“Eat” by Mark W. Harris
November 28, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – #515 (Responsive) “We Lift Up Our Hearts in Thanks” by Richard Fewkes
Responsive Reading #512 “We Give Thanks This Day” by O. Eugene Pickett
Reading – from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Sermon – “Eat” Mark W. Harris
On the roof of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine is a neon sign with one three-letter word arranged in a criss-cross pattern. The word is EAT. It seems like the kind of sign you might see on a 1960’s roadside restaurant. In fact you might expect to see it accompanied by other signs such as GOOD FOOD, or EAT HERE. They are the kind of simple messages to entice the wandering travelers to fill their empty, gnawing bellies as they cross some newly minted turnpike, maybe surrounded by corn that looks so green and luscious as it frames the entire state of Iowa, but you cannot stop and simply grab an ear because it is not in any kind of edible form, like flakes or cooked sweet on the cob, and dripping with butter. It may even remind you that corn is the villain of environmentally conscious people, that we have too much of the stuff and it goes into grain that feeds the too many animals that we all eat way too much of, or the corn syrup that is in every prepared food imaginable, and has made us way too fat. I am torn because there is nostalgia and history tied up with these memories of EAT. Growing up, I remember corn as good and abundant, (the raccoons stole a lot of it, bandits with their little black masks) as were all the vegetables from the family garden. It was where I learned to love spinach and Swiss chard and Kentucky wonder beans, the long tender ones that tasted so good when slathered with butter and salt and pepper. I was a kid who loved to eat vegetables, and they were about as local as you could get, as they were a fifty yard walk down to the garden.
So the neon EAT sign is not from a restaurant at all. It is art in fact. The work of an artist named Robert Indiana who is known to us all as the artist who arranged the letters that spell L-O-V-E on top of each other with the “O’ tilted a bit on its side. It was a sculpture that became an icon of pop culture. The artist arranged eat and love. I love to eat, but it is something I have often done way too much of in my life, and so like many others I have struggled with eating, especially when stressed. Am I making good healthy choices? What can I do to lose weight? And once I have come to some balance for myself – plenty of fiber for breakfast to avoid colon cancer, plenty of fruits and vegetables, forcing myself to drink at least a little bit of water – then I think of the larger guilt of the environmental impact. My eating problem is not that I don’t eat good foods, but instead one of volume. I eat a lot. But I not only love to eat, but truly was brought up in a home where eat was love. This was the way love was expressed. Let me cook for you, feeding you in a nourishing way showing how much I care for you.
Andrea and I bought a new car this past year. The motivating factor was primarily that our growing boys were becoming too tall for our station wagon. Our 6 foot 5 inch 250 pound sixteen year old simply did not fit any more, and we constantly heard this refrain as he jammed his body into a back seat that could hardly accommodate him and two brothers. We kept this old car, so that our aspiring teenage drivers might have a vehicle that was full of dents even before they took to the road. The new vehicle is a van, much more of a gas guzzler than we would have wanted, and so there is guilt about that, but finding something to fit all these giant bodies is not so easy. But what it really has in abundance is cup holders. I have never seen so many. There are four up front alone, which hardly seem reasonable since only two people can fit in the bucket seats, but maybe it is for coffee and water. There are two bench seats behind, each lined on the sides with more and more cup holders. It is not like we will camp out in this van, plus I hate camping, but they are there for a people on the go. We are a cup holder culture. This is symptomatic of how we live, even those who aspire to be healthy and use those holders for a water bottle rather than a coffee cup or a corn syrup infused Coca-cola. We are a people in a hurry and on the go. Yet for being on the go, we are awfully sedentary. Again I am torn. We have two cars now. Will it mean that I won’t walk to work as much? Will that then adversely affect my health, and add to a gasoline guzzling life style. It does mean with three active boys in three different schools in three different towns that life is a little less complicated. Dare I admit that life is much less stressful having two cars? It makes my life easier, but I still feel bad. I love eating, but I still feel bad. What to do?
