Imagine with me two different scenes:
The first is at a gas station somewhere along a busy highway. You’ve been driving for a while and have reached the point where you’re starting to get nervous about whether or not you can make it to the next exit before running out of gas, so you pull off the exit ramp, find the closest gas station, or the one just down the road that’s a few cents cheaper per gallon, pull in, slide your credit card and remove quickly as instructed, and begin fueling up your vehicle. You’re slightly annoyed at having to stop and are glancing at your watch and doing some quick math in your head about how much time you have until the meeting you’re driving to begins, how many miles there are left in the trip, and how fast that means you’ll have to go in order to get there on time. Your mind races with other thoughts and concerns until the automatic shut off signals that the tank is full. You put the nozzle back in its place, try not to pay too much attention to the price, and speed off out of the station toward the highway.
The second scene is at an art gallery. You’re there with a small group of people, looking around, admiring the different pieces of work. You have your cell phone turned off and have allotted yourself plenty of time to be here. You stop at the pieces that catch your attention, looking at them from different angles, reading the artists’ description of their work that gives more insight into what they were thinking when they created it. You notice things, lines and colors and relationships. You’ve never seen it expressed quite like that before and you appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of the piece. You point out what you like to your companions and get their perspective on what they see. You go away inspired to see the world in a new way and maybe create something yourself.
These two scenes could represent two different ends of the spectrum for how we experience the average meal. There are times when we treat food more like a pit stop for a quick refuel of the engine before getting back to the really important things of life, and other times when we are able to be more present with our food, mindful of what we’re eating, and enjoying the company of those we’re eating it with. Does it matter which end of the spectrum we eat on most of the time? Does it affect our attitude toward other parts of life? If you had your choice, how would you like to experience eating?
In cultures throughout the world there is the recognition that eating is closely linked with thankfulness. I think of the Native American cultures and their reverence and respect toward the earth and the animals and plants that they use for food. The ancient Israelites were told “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you.” (Deut 8:10) This has been called “grace after the meal” since the order is you shall eat your fill, and bless the Lord.
Dinner times in the culture of the Miller house these last couple years have taken on a whole new complexity with having young children. Sometimes it feels like dinner time is more about the art of picking your battles — what has to be eaten, how long we need to sit down together before starting play, whether reaching over the table is OK right now; and less about the art of grateful eating. To complicate this, we’re trying to pay more attention to where our food comes from and how its production contributes to a healthy or harmful system of agriculture. Sometimes I wonder how much to give thanks for some foods and how much to reconsider having it around in the first place.
The struggle could be named as how to keep eating a holy occasion – with what we eat, and how we eat it. And it is a struggle. What if it’s really true that we are what we eat? Or we are how we eat? If we eat hurried and mindlessly, are we hurried, mindless people? In what ways consciously and unconsciously does our eating affect who we are becoming?
How to eat well and how our eating affects the rest of life aren’t new questions. Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth addresses one of the big hot button eating issues for the early church. On the surface it appears to be something from another time, another culture, unrelated to the kinds of questions we have around good eating. And it appears to be just about what we eat, or not eat. But the way that Paul addresses it provides insight into the whole spirit behind good, holy, eating.
Here’s the issue the Corinthians were struggling with: as followers of Jesus, believers in the one God, should we, or should we not eat food that has been sacrificed to the pagan gods? This was a question that many new converts faced throughout the Roman empire, but it was especially strong in Corinth. Being a commercial hub, sailors and traders brought their own religions to the cosmopolitan city. Archeologists have found around two dozen different shrines and temples in Corinth, with Greek and Egyptian shrines existing right alongside those of the Roman imperial cult. To these temples citizens would bring an animal to sacrifice. Some of the flesh was burned on the altar for the deity, some of it was eaten at the temple in a sacred meal, and what was left over would have been sold at the public meat market for anyone to buy and eat. The deli section of the grocery stores of the time would have been filled with this meat. So, the question is, do the Christians eat this meat that has this morally questionable history with part of it having been offered up to what they believe to be an idol? If they buy this meat are they in some way endorsing and economically supporting these practices that they believe to be false worship? It’s a practical question, and one that the Apostle Paul considers important enough to take up a significant portion of his letter to address. It’s a question that could have a Yes or No answer. Yes, you can eat it, don’t worry about it, dig in and enjoy. Or No, don’t associate yourselves with this kind of unethical food. So like a good, strong assertive leader, ready to provide clear answers to his flock who want to know “how should we eat?” Paul’s straightforward answer is….”well, it depends.”
He weighs both sides. On one hand, these are idols and this meat, morally speaking, is damaged goods. On the other hand, we believe there’s only one God, so technically, there aren’t other gods that the meat is being offered to, so it’s no problem to eat something offered to these gods that don’t even exist. On the other hand, when you eat something it is becoming a part of you and you don’t want false worship to become a part of you. On the other hand, scripture says that all the earth and everything in it belongs to God, so eat whatever is set before you with thanksgiving. On the other hand, if someone who isn’t a believer sees you eating this meat they may think you are agreeing with how it’s been used in the past. On the other hand, why should you let someone else’s hang-ups keep you from your own freedom and thankfulness for the chance to eat? Hmmm.
