Sunday, February 28, 2010

God of the Belly

Philippians 3:17-4:1; assorted Proverbs
Lent 2
February 28, 2010
William G. Carter

"Their end is destruction; their god is the belly..."

When we began our Lenten exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins last week, we heard how Jesus was tempted to make bread from stones. He had fasted for a good long time, and he was famished. So it’s appropriate to consider the stomach, and specifically the sin of gluttony.

Gluttony is one of the stranger items on the list of deadly sins. Overeating does not seem like a misdeed. A mistake, certainly. It drives up blood pressure and clogs up most of our pipes. Chronic munching puts a tire around the midsection and can wear out our knees. It can become harder to process the blood sugar, and that puts great strain on circulation and eye sight. Our physicians warn us of such things. Sometimes we survive the wake-up calls. But other than wearing out these fine physical machines that God bequeathed us, over-eating doesn’t seem like much of a sin. And if it is, the annual Thanksgiving feast is quickly forgiven.

What’s more, it’s important to remember that gluttony is not the same as obesity. I had a friend in high school who had a part-time job in a neighborhood bakery. It was his job to make the donuts. He was already a large individual, and came by that honestly through two very large parents. All through school, the other kids picked on him mercilessly. We never saw him over-eat. He regularly packed a baggie of carrot sticks in his lunch bag. He got a lot of exercise. Truth be told, he never wanted to touch another donut after standing over the vat and finding himself splashed with grease. Just because somebody is big, it doesn’t mean that they are a glutton.

A definition may be in order. By a deadly sin, we are talking about some human practice or attitude that destroys us when it takes over our lives. All of us have to eat to survive. Eating and drinking are essential practices for life. On the face of it, gluttony begins when we think that if we eat more, we will live more. Logically we know this is not true; more food slows us down. But there are situations when a hunger becomes all-consuming.

The collection from Israel’s wise proverbs reminds us of this. I had a few favorite verses from today’s first reading, and maybe you did, too. My favorite comes from chapter 23: “Do not be among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe them with rags.”

I don’t normally use the word “winebibber,” but I didn’t have to look it up. The sage is warning against obsessions with food and drink. It’s expensive, for one thing. If you eat filet mignon every night, it will cost a lot of money. If you fall inside a wine bottle, it can take over your life.

In one memorable conversation, a man tried to tell me that drinking red wine was good for his heart. He explained that’s why he drained a case a week. Maybe his cardiologist was proud of him, but the rest of his relationships were in a shambles. And his kids hated him.

The ancient church leaders gave this a good deal of thought. They paid close attention to the ways we consume – beginning at the dinner table. The way we eat can warn us about the ways we live. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, offered six warnings for the supper table. Don’t eat too soon, don’t eat too expensively, don’t eat too much, don’t eat too eagerly, don’t eat too daintily, and don’t eat too wildly.

No, no, no – they said. Let the taste sink in. There is ancient wisdom here. In one of the monasteries I have visited, the abbot noted that tasting our food is a spiritual matter. As he explained to the guests, “We eat together, after the whole family has arrived. We serve one another, to ensure that every one is fed. We put our fork on the table after every bite, to savor the taste of every morsel God provides. We put on the table only what we can eat comfortably, so that nothing is wasted or forced. And we restrain ourselves to enjoy sweet desserts only when we celebrate something important.”

This strikes me as good advice for a fast-food nation. Imagine how much better food would taste if we tasted every bite, if we sat together, rather than roll through the drive-thru window and rush on our way to the next stop.

Eating and drinking are spiritual matters. They reveal something more than food and beverage. We hear this in today’s text from the letter to the Philippians. In the middle of his most affectionate letter, the apostle Paul makes an abrupt shift. He had just finished telling the people in that church how much he loved them. He invited them to have the mind of Christ, to live for one another’s benefit. “You shine like the stars in the sky,” he says, “and you give me joy.”

Then he must have put down his pen, gone for a walk, and heard a troubling update on that church – for he suddenly gets cranky. He comes back to write, “We have enemies against us in the life of faith. I told you this before, and now I tell you with tears.” It is an odd shift. Who are these enemies, Paul? How will we spot them? He writes, “Their end is destruction, their glory is in their shame, their god is the belly . . .” It is a most suggestive phrase.

Now, we don’t know specifically who Paul had in mind. He doesn’t name these people. But he defined them by their appetites. He describes people who are bent on consumption. Whatever they see, they have to devour. There is a great hole at the center of their being. They are trying to fill it any number of ways. It’s not merely that they are eating too much; Paul is speaking euphemistically, not literally. If anything, the problem seems to be that whatever these enemies have, they must have more. They have given up on worshiping the God who feeds us; instead they now worship their hungers.

