical pesticides were used.
I can’t tell you everything, but I can share a fair bit about the story of these carrots.
When we say thank you to God for our food – when we pray over that salad, when we say a quick hallelujah over that delicious carrot ginger soup, or when we bless that carrot cake – we are able to tell the story of the thing for which we are grateful. We know in some detail what it is we say thank you for.
Now I’m not trying to pat myself on the back this morning. Most of the food in our family’s diet is not locally grown – we do not follow the hundred mile diet. We eat our share of processed foods. And I’m not in a position to judge some of the competing claims about organic and local versus large scale, chemical-based farming. And there are arguments on each side. But what becomes obvious as we think about prayer, and when we think about what it means to thank God for our food – what becomes obvious is that saying grace has an ethical dimension. Saying grace has a bearing on how we think and live – it has a bearing on what we eat. Saying grace isn’t simply about looking down at our plate and saying a quick, ‘thanks God’ for the food. That’s cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer might have put it – or, cheap grace-saying.
To say thank you for our food draws us out of ourselves – it draws us into the presence of God – and saying thank you for food draws our heart and our mind out to the grand web out of which food is produced. To say thank you draws our heart and mind out
to the soil with its micro-organisms and bacteria and decomposed organic matter,
to the seeds that are planted in that soil,
to the types of fertilizer that are used,
to the people who work in the fields weeding or harvesting,
to the whole grand and complicated web out of which the food on our table is produced.
In saying grace our mind and heart are drawn out to all of it.
Let me frame all of this for a moment in a slightly different way. If we don’t know or care about something, we can’t really say thank you for it. Going back to the example we used earlier: If we don’t know or care about the identity or history of this community of faith, we can’t say thank you for it. If we don’t really know or care about someone in particular, we can’t offer a deep and full thank you to God for that person. In the same way, if we don’t really know about our food, or care about how it came to be on our table, we cannot offer a genuine, deep word of thanks for it?
Leaving aside all the processed food in our grocery stories, and consider just the vegetables in the produce section. Many are wrapped up in perfect, clear cellophane. Where have they come from? How many miles have they travelled? Who picked them? Why do so many of these vegetables look like they’ve never come into contact with soil or slugs? What was the condition of the soil in which it was grown? What products were sprayed on them?
When we offer thanks for such food – certainly, we can thank God for something that will likely nourish us. But with so many of the fruits and vegetables that come to our plate from the supermarket, we simply have no idea about them. Which begs the question whether we can truly be thankful for them? Thankfulness toward God is only complete when we have some deeper knowledge of the thing over which we say grace – our grace-saying is only complete when our hearts and minds are drawn out into a consideration of the dynamic web of relations (soil, worker, fertilizer, seeds, transport) out of which food arrives at our table. Our grace-saying is only complete when we know that at every level care was taken for people and creation.
It turns out that our practice of grace-saying has deep implications for what we eat – our faith implies certain food practices. It turns out that our practice of grace-saying might imply something like the 100 mile diet – might imply some version on that theme eating locally. It turns out that our practice of grace-saying likely requires resistance towards much of the food industry as it exists today. We can offer true and deep thanks only when we know and care about that for which thanks is offered.
This is not cheap grace-saying – this is grace-saying that invests us deeply in our relationship with God – grace-saying that draws us out into knowledge of the things we eat – grace-saying that draws us into a relationship of care and concern for land and worker and produce and transport. Of course we live in a complicated world – and the point of this message is not that we go away from here feeling guilty or defeated (we’ll never be able to achieve that). The point, rather, is that we understand that grace is not cheap – that God’s gracious provision for us in Christ brings with it very real demands for living, for eating. In the knowledge of this we might begin to take those small steps toward food practices that are consistent with our identity as the thankful, prayerful people of God.