As a way of getting beyond this back and forth reasoning, and as a way of opening this up to more than just this particular question about eating, Paul makes a couple moves that I find helpful. First, he makes eating not a black and white issue of right or wrong, but rather a relational issue. In 10:23-24 he writes, “All things are lawful – you have tremendous freedom – but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” Paul trades in language of lawfulness, permissible, right and wrong, a moral code, for language of relational health. Not judging against some absolute standard, but looking at how it affects relationships here and now. Considering this, we might ask ourselves How does my eating affect me? My physical health, my mindfulness of being connected to the big economy of creation? How does it affect others? How does it affect the environment? Paul might say to us, don’t be rigid about your answers to these questions, but keep asking them and then eat with thanksgiving and gratitude, just like he asked the Corinthians to keeping asking how their eating could build up the community and be beneficial to all.
Paul’s other move expands this well beyond simply what we eat. He does this is 11:23-34. For him, the last word comes from the Last Supper – when Jesus invited his followers to think of the bread they were eating at the meal as his very body, and the wine they were drinking as his very life blood. This act of Jesus has become set aside as a unique liturgical experience in a worship setting, as it should be – the eucharist, communion. But it can also be a daily experience in all of eating. Recognizing that the food that we eat is more than just food. It is the best metaphor that we have for how our lives intersect with the Divine life. God comes to us as food, as daily bread, and we eat it up and are sustained. The holy energy of God is given to us graciously as a loaf of bread. This is sacramental eating. Paul says it’s not good to eat without “discerning the body” – without being mindful of this holy gift that we are receiving in the form of sustenance.
We Mennonites didn’t leave ourselves with many sacraments. We took the Roman Catholic seven and narrowed it down to two, baptism and communion, and we don’t really like to call those sacraments. But maybe we need to expand our awareness of how grace and sacredness come to us. I like the possibilities of considering communion and all of eating as sacramental, and I see that in this letter from Paul. Whether or whether not these Corinthians are going to eat that meat, the apostle’s deepest desire is that they discern the body in their meals together. Last week we ate during the worship service as a form of communion. Communion today will be in the form of the potluck meal after worship that all are welcome to.
Here’s a couple examples of some who are working on making eating more sacramental. One is called the “Slow Food Movement.” The description on their website, slowfood.com reads, “Slow Food is a non-profit, member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” Slow Food is a philosophy about how food should be produced, shared, and enjoyed, but also a campaign to educate people about the food production process, encourage biodiversity, connect producers with markets and markets with producers, and change the culture around how we see and experience food. Given our pit stop, refueling mentality when it comes to eating, this feels like an important voice in helping us move our eating in the direction of being sacramental.
The other example comes from an article I read earlier this week about a café in Salt Lake City. After a number of years as an acupuncturist, Denise Cerreta decided that she would enjoy serving people better if she was able to give them something she herself created. She sold her practice, rented a storefront and opened One World Everybody Eats café. When her first customer had finished her meal, Cerreta told her to just pay what she thought the meal was worth. Cerreta said that after she had said this, “it was like my heart expanded and I realized my purpose in life.” So ever since, the One World Everybody Eats café has had no set prices. People set their own price, and if they can’t pay they are asked to wash dishes or help serve food. And it has become a profitable business. The article noted that by 2006 the café was “producing a 4% profit from annual revenues of about $300,000, which compares favorably to more traditional restaurants.” Now she has 12 employees. At least five other restaurants based on this model have opened or will open soon in different parts of the country. (Ode Magizine, June 2008, p. 47.)
I see this as a creative expression of sacramental eating. One that takes into account the web of relationships involved in the eating process and seeks the health of the community. There are countless other ways, small and great, that eating and sharing meals together can be an experience of grace and holiness.
There’s one other aspect of eating to mention. Ultimately we are not merely eaters of food. At the Last Supper Jesus asked his followers to make the connection between eating the bread and eating his body, metabolizing his misson within them and becoming what they ate — becoming the body of Christ, one of the central images for what it means to be church. In other words, we, like Christ, become a meal that gives other sustenance. Bread for the hungry, water for the thirsty. If we are bread and water, then we have that sacramental quality about us – channels of God’s grace. We can be as food for others. And not only food for others, but what if we, in some poetic, strange, delightful way, are also food for God? What if Jeff Gundy’s Cookie Poem unveils a small sliver of reality in picturing God as a joyful Cookie Monster, holding and chewing and eating all of us many flavored cookies with loving abandonment? (Had read from poem earlier in service) Us little broken crumbly cookies, who receive so much grace from God, can also return grace and gratitude and joy as a holy banquet for the One who loves us all.