Rod Oram’s talk for the Season of Creation on “Food”

We were delighted to welcome Rod back to St Chad’s.

In the name of God the Creator, Christ the Cosmic One, and the Holy Spirit the
Ata mārie, a peaceful morning to you. It’s wonderful to be back with you during the
Season of Creation. Thank you, Carolyn and Colin, for inviting me. It’s always a great
pleasure to say ‘yes’…particularly when food is the topic du jour…and when we take
bread and drink wine at this table to bring us into communion with Christ our
I’ll begin, if I may, with a brief story about a welcome, about hospitality. Shortly after
dawn on Monday, January 20th, 1997, Lynn, Celeste and I touched down at Auckland
Airport. We were very tired, having flown straight through from London via a brief
stop in Los Angeles.
But we were also very excited. This was our very first moment in New Zealand. We’d
come for a week to see what we thought about life in Auckland. We had to decide
deciding whether to take up the offer of a job from the New Zealand Herald and
become immingrants.
As we staggered out of the terminal towards a taxi, we noticed something quite
remarkable. We smelt not jet fumes which blight other airports. But the fresh, salty
air of the Manukau Harbour.
As the taxi brought us into town, our eyes were drawn to the magnificent volcanic
cone of Maungakiekie, which back then still had a lone tree on its summit, basking in
the warm hues of the early morning sun.
Ah ha, we wondered…could nature be more a part of this city than most?
I felt this incredible excitement. A sense I was back home at last, back in the
embrace of a place where I felt at one with nature.
But that made no sense at all. This was my very first time anywhere in the South
Pacific, let alone Tāmaki Makaurau.
Then I had a revelation. You are what you eat.
In smoggy, industrial Birmingham, I had grown up on regular Sunday roasts of lamb
from the farms of New Zealand. Clearly Kiwi meat molecules had helped grow my
English bones, tissues, muscles, sinews, organs, blood and other body parts.
“Yippee!” those dancing molecules proclaimed after we landed in Aotearoa. “Home
at last!”
As fanciful as that might seem, we usually think of food as just fuel for our bodies.
Rarely do we think deeply about the land and water, the microbes and other living
organisms, the air and sun which give life to the plants and animals we eat. And if we
do think about them, it’s a very rare person who has a spiritual relationship with
Yet, as Archbishop Rowan Williams has written:
“We are not consumers of what God has made. We are in communion with it.”
But what an appalling mess we’ve made of our relationship with God’s creation.
Food, agriculture and the climate are deeply inter-dependent. Yet, for much of
our history, we humans have made it a damaging interaction because we have
usurped nature.
The way we use land to produce food usually depletes ecosystems, reduces
biodiversity and contributes to the climate crisis through the generation of
greenhouse gases and the degradation of land.
Yes, over the last century in particular we have spectacularly increased the
volume and affordability of food to keep pace with the growth in human
But in addition to the environmental damage we’ve caused in the process, some
of that food consists of ‘empty calories’. They provide energy but little or no
other nutrition. Consequently, there are now more obese people (from a number
of causes, not just nutrition) in the world than malnourished. This is causing a
health crisis.
Moreover, the harder we have pushed food’s production systems – biological and
economic — the more unsustainable both have become. This vicious cycle is now
threatening our ability to maintain yields, or to even produce food at all in the
most climate-compromised parts of the planet.
Given these adverse trajectories, humankind has at best only two decades or so
left to massively transform agriculture and food production so it works with
nature and not against it.
Then we will help ecosystems restore themselves, which in turn will help them
solve our climate crisis. By nurturing nature in this virtuous cycle, we will also
significantly increase the volume and nutritional value of food as our human
population increases by another 30 percent to a projected 10 bn people or so by
Healthy people, healthy planet. That’s what Creation will do for us, if we give
Creation a chance to heal itself.
But rather than simply trying to minimise the extraction and damage we do to
nature, we need to use land — for all purposes, not just agriculture and food
production – in ways that help ecosystems recover, to regenerate.
The concept of regenerative agriculture has been around since the 1970s…but in
recent years around the world development of its practices and the take up of
them by farmers have accelerated fast. It’s all about working with nature, not
against it.
Here in Aotearoa, our Primary Sector Council, chaired by Lain Jager, a former
Zespri chief executive, launched its new vision and strategy, called Fit for a Better
World, just two month ago in July.
It is based strongly on the concept of regenerative agriculture, which is given a
unique and deeply New Zealand context through its embrace of Te Taiao, an
