Friday, March 19, 2010


I am bummed out this morning. I am finalizing my sermon on one of the Seven Deadly Sins - gluttony - and I stopped at Starbucks to get my morning "shot in the dark." (a cup of their richest, darkest drip coffee with two shots of espresso) Lately I have just been going through the drive up window because there are usually too many people I know inside and it takes 30 minutes minimum to get my coffee and head back to church. Today I went in however. I wanted one of their delicious, chewy, frosting-smeared, cinnamon encrusted, raisin filled cinnamon rolls. Alas, they had just sold out. Bummer. I really had my taste buds set for that decadent treat, knowing that it would help energize me to write my sermon on gluttony. I know, the irony is dripping from that concept moreso than the butter and sugar frosting oozing down the sides of the wished for roll. Sigh!

Eve is said to have been tempted by serpent because the fruit of the forbidden tree was a delight to the eyes and good for food. St. Thomas Aquinas says that this appealing food was the devil's bait for our first parents." And so it has been throughout history. Food has been the source of great distress as well as great pleasure and joy.

Geoffrey Chaucer penned these words in "The Canterbury Tales:" O Gluttony, it is tothee we owe, our grief." No truer words ever spoken. Yet it is also in food and our consumption of it that is and has been a source of great comfort as well.

So, now its time to gather my thoughts about how to preach this sermon in a way that won't unfairly point fingers at anyone and yet still bring a sense of conviction about our culture's obsession with food, diet and body image.

And I guess that is really the crux of what I see as today's manifestation of gluttony. We are, as a culture, obsessed with food in one way or another. Think of the ads on television. If they are not promoting some brand of pasta sauce, beer, or quick easy meals in a pouch, the advertisers are promoting diet plans and exercize programs. Have you watched much late night paid programming lately. About all that is being peddled are diffent kinds of cooking devices which promise tastier, faster food. There's the Ronco oven, the George Forman Grill, the Silver Bullet, and many more. And if that isn't what's being hawked, it is exercise videos and ab machines guaranteeing the "sexy bodies we have always wanted."

For those who have cable or sattelite TV, one of the most consistently popular channels is the FOOD NETWORK. Featuring good-looking, gregarious hosts showing us how to prepare gourmet recipes and making competition out of food with such shows as Iron-Chef, the next FOOD NETWORK star. Other cable channels are getting into the act with such shows as "Top Chef," "Man versus Food" and "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern." Our obsession with food is everywhere.

And so, as I sat here this morning ruing the fact that I didn't have a huge, caloric, mouth-watering, sinfully-sweet cinnamon roll to nosh on, I booted up my computer. There on my desktop was a picture of a room full of Zambian orphans I met last fall when our Calvary/Rotary group spent a week in Lusaka. I was reminded that for them food is a necessity not an obsession; a luxury even, and not an assumed staple. For many of those kids, a simple meal of nshima (cooked corn meal) and boiled greens, may be the only food they get each day. Even that is not guaranteed.

So I am sitting here wrestling with my own attitude towards food. Am I obsessed with, or even addicted to food? Is my life too consumed with consuming? Am I guilty of the sin of gluttony? Probably so.

As I have thought about this, I have become aware that gluttony is not just the sin of over-eating or being overweight. We often make that mistake and cruelly hurt people with judgmental attitudes. I would submit that runs much deeper. Gluttony is about making food and diet our obsession and that can have serious consequences. We, as a culture, whether we are thin or obese, have made our bellies our god and food has become our means of worship.

As a further evidence of Jesus' identification with our humanity and our proneness to sin, when he was led into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days, Satan's first assault came against the weakest bulwark of defense - hunger. In Jesus' reply to his tempter came this answer: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Eating is not a sin. It is a necessity of life. Without food we cannot exist. And as a means of common grace, the Lord designed food in such a way as to taste good (not always - depends on who's cooking). It is a good and perfect gift from God. But, just like every other gift from God, our brokenness takes the gift and elevates it to the status of an obsession at the least and a god (small g) at the worst.

I find that to be true in my own life. When I am weakest or most discouraged, food becomes a comfort. It is there. It is tangible. It momentarily satisfies. I like food. I like to cook food. I enjoy consuming it. But I realize how insidiously it can become an obsession and a point of sin in my life. It is not sin because food is evil. It is sin because it can become an all-consuming obsession. Gluttony, in this case, is sinful because it is a pre-occupation with one's own needs.

