“Eating with Jesus” Sunday: Jan 19, 2014
Washington City Church of the Brethren
by Jonathan Stauffer
I am glad to be speaking with you all today. To be honest, I would not have imagined this opportunity three years ago when I was preparing for a term with Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS). At the time, I was twenty-six years old and feeling a call that God was shifting my own plans towards a different path.
My plans were to find full-time employment related to renewable energy technology, a goal that I had worked on for nearly five years after graduating from Manchester College in Indiana. During those years, I worked part-time for a small solar panel business, enrolled for one year in a graduate engineering program in Chicago, completed a wind energy technician program with a local community college, and even had a paid internship. Yet for all that activity, I found myself working three part-time jobs and still living with my parents on the farm homestead in Northwestern Illinois.
Over the same five years, I spent summers helping counsel at a couple Brethren youth camps, and learning more about the wonders found on God’s Earth. From this experience, I began learning more about environmental issues, and how some Christians were involved in addressing them.
I was eager to try one more avenue toward a career, so BVS looked like a good opportunity. By the end of orientation, I knew that I would be headed for Washington, DC to work on environmental and poverty issues with what is now known as the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness.
My work consisted of collaborating with other religious organizations on policy related to social issues, and representing our denomination’s voice on such policy. After a year and a half of volunteer service, I saw many connections between food, creation, and the Christian faith. Having found a part-time job at the Peace Tax Fund last June and managing the Brethren House in DC since October, I decided I had time to explore these connections further.
I heard about a weekend conference being offered at Duke University Divinity School in September called “Summoned Toward Wholeness”. The conference focused on how our Christian faith values can support food systems and societies that honor the true gift God’s Earth. With financial support from my hometown congregation in Polo and the Arlington CoB, I was able to attend this conference.
The events on Friday were primarily centered on theological reflection, but also were filled with inspiring songs and stories. Saturday was the day that we were bused out to meet at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, about a half hour west of Durham, and see their community garden.
Overall, the conference was for me both a grounding and uplifting experience. It was a rare opportunity to connect current social issues with spiritual insight and physical actions.
So what did I learn from this conference? I have three points that I hope will reflect a portion of the insights I gained.
Point 1: Awareness of creation and our place within it leads to gratitude of the Creator.
The first plenary speaker on Friday was Ellen F. Davis, an Old Testament scholar and author of Scripture, Culture, & Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Her presentation focused on themes written in the scriptures of ancient Israel about a people who had a strong appreciation for the land and its well-being because of their faith in a gracious Creator.
She explained that ancient Jewish culture understood the life of humanity as inseparable to the land. In Genesis 2, the literal Hebrew words are ‘adam’ was formed ‘adamah’. The same parallel could be made when translated into English as human beings were formed from humus, a component of fertile soil.
Judaism also understood land as the physical symbol of God’s covenant with Israel. From Exodus through Deuteronomy, the Hebrews went from being landless slaves in Egypt to a nation that had become mostly small-scale farmers. Living in an arid region, the ecosystem was delicate and required careful observation and wisdom from the farmer to manage properly.
Later on, the Babylonian exile occurred and was a forceful separation from the land. This physical separation was seen as part of their separation from God because of Israel’s sin. And with prophets such as Jeremiah and Nehemiah, there was a promise of the covenant being restored with returning to the land of Israel. Indeed out of their faith and personal experiences, the ancient Israelites had developed a strong ethic of honoring the land.
But, what about our culture? Do we have this sense of connection today?
Exercise: Raise your hand if you had grandparents or great uncles who were farmers or gardeners? Keep them raised if you had parents or aunts & uncles who were farmers or gardeners? Finally, how many of you grew up on a farm or have siblings who are farmers? Or how many of you have a garden?
This simple exercise is a small glimpse into acknowledging a major shift of our connection with the land in the USA. I am not claiming that we all should become farmers, but rather that we should know more about our farmers and the actions that it takes to produce our food.
I think Norman Wirzba, Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School, best states why these connections are important in the book Making Peace with the Land. He writes that contemporary society is experiencing a “practical separation of people from the land,” which he calls Ecological Amnesia. It is a fairly recent phenomenon in human history, a shift that has occurred within two generations, which impacts the understanding of our physical surroundings.
This phenomenon also affects the relationships to God our Creator and each other. Wirzba goes on to say that problems worsen when people don’t have the knowledge to manage their everyday resources in the way that God intended.
I find it ironic that we have a tremendous amount of information about our world literally at our fingertips today, but find fewer ways to relate to it. How can we make informed decisions about our food when we know less about where it comes from? And, how would we know when we needed to react to changes on the earth and our food systems?
Fortunately, acts of gratitude can help us counter our ignorance of the earth by acknowledging that all creation is a divine gift. In Wirzba’s closing presentation at the conference, he states that “Gratitude is the response to a gift and how we value the Giver.” He asked the group to reflect on the following question: When are you able or not able to be grateful? (Pause for audience to think about.) For me, it is when I’m rushing between various events or not content with my present circumstances. When I am missing out on what God is doing or what God values.
