“Only God Can Make Food” Sermon, Year C, Epiphany 3, January 27, 2013
Plaza Hotel, Eau Claire, WI
For the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union annual convention morning worship
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 4:1-11
I saw an image on Facebook a few weeks ago of a farmer in his pickup truck on the road, looking at a guy zipping around in some kind of pricey sports car, and he’s thinking to himself, “You think you’re hot stuff because you have a $70,000 car? I have a $300,000 combine I only drive three weeks a year.”
I am not a farmer. But my dad grew up on a farm, and I have many aunts and uncles and cousins that still farm. And so growing up, I did spend a lot of time on farms, especially in the summer. I grew up in Janesville, but dad and mom were both from the Sparta/Black River area, and so we would go “home” a lot in the weekends and I would spend a few weeks with relatives every year. And sometimes we would go up to help out on one farm or another to bale hay or whatever was going on. And when I stayed at grandma’s farm, there were eggs to collect in the morning, a barn to clean, and other things to be done. We would help however the family members needed help.
And to me, that was all normal. Like any child, I assumed that whatever I was experiencing was normal, and that all the kids I was growing up with in Janesville had families who farmed and spent their summers mostly outside. I remember at some point toward the end of elementary school when I discovered that there were people who had grandparents who didn’t live on farms. I thought ALL grandparents lived on farms. To me, that was just part of what being a grandparent was. Even if they didn’t farm, certainly at retirement it was their duty to buy a farm so that their grandkids had a proper place to play. I was stunned when a classmate said something about going their grandma’s apartment or condo for Christmas. And then as I grew older, learned more about the kids around me, I discovered that not only was experience not normal, it was fairly rare.
And then I moved to New York City, and found even fewer people who had any experience of farming, or knew much about how food is grown or where meat comes from.
And I say this not because I think you want to hear the story of my life, but to say that with our increasingly urban culture, a meet fewer and fewer people who understand, beyond a theoretical way, where their food comes from. They don’t know how hard you work, don’t understand that if you have cows to milk you don’t just zip off to Cancun for a week. They don’t know what it’s like to put your fortune in the ground with a hope and a prayer, never knowing if it will return a profit or just dry up in the heat or get flooded out. They don’t know the stress of waiting the months of growth wondering, even if the crops do come in, what the wheelers and dealers that control the markets will be offering once you harvest.
As I thought about that last idea this week, I came to the realization that so far as I know, you farmers are the only industry that produces something that doesn’t get to set their own prices. If Apple’s labor costs go up, they can raise the price of their products. If your labor costs go up, or need new equipment, well... too bad. You’re at the mercy of the people who set the market.
And I’ve seen this and lamented the logical result – even seen it in my family – small farms disappearing. Families selling their land to people who pave it over because it’s more valuable as a strip mall than as a place to grow food, or because the cost of producing food becomes more than the profit. And I think that as a society we suffer for it. We’re distanced from where our food comes, and so treat it with disrespect, and disrespect those who make it.
But, you don’t need me to tell you that.
What I can say, as a pastor, is that this is a theological issue. It is an issue of faith. We can live without iPhones, but we cannot live without food. And the only place that food grows is in the ground. We are a pretty clever people who have made great technological advancements, but we cannot make a machine that will make corn. We have no process to turn vegetables into bacon, except a pig. We cannot make food. That is what God does. We can plant seeds, add fertilizer, water it... but there is no human power that can make it grow.
How food is grown, distributed, consumed, is a very important ethical, moral, and theological issue for which those removed from the system are often ill-equipped to make the political decisions that affect agricultural and environmental policy.
So I have been glad to see in recent years a growing movement for locally produced foods: artisinal cheese, locally raised meats from heritage breeds without chemicals and allowed to pasture, a rise in farmer’s markets and the small-scale growers that sell there. We can thank, at least partly, the Food Network, I think. They’ve helped raise awareness of a greater variety of foods, and of better foods, that the average person is now asking for and willing to seek out. We have colleges and public schools that have gardens to grow food for the cafeteria. The White House has a garden.
When Katy [Mankmeyer-Phillips, one of the coordinator’s for the convention] asked me to lead worship, I asked her if there was a theme for this one. She said that part of your agenda was cooperative economic ventures, thinking of new ways to support local economies and smaller family farms, and alternative energy.
I am not as close to farming as I used to be, but based on what I do see on TV and hear peripherally, this feels like an exciting time for farming. There has been a shift in peoples’ perceptions of farming, or of wanting to know more about it. People are moving out of the cities to start small farms as cheesemakers, honey producers, vintners, specialty pork, beef, chicken and other meats. There has been a cultural shift in the number of people willing to support these small niche producers. And a shift in the culture of people getting tired of seeing good land turned into strip malls or suburbs. People want food that tastes good, and are willing to pay a bit more for it or go out of their way to find it. I imagine that has to be exciting and heartwarming. But we also do have a world with a lot of people who need to be fed, and a world with a lot of poverty – so there is also the ethical and moral responsibility to the poor to make sure there is abundant and affordable food that is also nutritious and environmentally sound to produce.
We who are non-farmers also have a responsibility to you to ensure you earn a decent wage, are fairly compensated and have a political and legal system in which you can operate in fairness and sustainability for the future.
Some of that will take you doing a lot: working together, working with politicians and other leaders, getting the word out about who you are and what you do. It will need you to, in a sense, retrain a population to better understand the realities of where their food comes from.
I pray that you are successful. I have no doubt you will be. You are a creative lot, adaptable, forward looking, as you g about God’s work of feeding the world. I seen things done with twine and baling wire that I’m sure were never intended by the inventors.
I don’t know any farmer who is farming because they can get rich off it, the work is easy, and the hours minimal. The farmers I know farm because, for whatever reason, they love it. Love being outside, or being their own boss, or watching the miracle of growth, or just working the land. For many, being farmers is more calling than profession. I thank you for your service. God bless you on your journey, and may the world, and the future, be a better place because of you as go about the work not only of feeding us, but solving a number of very important issues in the coming years.
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