Last month I attended my study group meeting, as I usually do twice a year. We are a group of eighteen Unitarian Universalist ministers, and we meet to discuss what we consider important topics in religion and culture. We also eat together at the retreat center. At each lunch I sat near to an old friend who grew up in suburban Ohio. She is very thin. At the first lunch she noted that I was eating a very healthy looking salad, and remarked about what I was eating looked as though it were good for me. She seemed amazed, but I didn’t comment. Then the following day I had dished out yet another salad for myself, and she couldn’t help but say that I was eating something healthy again. To her this obviously seemed remarkable, and she said, that looks like it would be really good for you. I couldn’t stand her sarcastic judgment any longer, and asked, what do you mean? She then went on to say she thought of me as a burger and fries kind of guy. Should I have felt insulted? Did I project some kind of stereotype of manly man who eats unhealthy foods and lots of meat? Didn’t she know I was once a vegetarian, and don’t really like meat unless it is covered in the case of a hamburger with ketchup and onions and relish, or better yet, salt. In fact what I really like is condiments and spice. I love sausage, but not because it is meat, but because it is spicy. And while she was probably eating suburban frozen dinners and riding around in a car to piano lessons, I grew up on a farm with Dad’s big garden, and spent my idle hours hiking in the woods. Now as to the fries. Well, I do like French fries, let it be known. It started when my father used to deep fry our own potatoes and served them with lots of salt, and ever since, while we never do deep frying at home, I often order French fries when I go out.. If you love something, don’t deny yourself. Enjoy yourself, but do it every so often, in moderation.
Today’s sermon begins the first of a three part series that derives its titles from the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Let me say that I found this a convenient way to talk about Eating, Spiritual Disciplines and Sex. Now I know that you will all be here on December 12 to hear the sex sermon. While the tri-partite division was helpful, let me also say that I am not promoting this book or even the movie that was made from it. It is not great literature, and in fact, I mostly found it to be self-indulgent, so that one very selfish person could feel good about herself. Yet the book has stood atop the paperback bestseller lists for months, so I am curious what you think of it. One person was surprised that I would read it, since it struck her as being a girl book. Gilbert does her eating in Italy, her praying in India and her loving in Bali.
In our reading you heard about how Gilbert went to Italy to experience pleasure. Many of you have heard me tell the story about my father when he was in his final days of life dying from cancer. The comment that has stayed with me is when he looked up and said, “I never knew that life could be so much fun. “ In a way it was a kind of Thanksgiving response to life. It is a realization that we are so lucky to be given this bounty to sumptuously enjoy, this world to reverence in its glorious beauty, and these people to share our hopes and dreams and love with. I never knew it could be so much fun. Look with eyes that truly see. Feel with hands that truly touch. Taste with a nose and tongue that enjoy all the wonderful smells and tastes that make eating such a wonderful pleasure. Gilbert reflects on how we often have a difficult time relaxing into sheer pleasure. Thanksgiving often becomes the work of stressful preparation. How can we make it more relaxing, or more fun for us all?
One significant thing about Gilbert’s mission is that she is going to have fun and enjoy herself. Most of us here know that good nutrition is important. We tell our children to eat fruits and vegetables because we know it is healthy. While some of us like vegetables more in theory than in fact, we do agree that they are necessary to a healthy lifestyle. So, too, is some kind of physical activity. We also know that too much meat, too many soft drinks and prepackaged foods are not going to help achieve the right diet. But we also need to say that while we need reasonable guidelines for a good diet, we also need indulgences at least from time to time. Steadfast rules about never doing this or that, makes a pretty dull existence. We all should eat responsibly, but we should also eat with a sense of experimentation, with relish and with joy. As one nutritionist writes, there is a natural inborn desire to enjoy and celebrate food. This is what Gilbert wants to experience in Italy. She doesn’t want to talk about it, or think about how healthy it is, or study it and take a survey. She wants to experience it. We can take all of out Protestant guilt, and concern for our own health and the life of the planet and use it toward nine out of ten meals, but when it comes to that tenth, why not just let go a little? And who is to say you can’t have some fun with the other nine, too? Remember that sometimes pleasure simply tastes good, and you deserve these kinds of experiences. This is where a healthy diet often intersects with the spirit of hospitality. Sometimes when we are with others, having fun is more important than following our rules. Perhaps Gilbert is too selfish, but she does remind us that eating, and many things in life must be done for sheer pleasure, and not out of guilt, or fear, or rules. We start simply by eating slowly and deliberately and savoring each bite, like the chocolate we let melt in our mouth. But meaning is much deeper than personal pleasure.
