Sunday, 27 March 2011

Five pictures of the Annunciation

Boticelli = conturbatio = Luke 1: 29a = denial
Rosetti = cogitatio =Luke 1: 29b = anger
Tanner = interrogatio= Luke 1: 34 = bargaining
Fra Angelico = humiliatio =Luke 1:37 = acceptance
Soyer = humiliatio = Luke 1: 37 = acceptance or perhaps cogitatio =Luke 1: 29b = anger

Fra Roberto Caracciolo da Lecce, c1500, identifies five ‘Laudable conditions’ of the Virgin Mary: conturbatio (disquiet), cogitatio (reflection), interrogatio (inquiry), humiliatio (submission), meritatio (merit).

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, 1969, identifies five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance.

Friday, 25 March 2011

On frying locusts

I recently bought some live locusts from Amazon: £6.50 for ten. One died in transit. I fried six of them ate two and gave four to some teenagers to try (I was giving a talk on food and faith at their school). Just for the shock value? Well not entirely but foods is a shocking issue as my recent ‘attack’ on food banks demonstrates. People think they have food sorted. Either they take it for granted or when it becomes problematic (as now when food prices are rising and food production contributes increasingly to global warming) they reach for the easy answer.

Why do we not eat insects? They are highly efficient converters of plant protein into animal protein and we all know animal protein is more nutritious than plant protein (don’t we?). Locusts are more efficient – and just as nutritious – as other herbivorous we do eat: such as chickens or cows. And of course very much more efficient though perhaps less nutritious than carnivorous animals we tend not to eat like dogs and sea gulls. We eat closely related animals such as prawns. Australians who have had a lot of locusts recently have begun to call them ‘sky prawns’. Insects are commonly eaten by some people (as I have personally observed in Africa) but also elsewhere in the world as well: particularly the Far East.

The locusts I fried and then tried were tasty: a bit like pop-corn really. Not as flavoursome as prawns but with distinct similarities. Unusual perhaps but we are always eating unusual foods. When I was young no-one had heard of sushi, and olive oil was drunk by the spoonful as a medicine.

How did I kill my locusts? I eschewed dropping them in boiling oil, but put them in the freezer before frying them. Was this more humane? Was a slow death from hypothermia preferable to a quick death from being plunged into boiling oil? (I was rather worried about them jumping out of the pan if tried the latter). All sorts of animal rights issue arose here. As they do when we raise our own animals to eat but can easily forget about when buying meat in polystyrene trays from supermarkets. I ate (and shared) my locusts just ever so slightly reluctantly because I’d been looking after them a few days.

Why locusts and not beetles or even their relatives: cockroaches? Well largely because locusts are expressly allowed under Jewish food laws. This seems odd to me. Why of all insects did God allow the Jews to eat locusts? He forbade them to eat crustaceans like prawns. Perhaps because they clearly only eat the grass of the field which all animals were designed to eat (Genesis 1: 30). Perhaps too this was a concession based on his justice. If locusts eat all your crops then it is surely permissible to eat them in turn. Whereas beetles they eat other insects and cockroaches: goodness knows what they eat.

Should we then actively go looking for locusts to eat? Perhaps even farm them like we farm other animals? Well there is a bit of a suggestion that eating insects like locusts would help stave off global warming. This is because of their efficiency in converting plant protein to animal protein which means that they are intrinsically less prone to contributing towards the production of green house gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Might they also be a cheap source of protein which could help people who are poor? Protein is one of the most expensive nutrients: along with some essential fatty acids, some vitamins and some minerals. Much more expensive than sugar and fat. So yes. And indeed it's poor people who already eat them. Incidentally I looked up a recipe for locusts in Heston Blumenthal’s fantastically expensive and lavish cook book: The Fat Duck Cookbook and while there are recipes for things (I hesitate to call them foods) which include frankincense, violets, tobacco, caviar (fish eggs), foie-gras (the liver of a goose that has been inflated by forced feeding) there was not a single recipe for locusts.