If we thinnk of it in that way, dieting and healthy eating can be as much of an compulsive obsession as eating. William Willimon in his book "Sinning Like A Christian" suggests that "gluttony is not merely wolfing down large quantities of food. Gluttony is a matter of being overly concerned about food." Relentlessly scanning labels for the fat content or counting carbs, or spending inordinate amounts of income on "organic" foods can be, as Willimon suggests, "as much like the glutton who Aquinas had in mind as the beer-gutted binger at the neighborhood bar."

The earliest writings on the deadly sins recognized this as well. From the 6th century on, the sin of gluttony acknowlelddged five main branches: Gregory the great condemned eating "too soon, too much, too avidly, too richly (expensively) and too daintily." Our obsession with food, diet, and slim bodies, can be as all-consuming a passion as eating too much. SOme of us eat too much, some to daintily.

Jesus taught that a person's life does not consist of what he/she eats or what they wear. Then, just as much as now, people had an instinct to worry about such things. But he reminds us that we should not worry about what we shall eat or what we shall drink or what shall we wear. "The pagans run after all these things. Seek first His kingdom and all these things will be added to you." (Matthew 6: 25 - 33)

Paul echoed much the same thought when he wrote to the Romans that "the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approoved by men. Therefore let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food." (Romans 14: 17 - 20a)

The principle he was addressing when he taught this was the problem the church was experiencing when some of its members were eating food that had previously been used in the sacrifice to idol gods. Paul contended that food is neither clean or unclean; good or bad. If it is used to nourish a hungry body, fine. But if it becomes a stumbling block that hurts another person's faith, not so fine. The emphasis is not on whether you eat the food or not. It is whether you make the eating of that food more important than your relationship with God or with some other person. Do whatever leads to peace and mutual edification. Don't just think of yourself. Food only becomes sinful when it draws a person away from God or causes injury and dissension with another person.

The fact of the matter is that the most visible sacrament of God's grace and forgiveness is a sacred meal. It is bread and wine. True, in our observance of communion, no one is ever going to be accused of gluttony by taking a tiny morsel of bread or a sip of juice or wine. But even that could be gluttony if, in taking that bread and cup we are not mindful of the persons who are sharing that with us or of others around the world who have need.

Gluttony is not so much about food or quantities of food. It is about self: self-obsession; self-indulgence; self-satisfaction; self-image. Gluttony is the sin that puts our consumption (or lack of it) over the needs of others.

We live in a world where, as citizens of the United States, we comprise only of the world's population yet we consume over per cent of the world's resources. We think nothing of letting our tap water run down a drain without thinking of people who suffer disease and mortality for lack of clean water. We stress out about food while millions go to bed each night hungry. We spend more on diet foods and exercise in a month than many spend in a year just to stay alive.

It's not a matter of whether we eat too much or whether we deny our appetite for the sake of diet and attractiveness. It is about tempering our consumption by an awareness that God has given us the gift of food to enjoy and to give thanks for. It is about tempering our indulgences with an awareness that what we do, what we eat or don't eat, is not about self but about others/

Paul talks about people whose God is their belly (Philippians 3:19). In other words our gut as well as our six-pack abs becomes more important than our soul or than the needs of others near and far. Filling our stomachs to excess or obsessively denying our self the gift of food becomes sin because in each extreme, self becomes god.

Perhaps gluttony is the one sin in the list of seven deadly sins that makes us feel most uncomfortable. We can cover our pride and our lust. Our greed and envy may not be noticable. But the results of gluttony tend to be more external and in a culture that deifies thinness and beauty, it is too easy to automatically and unfairly condemn another of the sin of gluttony because of how they look and what their weight may be.

In fact, the point of any of these sermons is not to look at the possible sin of another and pronounce judgment. The point is for us to look inwardly; to examine our own heart and sould. To say to God, "test me and see if there is any unclean way in me." We are to look at the log in our own eye before we attempt to remove the speck in someone else's eye.

You see, often the effects of gluttony are not obvious or external. As we have said more than once in this series of sermons, there is a condition of the soul where attitude and desire dwell. That is our sin nature. That is where gluttony germinates and ferments - in our souls. But there are also outward expressions. We call those sins. The young girl who either starves herself or binge eats and then purges is wrestling with the same condition of sin that makes food and consumption and self the center of all her actions. In the same way, the person who spends $100.00 for a meal of almost microscopic portions without, in some way, thinking of and responding to the problem of world hunger can be as equally guilty of gluttony as the woman I read about the other day who has set a goal to become the world's heaviest woman. You'd never know it now, but there was a day when someone told me that I had become so obsessed about running and losing weight that my actions were just as dysfunctional as the person with anorexia or bulimia or overeating. Beneath was the same obsession: self. Even when I was obsessed with thinness, I was guilty of gluttony because I was still worshiping the God of self.

