Food for the Spirit

A sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
October 27, 2002

[Follows Song #407 We're Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table]

"All kinds of people" around that Welcome Tableóthis seems like a nice vision to us, a positive image, to be encouraged, indeed. But notice that the song also includes a small but significant qualifier at the end of each line: "one of these days." We're Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table one of these days.

It is a visionósomething yet to comeóand a surprisingly radical vision, too. "All kinds of people around that Table" sounds good, but think about it: how often do "all kinds of people" eat together, really? These days it's hard enough to get families to sit together for a meal, which is also the way it was in ancient times, evidently. To imagine a large diversity of people eating togetheróthen, as nowóis a noble leap, a radical notion of commonality that might suit our ideology, but is not grounded in experience.

It's a nice vision, the Welcome Table of song. But people generally eat with their own kind, or relatively aloneóexcept in one sphere: ritual. From time immemorial, "all kinds of people" have indeed come together to eat in ritual settings: during ceremonies, annual or seasonal feast days, and important community events, religious or otherwise. Food has alwaysóalways!?óplayed a very important role in such special, shared moments.

It seems that hard-wired into our human behavior is an instinct to appreciate the life-giving nature of food on many levels, from simple nutrition and hedonistic pleasure to religious symbol and spiritual sustenance. It's the latter category, "Food for the Spirit," that I'll explore today, portraying some interesting historical examples and lifting up what I think are compelling aspects of our contemporary relationship with food. Then, after the service, Tish Hall will offer us all a delicious vegetable minestrone soup she and her daughter Shannon have generously prepared, for which I am most grateful.

Tish was part of the team that together, at last year's Auction, purchased the right to name a sermon topic. Evidently, it was at a shared meal that they decided on the topic of food. Funny how that works.

Another intriguing meal-related item comes from a study of National Merit Scholars, who are exceptional high school students. What, if anything, did they all have in common, these excellent students?óthe thinking being, of course, that any common qualities or attributes would be worth pursuing intentionally. Only one thing emerged, the study discovered: they all were in the habit of having dinner together with their families. Hmmm.

While you digest that tasty fact, let me address perhaps the most infamous food of all, the one to start with because it's so prominent in the origin story of Genesis. This is the apple picked off "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" by Eve in the Garden of Eden, after which all hell broke loose, so to speak. Except it wasn't necessarily an apple. The Bible merely specifies a forbidden fruit, never mentioning the species of the tree.

Hebrew scholars suggest it was actually the seed-filled pomegranate, which was prominent in ancient cultures of the region. Christian scholars finger the apple, which does go way back, but mention of this particular fruit in relation to the tree in the garden only started after Christian artists began to portray the Biblical story graphically.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Koran identifies the forbidden fruit as a banana, which was indeed cultivated in the Indus Valley at least 4,000 years ago. The Gnostic Gospels say it was a cluster of white grapes. Others claim the fig. Such competition for the dubious honor of being the fruit that undid the Garden of Eden!

Older religions are also very elaborate in their specific rules about eating, in recognition of the power this activity held in their lives. For centuries the Hindus, for instance, have used food to help define social rank in their caste system, oriented around the sacred cow and its products. The highest members of their society, the Brahmins receive the best and most elaborately prepared foods, including clarified butter distilled from cow's milk. All non-Brahmins receive inferior food, and only the lowest caste is allowed to touch any leftovers.

But the Jews take the lead in dietary laws, with plenty of rules in their scripture guidelines about what they could and couldn't eat. In olden days they were mostly shepherds, with flocks of sheep, goats, etc., so those animals and their ilk were fine to eat, described as beasts "that parteth the hoof....and cheweth the cud" [Deut. 14:6].

But if beasts do not have both those attributes, they are unclean, such as horses, camels, hares, and especially

....the pig, which indeed is cloven-footed, but does not chew the cud and is therefore unclean for you. The flesh you shall not eat....[Deut. 14:8]
Also forbidden by the Hebrew Scriptures are mollusks, crustaceans, "all living creatures that creep" such as snakes, certain fowl and all blood from animals. Rules about how approved animals must be slaughtered are just as extensive.

When the Christians came along, they dropped such food purity laws. The apostle Paul declared unequivocally: "Nothing is unclean in itself." In fact, they went in the opposite direction and made drinking the "blood" and eating the "flesh" of Christ essential elements in their most sacred ritual, the Eucharist.

Christians also had their own prohibitions, too, although on a much lesser scale. How many of you former Catholics participated in "meatless Fridays," a tradition which began in the 16th century? I grew up in a very Catholic area of northern New Jersey and picked it up by osmosis, even though my good Unitarian mother didn't pay it much mind.

Meanwhile, after the Israelites built up a strict code of dietary laws that the Christians dropped wholesale, the Muslims came along in the 7th century and created their own set of food restrictions. They did include some of the earlier Mosaic rules, such as to not consume blood in any form and to stay away from swine at all costs, but they also added a biggie: the complete elimination of alcoholic beverages.

