Soul Food

September 24, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


[Note to the reader: At about midnight on Saturday the 23rd, I accidentally deleted the sermon I had prepared. What follows is my frantic attempts to recreate the original, finished sermon. I apologize for the error, and for the rocky reading experience!! Blessings, V.W.]

NOTES from a Ramadan sermon: "Soul Food"

"In back of the bread is the flour.

In back of the flour is the mill.

In back of the mill is the sun and rain,

And the Father's will."

This was the grace spoken around the table when my friend Brad was a boy. At our house, it was "God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. Amen."

Then, as we got older, we said grace less and less, and then eventually not at all, because we weren' t eating dinner together very often.

I never thought there was any great loss in that, and always wondered what the sociologists and therapists and ministers were crying about when they did studies about how few American families sit down to eat together. Like millions of Americans (and especially the many millions of single Americans), I eat my meals mostly alone. I make and wolf down my food just like you do, sometimes grateful for it, mostly not very conscious at all of what I' m doing. I' ve usually got someplace to be after dinner, or something to do. Gotta get goin' !

How many of you have eaten in the car in the past week? Or leaning against the fridge, squiring mustard onto a folded piece of turkey? Or scarfing down popcorn or peanut butter right out of the jar in front of the TV?

Don' t feel badly. Everyone does it. We' ve always got somewhere to be, and we throw food down our throats to fuel us just like we pour gas into the car to fuel it. And sometimes, when we have the treat of being able to sit down and enjoy a meal, we overindulge and wind up feeling stuffed. Then comes dessert. And then comes the vows and promises to start our diet the next day.

We have a very complicated relationship with food.

This summer, though, I experienced something very unusual for me: the simple joy of eating dinner together with friends or family every night. I cannot say emphatically enough how emotionally and spiritually strengthening it was for me prepare meals with loved ones, and to sit at a table and eat with them. It was a powerful epiphany. And it made me think a lot about not only what I eat (I eat a lot more healthily in the summer) but how I eat, and in what spirit.

I began to think more about how eating with others really is a spiritual practice, and about eating in general as a spiritual activity as well as a physical necessity. So please let me echo those sociologists in encouraging you to sit down to a meal with your families or friends at least once a week. Please give yourselves this gift. Prepare the meal together. Pay attention to one another. Make it a beautiful close to your day.

You may wonder, well, that' s very nice but how is that a spiritual practice?

A spiritual practice is something we do that puts us in touch with the fleeting nature of life and makes us slow down and listen, look, attend, get connected. I am borrowing from our student minister Walter when I say that a spiritual practice is something we do that reminds us that we are not the only ones in the world. A spiritual practice, whatever it is, reminds us that our perspective, our feelings and our needs are not the whole story.

A spiritual practice of any kind fosters mindfulness and compassion. A spiritual practice not only slows us down, but fills us with the sure knowledge that our essence is love, and that love is the essence of the interdependent web of existence.

In my effort to foster mindfulness and compassion around food, I made an attempt this summer to learn where my food comes from, what happens to it before it gets to my table, and how much energy in the form of fuel it takes for it to travel to me. Aside from reading labels religiously and asking my grocers a ton of questions, I think Jane Goodall' s book, Harvest For Hope: A Guide To Mindful Eating, was the biggest help in understanding all these issues. I commend it to you.

(Food is almost always there for us, in America. It is so rare for people to come for help with food – Norwell Food Pantry –

My memory of being at Rainbow Foods in Minnesota – the crying Russian people)

We know that what we eat affects us. If we eat nutritious, whole foods, we function much better on every level. If we eat toxins, we are toxic. This isn' t meant to be judgmental, just cautionary for all of us. Nowadays, we' re eating a lot more toxins without really knowing it. That' s part of the reality of agribusiness, and part of why I am trying to eat a vegetarian diet, and to stick to organic, local produce. I don' t morally object to meat eating, I just object to ingesting animals who were unnecessarily tormented in their lifetime, and harvested as though they had no ability to feel pain. If I eat meat now, I want to know where it came from and that it was treated humanely. ( I would appreciate support and recipes from other vegetarians in the congregation!)

Religions throughout history have always had something to say about foods the faithful should eat or shouldn' t. Food has tremendous symbolic meaning in indigenous religions, in the monotheistic religions, in Eastern religions –all have taboos and strictures around eating. Catholics don' t eat meat on Fridays. Buddhists mostly don' t eat meat at all. Jews fast on Yom Kippur and share a special Sabbath (shabbos) meal on Friday nights. Christians eat eggs on Easter, but not because they have anything to do with Jesus, but because they represent the pagan fertility origins of that holiday.

Among some South American Indians, it is customary to grind up the bones and ashes of the dead and to ingest them. Perhaps you think that' s odd. Perhaps those South American people would feel just as odd observing a holy Communion service. One culture' s food taboos and commandments rarely make sense to another. Taboos and requirements around eating and fasting are a powerful way for one group to differentiate itself from another.