It is important then that we make times and rhythms for gratitude, such as on Thanksgiving Day, but we also need them throughout the year. The Sabbath is one practice were people have ceased for a period of time to enjoy what they have been given. Going on hikes can help us appreciate nature and relax. Such practices in awareness provide gratitude which restore our relationships to God, the land, and each other.
The second point I learned from the conference is that the Christian faith holds a unique perspective on gratitude and our connection to the material world.
Jesus used object lessons from nature to frame the visions of God’s Kingdom. The parable of the sower uses the Jewish cultural knowledge of soil conditions to describe the individual’s heart as it receives the Word of God. It says nothing of the amount of care that the farmer or gardener places on the crop. Instead, Jesus is saying subtly through the parable that when there is a heart open to “the word of the kingdom,” it can nurture and transform life much like fertile soil.
The Gospels share that Jesus cared about people’s physical needs, either before or in addition to attending to their spiritual needs. When Jesus fed the crowd of over four thousand people, he did it out of the concern for the well-being of each person who was in attendance, and made an abundance out of what simple items had been offered by those present.
Because of these examples and many others found in Jesus’ ministry, we as Christ followers can’t ignore the import relationship between our physical being and our souls. Norman Wirzba, in the book Making Peace with the Land, refers to the “Socratic Urge” as the tendency to separate body and soul because our material limitations don’t match up to our spiritual aspirations. Yet, Wirzba claims that this philosophy denies the understanding of Christ’s incarnation as God dwelling among us a human being, and is adverse to the “hope in the resurrection of the body” that the Gospels declare. Ultimately, it denies the inherent goodness of God’s Earth and the reconciliation that God desires within all of creation.
One of the conference workshops I attended described another example Jesus gave us in relation to food. Will Sampson, Executive Director of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, led a discussion which explored the sacred act of the Eucharist, or communion. He stated that the Eucharist is central to the incarnation of Jesus.
The elements of any meal when brought together create a stronger meaning than the separate parts. Think of the moments when family or friends are gathered around a table, and how memorable they can be.
Jesus used the communion meal not only as an opportunity for sharing gratitude for his friends. Jesus used the meal to turn despair into hope for the future. We as his disciples now understand this meal was created for a beloved community around a story of remembrance, for a life given so that we may live as whole people.
The Eucharist meal also provides Christians with a unique perspective to our current food systems and the local food movement.
Our current agricultural system is mostly done on an industrial scale. This system stresses one specialized planting per plot, and pushes on to farmers the cost of fossil-fuel derived inputs without regard for natural ecology, or human dignity for the labor of farmworkers.
The result of this system is that less people need to farm due to increased yields per acre, but less accountability occurs in the quality of the food. Our separation from farmers and the land promotes a growing ignorance which hurts our stewardship of the Earth, straining the relationship with our Creator and each other. But it doesn’t need to continue this way.
Through awareness of our food sources, we see more of the relationships that God intended within creation. And like communion, we receive greater value through these relationships which motivates gratitude.
The third point I want to share is that with awareness and gratitude for our food, the church can effectively extend the table of Christ to our communities.
Indeed, the conference encouraged church involvement in the local food movement. As hunger and malnutrition hinders the well-being each human, the church needs to be concerned about supporting nutritious food for all people.
In October, Federal budget cuts were made that affect around 40 million Americans who receive benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. With less funding, food pantries are strained and creative ideas to address the local need are needed more than ever. Community Gardens on church-owned property are one example. The Church of the Brethren’s own Going to the Garden Initiative has allowed several congregations to start or expand such projects.
Another example is a program that addresses the economic gap some individuals have to access healthy, local food. I have had the privilege to volunteer with such a program through the DC Fresh Stop event at the Mosaic Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. This program provides a sliding payment scale for a share of produce to make it more affordable for low-income individuals. The program also provides education on the preparation and nutritional value of the produce as well as opportunities for consumers to meet with one of the local farmers.
Finally by extending the table through creative food programs, the church can also create stories of transcendence, transformation, interdependence for all people.
In Fred Bahnson’s workshop highlighting his book Soil and Sacrament, I learned about his conversation with Zach, a fair trade coffee roaster in Washington State. Zach had in a past life been a heroin addict and meth cooker, among other rough experiences. But when he became a Christian he needed to do something that would support himself, and The Underground Coffee Project was the appropriate job for his previous skills. An amazing outcome of Zach’s story is that through his physical work of roasting coffee, he found a metaphor for the internal transformation that his work had on his whole being. In his words, “It’s like when the heat of the Holy Spirit comes upon you… It cracks you open and makes you better.”
Likewise our own unique interactions with food and the land can be symbols of the God’s grace. I am finding this to be true as I continue down the path that God is leading me following BVS.
In closing, I give you this invitation. Let us all be grateful for the Creator who provides through the blessings of creation. From such an awareness is where gratitude forms, and out of that gratitude may we extend the table with the transforming grace of Jesus to others. Amen.
- Jonathan Stauffer