Monday, November 20, 2006

11-19 sermon

Hi all--this is the sermon preached yesterday at ECBC. Entitled Does Jesus Care What We Eat?, it is an attempt to say why we need a good theology of food and sketch out very basically what that might be. It's based on Genesis 3:1-7, the fall of humanity.

The story of the fall of humanity is one of the very few Bible stories that people in our culture still recognize. They might not know the details of the story, but they know something about a woman eating an apple, and giving it to a man, and he ate the apple too, and that God was unhappy with them for eating it and kicked them out of the Garden of Eden.
Leave out for a minute the fact that the story never actually mentions an apple. Besides that minor fact, people actually know the story as it is–they know that Adam and Eve were punished for eating fruit that God told them not to eat. And this failure to follow God’s instruction became the first sin. And there is something in that first sin that opened Pandora’s box, if you will; it introduced chaos and sin into a beautiful world that God had made. All of our sin reflects this initial sin, this original sin, this rejection of the way God created the world.
Now, some will object that the story of Adam and Eve is obviously a myth–it obviously didn’t happen. Most scientists today insist that there were no “first humans,” exactly, because humans evolved from other species. Even many Christian scientists claim this. Now, to be honest, I don’t know how the world was created. I was not there. I have read arguments on both sides and I generally lean toward the idea of theistic evolution–the idea that life evolved on Earth, but that this was not mere chance, but that God used evolution to create the world. But, like I say, I don’t know exactly how God created the world.
But the moral force of the Adam and Eve story is no different, whether or not it happened in history. Because the primary purpose of the story of the Fall is not historical; it is theological. It is designed to show us the origin and the roots of sin. It is designed to show us what the first sin was like, and it is designed for us to reflect on how the sin in our lives and the sin in the world around us resembles this basic sin.
The basic sin in the Adam and Eve story is the way that they failed to use things that God had given them for their intended purposes. They watched as God gave them a tour of the garden, introduced them to the animals, those animals that were friendly and those animals that were food. They were introduced to the plants, and the vegetables, and the trees, the trees bearing fruits of all sorts. And they even saw this tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And everything had a purpose. They could use the food trees for food, the animals for food; they could drink from the stream for water. God designed creation to care for them even as they managed it. All they had to do was to use things for their intended purposes.
Who knows why that tree was placed there? Maybe God put it there to remind them that there were places they could not go because they were not God. Maybe God put it there to remind them that the knowledge of good and evil was not something fit for humanity. Who knows? All we can say for certain is that God put it there for a reason, and eating from it was not that reason. But humanity looked at the tree and thought to themselves: “God gave this to us for some reason, but rather than using it for what God intended it for, we really would like to eat it. We really would like to use God’s gifts our way–not God’s way!” The basic sin, then, was to look at God’s gift and to insist that we should use it our way, instead of the way that God intended for us to use it.
Often, when we think about sin in our lives, we think of things we do: we think of bad habits we know are harmful to us that we want to break. We think of things we know we really should start to do that, for some reason, we just don’t feel like we have the strength to do. We think of things like the ten commandments: we think of life as a checklist of things to do and things not to do, and when we fail on the checklists, we call it sin.
But sin is much deeper than that. Sin is not just a few things that we do here and there. Sin is a condition of the human heart. All sin can be traced back to that root we saw in the Garden of Eden: taking God’s good gifts to us and using them not in His way, but in our way. And we do this all the time, a lot of times without even knowing it. Sin is not so much a conscious choice that we make as it is a disposition of our hearts. It’s almost instinct for us to look at a gift of God and see how we can use it for our own advantage rather than as God intended for us to use.
Money, for example, is a gift of God we often misuse. God makes us managers of money–each of us with different amounts–so that we would use what we have to bring about his Kingdom. Yet, we very rarely look at our money in that way. God gives it to us for one reason, but we see it as being for another reason. This is the essence of what sin is.