So why do we not eat locusts? And even find the idea abhorrent. This is because we are –despite people like Heston Blumenthal’s best efforts inherently cautious when it comes to foods. We think we know in our guts what it is right to eat and what is wrong. But do we really? If we could lose some of our hang ups about foodwe might find it easier to change the way we eat. We need to do this if we are to avoid global melt down. The only way to prevent global heating is if we in the developed world eat less meat and dairy products. I am not suggesting we should all become vegetarians though that is what we were designed to be (Genesis 1.29). We are permitted to eat meat (Genesis 9: 3) but we should do so rarely, on special occasions and with reverence. This is going to be very difficult. When people get more money in their pockets they spend it – on meat. And meat eating becomes a habit which then becomes difficult to break. We don’t really need to eat locusts but we do need to eat more vegetables: almost as difficult as locusts for many! But if we can’t begin to contemplate the unthinkable with regard to what we eat: well we – or at least our children - are doomed.

I increasingly feel like the man who used to wear a sandwich board round his neck and would walk up and down Oxford Street in London. On one side of his sandwich board read, ‘Eat less meat’. It migh as well as have said, ‘Eat more locusts’ for all the notice people took. On the other side of his sandwich board were the words: ‘The end of the world is nigh’.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Transformation (2): the vulnerability of God

Sermon on Matthew 15: 21-28 (The Canaanite woman)

Our Gospel reading this morning recounts a remarkable story, Why? Because it shows Jesus changing his mind and if Jesus was God then it might mean that God changes his mind. We traditionally think of God as omniscient but how can a God that is all knowing change his mind? And if God does change his mind then how can he be omniscient?

Well I think God does change his mind because God is a god who transforms. In particular he transforms human lives – as he does the lives of the Canaanite woman and her daughter. And transformation involves change not just on the part of the person who is transformed but on God’s part as well. I will try to explain.

First to remind you of the story: a woman – from Canaan – according to Matthew, more specifically Syrophoenicia according to Mark – but anyway clearly a Gentile rather than a Jew – approaches Jesus and begs him to heal her sick daughter. Jesus ignores the woman: or more precisely does not answer her. This is noteworthy in itself. Nowhere in the Gospels do we hear of Jesus ignoring someone. It sounds rude and out of character. But of course we also know that Jesus was constantly besieged by people with sick relatives or are who were sick themselves. Are we to suppose that he addressed all of these personally and healed them all? It seems unlikely.

But in this particular case Matthew makes it clear that Jesus heard the woman’s request yet ‘answered her not a word’. We learn that he had heard her request because, instead of talking to her, Jesus – again rather rudely it seems – talks about her to his disciples. Of course they as – they often seem to be – are irritated by people – like this woman – who persistently try and attract Jesus’ attention – and particularly when they are noisy with it as she was. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away and he seems to agree to do so. ‘I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel;’ he agrees. Then somehow the woman manages to get close to Jesus – within touching distance – because she falls at his feet and repeats her request for help.

This time Jesus sounds even ruder. He doesn’t call her a dog directly but does so indirectly, by telling her that ‘It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’. In other words he is saying that he only came to help the Jews not Gentiles like her – the dogs. Now her reply is pretty clever. She uses Jesus’ dog metaphor against him. By reminding him that even dogs need food. Jesus’ changes his mind about helping her and heals the woman’s daughter.

There are of course two things that are surprising about this story: firstly Jesus apparent rudeness and secondly Jesus’ persuadability. Let’s just briefly look at the rudeness. I think if we tell the truth as we see it we can often sound rude. Because truth is often uncomfortable. And note that the woman doesn’t seem affected by what we see as Jesus’ rudeness. Firstly when he seems to ignore her she doesn’t give up. Secondly when he calls her a dog far from taking offence and saying ‘Whoa there you’ve just called me a dog’ she accepts the description and uses it to her advantage. A) Her daughter is really sick. What’s a bit of name calling to her? B) She knows Jews call Gentiles dogs – what does that matter in the grand scheme of things? Incidentally I like dogs and think they are infinitely superior to humans in many regards but perhaps that’s a bit of a digression.

What I think is much more surprising than Jesus’ rudeness (or is it truth telling as he see it with a bit of hyperbole?) is Jesus’ persuadablity. Jesus is in effect persuaded to change how he sees and implements his ministry by the Canaanite woman. Instead of being sent by God to save the Jews, he now seems persuaded that he has been sent to save the Gentiles as well. This is a big change in direction for him. This is why this story is important for Matthew and the church he is writing his gospel for – a church mostly likely made up of mostly Jews - which is trying to sort out how its copes with Gentiles who want to be Christians

Why should we be surprised that Jesus changes his mind? Well perhaps it is because it implies weakness on his part and we want our heroes to be strong. In control of the situation rather than at the mercy of others.

