God’s “Free Market” Economy

Ancient Testimony – Isaiah 55: 1-13

July 10, 2011

by Emily Brown

The only riot I have ever been in was in a library. It was spring of 2006 and I was a junior in college. One evening, it was long after the dining hall closed, I was halfway through a paper, and I was so hungry. Out of ramen noodles and low on cash, I opened my email and saw something from the student council with the subject line “Free Felipe’s and Finale.” Those were like magic words to me. Felipe’s was the Mexican place on campus – not very authentic, but so greasy and salty and ‘carbalicious.’ Finale was the fancy-schmancy dessert place that made tiny, perfect desserts topped with gold flakes and architectural spirals of chocolate. These were the crème de la crème of campus food, and they were free for the taking if I just went to this party in the library celebrating the longer library hours which the student council had convinced the administration to agree to.

Well, it turns out that some other people also were interested in free Felipe’s and free Finale desserts. One thousand, five hundred people. Fifteen minutes before the reception was supposed to begin, the library lobby was as crowded as a mosh pit, and security guards were standing like bouncers at the library doors. Then the food arrived: about a hundred burritos, and two medium-sized catering trays of desserts. It was pandemonium. Hundreds of students lunged for the food. There was screaming and shoving and scratching. The student body president, fearing for his safety, started throwing burritos into the crowd as a diversionary tactic. I saw one girl stuffing four or five quesadillas into her pants. And I do not mean the pocket part of the pants. The food was gone within seconds. That’s when the police arrived. My feet made only the most fleeting contact with the ground as the crowd began to stampede toward the doors. I was terrified; the crowd was crushing me and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t move and finally I got swept out onto the quad panicked and shaken. All for some free burritos. What was wrong with us?

Nothing that hasn’t been wrong with people for as long as we can remember. It would have been understandable if we were starving. But no one in that library lobby was starving. (And I know that because you needed a valid student ID to get in, and every student was required to buy a full meal plan.) I think in the Great Lamont Riot of 2006, I saw a particularly dramatic expression of this dark part of human nature – a drive to conserve our resources and lay in supplies. An old and deep anxiety that someday in the future, there might not be enough and we had better get what we can while the getting’s good. A fear that we’ll miss out and someone will get what we ought to have for ourselves. It happens around a lot of things, but it happens especially around food. You see it on that television show Hoarders – have you ever watched that show? These people just cannot stop acquiring stuff, and their houses fill up and become unlivable and hazardous and unsanitary, and so often their fridges and cupboards and whole kitchens are full of more cans and boxes of food than they would need for the rest of their lives. You see it when you look at the sizes of drinks you can buy at Starbucks shops and convenience stores and movie theaters – we buy coffees and sodas in these bucket-sized cups, as if we were preparing for a month in the desert! And you see it when fifteen hundred college students stage a riot over burritos and chocolate cakes. We sometimes let stuff – and food – take over our lives. We are sometimes deeply afraid that there is not enough, and sometimes we let that fear drive our shopping and our consuming and how we treat one another.

There’s nothing wrong with a bargain, friends. Nothing is wrong with planning ahead, and nothing is wrong with being prudent with the resources you have, and God knows nothing is wrong with not having much money to spend on food. But something is wrong – very, very wrong – with the way our society relates to food, and stuff, and money.

Arturo Rodriguez in his article, “Cheap Food” in the companion to the documentary Food, Inc., tells the story of a young farmworker named Maria Isabel Vasquez Jiminez. “Young grapevines thrive in the fierce summer sun of California’s Central Valley,” he writes. “But the same early summer heat that helps bring life to the bountiful produce millions of Americans enjoy can also destroy. Unlike the young grapevines, assured of constant irrigation and hydration, farm worker Maria Jimenez had to do without water as she labored in the fields in direct sunlight on a 95-degree day in May 2008. After almost nine hours of work, Maria became dizzy and collapsed to the ground. Her boyfriend Florentino Bautista ran to her, held her in his arms, and begged for help. The foreman walked over to them and stood over the couple, reassuring Bautista and telling him that ‘this happens all the time.’ . . . By the time she arrived at the hospital, her body temperature was 108.4 degrees.” Maria died three days later. The grapes she was picking are part of the supply chain for Trader Joe’s line of “Two Buck Chuck,” the wine which costs two dollars per bottle – although this is New York, so of course it costs three.

So on the one hand, we have this society which wants cheap food, free food, at all costs; and even if we only pay two dollars for the bottle of wine, even if a hamburger can be purchased for a dollar, there are other costs. Costs to the environment, costs in the lives of farmworkers and food workers and their families, and costs to our own bodies. On the other hand, we have the imagery from today’s ancient testimony: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” This is a totally different image of free food – and it undercuts everything about the way our society deals with food. We live in one kind of “free market” – an economic system which crushes people in order to sell me a bottle of wine for two dollars; an economic system which sees very little value in human life or human dignity or wholeness or wellness or caring for this planet; an economic system which plays on our anxieties and insecurities and worst impulses so that you and I will buy more and more and more.

