Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Who's Thankful?

Yesterday, I had a conversation about Thanksgiving with a vegetarian who works in our office, and, since there’s only one, she gets singled out a lot for questions about meat and why she doesn’t eat it. I asked her whether she’s seen the documentary that’s being shown on PBS lately called Eating Alabama. I asked because I wanted her to know that, when I saw them killing and defeathering chickens on the television, I was struck by that display and internalized some of the consequences of my meat-eating habits. Yes, I said, I know where my food comes from.

That led to a conversation about whether it’s right in principle to eat foods like lamb and veal. Another person in the office piped up and said that for her lamb was off-limits. “In fact,” she declared, “I’ve been in a restaurant when someone ordered lamb, and I called out, ‘Mary had a little lamb!’ to make sure they knew it.” I, on the other hand, love lamb and veal, but, in the spirit of Eating Alabama, I said to them that I would be comfortable looking that little baby animal in the face before killing it and eating it. I don’t think of animals raised for food as anything but pre-food. That’s how I keep a clear conscience when sitting at the dinner table. And I think we all need to be able to do that. We should know where our food comes from. We should be able to internalize the ethical and moral consequences of our diet.

This morning, when I read the OT lesson for the day (Malachi1:1, 6-14), I thought again about our food and where it comes from. In this passage, the prophet accuses the priests of offering to God the leftovers of the flock: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong?” Apparently, the priests had gotten into the habit of keeping the best for themselves and going through the motions and empty gestures of sacrificing the dregs. But let’s be honest—why would God care?

God doesn’t eat. God doesn’t need the choicest lambs or doves or goats. When the fragrant smell of roasting flesh billows up toward heaven, God’s lips aren’t moistened. He doesn’t get hungry. He’s not going to eat what is put on the altar—surely the priests knew that. At the end of the day, the meat was still there. It didn’t magically disappear because God took a helping and put it on his dinner plate. So why does it matter whether they offered God the firstlings of the herd or simply what was left over?

It matters because they knew. When you get into the habit of simply giving God what’s left over, you forget where your food comes from. Like a city-dweller who thinks that ground chuck comes from the supermarket, a priest who sacrifices blind or lame animals forgets that God has provided all things. The point of giving God our best is to remember that God has given us everything to begin with.

Not that long ago, I was invited to a lavish dinner party that a woman threw for her doctors. She had been suffering from a potentially fatal chronic disease, and several times we all thought she would die. But she didn’t. She rallied, and she was thankful. She knew that she had been saved from death by a team of skillful doctors, and she was so filled with gratitude that she put on an extravagant party to show it. That’s being thankful.

Occasionally someone will say thank you to me by giving me a bottle of wine or a baked good after a baptism or funeral. No one has ever given me a half-drunk bottle or a stale, moldy cake. Why? Because that wouldn’t say, “Thank you.” That would say, “I’m not grateful enough to give you something nice.” Sure, my feelings would be hurt, but, since I don’t do funerals or baptisms in exchange for gifts, what would really matter is the disconnect in the relationship.

What are you giving to God? Honestly, he doesn’t care whether it’s a leftover crumb or a blind sheep. God only wants a relationship. So what will that relationship look like? Will you take it for granted, or will you honor it by being truly thankful. Remember where you food comes from. Remember where your life comes from. Conscious of that, one would be hard-pressed to offer anything but his very best.

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