Food and Faith (ninth/closing sermon in the series, “Memorable Biblical Meals”)

I.
I became a great-uncle this week. My eldest niece, Lauren Dodson Cheatham, gave birth to her first child who is the first member of the next generation in our family. My great-niece’s name is Layla Avery Cheatham, and she is beautiful indeed. I couldn’t help thinking about babies this week, and that has something to do with where I’d like to start focussing our Gathering thoughts today.
If you were a part of a devout Hindu family practicing at least most of the rites and rituals associated with the ancient religion, then when your baby reached the age of about 6 months your family would celebrate a food ritual, a rite of passage called Annaprashan, which in Sanskrit apparently means literally first solid food ritual. For those Hindus who practice their faith in an English-speaking culture, this ritual is called “first rice.”  It works something like this.  The baby’s mother or grandmother will place in a very small bowl some boiled rice, milk, and a little sugar.  A priest is on hand to bless the food, oh what would we do without out clergy, and while the mother holds the child either an uncle or a grandfather will be the first to feed the baby a small spoonful of the first rice. After that, other family members give the baby a tiny bite of her or his first solid food.  This ritual is supposed to be a part of symbolizing for the child’s future that she or he will always be well fed.
At the other end of life, at termination of life in this realm–the incarnation through which the deceased person has just passed–there is a meal served called the Sraddha, which is food provided as a treat for the deceased’s relatives and friends who care enough about the well-being of the deceased to offer prayers asking God or the gods, depending on how you view Hindu theological perspective, to give peace to the soul of the one who has departed. She or he will either have reached Nirvana and will not come through another life form in this realm again, or the person will not have reached Nirvana and will, therefore, have another life form to live through in this realm.
As with all religious movements of any size there are varieties of expressions and emphases within the religion, and this is true of Buddhism.  One of the uses of food in Buddhism as practiced in Thailand is that the lay people in the communities are responsible for providing for the physical needs of the monks, including their daily nourishment, because the monks are the spiritual leaders in those communities.  In exchange the monks provide spiritual support for each member of the community.
The way this works out in daily practice is that the monks leave their monasteries very early each morning and walk out into the community single file. There is a prescribed order for walking in this line; the oldest monks are first, followed by the younger ones.  All carry their alms bowls in front of them, and the lay people either come out to meet them or are already waiting for them to give them food and in addition, perhaps, throw in a stick of incense or a flower, some small gift.  The women who most often are serving food to the line of monks must be very careful not to touch the monks because of their extraordinary holiness.  Many of the lay people kneel before putting food or anything else in the alms bowls of the monks.
The food most frequently served to the monks is rice, sometimes with a little something added, but at least the rice.  The lay people are typically serving the monks the food that they will eat in their own homes.  I have seen films of this ritual in process. It is quite touching; food is a key part of spiritual practice.
Scholars of Islam say that eating is a matter of faith in the practice of Islam.  Like Jewish dietary laws recorded in Hebrew Scripture, Muslim dietary practice is also fundamentally about obeying God.  All faithful Muslims are expected to obey God by eating foods that the Qur’an indicates are allowed foods and avoiding foods condemned by the Qur’an. Muhammad could not have known fully how nutritionally beneficial many of the directives were as he recorded God’s very words given directly to the him by the angel Gabriel, as tradition has it.
So if you’re going to eat as a Muslim obviously you’re going to recite the name of God, Allah, and then you’re going to give thanks to God before and after you eat the meal.  Further, you are supposed to contemplate every morsel of food you eat, remembering the Creator who provided the means for humans to have nourishment, and this may well create a prayer-like state during the a meal.
Kit Calaguas is very much involved right now in the study and practice of mindfulness and eating.  The multiple benefits of healthy foods are enhanced by concentrating on the food while chewing more slowly and deliberately.  Perhaps Kit will catch us up with his ongoing research at one of our forums in the coming year. Hint.  Hint.
According to the Prophet Muhammad you can eat only when you’re hungry, and when you do eat it must not be in excess. As you are eating, he taught, you need to think about dividing your stomach into 3 parts:  one-third for food, one-third for fluid, and one-third for the air needed to help along the process of digestion.   Further, when you eat, you’re supposed to remember those who don’t have food and share all the food you can with someone who’s hungry.  In fact, in certain circumstances, and I don’t know what they are, it’s possible to avoid spending eternity in hell if someone is compassionate and feeds a hungry person or a hungry animal.