Beginning today, Muslims are entering into a time of special attention to food, as they enter into the holy month of Ramadan which requires fasting from dawn to sundown. To observe Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The others are --

1. To affirm the oneness of God, Allah, and Mohammed as his only prophet,

2. To make a pilgrimage to Mecca …the hajj

3. To practice almsgiving( zakah) to the poor and needy

4. and to pray five times a day: salat

I will quote here from my colleague, the Reverend Parisa Parsa' s 2005 sermon on Ramadan:

"During this holy month, Muslims fast from first light until sunset, and devote themselves to prayer, worship, and reflection on their lives of faith. They are called to remember their most sacred duties, of prayer, almsgiving, family ties, and truthfulness, and are encouraged to let the more practical details of life go so they can concentrate themselves fully on their spiritual lives. Salam, muslim, and islam, all these words share the same Arabic root -- sim, lam, mim, whose meaning is translated both as peace and submission. Salam is the greeting of peace, salam aleikhem, peace in God' s name or submission to God' s name. A muslim is one who is peaceful; Islam is peace."

Let' s consider a month-long fast for a moment. This isn' t a diet, with attention to portions. This isn' t exactly like a Lenten practice, where you' re just giving up chocolate or alcohol (something that is forbidden to Muslims anyway).

This is a spiritual commitment being enacted by a very arduous physical discipline. This may make you uncomfortable. It' s so irrational! Why would a billion people all over the globe still so literally embrace a practice that was instituted in the 600' s! Couldn' t they have some kind of more symbolic fast?

What about children, or the ill or the elderly? What about pregnant women? Isn' t it dangerous for them to fast? What about my Muslim friend or co-worker at school? Am I allowed to eat my sandwich at lunch in front of him? Or invite him to my pizza party? Won' t he feel left out?

These are valid and important questions. I won' t answer them right away, because I want to encourage all of us to consider making a commitment during the month of Ramadan to educate ourselves about Islam. There are close to 40,000 Muslims in the Boston area alone – far more than there are Unitarian Universalists! – and if we' re getting most of our information about this religion from the news media, we' re probably not getting a very deep or nuanced picture of this faith. If we are the people of religious tolerance and understanding we claim to be, we should make an effort to learn about Islam beyond the blurbs we read or hear on television.

Islam is a complicated subject encompassing religious beliefs, global politics and culture that we very rarely have a chance to encounter first hand. We can' t become serious scholars of Islam overnight, but we can start to make an effort to understand it. I am discouraged when I hear educated and liberal-minded people make generalizations about Islam that interpret the entire Muslim world by the acts of a minority of violent extremists. It' s true that Islam is by definition a conservative religious tradition – even moderate Muslims are conservative by our definition. However, there is a wide, wide universe of difference between conservativism and fanaticism.

It is easy to misunderstand Islam, and it is easy to misunderstand the intention of Ramadan. Ramadan is not meant to be a punishment for any faithful Muslim. Anyone who cannot safely make the fast is not expected to. Again, I quote Parisa Parsa,

"During Ramadan, Muslims are called to set aside their own will and invite in the spirit of their creator so that they might find their own actions and beings purified by acknowledging the vastness and greatness of God. It is very similar to the Christian season of Lent, or the Jewish high holy days – a purification of the self and an opportunity to reflect and make amends for the ways we have fallen short of our calling as people of faith."

Again, this may be difficult to understand or accept. It is not typically your way or mine to undertake serious introspection along with such a challenging physical regimen as fasting from sunup to sundown. We are too committed to the comforts of our modern life. We don' t mind reflecting deeply on the condition of our souls, but it' s asking an awful lot of any of us to refrain from eating for a month as we do so!

And it is in this that I think Islam has the most valuable insight to offer us: it challenges us to consider whether or not many of our so-called "comforts" of modern life are really life-giving or are, in fact, draining and depressing, and cut us off from the sanctity of our world.

To the Muslim, this is God' s creation and our job is to be reverent within that creation. To be a faithful Muslim means that rather than seeing the world as a collection of things – trees, houses, cars, people, institutions, food – that are supposed to provide us with comfort, fun, entertainment, and unending happiness – we should see the world as a precious and finite creation that we must respect and treat very carefully. The Muslim reminds us that we are not the whole story. In Islam, there is a creative reality far greater than we who expects things of us like kindness, and thoughtfulness, and sharing, and even giving up some comforts so we can focus on who we are called to be. To be a Muslim means to be faithful in an embodied way – not merely an intellectual or emotional way -- to the expectations of Allah, even at the cost of one' s own comfort and convenience.

Let us ask ourselves, what does it mean to act faithfully in a world where faith is used to justify so much violence and destruction?

In this month of Ramadan, as our Muslim brothers and sisters are purifying their hearts and submitting to the call of their God of peace and good works, let us consider entering into our own time of reverent introspection. Perhaps the embrace of a challenging spiritual discipline – even one that deprives us of some cherished comforts

and challenges some of our most cherished notions –

may help us not only live faithfully, but clarify our notions of what we are being faithful to.

A salaam a leykim.