Even as a 12 year old child visiting the temple Jesus seems to know what he should do and does it – in opposition to his parent’s wishes and presumably instructions. Throughout his ministry he commands and people obey him. He say let this happen and it does. Even the winds and waves obey him. OK he is tempted at times to do things other than what he ends up doing – as at the beginning of his ministry when he is tempted by the Devil in the Wilderness, or as at the end of his ministry - in the Garden of Gethsemane when he pleads with God that he might be allowed to take a different course – but he seems always to end up in control of his own actions and also what is going on around him.

The crucifixion of course changes all this. At his crucifixion Jesus is at the mercy of others. He no longer issues commands that are instantly obeyed. In fact he issues no commands at all after he has been arrested. He is led rather leads. He has pain and suffering inflected upon him rather than bringing relief and healing to others. He cannot control what is happening to him. And this means that the worst happens, he’s killed.

But the story of the Canaanite woman comes during Jesus’ ministry when he is more clearly in control of his destiny. Might his persuadability, his apparent weakness, be a foreshadowing of things to come? Of course for Matthew the story helps explain why Christianity – whilst growing out of Judaism – became a religion for all. But perhaps it also tells us something more important – something about the persuadability and the vulnerability of God.

You could of course argue that Jesus changing his mind in the face of a rather clever remark by both a woman and a gentile – i.e. someone of the lowest possible status in first century Israel – tells us nothing about the nature of God. All we are seeing is an aspect of Jesus’ human nature and we know that most human beings change their mind all the time. Well I do at least as my friends constantly tell me.

But if we look back in the Old Testament we find at least at the beginning lots of stories of God changing his mind, largely in response to human pleading, much as in the story of the Canaanite woman.

Perhaps the most famous of such stories is the story of Abraham pleading with God not to destroy the city of Sodom after God has decided to do so. You’ll remember that Abraham – like the Canaanite woman- uses persistence and clever rhetoric to get God to change his mind. Like the Canaanite woman Abraham has to repeat his request several times. Like the Canaanite woman Abraham uses God’s own words against him to persuade him. Perhaps then it is less surprising to find Jesus can change his mind and yet be God.

Moreover I think that petitionary prayer makes no sense if we don’t think that God can change his mind. I know some people think that the point of petitionary prayer is to bring us into line with the mind of God, to align us with what he has already decided. I do not believe this. If Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, did not believe that his father could take away the cup why then did he beg him to do so.

But back to the story of the Canaanite woman. We can sometimes get so bemused by the apparent rudeness but also by the symbolic significance of the encounter for Jesus’ mission that we forget this is actually a story of a healing. At the heart of it is a sick little girl. We forget about her because she doesn’t really figure in the story. She is off-stage as it were. But nevertheless she and what happens to her are crucial to the story.

She presumably was not worrying about whether Jews called Gentiles ‘dogs’. She had no interest in the symbolic significance of her mother’s clever irony for Matthew’s church 100 years later or so. What for her mattered was that she was sick and now was well. And for that to happen Jesus had to change his mind.

All transformation comes out of sacrifice. All Jesus lost here was, in reality, some apparent authority. A leader who is indecisive risks losing followers. But in the end for people’s lives to be transformed something has to be given up. Sometimes, as here, something quite small. Sometimes as at the crucifixion something very big indeed. All transformation also involves a loss of control on the part of the one doing the transforming. So Jesus has to lose control to heal the young daughter of the Canaanite woman.

The Gospel is full of encounters between Jesus and ordinary people like the Canaanite women whose lives are transformed by the encounter. Not many of the accounts of these encounters show Jesus affected by the encounter. It is almost as the gospel writers are afraid of describing the impact on Jesus of what he does for people. And yet we know that what he does, does affect him. In the end it leads to his suffering, his death, his resurrection, his own transformation. In each of the encounters with ordinary peoples we might expect to see a foreshadowing of the ultimate transforming event of all time: Jesus’ crucifixion.

Rowan Williams speaks of the ‘vulnerability’ at the heart of transformation. This vulnerability is not only necessary on our part – those of us who need to be transformed – but is demonstrated by God who does the transforming. Our God is not just a ‘great big god’ he’s a ‘great big vulnerable god’.

