Dt 26:1-11, I Cor 11:23-37
Preached at Providence Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI, June 2015
In the beginning, the bible’s God gets introduced as “the hostess with the mostest.” God starts “from scratch” to create a “purpose-built” world: first securing its cosmic frame, then separating off different environments–the heavens above, the earth below, the watery surround–and inviting creatures to come and occupy, to be fruitful and multiply in the room that God has especially prepared for them–birds in the air, fish in the sea, cattle and creepy-crawlies, fruit-bearing plants on the dry land. Octopus and aardvarks, apple trees and mustard seeds “do their thing” instinctively. Human beings, made in God’s image, are awarded the higher honor of sharing in household management by naming the animals, by creatively filling in organizational details.
The bible’s God aims at joyful life together, expects us to live as courteous guests who will be generously provided for, so long as we honor our Host and join God in welcoming other creatures. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” But gracious hospitality provides guests with room to be themselves and “do their thing,” provides valuable resources to meet their needs. Courtesy to God’s other creatures grants them space and time to be themselves and “do their thing.” It’s rude to gobble up all of the cookies and not leave any for others. Before we ever learned the bible, didn’t our mothers teach us to share?
Sadly, experience makes this bright picture look naive, even polyannaish. Common sense knows: lambs cud-chew grass. Bunnies chomp carrots. Swallows scoop up bugs. Lions devour zebras. Science confirms: this is no accident. Material creation is predatory by nature. The remarkable thing about material stuff is that evolves or can be nudged into structures capable of hosting life. The trouble is that these structures are not self-sustaining but highly fragile. To live, we have to eat. Eating is a hostile act. We destroy what we eat. Predation goes all the way down in material creation: even large molecules cannibalize smaller ones. Beginning, middle, and end, the existence of one material thing depends on the destruction of another!
What follows, to use Gandhi’s language, is that utter non-violence is naturally impossible for us. The very nature of what we are makes it impossible for us to “do our thing” and flourish without violating the turf, cramping the style, even utterly ruining other things. This grim and sobering truth about us and our world drives the Darwinian dynamic: it puts God’s guests in competition with one another. How can we be courteous to God’s other creatures if we have to eat and we destroy what we eat? Slaughtering cows and grinding them into hamburgers brings bovine well-being to an end. Even vegans can be convicted of hostile acts against the beans and the broccoli.
Now the bible’s God made the material world and brought it to life on purpose. Whatever God’s other options may have been, God has created this world to house life together. If the guests are rowdy by nature, if straight-forward “live and let live” courtesy is not viable, the host will have to establish some house rules, if the party is not to get out of hand. Our Creator knows this and takes action. The bible’s God cuts across material predation by laying down an etiquette of sacrifice.
Torah’s cult of sacrifice prescribes an etiquette for being courteous to our Host. Darwinian instincts tell us that we are entitled to life; that preserving our lives all depends on us; that because the necessities of life are in short supply, we are entitled to do whatever it takes to secure them. Torah’s liturgy for first-fruits offerings “acts out” the counter-credo that “the earth is the Lord’s.” God is life; of all else, the source of life and its only reliable sustainer. All life belongs to God. Fertility is God’s gift. However much we may “mix our labor” with soil and seeds, they do not belong to us, and we do not make things grow. First-fruits liturgy reminds: God owns all of the resources. First-fruits liturgy humbles: we are in a position of utter dependence. Returning the first fruits to God, we ask permission to use a share. Eating what is granted as a gift binds us with gratitude to God the giver.
Sacrifice as an order of creation means that we live because others have laid down their lives to give us a chance to be. Darwinian instincts lurk, ever-resourceful to restore our sense of entitlement. Doesn’t Genesis identify human beings as the creatures made in God’s image? Didn’t God give Adam dominion over the rest of creation? Don’t the philosophers teach that human beings are the noblest of creatures, that the entire material cosmos exists for our sake? Surely that means: when there is a conflict of interest between us and other creatures, it is the human beings that should win! Certainly, we act as if there is some truth in this. The AIDS and eboli virus, poison ivy, and malaria-bearing mosquitos are God’s creatures. But most of us–not all, but most–would be glad to see them wiped off the face of the earth.