II.
I am intrigued as I think about the connection of food to so many of the major religions in the world as well as some of the much smaller religious sects. The connection is in its way both prehistoric and modern, beginning perhaps in the most ancient of animistic faiths and leading right up into the present to the most sacred of all religious food events, the church dinner.
An animistic religion, in case you haven’t gotten around to the formal study of religion as a discipline in its own right within the humanities–which many have not and will not any more than I will study physics–is one practiced by ancient peoples and peoples yet today who remain primitive.  I mean that in an entirely descriptive way, not in any pejorative way whatsoever.  An animistic religion is one that focuses very much on nature, and an adherent believes broadly that every part of nature is inhabited and controlled by some kind of deity. There’s a rock god in control of the rock; there is a tree god controlling the tree.  The sun god controls the sun and so forth. Not only is one aware of the presence of these deities within both animate and inanimate objects, but also the person practicing the religion believes that her or his life depends on a positive, productive relationship with the various deities. So, if you want a good harvest you must be in good with the god of farming, the god of gardening.You must be in good with the sun goddess to make sure your plants get ample sunlight, and you must also be in good with the god of rain so you don’t lose food to drought.
In animistic religions the gods and goddesses are entirely anthropomorphized. Not only do they have human emotions, but also they have human needs. So if you as a human being get hungry and have to eat to satisfy your hunger then you will know that your deity also get hungry and needs to eat. The thing is, since they are limited by the object to which they are attached, they cannot go out in search of their own food. Therefore, they depend on their subjects, their followers to go and get the food for them.  In one way or another these practices must have led to the practice of offering sacrifices. The earliest sacrifices in most animistic religions were food items.
Many of you will know the story of Cain and Abel, the first two children of Eve and Adam.  One of them, Abel, grew up to become a rancher, a person who raised animals for a living. Animals helped the people in a number of respects, but many of them finally became food on the table. Their other son, Cain, was a gardener, a person who raised fruits and vegetables.
Because their crops and livestock were so valued by the themselves, others, and God (they believed), and because they believed that God was behind the success of a crop or the births of numerous healthy animals, the best crops and animals became sacrifices to God.  The first tenth of the finest crops and the first ten of the finest animals born on a livestock farm in any given year were offered as sacrifices to God.
Cain and Abel were not animists.  They were practicing a more advanced kind of religion on this side of the development of monotheism.  Even so, they still believed God required sacrifices to continue acting positively toward those who offered the sacrifices.  In their case they did not believe God ate the produce or the meat; rather, they believed God was nurtured and appeased because of the good smells from what was burned on an altar.
Into the time of Jesus, he and his contemporaries–descendants of the ancient Hebrews, were still practicing sacrifice. We have no stories about Jesus offering a sacrifice to God though he almost certainly did sacrifice; we do have stories about Jesus participating in feasts where sacrifices were typically part of the rituals. By the way, in Jesus’ day there were no more grain or produce sacrifices; the sacrifice had to be living so that blood could be shed on the altar in order for God to be appeased.  A dove for poor person, a goat perhaps for a person not quite so poor, a sheep for someone with a little more money to spare.  In any case, the throat had to be slit so the blood would spill out and burn on the fires of an altar.  The remains of the animal even though there were untold numbers of starving people around could not be eaten officially. This is something with which the apostle Paul did not agree, and he said in his own sort of lowkey way (not typical of Paul!) that the remains of animals offered as sacrifices could certainly be eaten by spiritually mature people as long as they didn’t cause spiritually immature people still trying to understand the ins and outs of religious rules to stumble.
Tragically, and I do mean “tragically” in its most intense form, some person or persons sitting around one day trying to make some sense out of the senselessness of Jesus’ death, having been put to the death by the Romans, came up with a metaphor that has evolved into what womanist theologian, Rita Nakashima Brock, has called the worst heresy ever propagated on the Christian.  What she was referring to is a doctrinal formulation that ended up with the name “atonement theology,” which says that God required a living sacrifice whose blood would be shed as an appeasement sacrifice in order for God to be able to put aside God’s anger at “sinfully depraved humanity”; otherwise, God would eventually wipe us out because of what the formulators of the doctrine regarded as extraordinary evil and disobedience.
Indeed when the book of Revelation was written, one of the last Second Testament books to be written though perhaps not the last as the Gospel of John may very well have been the last in the collection that has been left to us, Jesus is symbolically presented as the lamb that was slain but who lived again. There are scads of people, including most of us who grew up with any kind of church background unless it might’ve been Unitarian, who were taught that Jesus died for our sins, had to die for our sins, in order for God to love us and accept us. Then, on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice we can and must have the courage to step forward and come into the presence of God asking to be accepted not because of who we are or of how God relates to us individually but because of Jesus’ bloody death.
Holy Week for people of this ilk is a rather odd combination of sadness and celebration that Jesus was put to death.  Yes, the pain was real, and that’s regrettable; but without the shedding of blood as an old adage put it there is no remission of sin. So they take Jesus’ death as a necessary evil.  That’s one of the many reasons the death of Jesus on this side of that horrid act is glorified.
No one ate the flesh of the sacrificial lamb, which symbolized Jesus, but some traditions eventually believed that that was necessary and important so their communion celebrations tell those who participate that after certain key prayers and blessings by priests the bread, the wafer, the loaf becomes the literal body of Jesus and the wine or juice the literal blood of Jesus sacrificed. In this mystical moment they are taught that they are ingesting the very body and blood of Jesus. It is a grotesque thought, and some of those who first heard about the belief called Christians cannibals.

