Monday, July 27, 2015

Eating Responsibly (John 6:51-59)

               It seems that every time you turn around, the medical experts have a different study proving or disproving the health benefits of certain foods.  Today, cut back on your salt.  Tomorrow, add salt.  The day after that, avoid salt at all costs.
               Then there’s the dieting craze that seems to sell thousands of books or program kits.  Do you trust this one or that one?  Do the diets help or do they suggest some habit that down the road you will regret?
               Earlier this year, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested a ban on sugared drinks sold over 16 oz. per cup.  The late night comedians were quickly on the case.  One show depicted the easiest way around the proposed laws:  buy two 16 oz. sodas to get that 32 oz. buzz.  (No word on the likelihood of Jersey mob moving into the City to corner the 17 oz. or more market like it is Prohibition all over again….)
               Then there’s the public enemy #1 of any diet:  the food you can buy at a State Fair.  We’re not talking the lightweight stuff, the nearly venial sins of cotton candy or a bag of popcorn.  No, we’re talking hardcore, artery-clogging deep fat fried goodness (maybe not the best term), that type of food Julia Child never wrote about….food on a stick!

               Back in the day, I thought a State Fair was based on how good the meat loaf was.  In Kansas, the local United Methodist churches put together a fantastic sit down meal that I remember fondly, where you could have the best meatloaf and potatoes and vegetables, all served with the white or brown gravy that one wished you could buy at the door to take home.  (We are but a simple people in Kansas….)
               My folks did not encourage us to eat the “bad” good stuff at the State Fair.  I am most grateful, as I avoided getting a taste of the forbidden fruit that is “Food on a stick”.  Y’know, foot long corn dogs or a frozen banana dipped in chocolate could be bought just anywhere on the fairway.   I stayed true to the Methodist meatloaf, which appropriately left my heart strangely warmed.
               Culinary-wise, you would not know the State Fair in many states nowadays.  With less emphasis on “sit-down meals”, the main food attractions are decidedly in the realm of “food your doctor shudders to think about”.

                State Fairs routinely make the national headlines not for their prize-winning cows or amusement attractions.  No, the media cannot wait for State Fair season so they can show the rest of the country how the brave and hardy people of Minnesota choose to consume something fried to heavenly yet deadly perfection.
               We’re talking:  deep fat fried Twinkies, deep fat fried Oreos, deep fat fried Onion blossoms, deep fried hamburgers (particularly the one that takes a hamburger patty and two Krispy Kreme doughnuts, adds some batter and then you tempt fate while enjoying it.  They call it the “Better Burger”).
               Yet, one summer, the Iowa State Fair broke all the culinary rules, and perhaps even a few dietary laws from the book of Leviticus, to introduce a State Fair food for the ages.  You see, it begins with some butter.  Add a stick to it, and then….Need I continue with this story?
               Food is not something we should trivialize.  Yet we do.  We tend to buy up the food that has very little nutritional value, fill our carts with such things at the grocery store and then wonder how we gained, rather than lost a pound.  What we eat has a direct impact on how we live.   Eating too much or too little could cost us our lives, if not our health.  What we eat is not a trivial matter!

               In John 6, Jesus feeds the multitudes, yet he speaks of belief, not a miracle, providing the nourishment for which the world hungers.  Belief and disbelief are compared starkly, as one leads to the bread of abundant life and one leads to the bread that feeds us just for the moment.  As the disciples, the crowds, and the religious opponents keep asking questions, even complain about his teachings, Jesus sharpens his words further, not making it any easier for someone to follow him.
                As this passage goes on (and some would say on and on), the questions of John chapter 6 keep returning to Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes yet raising up the greater sustenance of the bread of life.
                 The bread of heaven sounds great, yet we still have our reservations.  Again, the older story of the ancient Israelites out in the wilderness complaining about hunger comes to mind.  They get what they need in the provision of manna, yet it is not what they want.  We have the bread that Jesus gives and the bread of the moment.  Yet the question still lingers: which one actually shall feed us, as the old hymn says, ‘til we want no more?

                Over the years, I have read, and better yet, known of Christians whose life story is well acquainted with the ups and downs of life as we know it, yet as they look back at their lives (or others help tell their stories as faithful second hand witnesses), there emerges a thread where faith played more than one might suppose, if you consider faith just a Sunday morning affair.

                I recall the story of Sara Miles, who found her faith kindled when she discovered a congregation where she could get involved in community ministry.  Soon, she had a thriving food distribution ministry that brought her into friendship with a variety of people, some of whom she might have never guessed she would befriend.  Church became less of a structure for worship and more a place for the neighborhood’s needs to be met.  The bread served at the Lord’s Table and the bread she is able to distribute to many in need becomes a common holiness for Sara Miles.  When I read her reflections on faith, I find someone who partakes of the bread of life Jesus provides, and such faithful discipleship is multiplied in her food distribution initiatives.

                I consider the story of a fellow seminarian.  Once he sold drugs on the urban streets.  Experiencing Christianity turned him from his ways, leading him to a different life path.  Now he is an insurance agent and studied for Christian ministry to be a bi-vocational pastor.  Jokingly, he told one of his professors his life story and noted “Now the stuff I sell is legal!”  (Cf. Molly T. Marshall, Joining the Dance, p. ).

              Taking the bread of life found in Jesus is not a trivial matter.  Eating well may nourish us in ways we did not know.   The most dangerous thing we can do to our sense of where our life is going is to listen to teachings like John 6 and explore what happens when we follow Jesus.  The bread of life might be the death of “you”, that “you” that is everything we would be if not for the benefits of the gospel made known in your life.   The “you” that the Christian becomes is far more interested in “God and neighbor” than “me, myself and I” that tends to be the story otherwise.

               As Jesus responds to his dissenters, he does not mince words: Will you eat my flesh and drink my blood?  The other gospels use softer imagery of “This is my body”.  John’s gospel says bluntly, “Eat my flesh”, leaving little room for doubt that crunching and chewing is part of the experience.  The more visceral language of flesh and blood is scandalous, especially considering the dietary religious prohibitions practiced in the era.  Bread and cup may be nicer terms, yet for John’s gospel, he presses the reader:
              Will you heed the gospel of John’s edgy word on the matter: that this flesh and this blood are to be consumed, transforming you into something more than the sum of your desires?
                Will you consume, indeed sink your teeth into this flesh and drink this blood?

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