Brussels Sprouts are good. Ask Caitlyn. She loves Brussels Sprouts. Loves them sautéed, loves them with balsamic vinegar, loves them shaved in a salad. Not everyone agrees with her, you know. Some people hate Brussels Sprouts. Some people are just convinced that they hate them, you know, the way I was convinced that I hated okra for the longest time because of all of the nasty things people say about okra.
The thing is, and this is truly the thing that is, is that we have, over the years, conspired amongst ourselves, unconsciously to be certain, but we have conspired to eat only those things that appeal to our short term pleasure. Over time, the conspiracy has become more overt, there are whole segments of the food industry bent on satisfying those short term pleasure centers, pushing specific biochemical buttons.
Take grape soda, or in fact any grape flavored thing except grape juice and grapes.
Have you noticed how little they taste like actual grapes? That’s because nothing resembling a grape ever comes near them. The specific elements we have been told are the flavor of the grape, well they come from test tubes and are the result of a decade or so of experimentation. Layer upon layer of flavors are built up until we arrive at that specific flavor know as artificial grape found in hard candy, grape soda and, ever present in the inner city, grape drink.
The flavor has no nutritive value; it carries with it no vitamins, it does not feed you.
But it does make you happy; in a short term, pleasure center kind of way. You like it and you want more of it and because it is sweeter than grapes, you crave it more than grapes, your body is coded to crave sugar from way back in the before time, in the long, long ago when it meant life itself, abundant energy and all.
Out go the grapes, placed in front of us, in our sight by God to feed us and make us whole, in comes the work of man, replacing the works of God.
The problem is one thing is left out each time we replace the work of God with our own labors. The thing that is missing is always the fundamental care for us and for our nurture. Underlying the whole of creation, at the very core of everything that God made is the idea that God made everything just for us, suited to us, as a blessing for us, for you.
Introduce any other motive at all, even when we think that motive is noble, and you dilute God’s motivation to give and to provide and to bless and to save.
Which is not to say that we don’t have good motives from time to time, when we seek to grow a better kind of wheat so that fewer people will starve in India or to grow anything in the miserable desert that is, or was, the central valley of California by pumping all of the water out of Colorado.
We have done a lot of things to change and to steward the creation, it says we should in Genesis after all, and in the main our motive is to make things better, to feed more people, almost always to feed more people because year by year there are more people, but because we cannot see what is not, since we cannot peer into the future and see the whole scope of things, we are often doing things that come back to haunt us later.
We cannot see in advance the subsidence of the land in the central valley as the water from Colorado declines and more and more water is pumped out of the aquifers. We cannot see in advance that the convenience of the all-you-can-eat salad bar might lead to hunger and privation in the third world where they grow baby corn for us to not eat and then throw away. We do not have the perspective of God, the scope and the majesty to see the scroll of history from end to end.
Because there are always so many of us, or actually because there are always so many more of us each year the impulse to create, a big part of our being created in God’s image is that we too feel the urge to create, to bring things into being that were not before, we have created something that was not in the Garden, was not in the history of Israel and their relationship with the God of Abraham, was not a part of the world until we began to create it, to bring it into the world, to give it birth.
Perhaps mankind’s finest creation is the very idea of efficiency. In order to feed more people on the same planet, you have to do it better, faster or more densely or in unlikely places and so the idea of efficiency looms large, it is celebrated, it is revered.
But it is not of God.
Don’t get me wrong, Coral reefs are awesome, in the actual definition of that word meaning “inspiring awe,” but they are not efficient. They take centuries or millennia to create and mere decades to be destroyed by a terribly small change in ocean temperature or the pH of the water they are in.
Conch shells are among the most beautiful things in the natural world but they are not efficient. They take a long time to create, they take little or no time to destroy, you must have a long lifespan to appreciate them as home and shelter but any six year-old can smash them with a rock.
With efficiency we can produce enough food to feed the world, but it would certainly help if most of the food was the same, or at least alike in most ways. Wheat, which in some places in Europe is still a different species from valley to valley, is almost entirely the same in America and as a consequence, we are vastly more efficient at growing it and grow enough of it to spread it around where people are starving.
But over 75% of the agriculture in this country is growing just 12 crops. Twelve. Think about eating just twelve things for the rest of your life and you will understand how few that really is, how little diversity. There used to be thousands of varieties of apples growing in America, now there are less than twenty in any kind of mass production.