But the text today speaks of another kind of “free market”: a marketplace where everything is free because it flows out of God’s abundance. A marketplace that speaks not to our fears and anxieties, but to our needs and, yes, our delights! A marketplace that says, instead of “buy two, get one free,” “everything you need is here. There is enough. Enjoy it!” And the text connects this free marketplace directly with covenants – in this case, God’s covenant with Israel, since this book was written to Israelites in the Babylonian exile. But that idea of covenant – that idea is crucial; because part of the idea of covenant is that we are called to relate to one another as human beings, not to take advantage of one another in order to get ahead. In contrast to our “free market” with its cheap food, this is a “free market” of abundance in community.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace is when churches try to water down religion, to make it all about feeling good and not at all about living well. Cheap grace says, “your sins are forgiven! Go back out into the world and don’t change anything. Go ahead and harm people, if you want. Don’t fuss with trying to change the world, it’ll be fine. We’ll see you next week.” But costly grace, he wrote, is free but not cheap. Costly grace is the love which calls us to transformation. Costly grace means taking a hard look at ourselves and our world, and knowing that we are good and beautiful and beloved and worthy, and so are all the other people around us, and trying to live that out even when it is really, really hard. Costly grace means entering into the hard and scary task of standing up to a world that crushes people. Cheap grace is a two-dollar bottle of wine. Costly grace is trying to live as if food is from God, and the earth that produces it is from God, and the farmers who grow it are from God, and the workers who transport it and sell it are from God, and our bodies that need it for nourishment are from God. And trying to live that way is hard.

I think that costly grace is what God’s free market of abundance is all about. It is about a lot more than food. It is about treating people as if God made them and they matter. It is about naming and resisting the things in the world and our own minds that tell us that we should be afraid, and anxious, and fighting all the time. It is about seeing one another as human beings rather than objects.

But in a way, it is about food as well, because, as that Sara Miles reading reminded us, every spiritual teaching we have in Christianity plays out simultaneously in the tangible, material world of food and eating. We talk about all of these high-minded ideas – grace, redemption, creation, justice – in terms of food and eating. We embody what we believe through communions and coffee hours, feasting and fasting, saying grace and sipping wine. The Christian tradition is full of food stories and food teachings and food rituals because food is one of the places where what we believe meets how we live.

God’s ways are not our ways, the text says, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. It is really difficult to break away from a world which tries to teach us to fear scarcity and look out for only ourselves. So this is not about guilt and shame and feeling bad every time you buy something other than organic, fair trade quinoa. But it is about imagining what it would look like if the ways that we bought and sold and ate food honored what is sacred. I don’t know what it would look like for you. Maybe it looks like giving away some of the extra cans you keep “just in case.” Maybe it looks like a discernment process about what God wants for your grocery budget. Maybe it looks like pausing to give thanks before meals, and seeing how that changes things.

Or maybe it looks like this: There’s a wonderful movie from 1987 called Babette’s Feast. In that movie, two sisters live in a rural village in Denmark, leading a small Christian sect that their father founded, practicing total austerity and solemnity. One day, a French woman arrives at their door, a friend of a friend, fleeing political persecution, and asks them to take her in as their housekeeper because she has nowhere else to go. For ten years, she lives with them, making their terrible bleak soup and cleaning their cold and dreary house, until one day she gets word that she has won a large sum of money. She asks the two sisters whether she can prepare a feast for them and their friends as a gesture of gratitude for welcoming her in, and they agree. They start to regret their decision as her supplies begin to arrive – rare and expensive wines; live turtles in crates; exotic fruits that they have never seen before. What is this, they wonder? It must be sinful to eat so extravagantly; maybe even satanic. They meet in secret with their church, and they agree that everyone will eat the feast, but they will all do their best not to take the slightest pleasure in it. But as they gather and Babette expresses her love and gratitude through the medium of food, a transformation begins to take place. The austerity begins to break; there are smiles and laughter; old grudges are mended and old romances are rekindled. Joy breaks through the solemnity, and they begin to delight in God’s abundance and each other’s company. And finally we learn that Babette, the first great female chef in all of France, has joyfully spent her fortune to offer this one meal, this one experience of taking joy in God’s creation. It is costly grace, freely given.

And that is the vision that echoes through the text today; it calls us to delight not in two-dollar wine or free burritos, but in God’s gifts of creation and community. It invites us to care for one another, to share out of our own abundance when we can, rather than fearing scarcity. It declares that God’s vision for the world is a different kind of free market, a table where everyone is welcome, a feast where everyone is fed. And although God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, it challenges us to live our way into it. Amen.

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