Monday, August 13, 2012

Holy Cow Communion

Good grief there are a lot of Sundays devoted to John’s gospel and bread.  Most every pastor I know has declared, at one time or another, that they have run out of anything new to say about bread.  Being retired, I have not had to preach on the full run of bread lessons for several years, until this year.  Somehow I got myself scheduled for almost every Sunday.  Well, that’s what happens when you don’t pay attention.  

Bread, of course, is not about a loaf of sliced white or wheat, but about that which gives us the nutrition we need to sustain daily life from whatever source.  What keeps coming back to me as I think about that and study these lessons is the difference between taking life and giving life. 

We take the life of other living creatures, plant and animal, to provide the nutrition we need.  They do not willingly give it.  Like every other animal, we have to take it from them, and we have to do it every day for as long as our life in this world endures.  It satisfies us for a fairly short time.  Each creature has only one life we can take, and when it is consumed we have to take it from another living creature.  It can give us great pleasure, but only for a moment.  That moment passes quickly, and the memory of even the best meal ever cannot bear even the slightest measure of nutrition.  Nevertheless, consuming the flesh of other living creatures is what the normal meaning of our daily bread is all about.  We have to be careful, good stewards of the supply of the life we will take, because it can run out.  Between nature’s unpredictability and our own selfish carelessness, we can diminish or exhaust the supply.

That’s one reason why it is so important to say grace, to give thanks for the blessing to our well being that was the life that we have taken by force.  It’s not silly or sentimental to thank not just God, but the cow, pig, chicken, fish, carrot or cabbage that rests on our plates.  I’m not so sure about zucchini, but that’s my problem.  The need to give thanks was a more obvious truth when we were a more rural population living at close quarters with farmers and ranchers who raised, harvested and slaughtered their food and ours.  It’s not so easy for urban populations where the life that has been taken lies washed and wrapped in super market coolers.  I think about that when we are with friends a few miles out of town, and I look at the particular cow that will become steaks in just two more months.  It is not an anonymous cow, one among hundreds in a factory feedlot, but a particular cow that we have seen grow from a calf.  How can one not thank the cow for the life that will be taken so that others may have life?

Consider then the bread that comes down from heaven that Jesus so outrageously claimed to be his own flesh and blood which we must eat and drink as the nutrition we need for our eternal life.  There is a very high yuck factor to that image, and it drove some of his followers away.  It still does.  Yet, this is bread that comes not from life taken by force, but life freely given.  Yes, the authorities did what they could to take his life by force, but in the resurrection it was made clear that this is a life that cannot be taken by force; it can only be freely given.  Not only is it freely given, it can never be diminished, it gives eternally in abundance without limitation.  It’s supply can never be exhausted because it is the very source of life itself.  

We eat this bread in the form of ordinary bread and ordinary wine, understood in different ways by different Christian traditions, to carry the very presence of God in Christ Jesus.  Without getting into a debate about the right understanding, which, of course, is the Anglican understanding, how can we do any other than to pour out our thanksgiving for this bread of eternal life that has been given to us for our spiritual nutrition?  Calling it the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, is not just another churchy sounding word to be mumbled out of rote memory, but something to offer with our whole being: body, mind and soul.  I fear that, like the Corinthians of Paul’s first letter, we too often let our Holy Communion become an occasional habit to which we give little thought as we head up to the altar or pass the plate down the pew.  

Maybe it would help to go out to the farm, look the cow in the eye and thank it for the life that will be taken.  It could help to make it more real as we look Jesus in the eye and thank him for the life he has given and continues to give.

5 comments:

Tom said...

There is the cow you can look in the eye, and there is the cow lost in the herd of hundreds, if not thousands, in the factory feedlot awaiting...well, what?

I can understand what it could mean to give thanks to the singular cow whose life, one way or another, I can imagine from birth to death on this farm. But what happens when I try to imagine the life of an animal produced by a factory system from birth to death, that is, manufactured birth to manufactured death and now lying before me under plastic for my inspection? ––To what will I be giving thanks in this situation?