Saturday, 12 March 2011


A sermon on Luke 9: 28-36 (the Transfiguration)

Here is a sermon I gave some time ago. I was reminded of it by some discussion at Lesley’s blog And I note that the quote on the right hand side of her blog, at the moment, is a quote from Michael Wilson which I quote at the end!

When I read it again I found that it finishes with this quote and a prayer that I pinched from a book by Donald Eadie called Grain in Winter which everyone should read. I have just spent a weekend away organised by CHRISM (Christians in Secular Ministry) which was led by Donald Eadie.

Thanks so much for that weekend, Donald. I hope you like this sermon.

‘My theme today is transformation. I want to explore this theme by looking at Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus and what it tells us about the reality of transformation. But in the process I want to suggest that transformation cannot just be understood by looking just at the transfiguration but needs also be understood in the light of the crucifixion. But I also want to suggest that the transfiguration and crucifixion are intimately connected: to say that transformation is both glorious and painful.

First a bit about transformation in general and how the theme today connects up with the theme of last week’s sermon. Karl Marx said that the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however is to change it. And Jesus came not only to help us understand the world but to change it. The gospel is good news – not only because it helps us make sense of things but because it changes everything. It is transformative.

Last week Steve – you may remember - talked about Jesus’ manifesto. And this was partly at least because we are in the run up to a General Election. Now after an election no-one remembers the manifesto of the party who ends up in opposition. It’s only the manifesto of the party who gains power that is important. Moreover this manifesto is only worth anything in as much at it acted upon. The words of a manifesto by themselves are in effect meaningless. Only when the words become actions do they really mean anything.

Steve told us that Jesus set out his manifesto at the beginning of his ministry in a synagogue in Nazareth. You’ll remember that he opened the scroll of the Book of Isaiah and read out the passage that we know as Chapter 61 He read out the words of the prophet and then told his listeners that they applied to him. He, in effect, said that he was the one that the prophet said would come to preach good news to the poor, the release of captives and recovery of the sight to the blind. But, the prophet had foretold not just an excellent preacher, but one who would ‘set at liberty those who are oppressed’. In other words not just someone would preach comforting words to the oppressed but someone who would actually to do something about their oppression. Someone who would liberate them. Someone who would transform them. Jesus said he was that person.

Now I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with this manifesto. Yes I know that Jesus went on, not only to preach recovery of sight to the blind, but actually to heal blind people. Here he definitely put words into actions. There are as you’ll recent lots of recorded incidences where Jesus responds to people who are sick or disabled – including several blind people - and he heals them. But what about the poor and the captives. Were any captives released during Jesus’ ministry and where any poor people actually relieved of their poverty? It is tempting here I think to assume Jesus was speaking of spiritual poverty and captivity, spiritual oppression but I want to suggest otherwise, partly because of the story of the transfiguration.

So turning now to that story. It’s set in the middle of Jesus’ ministry at a point where he has begun to warn his disciples that he has to go to Jerusalem to be crucified.

The transfiguration is a story of transformation. But if you think about it the Gospel is full of stories of transformation. This is clearly because transformation is such a big theme in the Gospel. And it’s not just the lives of the sick and disabled Jesus transforms: it’s the lives of virtually everyone he meets. His disciples end up having their lives turned upside down by following him. Even the lives of those who try to ignore him or oppose him end up being transformed: just think of what happens to Judas.

But in the story of the transfiguration it is not Jesus who is doing the transforming; it’s Jesus who is seemingly transformed. But how can this be? Surely if Jesus was God then how can he be transformed? Most people think of God as unchangeable. Surely all that is happening here on the mountain is that people – well three disciples – Peter, James and John, and two others from Israel’s history – Moses and Elijah – get to see Jesus for who he really is? Well this is part of the story but not the whole story.

I want to maintain that what happened on that mountain is a real story of transformation not just of revelation or indeed transfiguration – if by transfiguration all we mean is a change of appearance and not of anything substantial. And I think this firstly because the events on the mountain have a physical reality, there is a real mountain with real people as observers. There is a real change in the appearance of Jesus and a real voice from heaven which are seen and heard by the observers.

