This sermon was delivered at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas on August 12th, 2012. The scripture readings for the Sunday were:
Ragan Sutterfield sermon: You Are Who You Eat (mp3 link) (click to listen to audio)
Some of you may not know it, but I was once a pig farmer. I raised a herd of pigs, around forty or fifty at a time. I had eight sows, two boars, and then their offspring that I would sell every year as breeding stock or have slaughtered for some of the best pork chops, bacon, or hams you’ve ever tasted.
Pigs are wonderful animals, full of personality and curiosity, but they are, true to their character, hungry animals—ready to eat just about anything that’s edible and sometimes a few things that aren’t. As I learned pig farming, I talked to lots of old timers and they would all tell me of the novel foods that they’d tried with pigs. I heard of farmers using everything from the discarded cookies of a cookie factory to the spent grains of beer brewers. I even heard a presentation by a Spanish farmer who showed how her pigs that finished their lives eating at an all you can eat acorn feast, had a fat profile almost identical to the acorns they ate. Whatever it was they fed them, these farmers agreed that the food significantly affected how the meat of the animals tasted. They warned about using too many scraps from restaurants because they said, pigs that ate trash would taste like trash.
Raising pigs taught me, more than anything else, that the old saying is true—you are what you eat.
Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma illustrates this truth to chilling effect. In explaining how corn has become the ubiquitous food of most Americans, reprocessed endlessly into many different forms, he writes of the carbon isotope C13, which marks corn in the body. In testing the hair and skin of Americans, to see how much of us is made up of corn, a scientist put it this way: “’When you look at the isotope ratios…we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.’” All this corn is making us sick, filling our foods with cheap sugar and driving our health crises from obesity to diabetes. Some foods help us live and others lead to death.
The idea that we become what we eat isn’t anything original to modern chemistry. Many people throughout history have eaten foods to gain certain powers or lose them. The Nama people of South Africa for instance, will not eat rabbits because they think they will become as faint hearted as a rabbit, but they will eat, or drink the blood of lions because they want the ferocity and strength of a lion. Many cultures will not eat tortoises for fear that they will become slow like one. The most extreme example of this is of course ritual cannibalism, still practiced by tribes like the Korowai in Papua, New Guinea. For the Korowai, eating the heart of an enemy warrior gains one the powers of that person. A vast number of human cultural traditions point us to this idea, that to eat something is to meld our being with it and it with us.
Perhaps it is in drawing on such cultural traditions that the scriptures speak of not only reading and meditating on the word of God, but of eating it. In Psalm 119 the psalmist describes the words of God being sweeter than honey, in Ezekiel 3 the prophet is told to eat the word of God so that he can speak it to Israel. In Jeremiah 15:16 we are told, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight.” The word of God, the scriptures are clear, is good to eat. So what does this all mean when the Word, became flesh.
This is where we find ourselves in today’s Gospel reading as Jesus and his interlocutors wrestle together around the question, how do we eat the word of God? Two meals are presented, the law of Moses as represented in the bread of manna or Jesus as God’s own new Word, the living bread of heaven. The bread of the ancestors, the Old way of working with God through the Mosaic covenant, Jesus seems to be saying, has outrun its expiration date. God has prepared a new way to join the work of his Kingdom—a new bread of life, fresh out of the heavenly oven.
To get a glimpse of what this new work looks like we can turn to our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul is here offering a reorientation for what life is all about. He tells thieves to give up stealing, and to labor honestly with their own hands. It’s unlikely he’s talking to pick pockets and armed robbers here; these are thieves more of the Wall Street type, dishonest business people who try to make money with money rather than work. There’s good news Paul says, you can earn your living through work and for the only reason worth making money—to share with the needy. He then goes on to prohibit “evil talk.” If you want a contemporary example of what that might be, just look at Facebook or listen to the talk of most of our politicians. We don’t have to be wrapped up in all of this bickering and hatred Paul is telling us, and the way to get there is to change the way we talk so that our words build up and “give grace to those who hear.” We, the Christian community, are to be a place of kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness. Paul sums it all up by saying, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
Be imitators of God! How could we even imagine such a thing? And yet we have our answer in the Gospel, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven…the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” And as Jesus goes on to say, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” When the Romans accused early Christians of being cannibals they were not far from the mark. We are what we eat. We become it down to the level of our cells and it changes who we are. When we eat the bread and wine of communion—we are brought together into God’s new community—our lives become the life of Jesus, just as junk food diets make us into walking corn chips.
Com-muni—in latin the prefix com means “with” and muni means “body”. Communion is literally being with the body. When we eat the bread and wine we are joined with Christ, and just as importantly, as we gather at these rails to receive the bread and wine we are joined with each other.
In many churches the communion alter is engraved with the words, “In Remembrance of Me.” Those words name exactly the reason we gather here each Sunday. We come to remember. To remember that God loved us so much that God was willing to die forgiving rather than to condemn. But we also come to be re-membered, to be brought together again as Christ body on earth.
It is at the Eucharistic table that we participate in these holy mysteries. We call our being with each other in body, joined by God’s body, the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, because we are thankful for the gift of God’s love and for the gift of each other.
I want to close today, not with bread, but with chicken. The last couple weeks there has been a great deal of discussion about what Christians should eat and with whom they should eat it. This has been an unfortunate time, and many of our brother and sisters are lost in a story that is not Good News. It is instead a story of fear, which leads inevitably to coercion and therefore a fight—something the news media is all too ready to stir into a frenzy.
Amidst these culture wars “we have better stories to tell,” our friend Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in a blog post last week, and then offered this one:
He tells about a gay friend of his who was raised in a fundamentalist environment that could not make sense of his attraction to other men. This friend left the church, seeking belonging in the gay community that welcomed him. It was an affirming time, but eventually he found that there were still parts of him that were empty—something deep and important was still missing from his life. Without that thing he fell into despair.
One night, he lay down outside a bar, and hoped to die. He didn’t and somehow, “Almost by accident, he stumbled into a little Christian community” that was different. These were people who were trying to live out Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with their whole lives, they were serious about being imitators of God. They served the poor and they tried to love each other. Their life was a life of togetherness, not only Sunday, but day in and day out. This community had what this man was looking for, but could they embrace him for all he was? A gay man?
He asked for a private meeting with one of the community’s leaders and asked if they could accept him as a homosexual. The leader responded: “I don’t know what all that will mean for our journey together. But I will say this: you are a gift, and we want to welcome you as one.”
You are a gift and we want to welcome you as one. You are a gift and we want to welcome you as one. You are a gift and we want welcome you as one.
That is our invitation to communion, to the Bread of Life that came down from heaven to join our lives into the life of God.
We are who we eat and who we eat it with.