There I was, at the "Big Question:" What is my relationship to the creatures on this earth, and to the earth itself? Are they, is it, here for me, or am I a part of it? How far does the interdependent web extend, and do I really believe that all of us are intimately connected with all of existence?
It has been said that one of the functions of ministry is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, so I want to be right up front with you. My goal in sharing this story with you and telling you what I'm about to tell you is to raise questions that will haunt you too. I want you to be haunted while walking the aisles in Acme, in Genuardi's, in Pathmark and even Trader Joe's. To be haunted as you unload your groceries from those plastic bags that seem to reproduce like rabbits beneath your kitchen sink. To be haunted as you serve your Thanksgiving dinner to your family, in that Norman Rockwell moment as the browned bird is placed before approving eyes and watering mouths.
I have here before me a bowl of fruit. Bananas, apples, oranges, grapes, even an avocado. Delicious and nutritious fruit. Good and good for you. So, let's see, these bananas are from Ecuador. The apple was grown in Washington State and the grapes come from California. These particular tomatoes come from Mexico, and they're still attached to the vine so you know they're "vine ripe." The avocado was grown down in Chile, and these particular oranges come all the way from South Africa. All told, this bowl of fruit has traveled a distance of more than 18,000 miles to be with us here today. Definitely our most far-flung guests in the service!
It's not news to tell you that bananas aren't grown in the backyards of Media or on farms in Lancaster County. Americans consume about 400 gallons of oil a year per person for the food they eat. Author and scientist Steven L. Hopp writes sarcastically that "a quick way to improve food-related fuel economy would be to buy a quart of motor oil and drink it." He then goes on to point out that, if every American family were to eat just one meal each week that was composed of locally and organically raised foods, "we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels every week…Becoming a less energy-dependent nation," he writes, "may just need to start with a good breakfast." [Barbara Kingsolver, et al., Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 5]
The whole idea behind the concept of ethical eating is that we think about the food that we're putting into our mouths. And by this I don't mean the nutritional value, whether it's good for us or whether it's going to go straight from our lips to our hips. Ethical eating is consumption wedded to awareness and intention. It is about educating ourselves about the true costs of the foods that we buy and consume. It's about facing up to the ugly facts of the agri-industrial complex. It's knowing, for example, that while we've increased the average yield of an acre of farmland from 24 bushels of corn in 1930 to more than 160 bushels per acre today, to achieve this astonishing improvement we apply about 1.5 billion pounds of nitrogen to the soil each year in the form of fertilizers. And that about half of that nitrogen is taken up into the atmosphere and falls as acid rain or stays up there as greenhouse gases, or it washes into our watersheds, causing massive algae blooms that choke off all other aquatic life. [Amy Hassinger, "Ethical Eating," UU World, Spring 2007, p.30.]
As Unitarian Universalists we proclaim to affirm and support respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. What does that mean to us? How far does it extend? And what does it require of us? The most recent proposed revisions to our principles elaborate on the Seventh Principle thusly:
Inspired by the beauty and holiness of the Earth, we become more willing to relinquish material desires. We recognize the need for sacrifice as we build a world that is both just and sustainable. We are called to be good stewards, restoring the Earth and protecting all beings.
In the choices we make about the foods we eat, what does it mean to be good stewards who work to restore the Earth and to protect all beings? What does it mean to us when we proclaim the earth to be "holy?" These principles point us toward questions of ultimate reality and meaning, profoundly religious questions like "Who or what made us?" "Why are we here?" and "Who is our neighbor, our brother or sister?"
This is an excerpt of a sermon delivered at Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, Media, PA, on November 9, 2008