[The following is a sermon I preached on Feb. 27, 2011 at Canadian Memorial United Church, located in Vancouver, B.C.. The regular minister at CMUC, Bruce Sanguin (who recently contributed to Beams and Struts), is on a four month sabbatical, and a guest speaker series was put together for the period of his absence. I'm one of four CMUC members who are either in or entering into seminary at the Vancouver School of Theology, and we were all asked to preach in the series. It was the first time preaching for every one of us! The sermon below was my offering and is printed in exactly the form I preached it in church, with the addition of the subtitle and images.]
According to the Biblical scholar Marcus Borg, Exile and Return is one of three core motifs in the Bible, and it’s a theme I want to take up today. In speaking about our relationship to both food and the Earth, I want to suggest that we, in our modern industrial society, are in a kind of collective exile.
Have you ever personally been in exile? I certainly know I have. To be down and out, disconnected, alone in the valley. To be lost and lonely, out of touch, with no direction home. To be torn and frayed, twisted about, with no sense of the center. To be grasping at phantoms, reeling on the edge, sensing the void. Dante describes his experience of exile in the Inferno, with these famous words: “Midway on life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. To tell about those woods is hard- so tangled and rough and savage that thinking of it now, I feel the old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter”. We also heard St. Augustine in the readings saying, “I came to love you too late. What did I know? You were inside me, and I was out of my body and mind looking for you”.
I believe that we’re now in a time of collective exile, exile from the Earth, from the soil, from the water and the sun, and from the Spirit that runs through it all. And it’s time to go home. Much of this exile is the result of our modern civilization, and I want to focus on our relationship to food in particular. The modern industrial food supply is on one level a story of astonishing success- it managed to produce vast quantities of food, and to pull huge swathes of people out of starvation and deprivation. The Western nations in particular, like ours, have come to know incredible riches and bounty.
But this has all come at a costly price. The industrial food supply is characterized by many unsustainable methods, including intensive use of fossil fuels, mass production techniques, heavy use of chemicals and fertilizers, and centralized organization. In Vancouver, for instance, we can buy apples from Washington State that come to us via Los Angeles, a result of the big scale centralized processes and core distribution centers that the modern food supply needs to function. One core result of this overall food system is that we as citizens, for the first time in history, have become detached and out of any immediate contact with the production of the food we eat, signaling an end to the ten thousand year old Neolithic agricultural era of human history.
This process has gone so far that when many first world kids today are asked where milk comes from, they answer “the supermarket”. So distant and removed are we from our food production that, until very recently with the rise in food awareness (of which this sermon is a part), most people had no idea where our food was coming from anymore. And I want to ask today, what are the spiritual and psychological ramifications of this separation?
One suggestion that I find very powerful and resonant is that because of this separation we humans are now suffering from a species loneliness (*) This idea of species loneliness builds upon another important concept called biophilia. The term biophilia suggests that we humans have a natural love- a philia- for living systems. And this is no woo-woo New Age notion either; it was very materialist and non-religious scientists that first proposed this idea. What they realized is that we spent nearly a million years of our history immersed in the immediate world of plants and animals, and that we came to develop a deep intimate connection with these living systems that we still both love and need. Today, however, we’re increasingly separated from these living worlds that once surrounded us- and in this very same modern period we’ve simultaneously become increasingly lonely, depressed, and ill. And it’s time to go home.
Reverend Bruce Sanguin has offered what I think is a brilliant re-interpretation of the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. In that parable, if you recall, a man has two sons and one of the sons asks the father if he can have his share of the wealth from the family estate. The father obliges, and the son manages to go off and squander it all on “wild living”. When the son comes home, starving and desperate for work, sincerely begging his father for forgiveness, and asking only to be made one of his father’s lowly hired men, his father instead celebrates his son’s homecoming and throws him a great feast. When the other brother, furious, asks the father what he’s doing, the father replies, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and now has been found” (Luke 15:32).
Bruce suggests that we as modern citizens have become a prodigal species. We’ve been on a binge, a jag, a spending spree, squandering the Earth’s resources at a breakneck speed. And it’s true. In his excellent but devastating book Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century, historian J.R. McNeil goes through each of the Earth’s systems- the lithosphere (or the soil), the atmosphere (air), the hydrosphere (water) and the biosphere (plants and animals)- and shows how we’ve systematically damaged each one in ways that most of us have yet to even fathom. When it comes to food production, by planting single crops (or ‘monocrops’) in giant fields, using chemical fertilizers to extract the biggest possible yields, we’ve systematically stripped the nutrients out of vast quantities of the Earth’s soil, soil that took thousands of years to accumulate such richness. We are indeed the prodigal species, and it’s time for us to now come home and ask the Earth for our own forgiveness; it’s time to come home out of our exile and begin living in harmony with the systems on which we depend.
This asking of the Earth for forgiveness requires us to repent, which is a bit of scary word from traditional mythic Christianity, but as the Rev. Donald Grayson pointed out when he preached in this guest series, to repent actually just simply means “to return or come back”. If one has been separated from God in one’s life and actions for instance, to repent is to return to a life lived in accord with Spirit. This repentance calls for a new sense of humility, and it’s interesting to note that the word humility shares the same root as the word humus, or soil. So to become humble is to literally become closer to the Earth itself. It’s to return home to that from which we came, and this brings me to another really important teaching from the Rev. Bruce Sanguin. Bruce suggests that in this repentance, in this coming back home, what we need to do now is to learn how to go from walking on the Earth, to walking as the Earth. Ok, but what exactly does that mean?
