Consumerism, Industrial Food and the Eucharist

This is a sermon I will be delivering November 3 at Texas Lutheran University for the Krost Symposium: What’s for Dinner: Global, Regional and Local.

I was driving through Lampasas one time. I don’t remember why or where I was headed, but I was listening to Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was struck by a phrase that he used to talk about the act of eating. He said that we “transform the body of the world into our bodies.” Just shortly after hearing that I passed a small church with a sign that read, “God is not a vending machine.” Somehow I knew that there was a connection between these two thoughts, and I’ve been trying to put them together ever since.

In the process of eating, we take in the body of the world, nutrients from the soil, water, air and sun that contribute to growing plants, some of which are eaten by animals. In turn we consume the plants and animals to nourish our bodies. As our food has become more and more industrialized, instead of consuming directly the nutrients and energy created by nature, we are consuming the end product of numerous chemical and industrial manufacturing processes which create what Pollan calls “edible food-like substances.”

We are also at the top of the food chain so the cycle ends with us. There is no one to benefit from our consumption. This has led some to muse that we are really the largest parasite on the planet. We take from and exploit the natural world and its resources without returning the favor. We treat nature like a vending machine.

We can see the influence of consumerism and industrial food as well as the hope for a more sustainable future in the central meal of our faith, the Eucharist. The convergence of consumerism, industrial food and the Eucharist finds its embodiment in the Celebration Cup.

The company’s website touts three trends that make their product necessary and a God send for the church.

Trend One: Hygiene. For years now, congregations that use a common cup have been fearful of the health risks – and churches that pass communion trays are beginning to share those concerns. More and more people are asking questions like “How many others have touched this piece of bread?” or “What if the juice is contaminated before it reaches me?”

Concerns about health and safety are very important. Finding ways to address these concerns and limit the spread of viruses is necessary. The question, “How many others have touched this piece of bread?” is a good one. How many hands touch the Celebration Cup through the entire manufacturing process? How many thousands of people would be affected if the Celebration Cup were contaminated?

I find it interesting that we should outsource solutions concerning hygiene and safety to an industrial food system. This is the same system that had record safety recalls in recent years of bagged spinach, millions of pounds of meat, over 350 products containing contaminated peanut butter and most recently eggs tainted with salmonella. Rather than fix a system that contaminates food in the first place, they would sterilize tainted food at the end of the process making the contaminants safe to eat. This system’s solution is literally to make fecal matter safe to eat.

Is the Celebration Cup really safer than bread baked by members of the congregation? This brings us to the second trend touted as the reason we need the Celebration Cup.

Trend Two: Longer work hours and the single parent family. Simply put, this adds up to fewer volunteers with time to prepare the communion and clean up afterwards. Churches with a large proportion of young couples and children are especially hard pressed to find enough volunteers.

Rather than recognize the growing fragmentation of our society as a problem, the Celebration Cup makes it possible for the breakdown of communities to continue unabated. The treasure of the church is a vision that proclaims “Another world is possible. Another world is coming. Another world, in Christ, is here.” How do we embody that calling if we accommodate our central act of worship to the culture of the world? The act of preparing for communion through baking bread, seeking out local wine or properly sanitizing vessels says something about the importance of this ritual. Likewise, disposable elements also says something about our view of communion.

Trend Three: A growing need for Communion outside the sanctuary. As the Baby Boomers mature and the number of elderly increase, there will be a greater demand for communion outside the sanctuary – at the hospital, in nursing homes, in mission or outreach settings. Some denominations are also moving towards having communion in small group meetings – Bible studies and home worship gatherings – just to name a few.

Bread in some form is a staple in many countries and cultures around the world. It is one of the most basic foods and easy to make. I was not aware of the fact that it was not portable. Apparently we need disposable all-in-one packages in order to have communion outside of the sanctuary. The purpose of marketing and advertising in the consumer religion is to create need where there is none. No one “needs” the Swiffer Wet Jet, or squeeze bottles that dispense pre-mixed peanut butter and jelly. Perhaps the church does not need the Celebration Cup either.

Finally, the folks at Celebration Cup proclaim the benefit of their product needing no preparation. Not only does this smack of an instant gratification culture, it bears on our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. Is the grace offered to us in Jesus so cheap that the meal we use to remember him should require no preparation? What does that say about how we view Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, if we use elements that are disposable? Doesn’t this treat God, in some sense, like a vending machine.

Rather than addressing the real issues raised by these trends, issues concerning our health and wholeness in relation to our food and communities, the Celebration Cup offers a palliative to numb these danger signals from our collective social nervous system. The remembrance of Jesus in the Eucharist offers health and wholeness in relation to the world and each other, where the world offered to us in the Celebration Cup reaps only diabetes, fragmentation and emptiness.

So, let’s remember that this ritual is a meal. Not just a meal, but a shared meal. Study after study confirms the importance of family meals in numerous areas. A Harvard study found that family meals were more important to children’s language development than having parents who read to them or play with them. According to a study from the University of Minnesota when we eat together we eat more fruits and vegetables, drink less soda pop and eat less fat.

Sharing meals comes with numerous benefits, and the earliest Christians celebrated communion in a shared meal called the agape feast. This was no morsel of bread and sip of wine or grape juice. Think more like Thanksgiving dinner. Paul has to rebuke the church in Corinth for their practice of this meal, because some people went hungry while others got drunk. Over time the ritual of communion has become more and more a private transaction between me and God. I take the elements and receive forgiveness, newness of life and redemption directly from God. But it has little to nothing to do with the people beside me also receiving communion. Initially though, this ritual meal was intensely communal and relational. The reason Paul has to rebuke the Corinthians is because discord and inequality in the Body of Christ rendered, in some sense, this ritual ineffective. This is why we pass the peace before communion, in order to reconcile to each other so that as we come to the communion table as a collective Body there are not divisions among us. (The Amish take communion only twice a year, and will postpone the celebration for weeks or months if there is not unity in their community.)

William Cavanaugh, a Catholic theologian, suggests that the Eucharist is the antidote to consumerism. According to him, in the Eucharist “[t]he act of consumption is thereby turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it.” We are transformed in this meal into the Body of Christ. Again, Cavanaugh says the purpose of the Eucharist is to form a public, social body through which God works in the world. The Eucharist forms a group of people in order to embody that reign of God revealed in Jesus. It is who we are meant to be as the people of God and we should not abdicate that vocation to the state, NGOs or anyone else.

So, this shared meal forms a community, a people, but it also connects us to the world. Just as you will hear a lot tonight and tomorrow about how food gets from a field to your plate, we should consider the implications of the kind of meal we eat when we take communion. How did that strange-tasting wafer get to the altar? What are the ingredients? Who picked the grapes that were crushed into juice or wine? How were those people treated? How far away do they live?

So, communion is a meal… better yet, a feast, a shared feast… a shared sacred feast that embodies the wholeness that Jesus came to show us and forms us into a peculiar people.

Throughout this symposium you will hear a lot about our food system, its problems and some signs of hope. As you ponder our modern eating disorder, remember that our faith centers on a meal. As you wrestle with what a sustainable food system might look like, consider the implications of the meal we share as followers of Jesus on that conversation.

We transform the body of the world into our bodies through the food we consume, and we are transformed into the Body of Christ through the communion meal in which God consumes us. Amen.