But important as the story of the transfiguration is, by itself it really changes nothing. OK Peter, James and John and perhaps Jesus himself have a wonderful spiritual experience but they have to come down off the mountain and indeed – according to Luke – are immediately confronted by a really tricky problem with an epileptic child that the other disciples who hadn’t gone up the mountain could not deal with. The transfiguration only makes sense in the context of the crucifixion and there are deep connections between the two.

Of course the story of the transfigurations has lots of connections and resonances with other stories. It is not accidental that Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain that day. Both Moses and Elijah went up a mountain during their time on earth. This was in both cases Mount Sinai and there they spoke with God. And as we heard in today’s OT reading from Exodus: when Moses came down from Mount Sinai his face shone – just as Jesus’ face shone when he was transfigured. Elijah and Moses are the two most important characters in the OT and so the story reinforces the connection between Jesus’ ministry and both the Jewish Law (represented by Moses) and the prophecies of the OT (represented by Elijah)

The story of the transfiguration not only resonates with OT stories of Moses and Elijah but also with what happened at Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist Luke tells us that a voice comes from heaven which said ‘Thou art my beloved son with thee I am well pleased’. The transfiguration is the only other occasion – according to Luke - where a voice comes from heaven, speaks directly to Jesus, and can be heard by the onlookers. This time the voice says, ‘This is my son, my chosen, listen to him’. On both occasions the voice affirms that Jesus is God’s son, i.e. is not just the chosen one that had been foretold by the prophets but one who has a unique relationship with God.

But the deepest connections are between the story of the transfiguration and that of the crucifixion – and I mean crucifixion not resurrection – even though the transfiguration seems a bit like a resurrection appearance. It is Matthew who draws out the parallels between the transfiguration and crucifixion most explicitly but they can also be seen in Luke and Mark. Matthew has the centurion at the foot of the cross saying ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ just like the voice from heaven at the transfiguration. Matthew also has three female disciples at the foot of the cross –Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee just as there are three male disciples at the transfiguration – Peter, James and John.

Then there’s the falling sleep business. In Luke’s account of the transfiguration the disciples fall asleep on the mountain, just as they do in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus goes to pray just before his crucifixion: It’s as if they are similarly overwhelmed by the significance and seriousness of the occasion. To such an extent that they fall asleep?

But as well as similarities there are dramatic contrasts between the transfiguration and the crucifixion but even these dramatic contrasts have shared features.

Here are five of these dramatic contrasts.

Firstly Jesus takes his friends with him, up a mountain for his transfiguration. For his crucifixion Jesus is taken by strangers to a hill having been abandoned by his friends.

Secondly at the crucifixion Jesus’ clothes are stripped off and squabbled over: at the transfiguration Jesus’ clothes are turned shiny white.

Thirdly the transfiguration is full of light – the light comes not just from Jesus’ clothes but also from his face. His face shone like the sun - according to Matthew - and even the cloud out of which the voice from heaven cam was ‘bright’. The crucifixion on the hand was full of darkness. Luke tells us that at the actual point of Jesus’ death ‘there was darkness over the whole land’ and the sun’s light failed.

Fourthly at the transfiguration there are two saints standing beside Jesus: at the crucifixion hang two robbers.

Finally Luke tells us that Jesus was glorified at the transfiguration and that the disciples woke to see his glory. But Jesus is also glorified – in a different – even opposite way -at his crucifixion as John in particular makes clear.

It is if we are looking at two pictures of the same thing with similar outlines but contrasting even opposite colours. If one scene were sketched on a transparency and placed over the other many of its lines would disappear. What is the significance of this?

Well the two scenes represent the extremes of human experience. One speaks of nakedness and mockery, suffering and loneliness, torture and death. The other speaks of glorious celebration, companionship, of life in all its fullness. So Jesus at his transfiguration and crucifixion embodies the whole spectrum of human possibility in one person. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he has always been so attractive and inspiring. He shows forth in his own person both the extreme depths of pain and anguish we can know – and, what we all long for. transformation to a life of, glorious amazing beauty, true companionship with others and complete intimacy with God. Jesus it the great illustration of both pain and hope. At his transfiguration he is humanity transformed and humanity glorified. But he can only transform humanity through his crucifixion as demonstrated by his subsequent resurrection.

This all has two consequences for how we view how we ourselves might be transformed.