Then, in 20th century America, the Black Muslims, now known as the Nation of Islam, included some further prohibitions, notably tobacco and a dozen vegetables that had been regular items in the diet of slaves. These few examples only scratch the surface of all the different ways food use is regulated in different religions and cultures.

But do you realize why religions established such severe do's and don't's (mostly don't's)? Primarily it was because they wanted to distinguish themselves from other groups, and improve the odds for the survival of their pure religion. The dietary rules didnít have to make any sense, although some certainly do. They were mostly to fortify group identity and to intentionally keep their adherents from mingling with and especially marrying people who didnít believe as they did.

The rules simply established that "We do this, and They donít." Essentially, such food laws were created because most traditional religions preferred to keep separate; they would not have embraced the vision of a Welcome Table for "all kinds of people."

Maybe you thought Jews avoided pork for health reasons, the potential for trichinosis, perhaps. Nope. It is, instead, another important device for preserving their particular religious identity. "Do this and be holy." In this regard, the word "holy" becomes code for "different." "Do this and be different." It and most other restrictions on food use helped establish a separate, hopefully stronger identity.

Then the Christians emerged and went out of their way to separate themselves by rejecting all the Hebrew dietary customs. The Muslims, in turn, created additional restrictions that would distinguishóand separateóthem.

In modern times, some of the various food rules have been relaxed, while others maintain their authority, especially among groups on the extreme edges. The ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, for instance, wonít use even neutral foods if have they been so much as touched by someone not of their sect. They and some other fierce groups still relish and enforce their separateness. Theirs is a different vision of our planetary culture.

"One of these days," maybe, at the Welcome Table will sit "all kinds of people," in peaceówith their own individual uniqueness and traditions, yes, but also engaged in dialogue, building bridges of harmony, over soup. In the face of millennia of intentional separation, this is a radical vision of inclusiveness and hospitality. We'll have to see if its time will come.

It's not been very long, really, that ethnic foods have been readily welcomed in wider mainstream American culture. Fifty years ago, there were relatively few ethnic restaurants outside their own urban enclaves or family networks. The canned meatballs and spaghetti of Chef Boyardee first popularized Italian food, but this was in my lifetime.

I can also remember journeying in the late 60s from the East Coast to a youth conference in Sante Fe, NM, where I went, wide-eyed, to a Mexican restaurant for the first time. (There just werenít any Mexican restaurants in northern New Jersey.) I actually refused to eat anything other than a cheeseburger and fries. What a contrast to my posture today, when I often go out of my way looking for interesting ethnic restaurants. (Lately, I am enjoying sushióraw fish; imagine that!)

So, if my once near-sighted resistance to foods from other cultures can evolve so radically, then I am hopeful that shared food might ultimately be a bond that unites many diverse peoples and sub-cultures.

I also go in another direction sometimes: to fastótaking only juice for a day or two. Fasting is a time-honored spiritual technique, used in many ritual and personal settings. I've done four-day fasts twice and numerous shorter ones, for a variety of reasons. They are always stimulating, sometimes in ways I canít anticipate.

I scheduled this current two-day fast to heighten my appreciation for food as I was preparing this sermon. (And I'll break it with Tish's soup?soon!) But most of my fasts in the past have been to remind me that there are a great many people who go to bed hungry every night. I honor my connection to them and put my relative luxury in perspective by experiencing hunger to a small, but nonetheless humbling degree. Besides, "A full Belly makes a dull Brain" [Ben Franklin]: I do tend to get in some good reflection while on fasts.

Fasting, of course, is a feature of almost all religious traditions, and includes everything from long periods of deprivation as part of a spiritual discipline to short, selective participation in ritual moments. Sometimes it seems that the intentional abstinence from food is as important to religion as various ritual food items themselves.

One fasts religiously for a number of possible reasons: for purification, cleansing and emptying; in preparation for initiation and sacramental rites; for penitence and penance; to induce ecstatic states and encourage visions; out of respect for something worthy, etc. Political hunger strikes sometimes even have a spiritual element to them.

The three Abrahamic religions each have significant annual fasts: Yom Kippur, Lent and Ramadan all involve fasting. (Ramadan, by the way, begins this year on Election Day, Nov. 5, a week from Tuesday.) Often fasts are undertaken for portions of a day, such as until sundown, or for certain foods only, like grains, which the Hindus frequently target for abstinence.

And do you think there was spiritual significance to meatless Fridays? Not at first. I learned that it began as an economic measure, a collaboration in 1548 between the Church of England and Parliament, which had on its hands both a meat shortage and a struggling fish industry. Parliament, supported by the Church, ordered all people to replace meat with fish on Fridays. The Roman Catholic Church then adopted the practice, in remembrance of the day of the week on which Christ died, and instructed that eating meat on Fridays was (suddenly) a mortal sin. This religious prohibition was so effective that the ban lasted until the 1960s, as many of us recall.