A recent issue of the New Yorker had a great joke called “The Last Thanksgiving.” In the joke there is a large table with people seated all around, and each person is voicing their desires for the Thanksgiving meal – listen to the litany with an arrow pointing to each person’s meal preference: Can’t have salt, Lactose intolerant, Vegetarian, Vegan, Macrobiotic, Fanatic Traditionalist, on a cleanse, strictly kosher, ultra picky gourmet, and allergic to gluten. Andrea’s brother’s family who are all vegetarians have the perfect Thanksgiving solution. They bring their own tofu turkey. They find a way to create their own satisfying meal, and yet they join in the fun of being with others eating what they can of the general feast. What must be held as the highest goal is the sheer pleasure of the meal, and ultimately of each other’s company, and not who is eating what. The disturbing thing in that joke is the self-righteousness and selfishness that often is reflected in our individual desires. We think of satisfying ourselves rather then remember our obligation to the whole. That is one thing those Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors got right. Their deepest hunger was to live out the “ethics of love and mutual obligation” that their faith calls upon them to enact.
This is reflected in a story from Japan. In the story an old woman is curious about the afterlife, and expresses the desire to see the difference between heaven and hell. The monks in the temple agree to grant her request. They place a blindfold around her eyes, and tell her, first you shall see hell. They bring her into a large room. It is a dining hall filled with long tables. After her blindfold is removed, she sees that the tables all have people seated around them, and they are piled high with meats and vegetables and breads and desserts. A true Thanksgiving feast. The smell of all this great food was wonderful. Yet she also noticed that each person in the room was thin and gaunt, and looked starved. They also appeared frustrated and angry. They each held a spoon, but the spoon was more than three feet long. The spoons were so long they could reach the food on the platters, but being longer than their arms they could not put the spoons into their mouths. The old woman, hearing their desperate cries, could not take the sight for long. Finally, she cried, Enough! Please show me heaven.
The monks proceeded to place the blindfold around her eyes, and she was told; now we shall show you heaven. The odd thing is that once she was in the room, and had the blindfold removed, she noticed that heaven looked very much like hell. She was confused at first. She saw the same tables. She saw the same wonderful feast with all those marvelous foods. There were people seated at the tables, and each person had the same three-foot long spoons. But the difference was in the people. They all looked fed and happy. They were laughing and joking with each other, and having a great time. Then the old woman realized what was happening and she laughed, too. She understood the true difference between heaven and hell, as it was revealed to her. The people in heaven had learned to feed each other. We are truly nourished by the food and fellowship we enjoy with each other. When I first came here to Watertown, Andrea told me a story about our former minister Convers Francis. He ministered here during a time when communion was going out of fashion. Unitarians were ceasing to find meaning in an old ritual where they remembered Jesus by eating some bread and drinking some wine. Francis had come to realize that the true communion occurred when the people met and came to form friendships and emotional bonds over sharing food and drink after the service. Andrea said it was Francis who had invented social hour. Let’s enjoy each other, he said. Let’s find the enduring presence of life and love in the relationships we form here in our community. Let’s make a living communion by expressing true thankfulness and joy for the great gifts of life we receive. Let’s eat.
Closing Words –
O Great spirit, We are here today
To thank you
For the greatest gift of all;
The power of life.
To breathe, to see, to smell, to touch
To hear, to feel, to move
With only these simple things
I know that you are in me
And I am in you.
Help me to hear your voice within
So that I may walk on the path
Of becoming what I am meant to be:
A true human being.
Be with us today and in all the days to come as we offer our humble thanks
Through the gifts of our words, our music, and our bodies, may we reach out to one another in peace and friendship.