Food and Faith

Genesis 2:4-9, 15-22 (NIV), ground transliterated as “adamah,” man as “adam.”

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the adamah. 7 Then the Lord God formed a adam from the dust of the adamah and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became a living being.

8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the adam he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the adamah—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the adam to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the adamah all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the adam to see what he would name them; and whatever the adam called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the adam gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the adam to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the adam’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the adam, and he brought her to the adam.

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Food, glorious food. Food is everywhere. In the stores, in our homes, in our church, and some of you probably still have a little in your beards. Food is so common among us that we tend to not really think about it.

Have you ever considered the connection between food and faith? If you are like me, you probably haven’t. But think about how important a role (no pun intended) food plays in the Bible. One of the most striking teachings in the Old Testament is the Levitical food laws. The Hebrew people could eat the meat of an animal with a cloven foot if it chewed its cud, but not if it didn’t chew its cud. Shellfish were out, but finned fish were permissible. And of course you dare not cook a kid in its mothers milk, which is a good teaching regardless of if you are talking about goat kids or human kids.

Not only is what you eat important in the Hebrew Bible, but with whom you eat. When you eat with someone, you share more than just bread. You share your life. This is why Jesus was always getting into trouble for eating with the wrong kinds of people. Tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes were all welcome to dine with Jesus. And if you think about it, in the New Testament, Jesus is always just coming from a meal or just heading to a meal or even at a meal.

Many of Jesus’ miracles involved food. He turned water into wine and expanded a little boy’s lunch to feed the multitudes. Jesus even called himself the bread of life. And how did Jesus spend his last moments with all 12 of his disciples? At a meal. And during that meal he instituted one of the most important practices that the church has today. We call it the Eucharist, Communion, or The Lord’s Supper. This memorial is a meal where we are told that the very blood and body of Christ are available to us in the bread and the cup.

At the end of time the book of Revelation tells us that we will join the Triune God in a new heaven and new earth, and together we will celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb.

So let me ask you again, are food and faith related?

That was a question that I wanted to know more about, so two weeks ago I attended the “Just Food” seminar at Princeton Theological Seminary. I know what you are thinking, what’s a farm boy from Ohio going to learn about agriculture from a bunch of Ivy League, tweed-wearing professors. And the answer is a lot. But also know that I was a bit of a rock star on campus that weekend, because I not only came from a farm, I am a Mennonite.

In 1976 Mennonites helped to start a conversation that has entered into mainstream theological and ethical conversations of the 21st century. And much of the credit for that conversation is to be given to a woman who wrote a book. Her name was Doris Janzen Longacre, and the book that she wrote was called More with Less. Of course, if you are familiar with this book, you know that it belongs in a particular genre of publication. This book isn’t your traditional theological book or ethical tome. It is a cookbook.

Forty years ago Mennonites were pioneers in the Just Food movement. Through the work of organizations like Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonites were traveling to places around the globe and doing relief work in the name of Christ. When Mennonites entered into these remote parts of the world, they realized how blessed that we are here in the United States because we have access to three square meals a day and plenty of snacks in between. But here were people that even if they had money to buy food, there was no food to buy.

So Mennonites have been leading the way (you read that right) in issues of Food Justice. So it should not surprise you that it was a Mennonite professor at Princeton that put this conference together.

Nate Stuckey grew up on a farm in Kansas and attended Tabor College, where he received a degree in Youth Ministry. After graduation he worked for a while on his family farm before moving to Maryland to take a job in youth ministry. He decided that he needed more training, so he enrolled in a two-year degree at Princeton. Eight years later, he finished not only his Master of Divinity, but also his Ph.D.

A part of his research was on the connection of food and faith. And upon graduation he pitched an idea to some important people that Princeton start a small farm where they could integrate theological training and agricultural practices. And they went with it. So today this farm boy from Kansas is running Princeton’s “Farminary,” and teaching classes on faith and food.

There are a number of reasons why we should care about the connection between faith and food. We should care about food distribution to the poorest countries around the globe and the poorest neighborhoods in our cities. Remember that Jesus cares about how we treat “the least of these.” We should care about the conditions in which people work in the food processing plants, which I’m told is not good. We should care about the conditions in which animals are raised because they are made by our God and Creator out of the same adamah as we were. And we should care about soil erosion, degradation, chemical runoff because even before the fall of humanity, we were told to care for the soil.

For our time this morning we could discuss any number of food justice questions. But what I want to really focus on this morning is the spirituality of eating. If you really want to come back to the ethics part at another time we can definitely do that as well.

Our scripture reading this morning from Genesis 2 reveals our connection to the earth. This isn’t some new age theology (You and the earth are one, man!), but biblical truth. I left two words untranslated because I wanted you to hear how similar they are in the original Hebrew. The Hebrew word for man is “adam.” That’s why we say that the first person created was called Adam. At some point the writer of Genesis switches from calling him “the adam” to just Adam.