There seems to me then to be at least three ways the sin of gluttony attacks us.

First, when we realize that "we are living to eat, rather than eating to live." In 1986, I volunteered to lead a week of outdoor wilderness camping for our Presbytery at Camp Chimney Spring. This was not exactly a roughing it kind of trip. Though we did backpack in, all the food, cooking supplies and a mess tent had been brought in to a site via jeep. That was our base camp and from there we took daily hikes in the surrounding Sacramento Mtns. The majority of those campers were Middle-school aged boys. Besides being crudely obsessed with jokes and bodily noises, they were obsessed with food. I remember one day becoming so annoyed with these boys because all they could think about was not the meal in front of them but the next meals ahead. No sooner had they gotten their breakfast plates than they were bugging me to tell them what we would be having for dinner that night or for breakfast the next morning. Their whole life, it seemed was centered around eating. Food for them was not a matter of survival but life itself. They lived to eat. They didn't eat to live.
(I was the same way as a teenaged boy.)

Second, when our obsession with food leads us to the extreme opposite conclusion: that what is most important in life is a thin, muscled, "attractive" body. Food and diet can become such an obsession for some that it is not over-consumption that is the manifestation of their gluttony. Instead, their obsession is measuring up (or down as it may be) to some culturally determined standard that says in order for a person to truly be valuable, they must be thin. Now it is true that there are good medical reasons for eating healthily, but it is easy to even let those reasons become obsessive. My father was 79 years old - nearly 80 - when he went in for open-heart surgery. He had a valve replacement and a single by-pass. He did well and recovered quickly. His surgeons advised him to change his diet by cutting out fats and salt from his daily menu. Two years later, when he was 82, I remember him saying how much he hated foregoing so many of his favorite foods - salted nuts, cheese, red meat, ice cream. I told him, against doctors orders, "Dad, you are 82 years old. I don't think it's going to make too much difference if you eat a steak now and then, or have a plate of peanut-brittle. I think we can get too hung up on, what Gregory called "eating too daintily." Food is still the obsession and self is still the god.

Third, when our consumption or avoidance of food becomes such an obsession that it causes hurt to others. Paul was referring not so much to overeating as he was to eating or drinking foods that were stumbling blocks to others. Food offered to idols is not a particular problem in our culture today. However, there are things we consume that might cause others to stumble or betray their conscience.

But one way we probably are guilty of the sin of gluttony is the way we as Americans consume without regard to the rest of the world. When we take food and water for granted and over-consume without thinking of and responding to those in the world who have little or nothing to eat or safe water to drink, we are abusing our freedoms at the expense of others.

I am not suggesting that each of us stop going out to eat dinner at nice restuarants or that we despise food. I am suggesting that each time we sit down to eat, we think about those others in the world who don't have. Maybe set aside change from your pockets (or bills for that matter) at each meal and then each month use that money to send to World Vision or Church World Service or Food For the Hungry - agencies that are working to feed the hungry.

Good gifts that God gives us can become sinful when we allow them to control us and when they become our gods. The antidote for that is self-control and temperence.

Self control or temperance causes me to stop and to give thanks for what I have and to never take it for granted. That is why I pause at the beginning of each meal – whether in public or private – to give thanks for God’s grace and abundance.

Self control keeps my body image in check. It helps me to remember that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that I am not my own, I have been bought with a price. Yet at the same time, it helps me keep from excessively dwelling on its health and well being. My body is an earthly dwelling. It is temporal. It is not meant to last forever. And no matter how much I exercise it or starve it, it will one day wear out and die.

Self control is that trait that understands “all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.” (I Cor. 10:23) It remembers that food does not bring us closer to God. We are no better off if we eat, and no better off if we do not.” Temperance removes the focus of food and our self, and remembers others; it takes into account how our actions will affect others.

Finally self-control or temperance causes us to remember that food is God’s gift to us and like all good gifts of God, it is to be treated with responsibility and stewardship just as we are to do also with our bodies. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness therein, the earth and all who dwell in it. (Psalm 8).

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