I came home from the memorial service with a load. It’s not an uncommon thing, really. To come back from a funeral or memorial service carrying packages, bags, containers of various kinds. Food, that’s what I’m talking about. The funeral dinner leftovers. There was plenty, as usual. Our church ladies know how to make sure no one goes home hungry. Well, that and the fact that no one knows how many folks will actually come to a funeral these days. So a large crowd was prepared for and the small crowd that attended got to take home extras, if they wanted. And I did. Well, just being polite you know.
In a previous church I started a leadership group of laity in the church. It was a strategic planning group of sorts. And we couldn’t find a convenient meeting time, so we met early in the morning, before work. Then we decided that in order to make sure everyone attended we needed to fix breakfast. So, the members took turns preparing these wonderful breakfasts to aid our study and thinking together, and to get a good start on the day. One day I was offered some leftovers to take home to the family. Then when I reported how much the kids loved that special breakfast, the habit became for the group to always prepare enough for me to take home. My kids were in early elementary then. It was the one day we didn’t have to struggle to get them out of bed and ready for school. They looked forward to those great breakfasts provided by their church family.
It’s a family thing to do, to gather to eat. Bring folks in from far and wide, the ones you don’t see every day, and to bring the food they are famous for. Grandma’s green bean casserole, Aunt Suzi’s seven layer salad, Uncle Dave’s smoked brisket, you know. You have your list. The foods you only got when the family got together. The recipes that were guarded like gold in Fort Knox, secrets passed down only to the favorite grandchild and only when they were ready to respect it.
One of the most important parts of a memorial service is the meal afterwards. It is the time to sit and be together, to weep and to laugh in equal measure, because that is how we grieve. At least how we do it together. And sitting around a table, eating food that someone else prepared feels like a blessing on a difficult day. Feels like a gift given when something precious has been taken away. I have often said that the women who prepare and serve and clean up the funeral dinner do more pastoral care in that afternoon than I do a week’s time.
Eating together is a declaration that life goes on. That there is such a thing as eternity. That while the void is real, the loss is real in this world, life is bigger than this world, bigger than our eyes can see. Just like that second slice of pie is the result of eyes bigger than our stomachs. Eating is one of the precious gifts of living, a gift of God. God didn’t create a dull, bland world of simple sustenance. God created a colorful world with flavors and tastes and experiences aplenty. So, celebrate, and enjoy the tastiness of this world in which we are blessed to live.
Celebrate food. Sunday, April 29th is National Shrimp Scampi Day. I had no idea. I don’t have my Shrimp cards ready, or the Scampi tree up in the family room yet. I’m not ready. But then, how does one celebrate National Shrimp Scampi Day? Besides the obvious, I mean. Eating it. Well, I’m not sure it’s on the menu for this Sunday. Hmmm, maybe we’ll have to pretend. Or we could just claim to be Jewish.
Yeah, that’s where I was going with this. As soon as I saw that it was Shrimp Scampi Day I remembered that it was forbidden. For the Jews anyway. No shrimp, scampi or otherwise. Why not? Because it’s on the list. You know.
Leviticus 11:1-12 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: 2 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. 3 Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud-- such you may eat. 4 But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 5 The rock badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 6 The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 7 The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8 Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you. 9 These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams-- such you may eat. 10 But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters-- they are detestable to you 11 and detestable they shall remain. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall regard as detestable. 12 Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you.
Detestable. Wow, no pulling of punches here. No trying to spare the feeling of the cook who brought you that lobster bisque. No, oh, I’m sorry, I’d rather not. No, goodness that looks delicious but I had a big breakfast, or some other social lie we tell so as not to hurt feelings. Instead it is “Take it away! It is detestable!”
The chapter goes on, of course. Forty-seven verses of what you can and what you can’t eat. And then it is repeated in Deuteronomy, with a slightly different list - no conflict, I hasten to say. Just some additions. Some different emphases. But mostly the same. This is good, holy, worthy. That is bad, detestable, trief. That’s the word they use for food that is unclean. Trief. It means torn. Some say it means torn by other animals and therefore not worthy. Others say torn from the list. Detestable. An abomination, in older translations. Everything, in the Old Covenant, declared unclean is an abomination.
But why? That’s the inevitable question. Why are these unclean and those clean? No shrimp but tuna is OK. No rabbit but goat is OK. Why? Well, no one knows exactly. Some have tried to tie it all into hygiene. God, who knew better than ancient humans, determined that something would make them sick given the primitive means of preparation. Pork has trichinosis unless properly prepared, so put it on the detestable list. OK, maybe. But some things don’t quite fit that explanation. There has to be more. Others note that many of the things on the abomination list are scavengers, certain birds of prey, scaleless fish that reside in the muddy river bottom could be considered unclean because they feed on dead things, which was also an abomination.
Well, perhaps. But if you read the rabbis throughout history, they will say that things are on the list because they are on the list. This is the “because I said so” argument that every parent has used. We’re to avoid these things, they say, because God told us to avoid these things. We don’t need any more of a reason than that. We don’t need a why, we just need to obey. Holiness comes from obedience. What God is trying to tell us is that there is no part of our lives exempt from this obedience. No aspect of our lives that God isn’t interested in. No activity in which we engage that we can’t at the same time honor God in doing it.
The food laws, or “Kashrut” (from which we get Kosher), were a way of separating out the people of God, but also of bringing them together. They were different from the world around them, but they were a family who ate together. Sometimes I wonder if we have lost something when we did away with them. Oh, like everything God gives us they can lead to abuse, to pharisaical devotion to the law while neglecting the holiness behind it. That’s why Jesus wanted us to pay attention to what the laws were for. In Mark’s gospel, chapter 7, He talks about what really makes us unclean, and says it isn’t the food going in but the words, the life coming out. Mark adds an editorial comment saying that in so doing He was declaring all foods clean. I’m not sure that was Jesus’ intent, but that was the effect. And then Peter and his vision on the roof top (Acts 10), one he had to three times until he got it, sealed the deal. But then Paul comes along and says that even in our eating we can give glory to God (I Corinthians 10:31).
That’s what was really behind the kashrut laws. Giving glory to God. There may have been some health benefits to a kosher diet, but that was just a bonus. The real key was paying attention to every detail of our lives as God’s people, and asking how does this give glory to God? So, praise the Lord and pass the Shrimp Scampi!