Now, the end result of living this way is obviously confusion and frustration. When we take the tools God gives us and don’t use them as he intended, life just doesn’t work, and it’s frustrating. Imagine for a second that you are cooking a meal. I love to cook, and I do a good deal of the cooking in our house. And of course, there are all sorts of kitchen tools, and every tool has its own purpose. Suppose I’m making a stir-fry; for a stir-fry there are lots of tools you use. But two of the most important are a cutting board and a nonstick frying pan. Now, suppose that I have a great idea–I’m going to switch the tools! I don’t want to use the tools for the purposes they were intended for; I want to cut the carrots in the frying pan and I want to fry the food on the cutting board. What happens if I do that? A mess! A frying pan that’s all cut up and a melted cutting board, with oil all over the burners and quite possibly a fire.
This is what happens in our lives when we insist on using things that God gives to us for a purpose for other purposes. Money–God gives it to us to manage and advance the Kingdom. When we use it for ourselves and become attached to it, our lives, our marriages, our families, become a mess. Sex–God gives it to us as an intimate expression of love between husband and wife that in some mystical way reflects the way God loves the church. When we take sex and make it about our own gratification, it becomes warped and things get very messy. Lives get ruined, people get trampled on. Power–God puts certain people in power because they have the capability to do marvelous things with power. But if people misuse power, if they take power and make it about getting their own way, a mess ensues. When we use the gifts God gives us for God’s purposes, we live full and whole lives. When we use the gifts God gives us for purposes we think are better, a mess ensues. Confusion and frustration reign, because it’s like trying to use a hammer to turn a screw. It’s a tool that was designed for one thing, but we think we’re smart enough to use it for another.
When I see confusion and frustration in my life, it is usually the result of me misusing something God has given me. Now, confusion and frustration–these are two words that could really describe how our culture feels about food. Isn’t that true? Were you aware that 65% of American adults between age 20 and 74, including your pastor, are overweight? We are a culture with a weight problem; and those of us who are overweight often are confused and frustrated, beating ourselves up for the extra weight we are carrying, so frustrated at our seeming inability to get skinnier, angry.
And of course, there are many people who struggle with the opposite extreme. Eating disorders are rapidly claiming our young women, and to a lesser extent, our young men. Even as our culture has grown wider, the body image we hold up as ideal is getting skinnier. The result is that approximately 8 million people in our country, mostly young women between 15 and 35, have an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Eight million! And when it goes untreated, 20% of them die. And there are many more who are not disturbed enough to be diagnosed as fully having an eating disorder, but are far too worried about their weight. 78% of 18-year-old women are unhappy with their bodies; 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies; and I know this is the lowest number but it’s scariest to me: 42% of first-to-third grade girls want to be thinner. We’re talking about girls between 5 and 8 years old, and almost half of them want to be thinner.
Why am I stringing together these statistics? I want to impress on you just how confused and frustrated our culture is about food. Some of us abuse food, forcing it into a role where it serves emotional purposes food was never meant to serve. Some of us abuse our control over food, and treat it not like a gift from God, but a curse to be avoided. Do you see this confusion and frustration? This is what people feel when we take a gift from God and misuse it. Like money, sex, and power, when we fail to use God’s gifts for the reasons he gave them to us, when we start using them for our own reasons, we will inevitably end up confused and frustrated. It seems obvious to me that this is the case with our culture–we are quite confused about food. And so we Christians must be different; Richard Foster says, “For us to be in conformity with a sick culture is for us to be sick.” If we look like, think like, act like, a confused and frustrated world, we will be confused and frustrated!
So does Jesus care what we eat? Oh, I think so. Remember this is the same Jesus who stood on a hillside and looked at Jerusalem and said, “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: the city who kills the prophets and stones those sent to it! How often I longed to gather you in like a mother hen gathers her chicks!” He wept for the confusion of Jerusalem, and he weeps for our confusions today, even our confusions about food. When we are confused in a way that kills us, Jesus is concerned.
So how should we think about food? I think the first thing we should see is that Jesus enjoyed food. Jesus was frequently criticized, in fact, because he did not fast. Of course, Jesus did fast at times, but not in the preferred religious way. In those days, the religious leaders, the Pharisees, advocating fasting two days a week. They preferred to fast on Mondays and Thursdays–why? Because this was the day people came to the market and they could be seen by the most people and admired for their religious behavior. But Jesus did not fast in the same way and frequently was taken to task for eating and drinking to excess.