You know, there is ancient wisdom here. As I’ve given this some thought, gluttony is more than eating and drinking. It is a habit of consumption – specifically, a habit of over-consumption. It’s swallowing more than our share of whatever God provides. It is to feast conspicuously while others starve. Gluttony is to burn up ever more gasoline and electricity than we need. It is, in a sense, to stockpile more clothing than our closets can hold, to hoard more than we will ever use, and to spend more money than we have.

The antidote is living more with less. There is a restraint that makes room for other people. There is a simplicity that gives more for others to enjoy. There is a modesty that is not impressed with whatever the Thought Tyrants happen to be selling us. And it opens raw the hungers that all of us have – without making any false promises that the word’s stuff will ever satisfy us.

The apostle Paul writes as a hungry man. He is starving for Jesus to come and satisfy our deepest needs. “We have one foot in God’s commonwealth,” he says. When we were baptized in the name of the Trinity, God issued to each of us a passport from heaven. Our homeland is the place where God rules. But here and now, surrounded by so much chocolate, we have to stay disciplined enough to maintain our deepest appetite for God.

A fine meal can be savored as a holy gift. We can enjoy the meats and sweets, but our stomachs will growl again. If we stuff ourselves with food and drink, these tasty delights become a deadly distraction from the true hunger that all of us have. In the words of Frederick Buechner, “A glutton is one who raids the icebox for a cure for spiritual malnutrition.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 31)

He knows what he’s talking about. His own father struggled with self-doubt, spiraling to his early demise through one empty happy hour after another. Buechner said, “My father’s alcoholism was one of our family secrets. We more or less kept it under wraps, monitored our own drinking to moderation, and never dealt with it.” It stayed there, he said, until many years later, one of Buechner’s daughters stopped eating.

It was nothing scary at first, he says. She was the kind of girl who thought she would be prettier if she lost a couple of pounds. So she stopped eating breakfast, had a carrot, or Diet Coke for lunch, maybe a low-cal salad for supper. Months went by, and it became scary. Her skeletal appearance frightened him. He hovered over her, she backed further away. As he discovered, her anorexia had the dark magic of promising freedom and independence, while taking away her freedom and promising someone would take care of her. Both cravings were satisfied at once, and it began to pull him in its destructive wake as well.

As he tells the story, “My daughter was in danger of starving to death, and without knowing it, so was I. I wasn’t living my own life any more because I was so caught up in hers. If in refusing to eat she was made as a hatter, I was madder still because I knew nothing about what I was doing to myself. She had given up food. I had virtually given up doing anything in the way of feeding myself humanly…. I had no peace at all. If on one particular day she took it into her head to have a slice of toast, I was in seventh heaven. If on some other day she decided to have no supper at all, I was in hell.”

“I choose the word hell with some care. Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which has become in a way my life too, that none of the usual sources of light worked any more, and light was what I was starving for…”

“The only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her, as my father has been unable to take care of me, to move heaven and earth if necessary to make her well, and of course I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have the wisdom or the power to make her well . . . The only way she could ever be well again was if and when she freely chose to be. The best I could do as her father was to stand back and give her that freedom even at the risk of her using it to choose for death instead of life.” (Telling Secrets, pp. 23-27)

In the grace of God, she was saved. Her rescue came as she was hospitalized miles away, tended by specialists, and her father couldn’t do anything for her but pray. Fortunately she made the decision to eat and live. She decided to give up on devouring herself by not eating.

These are deadly sins that we are talking about. They are misfired behaviors that can wrap around our legs like vines and tug us toward hell. Gluttony is an appetite that feeds upon itself, gnawing on our vital organs, promising a satisfaction that will never come. Gluttony promises glory, and threatens to humiliate us. Our belly becomes a poor substitute for God.

Like the other deadly sins, we don’t defeat this easily, for in Plato’s ancient description, we are “leaky vessels.” Whatever is poured into us will continue to leak out. Friends and companions can remind us of this. They can offer the support and love we need, and stand in God’s stead. They help us face the truth that carbohydrates cannot make us happy. Liquor cannot dilute our pain. We cannot puff up our pride by bloating ourselves.

We can only come before the God who loves us, tired and weary tough we may be, and we can take freely from the gifts that God gives for our health, for our nutrition, for our balanced diet.

It occurs to me that we are gathering for the Lord’s Supper next Sunday. The menu is set: we serve bread and wine, and the main course is salvation. I invite you to come hungry. I invite you to come hungry for Christ.

(c) William G. Carter
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