The disappearance of saying grace directly follows from the difference between what I can and what I will refuse to imagine in the above situations. For, again, what would it mean for me to give thanks for everything I could imagine about manufactured birth through to manufactured death as I sit down to eat? I cannot afford to imagine all that, for what would happen to my appetite if I did? To bless all that is inconceivable, and so first the blessing disappears and then the imagination.

Leaving us where as we sit down to break bread?

Country Parson said...

Tom,
If i had the faintest idea where you have Saturday morning coffee, I would come and visit more about this in person. However, and speaking only for myself, I do offer thanks to the creatures, animal and plant, who have been manufactured from life to death for my eating pleasure. Factory farming reduces everything to a commodity, including the end consumer. It also enables the feeding of millions at reasonable prices, albeit not always with the best in nutrition. Just the same, I need to be aware of the lives that have been taken, including the lives abused by oppressive/illegal labor practices, as I give thanks for the food before me, and ask God's blessings on all who preceded me in the food chain.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, I can get no discussion of the validity of the Shame Culture v. Guilt Culture distiction posulated bvy Ruth Benedict, the annthropologist. In the SShame Cullture, one is most aware of what other people will think of you if they know what you have saide or done, bu in Guilt Culture your own consciende is your judge and jury. I object that evn those in the Guilt Culture care about what othee people will think,my own grandmother was a strict,perhaps fannatical Methodist funamentalist, who worried about such as whether she might be guiltyu of the 'unforgieable sin' mentioned by jesus 'against the Holy Spirit' unknwingly, yet whe also woried about what the othe women in her chuch woul think of her if found out that one of her sons been arrested by the police for drunken behavior (Prohibition was in effect then locally and also nationally, and especially slways among Methodists.She waa the local presiden of the Woemn' Christian Tempeance Union, and had gone door to door to rally votes against the Catholic Democrat, Al Smith in 1928,for his open favor for rhe "wets" and Repeal. Her personal pride and credibility were at risk.She had no personal guilt in the matter, the 'sin was her son's, but the 'shame' was jhersanyway. So two culures overlap. She had 'lost face' as the Japanese would say. Dr.B

Country Parson said...

Dr. B.
I suppose a Myers-Briggs person might say that a shame dominated person is one who is informed and judged by what he believes the world around him thinks about him. A guilt dominated person is one who expects to inform and judge the world around him, and therefor believes that he is responsible for the condition of the world around him. I cannot imagine there are any pure types of that, but perhaps we are each a bit of a mix weighted a little this way or that. Maybe a shame dominated child becomes a guilt dominated adult who uses her skills to inflict shame on the the children of her own house. Who knows? In any case, I can imagine that there are families, even communities, built on a shame/guilt dynamic, if that's what you mean by culture. Too bad if so. Shame and guilt are real things, they have their place, but they are not the only things, and certainly not things on which a family or community should be built.

Anonymous said...

ssSYes, Thanks for the response. Both shame ande guilt have their place as "social control mechanisms". Humans are "social animals" and even teh individual conscience that fees guilt is soially acquired and remains sociallly responsively to "shame" from sensitiity to percived or imagined approval or disaaaproval of others. Few indidivuals form such an independent set of strong values as to disregard what others judge and thinki of them,.i.e. berome social deviants, the ancient Cynic school of philosophy, which moephed into the Stoic school and gained lasting influence teaching "Self Reliance" (Emerseon and Thoreau)was famous for someimes exhibiionist stunts which led others to call them "shameless", insensitve to the feelings of others,as Diogenes walked around Athens naked. Some monks, Buddhist and Christian have pracised extreme austerity beyond even self preservaation and common courtesy (St. Benedict did not approve of extreme self-denial in his Order). Few can stand to be hermits (eremites) and Merton had to get speial dispensation to live totally alone, Aristotle,a more moderate philosopher, wrote "a human being (hoanthropos) is by Nature (physis) a social (poltical)animal. A human who is alone is eiher a beast or a god. Of course, most beast are also naturally in groups, and the Olympian gods were a small society, with their own rules,who seemed to need human devotion, which Aristotle, following social consvenion, duly gave them (the Cynics did not). John Donne said "no man is an island" a way of saying much as Aristotle said, a social animal. So the two cultures, "Guilt" nd "Shame" are both part of each other. Dr. B
xx