Yet, courtesy demands, not only that we honor our Host, but also that we show respect for God’s other guests. When our survival means their destruction, courtesy requires us to be mindful of their costs, grateful for the benefits, and humbled by our dependency. God’s house-rules help us along. God knows we have to eat. The bible’s God allows us to eat. But Divine permission to use other creatures comes with restrictions. Only certain living things may be eaten. (Try thinking of the unclean animals as protected species!) God limits cultivation, forbids planting or harvesting in the sabbatical year to give the land a rest. Even farmers who have born the heat of the noonday sun are not allowed to reap to the edge of the field or pick the orchard twice. Something must be left for the poor and the immigrants to gather. God shares with us on condition that we share with others.
So long as we live, our nature makes it impossible for us to be perfectly polite to other creatures. Down through the ages, saints have practiced asceticisms to minimize the damage. Gandhi limited the violence he did to God’s other creatures by living on fruit juice. Certainly, his witness stands as judgment against habitual over-eating. Gorging ourselves when we are no longer hungry shows contempt for the creatures whose lives we destroy. St. Francis recognized all God’s creatures as brothers and sisters created to voice God’s praise by “doing their thing.” He begged for the scraps that others threw out, lest anything be wasted, lest Brother Zucchini or Sister Potato have died in vain. For Francis, eating mixed garbage was also a hedge against gluttony. If he enjoyed eating other creatures too much, he might be tempted to consume more, to take up more space than he really needed. Happily, mindfulness, humility, and gratitude towards the creatures we eat, could be expressed another way by careful cooking that appreciates their qualities and makes the most of their sacrifice.
Yet, there is more. Sacrifice is the order of creation. If others lay down their lives to give us a chance to be, the Golden Rule means that God expects us to reciprocate. Not wantonly or foolishly. Not wrecklessly or masochistically. “The earth is the Lord’s.” Other creatures are no more entitled to our sacrifice than we are to theirs. We are not entitled to use up other creatures any way we feel like it, and we are not entitled to throw away our own lives just because that would be convenient for others. Self-sacrificing for one another and for God’s world is governed, not so much by liturgical rubrics, as by Divine vocation. The bible acknowledges: human society never gets distribution right. Bible students know: to whom much is given, much will be required. The bible’s God can be expected to impose the duty of self-sacrifice more heavily on higher-ups and better-offs than on the poor and the powerless. Core recognition that we are predators by nature should issue in a willingness to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to God; to give over all that we have and all that we are to God’s projects. This is the condition of making ourselves at home in God’s house.
Jesus’ words at the last supper make the human predicament brutally explicit. Because we are not self-sustaining, we cannot continue to exist without destroying something else. Jesus takes the loaf and cup and announces: “This is my body! This is my blood!” In other words, “This community, this camaraderie we enjoy, will continue. But it will require the sacrifice of my life.” Jesus lays down his life for his friends. Eating and drinking we show forth the Lord’s death and acknowledge that our life together exists at the cost of his life.
St. Paul warns against eating and drinking without discerning the Body. Catholics take this to mean Christ’s physical flesh-and-blood body, really present in the eucharist. Protestants take it to refer to Christ’s extended Body, the Church. The context can be widened and its meaning generalized. Every time we eat and drink, we are called to mindfulness: not only of the sacrificial food–the cows or pigs, the chicken or fish, the carrots, broccoli, and grapes that we chomp and gulp down–but also of the extended body who tilled the soil, who picked and packed, shipped and marketed the food. We are to discern the body: how in a world of scarcity, what we eat comes off somebody else’s plate. We are warned to acknowledge how our way of life uses up other people’s lives–the people who sweep our streets and pick up our garbage and clean our buildings and spend long hours in sweat shops sewing our clothes. Every time we eat and drink, we are to show forth their costs with thankfulness and stand ready to take our turn, to do what courtesy requires for them. So, mindfulness produces humility, humility produces thankfulness, and thankfulness makes us ready to do our part.
Happily, God’s inserting God’s own life into the cycle of (literal and figurative) eating and being eaten, underwrites and transforms it. Divine life is self-sustaining. God’s own being does not depend on the existence or the destruction of anything else. When we eat Christ’s body and drink Christ’s blood, we “act out” our determination to live by his life. We risk this, because no matter how much we are eaten up by God’s purposes, life is a gift that God can be trusted to keep on giving forever.