Another interesting historical item is the origin of the term "breakfast." Evidently in the Middle Ages there were only two meals a day, with most people fasting all morning, often due to various religious rules. Certain categories of people, however, such as laborers, the sick, the very young and the very old, were allowed to take a third meal in the morning, or break the fast, for health reasons. Gradually this caught on and by the 17th century "breakfast" was the norm.

One rather ironic thing I notice when I fast is that I slow down. I try to minimize travel and I decline or donít schedule any physical activity, beyond walking the dog, so the pace of my life does indeed slow down. I take short naps, read (or write) more than usual, and patiently observe both my breath and the hunger pangs. The juice I drinkóslowlyótastes very good.

In our fast food world, slowing down periodically is a Good Thing, and I recommend it. Notable in this regard is a growing movement out of Italy, called Slow Food, started in the 1980s by activist Carlo Petrini, in response to the opening of a fast food burger joint in Rome's famous Piazza di Spagna. For an official symbol, Slow Food adopted the snail, and announced its dedication to "preserving and supporting traditional ways of growing, producing and preparing food" [Utne Reader, M/J, '02, pg. 56].

In its manifesto, Slow Food declares that "a firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life." Petrini would probably agree with the saying, "Chew well, and hurry not" [Zohar, 13th c, Jewish mystical writings].

Slow Food is developing some political clout and has influenced a number of controversial issues, both at home in Italy and in the global marketplace. They like to talk about a rising "eco-gastronomy" that is conscious and creative about the full impact of food production on the planet and food use by its people. They are demonstrating the value of slowing down, to appreciate and get more out of life and its nutrition.

There is an American branch of Slow Food, which encourages the spread of farmers' marketsólike the one we go to at the College Park Metro stationóand other efforts at "community-supported agriculture." Through its activities (and a web site, of course, at, Carlo Petrini's organization seeks to promote "a kind of pleasure-loving environmentalism that does not reject consumption per se but rather the homogenization and high-speed frenzy of chain-store, fast-food life" [pg. 58].

Which brings me to my closing point: I believe that an astute awareness of how and what we eat is integral to our spiritual life, especially these days and especially for Unitarian Universalists. I might disagree with Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: "We cannot exist as a little island of well-being in a world when two-thirds of the people go to bed hungry every night." We can indeed exist that way?but there's a toll for such near-sightedness and it's paid by our spiritual well-being, or lack thereof.

When we UUs espouse respect for "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part," this posture has implications that reach into our daily lives and into our cupboards and tables. We make choices about what foods we buy and how we prepare and enjoy them. To rush through meals or to unduly separate ourselves from the sources and paths of of that food is dangerous business. But we are often seduced into a rapid consumer mode by a greedy culture that seeks profit a lot more than our well-being.

Faceless agri-business moguls devour family farms, mistreat animals and chemicalize our land and water tables, just to grow less nutritious food that still improves their bottom line because we will buy and eat it. Contrast this approach with the Slow Food movement and others, like Andrew Kimball, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, who says, "Eating is the most intimate relationship we have with the environment. Three times a day, it's how we recreate the world."

We make choices about how fast we try to live, how much "convenience" we will pay foróchoices that may show up most vividly in our food habits, and in our relationships with the environment and with each other. "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are" [Anthelme Brillat-Savarin]. Amid all our wealth, maybe we're so complacent now, so dependent on fast foods, that we couldnít wean ourselves off them if we wanted to. That sounds like addiction to me, a spiritual affliction of eco-gastronomical proportions.

Columnist Jay Walljasper [Utne Reader, pg. 50] sums up our dilemma well this way: "Though we're loading up on calories, we are starved for ritual and leisure and pleasure." But "donít despair," he adds. "There's also good news from food's frontlines." He reports that an organic "culinary revolution" is well underway, if we choose to notice it.

And the "fair-trade" movement is gaining momentum to help certify that foodsólike the coffee we serve hereóare grown and produced without exploiting workers. Again, this encouraging development will depend on our willingness to support it. Many other creative solutions are sprouting all over, but they're usually small, so we have to go out of our way to encounter them.

Most UUs I know tend to link their spiritual lives with their conscience. But can we see clearly into the murky marketplace, to see what our purchases support, what our attitudes promote, and especially how our deeper lives and important relationships are affected by what, where, when, why and how we eat?

You may think I'm nuts about this subject, but I learned that in some European traditions, it was common to finish a meal by eating nuts that are a symbol of ongoing fertility. To help restore the balance of things after some portion of the food supply was consumed, diners would close by eating nuts, that most wonderful combination of both food and seed. Since most meals began with a broth of some sort, this, then, is the source of another familiar saying that expresses the fullness of things: "from soup to nuts." Soon there will be soup for all.

But for you other nuts out there, my wish for you is for food to nourish your spirit, for love to grow in your garden, for health to drape over you like a warm, enriching rain, and a place for you at the Welcome Table. For now, though, let's sing together an important hymn: #134, Our World is One World.

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