This should teach us something–food is good! Jesus did not come in order to impose on us savage rules that ask us never to enjoy the things we eat. There were times in his life when Jesus ate richly and people called him a glutton and a drunkard! If you look at food and see only fuel to get you through the day, you’re missing part of the truth. Sometimes I think of all the ways God could have given us to fuel our bodies. We could be like the trees, and gain nutrition from the sunlight; we could be like plants that suck up the nutrients of the soil. We could even be like robots, that get plugged in at night when they need more power. We could be like the Jetsons (remember that TV show from the future?) where people could just eat vitamin pills. But all those things would be so boring! God gave us food instead, something that delights our senses and lends us joy when we eat it in community with each other. Food is good!
But while we remember that God made us to enjoy food, we also have to remember that God did not create us to be dominated by food. This sometimes happens when we enjoy something very much; we allow our desire for it to control us. God gives us so many good gifts, and sometimes the gift is so good that we end up falling in love with the gift rather than the giver. Christians should enjoy God’s gifts, including food, but something is wrong when we allow food to dominate our lives. This happens in two ways: when we can’t control what we eat, or when we obsessively control what we eat. Either way, we are allowing God’s gifts to consume all our time and energy instead of God.
Let me lift up a different model to you: Paul wrote to the Philippians and talked about the fact that he had learned the secret of “being content in all things.” Whether he had a little or a lot, whether he was suffering or triumphant, Paul was content. He was content in essence because of spiritual discipline. Through his spiritual discipline, he had learned at the deepest level that his true identity was in God, not in his possessions or circumstances. So possessions and circumstances could change and it wouldn’t shake Paul because that’s not where his heart was. While Paul obviously had times when he was happy and times where he was sad, at a very deep level, he was content. His identity and his mood were not tied to however he felt at the present moment.
Sometimes, rather than disciplining ourselves to be content in all things, we allow our mood to rise and fall based on whatever we enjoy. We allow our mood to rise and fall based on whether or not we have what we desire. This happens very, very easily with food. In our culture, when we can basically have whatever food we want whenever we want, many of us learn to tie together our emotions and food. It’s perfectly legitimate to enjoy a certain food and to have positive associations with it. We all are looking forward to Thanksgiving this week, and you will eat foods that just transport you to a certain place in your life. We get to spend Thanksgiving with Jill’s family this year, whereas usually we spend it with mine. And I know there will be foods that she will have that she hasn’t had in a few years and that those foods will be special to her. That’s part of the gift of food. But while we can enjoy those foods when we have them, we shouldn’t allow those foods to become a necessary ingredient in us being happy.
This cuts both ways. For those of us who are over our ideal weight, we should remember that if we depend on food as an emotional crutch, our faith in Christ is truly lacking. If Jesus himself said that his flesh was true food, and his blood was true drink, how could we possibly let ourselves become dependent on chicken wings and beer? But for those of us who obsess over our bodies, it is possible for us to become dependent not on food, but on having control over our bodies, having what we see as the perfect body. If Jesus himself is love, loves us completely as we are, how could we possibly let ourselves think that we need to earn our own love? Think about it–if God says, “You don’t need to do anything to be worthy of love–just being made in my image is enough,” how could we say, “I have to lose this or that much weight to be worthy of God’s love.” God loves you–at 500 pounds or at 15 ounces, God loves you and we too can love ourselves, whether we have weight to lose or not.
We live in a culture that is desperately sick in many ways. When I say sick, I don’t mean depraved; I mean afflicted in a way that is not their fault. In many ways, we are a society that no longer knows that God loves us. And when people are not sure that God loves them, when we are not sure there is any meaning to life, we start to panic. We start to focus inwardly on our basic primal urges, so sure that they will bring us out of our panic. It’s like Gracie–when Gracie is alone in the night and wakes up and is momentarily afraid, she starts sucking her fingers. It’s basic; it brings her comfort. In many ways, this is what our culture does; when we start to panic, when we realize how alone we think we are, we start caring for basic needs–things like money, and shelter, and sex, and food. God would call us to a new way of understanding these things–a way that enjoys them in the way God intended them, enjoys them to the full! But it is also a way that says I will not become dependent on them, I will not become dependent on food, I will not become dependent on body image, I will not become dependent on anything except Christ alone. May it be so in my life and in yours. Amen.