First it means that our transformation is a real possibility. Just as Jesus was transfigured so we too can be transformed and in a way which makes a real difference to our lives. The physical reality of the transfiguration means that Jesus’ manifesto is not just words only but a promise of actual change. It means that Jesus’ manifesto is not just a spiritual manifesto – important as the spiritual life is - but a political manifesto where the good news is not just relief from spiritual oppression and spiritual poverty but actual physical oppression and actual physical poverty. It is clear that this manifesto has yet to be realised in its entirety but the reality of the transfiguration demonstrates the possibility.

Secondly seeing the transfiguration in the light of the crucifixion means, I am afraid, that transformation without pain is impossible. Actually we all know this to some degree already. The whole of life is in one sense a process of transformation where we undergo frequent changes – hopefully for the better – but change is always – to some extent at least – painful. John Williams spoke to us – earlier in this sermon series on Luke – about how some of the difficulties in his life and the lives of his family have been transformational, how God had miraculously used these things for good.

In the crucifixion we have both the example par excellence of how good can come out of suffering but also the promise that good will come out of suffering. The crucifixion and resurrection change everything. Here finally are some words from the author Michael Willson: ‘The cross is not a rescue like the Exodus from an evil situation but salvation in and through a evil situation, first confronting it, then bearing it, then transforming it. It is as if evil is the raw material out of which new life is forged. The news of the gospel is not moral perfection nor sinlessness, it is forgiveness.’ Through forgiveness and love evil is reversed and can be changed into good. ‘Jesus is less interested in the causes of evil but in its transformation’.

Before we sing our response song let us pray. I’ve adapted these prayers from the prayers at the end of the chapter on Transformation from this book: Grain in Winter by Donald Eadie – which also contains the quote from Michael Wilson.

Jesus show us your glory – as you did to your disciples at your transfiguration.

But also show us your cross. Jesus, in your crucifixion we catch a glimpse of the terrible travail at the heart of all life, but also that evil is reversible, evil can be changed into good, principalities and powers can be transformed though forgiveness and love.

Help us to see the deeply rooted evil in the created order has not only to be named but transformed.

Lead us into those paths that will lead to the transforming of nations, communities and ourselves.

Jesus, we stumble in the dark, you are the light of our darkness, transform us.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Food laws: why we should eat less meat and more bread and wine

Sermon on Deuteronomy 11: 18, 26-28, 32; St John’s, New Hinksey, Oxford; 6th March 2011

Well , I am delighted to be here today to preach to you. One of the reasons for me being here is that I understand from my friend Margaret Rayner that the issue of Jewish food laws was raised during a sermon a few months back and she thought that I might have something to say on the subject and so Father James invited me along.

I should say at this point that I am really no expert on the Jewish food laws but I am interested in food - as many of us are. But in addition to enjoying cooking and eating it I am also a food researcher. During the week I am employed by the University of Oxford to run a research group called the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group which is based in the Department of Public Health and my research group carries out research into healthier eating. Some would say we are responsible for the traffic-light labelling of foods you can find on some foods sold in the UK.

I also happen to think that we don’t think and speak enough about food within our churches: food is fundamental to human existence and identity but we can so readily take it for granted.

Moreover a meal is the central act of Christian worship and yet we can so easily come to see the Mass, the Eucharist as purely symbolic and forget that what we share is – as well as being the body and blood of Christ – real bread with real nutrients made with real wheat grown in real fields by real farmers who are often the people to suffer most when times are hard, and real wine made with real grapes from real vines and containing real alcohol to make us really glad.

If you think about it for a moment bread and wine are amazing things.

No wonder then that the Bible has a lot to say about food from the fruit of the tree of knowledge that was eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to the fruit of the tree of life that we are to share at the end of time, at a heavenly banquet, according to the writer of Revelation.

No wonder too that rules about food were central to the Law of the Old Testament. Our Old Testament reading today – while not mentioning the Jewish food laws in particular - does talk, in general, about the laws God gave to Moses to pass on to the Children of Israel. They come in a section of the book of Deuteronomy which starts: ‘This is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel; these are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which Moses spoke to the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt.’ The last of today’s verses from the Old Testament was: ‘And when you possess [the land your God gives you] and live in it, you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the ordinances which I set before you this day.’

