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When I was 10 years old, my father was diagnosed with high cholesterol. Suddenly, foods we had loved—scrambled eggs cooked in bacon fat, beef stroganoff, potatoes drenched in cheese and sour cream—these foods vanished. Cheerios, skinless chicken breasts, and olive oil took their place. We weren’t the only family going through this transition! The late eighties saw the dawn of the low fat diet. So many people began associating egg yolks with almost certain heart attacks, that American Egg Farmers suddenly had to start marketing the humble egg!
Flash forward fifteen years. Americans have realized that low fat doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Basically we’ve been substituting fat with sugar and are none the healthier. Now red meat and eggs are okay, but in 2002 the enemy is carbohydrates. My boyfriend at the time was one of the many people who attempted the South Beach Diet. Do you remember that one? It was not as extreme as Atkins, but all flour and sugar were out. They replaced mashed potatoes with mashed cauliflower and ice cream with ricotta mixed with a little splenda. I may or may not have kept a stash of cookies in my car during this romantic relationship.
Food takes a funny place in the world of human beings. We love food, but we also loathe food. Food has power over us. We think if we can control the food we eat, we will be happier, look better, and live longer. We alternately demonize and sanctify foods based on whatever the latest science reveals about their effects on our bodies.
Now, just imagine if this relationship to food was complicated further by there being religious and ritualistic meaning to food!
For Jesus’ followers, food was related to religion. Some foods were okay to eat and some were absolutely forbidden. Jesus’ followers would have been horrified, for instance, when they saw me eating lobster after lobster on my Maine vacation. Any shell fish, pork and some other meats, such as meat from mice or bats (perish the thought) were forbidden.
Now, those foods had been explicitly banned by Leviticus, but other traditions around food had developed that were not a direct biblical mandate. Priests were required to ritually wash their hands before dealing with animal sacrifices, but over time that practice had expanded to include all lay people washing their hands in a ritual manner before any meal. Jesus’ followers were not all washing their hands before they ate.
The Pharisees and scribes were not happy about this. These weren’t any old scribes, either. They were the scribes from Jerusalem. These were the experts in the field. They were the most important scholars in the Jewish world. They wanted to know why Jesus was allowing his followers to eat with defiled hands!
Jesus calls the scribes hypocrites and then says: “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Jesus digs underneath the meaning of the rituals and the rules and clarifies to his followers that nothing we can eat can defile us. Not even a deep fried stick of butter at a state fair. Only our own thoughts and actions can defile us.
But we get the disconnect. We understand and have sympathy for those first century Jews. We understand that food is complicated and tradition is complicated. While outside of Seders and the Eucharist, food does not have much of a religious component for us anymore, it still holds incredible power.
While first century Jews understood their religious health to be wrapped up in what and how they ate their food, science has started to unravel the mysteries of how our physical health is wrapped up in our food.
And just as first century Jews might have lost track of their spiritual health by focusing on food rules rather than their own thoughts and behaviors, we can lose track of our spiritual health by focusing on food rules rather than our own thoughts and behaviors.
Food is a gift—it gives us strength and nourishes us. It can give us great pleasure, too. A perfectly cooked steak, an aged cheddar, the Bent Spoon’s chocolate sorbet: Food can give us a moment of true transport.
However, like anything in life, our relationship to food can get out of balance. We can be addicted to it, we can abuse it, we can use it to hurt ourselves. On the other hand, we can also become incredibly controlling about food, we can deprive ourselves, we can shame others.
Caitlin Moran, in her hilarious, profound, and extremely profane book, How to be a Woman has an extremely insightful chapter about her own unhealthy relationship to food. She makes the claim that there are two kinds of over eating—one in which a person just really loves good food and experiences it in a sort of Falstaffian way, but that for other sorts of people, including herself, eating becomes a compulsion, a kind of addiction. She writes (and this is heavily edited due to the aforementioned profanity):
“I’m talking about those for whom. . .thoughts of food, and the effects of food are the constant, dreary, background static to normal thought. Those who think about lunch while eating breakfast, and pudding as they eat chips; who walk into the kitchen in a state bordering on panic and breathlessly eat slice after slice of bread and butter. . .until the panic can be drowned in an almost meditative routine of chewing and swallowing, spooning, and swallowing. . . .You get all the temporary release of drinking, [sex], or taking drugs, but without—and I think this is the important bit—ever being left in a state where you can’t remain responsible and cogent. . .Overeating is the addiction of choice of [people who care for others], and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of [messing] yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to.”
Her words resonate because while not all of us drink or use drugs, we all eat. Food is part of each of our lives and for many of us, to various degrees, food becomes a kind of medication for our anxiety, for our fear, for our self loathing.
On the other hand, in the “Dear Prudence” advice column in Slate this week, a woman wrote in because mothers in a play group her daughter is in, berated her for bringing non-organic carrots and high fat ranch dip to the child’s play group. While this may seem a completely opposite problem to that of over eating, food snobbery that becomes so extreme it causes a person to lash out at someone for bringing conventional carrots to a play group also comes from a place of brokenness. The false belief that we can control our future, control our health, control our destiny through organic and high end food is just another form of anxiety.
Whether we over eat or starve ourselves, whether we indulge in everything or count every calorie and potential toxin, many of us have used food to ease that sense of panic that comes with anxiety.
And this is where Jesus comes in. Because Jesus knows this about us. He knows about our insecurity, our fear, our inability to control ourselves. Jesus knows it is not the food that is the problem. Food is just food. Jesus knows the heart of the problem is our own brokenness. We can call it insecurity, we can call it addiction, we can call it fear.
That fear, that brokenness does not defile us, but what we do with it can.
There is a moment in our baptismal vows during which we promise to renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.
I warn baptismal candidates that this is the most difficult baptismal promise of all. We are conditioned to turn towards other things to comfort us instead of turning toward God.
We turn towards food, shopping, overworking, over exercising, wine, pornography, drugs to comfort ourselves. (If it makes you feel better, in the course of writing this sermon I consumed a pint of ice cream, two cookies, two Reese’s peanut butter cups, went to the GAP and bought a pair of jeans and two t-shirts, and bought a diaper bag on Ebay that I don’t really need. She knows whereof she speaks.)
The potential is there that our anxiety will grow and build and mutate and turn into fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly—those things Jesus warns us will defile us, will separate us from God.
Whenever we feel our brokenness, our panic, we have a choice to make. Will we choose life or will we choose death? Will we choose Jesus, who loves us and forgives us and will give us strength? Or will we choose to hurt ourselves and those around us?
Jesus offers true life to his followers. Over and over again he cuts through the Pharisees’ and scribes’ hypocrisy and reminds his followers that following him is not about obeying rules perfectly. Following Jesus is about being in relationship with the living God. A relationship with the living God is risky! God is asking you to bring your whole self before him—all your anxiety, all your fear. He’s asking you not to stuff it down, not to submerge it, not to subdue it, but to hold it up to his light.
Not only that, but as you’ve been learning the last few weeks in church, Jesus becomes our food. He replaces the empty calories with his own person. Jesus is the food that nourishes us. Jesus is the food that gives us hope. Jesus is the food that saves us. Jesus is the bread that actually addresses our anxiety, our alienation, our fear.
Eating a tiny piece of wafer and drinking a thimble full of wine every week may not feel as satisfying and downing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or getting through the day having only consumed 1200 calories by eating steamed organic carrots and hummus for lunch, but Jesus is food that sustains us. Jesus is the only food that leaves no craving. Jesus is the only food that is enough.
Thanks be to God.
 Moran, Caitlin, How to be a Woman, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY: 2012, pp. 116-117