This is a subtle teaching, so let’s take a minute to do a practice together so that we might get a glimpse of the profound wisdom that lies in this fundamental change of identity. A tiny glimpse is all I’ve gotten of it, but it was enough for me to know that I had to share it with everyone today. For those who feel comfortable, could I please ask everyone to sit up and to close their eyes. Now put your palms on your legs, and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Feel the ground at your feet. Now use your imagination, and feel into the difference between these two ways of being-in-the-world. To walk on the Earth, is to be a visitor here, an alien, the Earth just happens to be where we find ourselves in the vast strange cosmos; we Lord over the Earth and take from it what we need as we pass our short time here. When we walk on the Earth, we are strangers to it, and we treat it accordingly.
But to walk as the Earth, is to recognize that we’re a product of the Earth, that over vast periods of evolutionary time, the Earth has come to produce us. We literally are the Earth, and we can, as Bruce says, “learn to be the presence of the Earth in human form”. This is not only our home; we are a creation of that home. Feel into your feet and hands and realize that you are not on the Earth, you’ve come out of it, and it’s your home. And the Earth is a really beautiful home, one that we share with all kinds of marvelous creatures who we recognize, when we shift this identity, as literally our kin. They come from the Earth too, as we do, and from this new identity we can now see that the Kin-dom of God is indeed truly at hand as Jesus taught (Mark 1:14-15). Thank you, you can please open your eyes now.
This is a powerful teaching, and a transformative practice that we can all continue to grow into in our personal lives. But what else can we do, hands on things, immediate things, now? A lot. Let’s focus again on our relationship to food. I’m going to offer a list of possible actions here, but there’s no need to try and remember them all now. They’ll be reprinted in the sermon and available on the CMUC website and you can review them there. Perhaps just try to feel into what a new relationship to food and the Earth might look like, as we shift from being masters over the Earth, to being cultivators working from within it, from walking on the Earth, to walking as the Earth.
At least once a season, do some gathering. By going into the wild and gathering mushrooms or herbs or berries or whatever else is available in your local region, we come back in contact with an ancient sensitivity to our environment that’s asleep within us, but ready to be re-awakened. People who take up this practice report something very special coming alive within them.
Plant something. This could be a large garden, or something very small, but take the time to get reacquainted with the soil, with plants, with insects and the sun. After having some of these conversations with a chef co-worker of mine, he decided to plant some simple herbs in his apartment and he put them on his windowsill. He was so lit up as he described tending to his herbs! He now had to be aware of light and the movements of the sun, and had to be attentive to the needs of these growing plants. His eyes sparkled as he talked to me about his herbs, and I could tell he’d begun the journey home.
Take a moment before meals and express your gratitude. Give thanks for the food itself, to the healthy soil it was grown in, and to the countless human hands that helped grow it and get it to your table. Try and eat in silence. It’s difficult to do, I struggle with this one after so many years of eating in front of the tube, but it can be a powerful practice. While slowly and consciously eating in silence, meditate on the fact that Earth’s body is literally becoming our bodies, and that we are literally eating the sun. How amazing is that! It’s a daily Eucharist! We all have to eat three times a day, so we all have the opportunity to use this time for spiritual practice, and if you do, you’ll feel the fog of exile melting away.
Buy food from your local region as much as possible, and avoid the industrial food supply to the extent you’re able. The industrial food supply is exile incarnate. It’s an alien force extracting as much from the earth as possible, without giving anything back; it’s a master with the Earth as its servant. This food system is not only polluting the Earth’s systems on vast scales, it’s making us very sick too, with illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease becoming so commonplace we’ve forgotten that they have a very real source in our food supply. We cannot expect to be evolutionaries in the service of Spirit if our bodies and minds are sick from the food we eat.
Buying food from our local region also supports local farmers, builds community, and allows us to be rooted and connected to the specific patch of Earth we call home. My wife Sarah and I have been getting one of those boxes of local organic vegetables delivered to our home for the past few months now, and we love it. I’m not sure why I waited so long to do it. Not only do we get vegetables that have been recently harvested, which means they include more nutrients, we get to connect to our local region through what’s growing in it. Sure, right now in the winter I have to figure out how to use beets and squash in nineteen ways, but that’s a fun challenge and the taste and quality of the food is incomparable. Participating in our local food supply as much as possible is a powerful way of coming home, and one that lets multiple levels of healing begin.
The fact of the matter is, as most of us know, we’re in the middle of a crisis point in our modern civilization. This way we’re living, with more and more consumption of the Earth’s resources as the goal of life, is unsustainable at best. We’ve hit the limits of our growth. But we’re also in the middle of a spiritual crisis too; in fact, the two cannot be separated. The more we live in exile, the more we’re distanced from Earth and from Spirit, the bigger the void at the core of our being grows, and the more resources we need to try and fill it. But we never can. The solution, as it was for the prodigal son, is to come home and ask for forgiveness, to sincerely and humbly kneel down and touch the Earth and its soil once again. This will take a certain death on our part, an end to a way of life ingrained into us in the modern era, but a glorious, glorious resurrection awaits us. We might be lost now, but we will be found, and we will live once again. Let us now begin that journey home together. May it be so. Amen.
(*) The notion of ‘species loneliness’ comes from Stanford Professor of Italian Literature Robert Harrison, who hosts a fantastic radio show called Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature), which you access for free on Itunes. (show #114, The Origins of Agriculture) http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/entitled-opinions-about-life/id81415836