The writers of Deuteronomy go on to set out these statutes and ordinances in Chapters 12-27 and these chapters contain the food laws. These foods laws can also be found in the book of Leviticus earlier in the Old Testament (Chapter 11). Some of these food laws are well known such as, ‘Only be sure not to eat the blood [of animals]’ (12: 23) and, ‘The swine because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud is unclean for you’ (14: 8) – which means that the Jews were forbidden from eating pigs. Some are less well known such as, ‘Of all that are in the waters you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. And whatever does not have fins and scales you may not eat’ (14: 9). This of course means that the Jews should not eat shellfish such as oysters and crustaceans such as lobsters.

Today I want to suggest that these food laws – despite being rarely preached on – are worth thinking about – because they reveal things about the goodness of God and his relationship with his creation which we might otherwise miss. In the Old Testament there are major rules - such as, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – one of the Ten Commandments – and minor rules such – ‘Thou shalt not eat lobsters’ just as there are today in 21st Britain. We are still not allowed to kill people (naturally) but there are a host of minor rules that we also have to follow such as, ‘Thou shalt drive your car on the left’ – or to take two food related examples, ‘Thou shalt not sell flour mixed with chalk dust’ and, ‘Thou shalt not sell food which has passed its sell by date’. These minor rules are not unimportant: in fact they are vital for the smooth running of society. It was not just the ancient Jews who had food laws – we still have them today.

But of course the Jewish food laws sound slightly strange and odd. Why for example were the Jews forbidden from eating pigs? Many people have suggested that Jewish food laws are an early form of the sorts of food laws we have today – designed to ensure that people don’t get sick when they eat. There may be some truth in this –for example humans catch diseases from the animals they keep and pigs are particularly dangerous in that regard. Think swine flu here. This is because pigs are omnivores not herbivores and we therefore tend to feed them on scraps including animal products that have passed their eat-by-date and this in turn means that pigs can also be housed in much greater proximity to us than sheep, goats and cows.

But the laws clearly are not just written for public health reasons. I want to suggest they tell us a lot about God and his relationship with Creation and they therefore make no sense without first thinking about some of the first stories in Genesis and in particular what they say about food.

There is a lot about food in Genesis. We learn from Genesis 1: 29 that humans when first created were vegetarians, or more accurately fruitarian – eating just fruits and seeds not even roots and leaves. In other words the ideal state for humans is to be fruitarian. And this I think is interesting given the increasing realisation that we eat much too much meat today – too much for our own health but also too much for the health of the planet. The Brazilian rain forests are being destroyed – at great cost to the environment – to fuel our insatiable lust for burgers. But this is not to say that we should all turn fruitarian or even vegetarian at once.

Adam and Eve may well not have eaten any meat. There is no record that they did and but their son Abel – certainly did. He was a herder of sheep and presumably ate some of them. You’ll remember that Abel the first herdsman gets killed by his brother Cain the first farmer essentially over a dispute about which type of food production method God preferred.

But the first time we hear that God gives explicit permission to humans to eat meat is after the Flood. When the waters have subsided Noah and his family leave the ark and rather strangely start killing and cooking – as a sacrifice - some of the animals that that have been their companions for the last 40 days. This was supposed to be for God’s benefit but it is not at all clear that God wanted this. But he does then, and only then, seem to shrug and say, ‘OK if you must eat meat you must. But when you do you must do so reverently.’ He tells them, ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you: and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything’ (Genesis 9: 3), i.e. ‘It is only now that I give you animals, as opposed to plants, to eat’. But he also says, ‘Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood’. He gives a reason for this, which he connects with a prohibition against the violence that humans are clearly prone as demonstrated by the story of Cain and Abel: ‘For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of [a] man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.’

This is a difficult couple of verses but this is the first explicit law to be found in the Old Testament if you discount the prohibition from eating of the fruit of the tree of good and bad. And it connects permission to eat meat, with both a restriction on the way meat should be eaten (without blood) and a prohibition against men killing men and so shedding blood. It says, I think, something very profound about food and violence. It means also that the later Jewish food laws that we are thinking about today are all about animals rather than plants, all about meat rather than fruits, vegetables, grains and the things they are made from such as bread and wine.