And just where does this adam come from? From the adamah. From the ground. The difference between us and the soil between our feet is that God breathed his holy breath into the nostrils of the first adam, giving him a spirit and free will. Now notice in verse 15 what God does with this newly-formed adam: “The Lord God took the adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

Often, when I think of God giving Adam the job of tilling the soil, I think of it as a punishment. But does this commandment come before the fall of humanity, or after? It is before! The working of the soil is not a punishment that Adam did wrong. The thorns that come later are, for sure. But this is a part of the design for humanity, that we would get our hands dirty and get a little soil under our fingernails. And if you read this in the Hebrew, the phrase that the NIV translates as working the soil, is literally to serve the soil. Not to worship the soil, as some religions do, but definitely to care for it.

Think of how much we depend on the soil. What did you eat for breakfast? Rice Krispies? Oatmeal? Shredded wheat? Those are all grains. Maybe you are among the blessed in our group and you enjoyed eggs or bacon. Eggs come from chickens, and chickens eat grain. Bacon comes from pigs, and pigs eat grain. There are plenty of options to eat that do not come from the soil, but those ingredients are usually sodium glococarbonite or some other unpronounceable word.

There is no plan B. Our food comes from the soil. If it doesn’t come directly from the soil, it comes from something that eats something that comes directly from the soil. God gave us the soil of the earth to feed us and we are utterly dependent upon this gift.

One of the reasons why we fail to make the connection between food and spirituality is because so few of us today actually know what it is like to grow our own food. Three generations ago, farming was one of the major occupations in the US. Your grandparents probably farmed. And if they wanted to eat, they went out to the garden to get some green beans or sweet corn. In the winter they pulled out jars of fruits and vegetables that they had preserved the summer before. If you wanted bread, you ground your own wheat and mixed it with yeast and you waited.

All of this is an extremely spiritual act. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 126, verse 5-6, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”

Most people today have no idea what this even means. Who sows in tears, and why? Sowing is an act of faith. Imagine you are sowing a field of wheat, where do you get that seed? The seed you throw one the ground was actually a part of the previous year’s harvest. The seed you throw on the ground could feed your family through the next winter. But you sow it in tears trusting that God will make it grow and produce an even greater harvest than the year before.

Farmers today don’t usually plant last year’s crop for a number of reasons that we can’t get into this morning. Instead, they purchase their seed by the bag. So after tilling the soil over a period of many hours, driving back and forth from sunup to sundown, the farmer takes seed that they purchase and plant it in the ground. And then they wait. They wait for the rain to come, but not too much rain. Too much rain will kill the crop.

What many of us don’t consider is the cost of the seed. I asked my family for a ballpark estimate on how much they spend on just seed corn per acre, and they said about $100. So if you plant 100 acres of corn, you just took $10,000 and put it in the ground with the hope that it would grow and produce a bountiful crop.

That, my friends, is a gamble. The rain doesn’t always come. The sun doesn’t always shine. And when the rain doesn’t come and the sun doesn’t shine, the crops don’t grow. How many of us can afford to lose $10,000 dollars? And figure that some farms in the Midwest are putting out 500-1,000 acres of corn each year. And add on to that the cost involved in tilling the land, the diesel fuel, the cost of the tractor, and the hours spent working.

A farmer sows in tears and reaps in songs of joy because there is no guarantee for the farmer. The farmer sows in faith, faith that God will turn their seed into a harvest.

I think that everyone should at some point in their life grow something that they eat. We don’t think of food being connected to spirituality because many of us don’t know where our food comes from.

I think of the joke that old men like to play on young children, asking them if chocolate milk comes from brown cows. The kid says yes, the adults laugh, it’s a good time. But at some point this gets sad. A couple of years ago the local paper wrote an article about a farmer that was butchering animals right on his farm and he got shut down by the health department. The next day someone wrote a letter to the editor saying that they did not think that the farmer should get his hamburger from cows because that was cruel. Instead should buy it from the grocery store like they do. No joke.

It’s one thing for children to be confused about where their food comes from. But when adults don’t realize that their hamburger comes from cows, I think we lose an important connection to the gifts that God has given to us in the earth and the animals that dwell among us. These things were created by God, not the butcher at the local grocery store.

At this “Just Food” seminar, the keynote speaker dropped a knowledge bomb on us when he told us, “People today don’t understand the Lord’s Supper because we don’t know where our food comes from.” If bread and grape juice are just things that we get off the shelf at the store, are we missing something?

On the night he was betrayed and handed over to the authorities, Jesus took the bread and broke it, and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” The disciples knew that the bread did not just show up out of nowhere. There was a long process leading up to this point. The wheat was sowed, harvested, crushed, mixed, and baked. The vineyards were established years before they produced their first crop. The grapes were plucked from the vine, squeezed of their juices, and stored away in jars for years. The workers have been anxiously awaiting this moment.

Jesus didn’t come out of nowhere. We didn’t just go and buy him at the store. Since the beginning of time, perhaps even before God breathed his holy breath into the adamah making it adam, God has been working through Abraham, Moses, the people of Israel, through Jesus, and now through the Church to bring us to him and restore us to right relationships.

As we eat the bread and drink of the cup, may we remember that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, something that has been going on for thousands of years. And may we remember that food and faith are inseparable.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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