Proper 17, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

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.”[1]

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.

[1] Moran, Caitlin, How to be a Woman, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY:  2012, pp. 116-117



Epiphany 4, Year B, 2009

When I was ten, my father got diagnosed with high cholesterol.  My mother was the cook in our house and within days she was deep in the American Heart Association cookbook and ordering a subscription to Cooking Light.  Gone were the omelets, steaks, and sour cream from our lives.  They were replaced by cheerios, pasta, and skinless chicken breasts.

At the time, this did not seem that remarkable to me.  But now, looking back, I am impressed with my mother’s willingness to uproot an entire family’s dietary lifestyle for the health of one member of the family.  If my dad’s eating habits had to change, all of our eating habits had to change.  It would not be fair to him if he was eating a piece of fish while the rest of us chomped down on hamburgers.

Our passage from 1 Corinthians today is also about dietary choices that are good for a community, but the situation Paul is responding to is not as simple as one member of the Corinthian community having high cholesterol!

Corinth was a Greek town with a predominantly Hellenistic culture.  Part of that culture was idol worship.  Small statues would be placed on altars and these “gods” would be given gifts of food.  The food would later be eaten by people in social gatherings.  The religious and social life was entwined together.

This created a huge problem for Corinthian Christians.  After all, they certainly did not believe in worshiping idols or that these small “gods” even existed.  To them, there was only one God.

The Corinthian Christians had broken into two camps.  The first was a group who approached the situation intellectually.  They were secure in their faith, they knew no other gods existed.  Since no other gods existed, then food offered to those gods was no different from any other food.  For this group of Christians, joining in the social eating of food offered to idols was not a problem at all.

The second group of Corinthian Christians were not so sure.  At one point in their lives they, too, had offered up food to idols, and that time was recently enough that eating food to those same idols now made them nervous.  To these Christians, eating the food offered to idols was acknowledging the gods they represented and was just plain wrong.

And this is where Paul comes in.  Paul has been asked to adjudicate this dispute.  He acknowledges that the first group, the intellectuals, are right from a philosophical viewpoint.  He states,

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

He agrees with their argument that since there is only one God for the Christians-even if another culture thinks there are many gods-then idols don’t exist so food offered to them is food offered to nothing.

However, just as that group is feeling pretty proud of themselves for being right, Paul turns the argument.

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

In other words, just because the intellectual argument was correct, does not mean that eating the meat offered to idols was right.  By eating the meat, the first group was threatening the faith of the second group.  Members of the second group may know that there is only one God in their head, but that deep knowledge may not have penetrated their heart yet.  Worshiping many gods may still be a temptation for them.  Because of this Paul is saying that he, for one, would choose not to eat the meat sacrificed to idols in front of Corinthian Christians.  Eating the meat did not matter one way or the other to God, but wounding another Christian was absolutely not acceptable.

Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that they are in this journey together.  They need each other.  If eating meat sacrificed to idols threatens the faith of some of the community, than the entire community should abstain from eating the meat.

In the modern church we do not have a direct comparison to this problem.  As far as I know none of you were part of an idol worshiping religion before you came to Emmanuel!

However, I think we can learn about sticking together from this passage. Paul sums it up well when he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

The desire to be right, the desire to win an argument can blind us to the needs of others.  Whether we are on our high horse about our political beliefs or whose turn it is to take out the trash, our single mindedness can be deadly to our relationships.  I find it helpful to step back from an argument and think about what I really want.  Do I really want to prove that I cleaned exactly 61% of the house or am I just looking for some affirmation and gratitude for the work that I did?  Ultimately what we want, I think is to feel heard and loved in our lives.  When we don’t feel that, being “right” is the next best thing.  But what we really want, is love.

The foundation of any good relationship is love.  We want love ourselves, but we are also asked to give love.  Part of love is seeking the good of the other, even if it means some sacrifice for yourself.  Paul asked the intellectual group of Corinthians to be generous to their brothers and sisters.  We are called to be generous, too.  For instance, if you live with an alcoholic, the generous response is to not keep alcohol in the house.  If you are friends with someone who is pinching pennies, the generous response is to plan a walk through a park together, rather than a shopping trip.  If your father has just had a heart attack, the generous response is to not bring him over those bacon wrapped twinkies you just deep fried.  While none of us can control the behavior of another person we can help to make life a little easier.  We can refrain from being “stumbling blocks” to those around us.

We are a community that worships one God.  And that God reminds us over and over again to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are bound together by our faith in God, but those binds can enrich us as much as they limit us.  By rooting our identities in a community rather than in our individual lives, we become kinder, more open minded, flexible and loving.  Seeing the world through the different lenses of members of our community helps us to be creative and to learn.  Our community makes us stronger.  Our community makes us better Christians.