III.
Daniel is one of the great heroes of the First Testament.  In many ways he was an eccentric, which we in this congregation know nothing about, but maybe you know one or have read about an eccentric so that you can help shape the mental picture of Daniel that the writer of the book that bears his name wants her or his readers to picture.  Eccentric or not, however, Daniel was a courageous person who stood up for what he believed regardless of the potential consequences.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Empire holding many of the Hebrews in exile, decided that he would take several of the brightest and best young Hebrew men and essentially turn them into Babylonians in terms of what they learned, how they thought, dressed, and behaved.  Eventually, brainwashed and recultured, these young men could be given places of responsibility and honor in the Babylonian political hierarchy.  The process of being recultured could be a very glamorous one, as Moses found out with the Egyptians and as Esther found out with the Persians.  The opportunities that came to these highly gifted Hebrews with more evident potential to develop made hating that Babylonians more difficult for many of the Hebrews.  Once they had been declared a winner in one of the rounds of “Babylonian Idol,” that famous game show from ancient times, many of their sister- and brother- Hebrews loved the tremendous opportunities the King of Babylon offered them–and not just performance opportunities using the Babylonian names given to these young men to replace their Hebrew names, but also cultural and educational opportunities as well.  Again, this made it difficult for a good number of the Hebrews to hate Babylon with the same intensity with which they had hated the world power before some of their own began to get opportunities to flourish.
The first step in the reculturation process was to live in special apartments away from everything Hebrew where they only heard the Babylonian language, specifically the dialect preferred by the King for conversation with him and his advisors and in the conducting of business on his behalf, which some of them would go on to do.  In these comfortable apartments, which were still guarded like jails with plain-togaed officers just in case any of the “chosen” might try to run away–even though not many would give up the niceties afforded them to go back to the ghettos where most of their sister- and brother- Hebrews lived.
Other than more comfortable surroundings, maid and butler cleaning services, and memberships in the gym on the palace grounds with their own personal trainers, the food was to die for–maybe literally, at least Daniel and three of his closest friends thought so.  The food was fancy, fatty, and seasoned with attention to taste only, not to health.  The wine was consumed at excessive levels.  Daniel and his pals, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; knew that part of what got them noticed in the first place was good health reflected in their physiques.  They believed that they were strong and healthy not only because they exercised well, but also because they ate well; and eating well for them meant a strict and serious vegan diet.
This conviction compelled them one day to ask the chief of their nutritional program for a change.  “Please don’t offer us only this rich and unhealthy food; eventually, it will break down our health.  We ask you sincerely to speak with the chef and request for us water and no wine; healthy whole grains; and vegetables only, without a trace of meat.”
The health advisor said, “We’re serving you the best foods there are; they are chosen and prepared to enhance your health.  If we allow you to eat this menu preferred by camels, your physical decline will become almost immediately evident, and when the King finds out what I allowed to happen I will be headless; you’ll be back in chains.”
Daniel and the boys pled for a chance to make it work, an experiment.  If they were permitted to eat what they knew had enhanced their health before Babylon came into the picture, they knew they’d be even stronger and healthier than their counterparts in the reculture program.  If they showed the slightest sign of physical regression, they’d instantly be placed back on double portions of the King’s recommended diet.  If they still looked like fine physical specimens, however, they could continue the vegan diet as long as they wished.
The so-called “Bible diet” is really in these days, but Daniel and friends didn’t ask for all possible healthy foods, even under the category of vegan.  They asked only for vegetables and water.  As a result, some of nutritionists and wannabe-nutritionists today who recommend that diet as a ten-day detox program–believing that omitting fruit, grains, and seeds will not contribute to long-term health.
That could well be the case in Daniel’s story.  The Hebrews may have felt that after a time of eating the fancy food with low nutritional value, their bodies needed a detox plan before asking permission to get back to the day-to-day vegan diet they’d probably eaten before the Babylonians had taken most of their people into exile about 606 years before Jesus was born.
Have you ever noticed in a run through the first couple of chapters of the book of Genesis, which purport to describe how God created the earth, the skies, as well as plant-animal-human life, that God gave Eve and Adam eating instructions?

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in the divine image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

So, just before God winds up creation and takes most of the seventh day off, God creates human and animal life–according to one of the two creation accounts that open the book of Genesis.  Each group is told what to eat before God calls it a day, if you will.    Humans were supposed to eat plants that can be eaten, but which also produce their own seeds so the species can be propagated.  Similarly, humans were to eat fruit that grew on trees and produced something to eat plus seeds so that other fruit-bearing trees could grow.  Non-human life that breathes is directed by the God of early Genesis to feast on the abundance of green plants.  In paradise, which is what the Garden of Eden was, humans don’t eat animals, and animals don’t eat humans.  It is Noah, later, who encourages the eating of meat.
In any case, we can’t miss the fact that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were trying to make food choices related to their faith commitments.  They believed that part of being faithful to God meant taking care of themselves, and a key part of taking care of self–which hasn’t always been understood and isn’t understood by many today even in our own health-conscious culture–is eating in such a way that our bodies are built up and not torn down.  That is a sacred thing indeed.

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