May 01, 2008

Eating Locally

by Debra Dean Murphy
I recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, a captivating story of her family’s efforts to eat locally for an entire year. From one spring to the next, everything they consumed was either grown in their own modest garden or purchased from farmers’ markets or dairies or butchers in their rural county in southwest Virginia (though they did make a few exceptions for staples like olive oil, spices, and fair trade organic coffee).

This is the kind of book that could get all preachy and high-minded, making the reader feel bad for being such a promiscuous eater, but Kingsolver is too good a writer for that. She simply chronicles her family’s triumphs and failures; their joys and frustrations. As she puts it, this is the story of what they learned, or didn’t; what they ate, or couldn’t; and how the family was changed by one year of deliberately eating food produced in the same place where they worked, loved their neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air (p. 20).

So no bananas for this family! The point, though, was not to fixate on what they were missing, “dragging around feeling righteous and gloomy,” but to seek the tangible, healthy pleasures that might be found in bypassing the industrial food economy and exploring instead the local food landscape (p. 22).

One of the many insights in this marvelous book is how Kingsolver’s family came to have a greater humility about the gifts of food and land and shared family work; a humility about the bonds of community that absolutely must be created and sustained if you are going to eat locally.

Humility. We associate that word with lowliness and meekness, and rightly so, but its roots go deeper--literally: “humility” is related to the word “humus,” the dark organic matter in the soil, essential for the earth’s fertility. To practice humility is indeed to “get low to the ground”; to be connected to the most basic things that feed and sustain us.

Jesus advises such a posture in the Gospel reading for this week. He tells his dinner companions that when they are invited to a wedding banquet, they are to “take the lowest seat,” not because he wants them to practice false modesty--as we are often prone to do--but because he wants them to embody true humility.

And then Jesus goes on to call into question our usual guest list when we host a luncheon or a dinner: “Do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

What would it look like if we actually did this? If--along with sending our money to food organizations and delivering meals to the hungry in our community--we also sat down and broke bread with them, talked across a table to them, passed the salt and pepper, shared stories, laughter, probably an awkward moment or two.

We might experience what the writer to the Hebrews predicts: we would entertain angels without knowing it. But this is not something we should romanticize, because there’s risk involved here--the risk that comes with interacting with strangers; the risk of being misunderstood by those who think it's best to associate with your own kind. This is not romantic; this is risky.

But that’s not all. The Hebrews writer says, “let mutual love continue.” “Mutual” means that it cuts both ways; there’s something required of both parties, and there is benefit to both parties. In my church we’re accustomed to being on the giving end--we like to share, feed, clothe, give money. But what would it mean for us to receive hospitality rather than to give it? Can we imagine being blessed by those whom we think we’re blessing? And I don’t mean the warm feeling you get when you help a needy person--that’s still you doing the giving. I mean can we imagine not always playing the host but learning instead how to be the guest?

When we get to the Hinduism section in a World Religions class I teach, I take the group to a weeknight prayer service at a local Hindu Temple. Actually, there are two Hindu Temples on opposite ends of this same street. It used to be a Baptist church on every corner in these small southern towns . . .

When we go there we are out of our element; we are in a foreign land; we experience a different language, different liturgy, different theology; different sights, sounds, and smells. We are guests. And our gracious hosts do not neglect to show hospitality to this bunch of strangers. But it’s hard to be the guests!

When we share the Lord’s Supper we are guests at the Lord’s table. Christ is the host. We receive but we cannot repay. And in this mutual sharing, where Jesus the host feeds us with his own body and blood, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice; the "sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name" (Heb. 13:15).

And there is humility in this. We are once again brought “low to the ground”--brought into the presence of the source of our lives and the source of all that is. The bread and wine that we consume may or may not have been produced locally, but in the Eucharist we know where our food comes from: from the one who is the same yesterday and today and forever. The one who invites us to share the abundance of life in him with prisoners and those being tortured; with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. The one who promises that when we do this--when we practice mutual love--we will be blessed, and we will be changed.

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