expression of Te Ao Māori, the world view of humankind’s symbiotic,
interdependent, relationship with nature.
With the strategy document, the council released a companion document
describing this. It is called Te Taiao Ora Tangata Ora – the Natural World and our
People are Healthy.
Vision, strategy, science. We need all of those, and more, human constructs to
help us re-establish a healthy relationship with Creation. But above all, I believe
we need a spiritual relationship with our fellow species. Then we will care more
for them. Then we will act with far greater conviction to protect them, protect
the Living Earth…and thereby make safe ourselves.
When we go seeking such a relationship in the Bible, however, it seems almost all
the stories, all the wisdom are about a two-party relationship: the relationship
between us and our triune God, father, son and Holy Spirit.
Yet, if we read the Bible with our hearts, minds and souls full of our love for the
beauty of God’s creation and full of our grief at its loss, I believe we will find the
third party in the Bible. It is God’s creation, embodied in the Living Earth itself.
When we turn to this morning’s readings with that eco-interpretation of the
Bible in mind, we read an astonishingly appropriate story in Leviticus. God tells
Moses that the Israelites must declare every 50th year a Jubilee Year. In that year,
financial debts between people are forgiven.
This was a widely practised custom in ancient civilisations in the Middle East.
Fascinatingly today, given Covid-19’s vast disruption of the global economy,
there is a growing chorus of voices calling for Debt Jubilees now.
But while the focus of this passage is usually on human debts, God is also calling
on us to repent our debts to the land. In a Jubilee Year, the Israelites were told to
neither sow nor reap…to give the land a chance to recover. The last verse of the
reading is:
God said: “Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide
for the redemption of the land.”
That’s what we humans have to do now. Because as Paul wrote to the Romans,
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth
right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first
fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to
sonship, the redemption of our bodies.24 For in this hope we were saved.”
Nature’s groans are telling us :“Stop killing off land, species, ecosystems…all of
Creation.” They are telling us to restore our right relationship…a physical and
spiritual relationship with them.
The importance of this is underscored by this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel.
Just before this reading, Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan and, in the words
of Mark’s Gospel, “as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being
torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from
heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit
sent him out into the wilderness.”
He spent 40 days there in solitude, being tested by Satan, being attended by animals
and angels…above all, seeking the divine presence.
Now in today’s reading, Jesus has come straight from the wilderness to Nazareth,
where he had grown up. There, on the Sabbath, he went to the synagogue and
begins his public ministry.
In his first act of ministry Jesus picks up a scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reads a
Jubilee text (Chapter 61, verses 1 and 2), which is repeated in this morning’s Gospel
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn.”
Then, as Luke writes:
Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of
everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to
them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
By proclaiming the kingdom of God as a form of Jubilee, in the present tense, for all
the nations, Jesus opens the Jubilee up to layers of additional meaning and
The word Jubilee is from the word yobel, the Hebrew for trumpet. It is a clarion call
to reset, to get back to fair and first principles, to right wrongs, stresses and
imbalances which have accumulated in our systems, in our society.
When it comes to the global crisis of food, I’m very excited about the very special
role we in Aotearoa are playing in this great reset.
So too are my Kiwi molecules, many more of which I’ve welcomed to my body
through these past 23 years of Kiwi-grown food.
“Yippee!”…we’re all saying. Because our innovative and caring farmers are
increasingly bringing together mātauranga Māori — deep knowledge and wisdom
drawn from humankind’s symbiotic, deeply inter-dependent relationship with nature
— with mātauranga Pākeha, western scientific knowledge.
We’re seeing this Jubilee not only in Fit for a Better World, the Primary sectors vision
and strategy, but also in the research and programmes of the likes of Our Land and
Water, one of our long-term National Science Challenges and the growing ranks of
farmers turning to regenerative practices.
Quite simply, we are what we eat. So eat wisely, eat well…and every time you do so,
give great thanks to God for our communion with all life he has created.

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