So Noah is told that any animals can be eaten but only to be eaten if they must and then only in a particular way. Why does God, through Moses, then announce that certain animals are not to be eaten at all? We surely all feel that certain animals should not be eaten. We know instinctively that it’s wrong to eat our pets and other animals that we have formed a relationship with e.g. by giving them a name; we feel that it is wrong to kill and eat animals that are nearly as intelligent as ourselves us such as chimpanzees; we have a sort of gut feeling that we shouldn’t eat animals that eat other animals particularly dead animals like vultures. Eating animals is then something which is deeply problematic. God through Moses tries to give us some help here.

What the texts before and after the food laws in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy emphasise is that by following them the people will become holy just as God is holy, that being created in the image of God humans should behave like God the creator.

The creation accounts in Genesis suggest that heavenly bodies – the sun, moon and stars – plants and animals, including humans, were created according to an ordered plan in relation to:
• place (the heavens, the waters and the land),
• whether they move (plants no but heavenly bodies and animals yes),
• whether they have life (heavenly bodies no, animals yes).
• If animal how they move, (walk, fly, swim or swarm/slither),
• their form or other words the notion of something being ‘according to its kind’, and
• what they should ideally eat (animals: all plants and humans fruit and seeds).

The process of creation is therefore one of separation, into different places, static and moving beings, inanimate and animate beings and then animals including humans according to their locomotion, their form and how they sustain life.

The food laws suggest that what is contrary to this plan is not perfect, is not holy and therefore ideally should not be eaten.

Re. place. All plants that grow in their rightful place - on land - are by implication good and nearly perfect for sustaining life. Animals with no proper or an ambiguous place to live, such as reptiles and amphibians are not.

Re. movement and locomotion. Animals that move in appropriate ways such as animals that live in water but walk as on land such as lobsters are imperfect, as are those that live on land but swarm as if living in water (such as wingless insects, spiders, centipedes, insect larvae). In Genesis 1 tells us that the swarmers belong in the waters.

Re. form: Animals with an indefinite form (such as oysters and other shellfish) with a deceptive form (such as eels (fish that do not look like fish)) or an incomplete form (such as animals with a cloven hoof) are not perfect and thereby contrary to God’s perfect plan.

And finally animals that do not conform to the original idea that animals should only eat plants are not to be eaten, i.e. animals that eat other animals or do not chew the cud, the mark of ruminant animals that eat what God originally gave all animals to eat: green leaves of grass and other plants.

You can I hope begin to see that what at first sight might seem a random set of prohibitions turns out to have a logic to it and is closely connected with God’s plan for creation by separation.

And just as the food laws embody this idea of creation by separation, the food laws themselves became are one of the means by which the Jews came to see themselves as distinct, as separate from other people. At the end of Leviticus God calls on the Children of Israel to keep the food laws so that ‘You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine’ (Leviticus 20: 26). Clearly eating certain foods and not others separates us from others even today. Think of the way vegetarianism or food allergy, becomes for some an important, even major, part of their identity.

I would suggest that customs and laws around food are important in defining us all. I have tried to show that the Jewish food laws remind the Jews not only of the created order but of God the creator of order, not only of the intelligible separation of forms but of the mysterious source of form, separation and intelligibility. Of course the coming of Jesus heralds a new covenant, including a transformed set of rules for God’s people to follow. One of the consequences of this is that Christians need no longer follow the Jewish food laws, but this does not mean we can just forget them.

Furthermore Jesus has given us some new instructions around foods. This is to remember that whenever we eat bread and drink wine we are to remember his life, death and resurrection. The observance of this instruction amongst many other things, makes us, a separate, a holy people. Just as the Jewish food laws were designed to remind the Jews of the God the Creator the Eucharist reminds Christians of God the Saviour. It brings together the sacred and divine with the ordinary and every day and thus recalls the incarnation. It is not just the solitary eating of certain foods and not others: it is a shared meal. It reminds of the God who is a trinity of relationship.

I said near the start of this sermon that I hoped, that in thinking about the Jewish food laws, we might discover things about the goodness of God and his relationship with his creation which we might otherwise miss. The Eucharist tells us so much about God than the Jewish food laws but as a foreshadowing of the Eucharistic instructions I think the Jewish food laws still have their value. In particular they remind us to eat meat- and indeed other foods such as bread and wine – only with reverence and care.

Acknowledgement. Many of the ideas in this sermon come from Leon Kass and in particular his book 'The hungry soul: the eating and perfecting of our nature', 1991, Free Press.