To be fair, some of those apples were awful, just statistically speaking, some of them were not good for eating but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should disappear from the face of the earth. That’s a little prideful, don’t you think, unless it pleases us it can go extinct?
Same thing with bananas, and that is even after a blight almost ended banana cultivation worldwide. Bananas are now sterile, they produce no seeds and have to be propagated by humans so if something else should distract us, bananas might just up and go away. Of course many of God’s bananas will survive, and we can start the whole thing over again, cross-breeding until we have the same Cavendish bananas we all enjoy so much, but is that really necessary?
What ever happened to accepting the gifts of God with grace and not trying to manage and improve them, to cover everything in a layer of human pride and human accomplishment?
After all, when God declared that it was good, God declared that it was all good, it was the way God had planned it, for our benefit, custom suited to us, it was all good. And there is nothing among all of that which can defile a person by going into them, poison a person, sure, but defile, no. There is certainly a place for discernment but your relationship with God cannot be threatened by what you eat, and your relationship with one another ought not be.
What you put out into the world, the product of pride and sloth and selfish behavior, that is another matter, even ejecting that poison defiles a person.
Supposing ourselves wiser than God and assuming that our motives are always, or even ever pure and that our plans will bring about universal blessings is hubris and hubris is pride and pride is a sin and sin defiles a person.
It is simply refusing to listen to the words James preaches to us this morning, refusing to accept that every perfect gift is from above, from God in heaven and that everything else is less than, less than perfect, less than holy, less than blessed.
That sounds like a slap in the face to centuries of science and development and progress and from one angle it is, it does convict every attempt to improve the gifts of God without thought to the consequences, with only a mind to worshiping at the idol of efficiency, focusing in on solving one problem without stepping back and seeing if you are causing more problems.
I have a fondness for apples that are not found in the grocery stores. Ashmead’s Kernel is an old English apple which has all but disappeared except for die-hard preservationists. It is ugly, with a leathery skin which has brown mottling on it even when not bruised. It would win no beauty contests which is, regrettably, how we judge these things nowadays.
But it is an exceptional apple, created by God. If you look at old renaissance paintings of the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden; look at the apples. None of them have the stark reds of today, none of them have the brilliant greens, they are duller, unevenly colored, in Lucas the Elder Cranach’s painting I swear to God the apple they are picking is a Ashmead’s Kernel.
We do not need to stop trying to make things better for the people who live on this planet. To be fair, our favorite household apple for just eating is the Honeycrisp, a hybrid only developed in 1960.
We ought to consider, though, that what we pass by on the way to our new and improved future, is the gifts of God that were already custom made for us and for our nurture. Sometimes that means the apple is not sweet and juicy but tart and a little too hard to bite.
We do not always grasp the gifts of God when we receive them; if the apple is too hard, too lumpy, too brown, perhaps it would be best baked or cooked in some other way which will transform it into something unexpected and will bless us in ways we cannot see on our way to the perfectly formed, perfectly red, perfectly ordinary apple that ships well and appeals to the eye.
In the Gospel this morning the Pharisees and the scribes appeal to human wisdom, to habit and to tradition when they challenge Jesus concerning the behavior of His disciples. Over the years they have built up for themselves a system of behavior that they are convinced brings them closer to God so when they see the disciples flouting those rules, they are scandalized and wonder how it is that they are not making sure, for instance, that they wash before eating.
As if dirt could keep you from God, as if God didn’t make the dirt in the first place. As if a human could ever be truly clean enough on their own to approach God.
The Pharisees were looking past the gifts from heaven, every perfect gift is from above, says James and seeing only the works of their own hands.
Jesus reminds them and us not to brush so brusquely past the outstretched hand of God, the hand that holds in it untold blessings on the way to judgment, but to stop and to think about what we say and how we say it, to stop and think about what we have been given and what we do with those gifts.
Do we build up or do we tear down? To we take those gifts and bless again and again, making the hand of God known or do we build a cage around them and make them our own?
If we can accept the gifts of God, no, you do not have to like Brussels sprouts, but if we can embrace the world in all of its variety that has been given to us and see as God did that it is good, then we are halfway or even a little farther toward understanding the gift of grace itself, that cannot be managed, cannot be improved, cannot be bent to our will or made to service any agenda but that of God because is itself already wholly perfect.
It must be since it is a gift from above.