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5th Sunday in Lent — March 21, 2021

John 12:20-33
Lent 5B

Some years ago, author Tracie McMillan left her home in New York City to go undercover into the American food system.

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She had grown weary of lectures about food and wanted to get a ground-level view of how Americans actually grow, produce and make decisions about food. She moved to California to work in farm fields, then to Detroit to work in the produce section of a suburban Wal-Mart, and finally returned to New York City to work in an Applebee’s restaurant.  Applebee’s did not have any openings in food preparation, but she was offered the position of expeditor — the hardest job in the restaurant, she says. What, you might wonder, does a food expeditor do? An expeditor coordinates the presentation and flow of food in the restaurant. As she explained in an article in Slate,  if an expeditor doesn’t do the job right, “then the orders don’t look right, and people won’t come back, and server’s tips will be lower, and the restaurant won’t make as much money.” The expeditor is the first domino in line, if the expeditor falls, everything goes down.

I had never heard of a food expeditor before, so I Googled the occupation and was surprised at the whopping number of position descriptions and job openings posted online. One can even study to become a food expeditor. I stopped scrolling after 10 pages of job listings, but my thoughts were spinning. I wondered if perhaps food expediting is another example of modern commodification, or the tendency to treat everything as a means to an end. From this perspective, could it be said that food expeditors exploit food to please customers so that they will give big tips, come back to the restaurant and keep the business alive and preserve their jobs? But one of their roles is also careful attention to presentation: to inspect every plate to make sure proper garnishes have been applied and that dishes are free of smudges and spills before being delivered to the customer. And doesn’t food presentation count for something? It can draw our attention to the food itself, helping us appreciate its flavor and beauty. Perhaps it can even be said that it helps us eat consciously, rather than unconsciously. In recent years, many have begun to try to eat with greater consciousness of the food before them, for in a fast-food culture, we eat unconsciously all the time — without calling to mind the faces and hands of the people who planted and harvested the food we eat, who prepared and served it. Did they receive a decent wage for doing so? What injuries may they have suffered in their work? What risks did they have to take? “Slow eating” – eating at a slower pace – is also extolled as a means by which to eat more consciously and to pay more attention to our food, including how it is produced, prepared and presented.

The Reformed theological tradition talks about sin as the depravation of the good; this can involve exploitation of the good. In this understanding of sin, salvation entails an exposure of the exploitation in order to restore the essential goodness. I wonder if there is a sense in which food expeditors stand on both sides of that equation — in some respects, commodifying food, but at the same time, drawing attention to the gift of food, its beauty and taste, and prompting appreciative thought about those who produced, cooked and served it. (The same, no doubt, could be said for most of our occupations: They can provide occasions for exploitation as well as edification.)

The lectionary text for the 5th Sunday in Lent prompted my chasing of these rabbits, for in the Gospel text from John 12, Jesus employs a striking metaphor to speak of his imminent passion —  a metaphor drawn from the food chain: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This statement conveys an intriguing qualification: “if it dies.” Dying is necessary for the seed to produce fruit. Soil was fragile and nutrients in it could be depleted. Therefore, the Jewish Torah prescribed a sabbatical year, during which the poor were to be released from their debts, the enslaved were to be freed and even the land was to rest in order that the soil might be revitalized. Prescriptions such as these did not emerge in a vacuum — they were needed because the opposite was happening. In fact, I once asked a Jewish scholar if there is any evidence that the sabbatical year was ever enacted on a wide scale, and he said probably not. This suggests that in Jesus’ day, poverty, abuse of the economic system and desertification of the land was an enduring part of life — as they also are in ours.

 

In light of the notion of the sabbatical year, the dying seed is a striking image for Jesus to use to speak of his crucifixion. The great paradox of the dying seed is that the very place of great potential (rich soil) is also a place of potential exploitation (and depletion of soil). The dying seed in the ground raises to visibility both the potential for exploitation and the potential for fruit-bearing and abundant life. Indeed, when Jesus says, “Those who love their life will lose it,” he is contending that life is more that survival — and certainly more than exploitation for private gain. For Jesus, “hating” one’s life in the world entails rejecting self-absorption and exploitation.  The fruitful and abundant life to which Jesus points us is a life of loving service with and for others, rather than a life of exploitation of others and the earth. Resisting exploitation can be costly, as there may well be backlash to resistance — even a cross!  But the fullness of living with and for others is the fruit of life lived in Christ. If a grain falls to the ground and dies, it will rise in, with and for others. So the cross, as a dying seed, is about exposing abuses of power and dying to exploitation of others and the earth, and rising as the fruit of God’s love for others and the earth.   Or to paraphrase the words of the Gospel of John’s prologue, the light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it!

This week:

  1. Had you ever heard of a food expediter? What strikes you about their work? Are they exploiting food or drawing our attention to its goodness?
  2. What do you think of the Reformed theological notion of sin as the depravation of the good, even the exploitation of the good?
  3. What strikes you most about the Jewish Torah’s prescription of a sabbatical year? Might the notion of the sabbatical year be a good idea for current economic and agricultural practice? Why, or why not?
  4. What do you think about the paradox of the dying seed — that is, that the very place of great potential (rich soil) is also a place of potential exploitation (and depletion of soil)?
  5. When Jesus says, “Those who love their life will lose it,” he is rejecting a life of exploitation and affirming a life lived with and for others and the earth. What might this mean for your own life of discipleship?
  6. Do you believe that the practice of loving service in Christ will bear fruit? How so?

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