Friday, June 17, 2011

Sermon: Not by Bread Alone - On Lent and Dieting

Not by Bread Alone
Matthew 4:1-11
March 13, 2011 – First Sunday of Lent

In the early days of Christianity, asceticism was all the rage. In order to practice their faith, people would abstain from food, drink, sex, and sleep. They would wear uncomfortable clothing and refuse to bathe and inflict pain on themselves. A community of Christians called the Desert Fathers went out into the wilderness to devote themselves to Christ through extreme forms of bodily deprivation. Their stories are so excessive that they sound almost surreal. In one, a man has been fasting from food and drink for days, and he feels tempted to break his fast. And so in order to strengthen his ability to overcome temptation, he hangs a cucumber from the ceiling of his hut and continues to fast, meditate, and pray for days more, all while gazing at that hanging cucumber.

And as crazy as that all sounds, they were doing their very best to follow Jesus… and when we look at today’s Gospel lesson, the connection is pretty clear. Jesus is still practically dripping with the water of the Jordan River when the spirit leads him into the wilderness. After he has fasted for forty days, the text says, the evil comes to him. It’s impossible to say what Jesus might have seen, and nearly impossible to know for sure what Matthew meant when he talked about the devil, but it is important to remember that the devil as we picture him these days is the product of centuries of Christian artwork and theology. The Old Testament says lmost nothing on the topic, and the New Testament doesn’t say all that much either, except in the book of Revelation. But Satan, or actually “the satan,” is mentioned in the Book of Job. In that book, Satan seems to be a servant of God, although in a different way from the other angels – Satan is sent to test Job with God’s permission to see if Job is faithful. And in our Gospel lesson today, Matthew tells us that Jesus is in the wilderness “in order to be tempted.” So perhaps this Satan, too, is supposed to be understood as a servant of God.

In any case, Jesus and the devil have a conversation, and the devil tempts Jesus three times. First, the devil tempts Jesus to use his power to satisfy his own hunger – to turn stones into bread. Then he takes him to the highest point of the holy temple in Jerusalem and tempts Jesus to perform a flashy miracle in the sight of all the important religious people. Finally he takes Jesus to a tall mountain and tempts him with political power to rule all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus always responds with scripture, although the devil quotes a little scripture himself, which ought to remind us that just about anyone can use the Bible for their own ends.

This is the story that gives rise to the church season of Lent. Although Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness come at the beginning of his public ministry, we remember them in connection with the last days of his life, because the church has traditionally understood that first period of temptation as preparing Jesus to eventually face his passion and death. So for forty days we observe a season of solemnity, repentance, and preparation. In our Protestant tradition, we don’t have any structured dietary changes for Lent, like our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters do. But even in Protestantism, our church services become darker and more solemn, and many of us try “giving something up for Lent” – sometimes a favorite activity or a bad habit, but most often a food or drink.

One of my favorite twitterers is a person who tweets these funny little prayers that also often contain a startling grain of truth, and on the first day of Lent, she tweeted this: “For those who are using Lent as a diet plan, Lord have mercy, amen.” And first I laughed, and then I thought about how neatly Lenten disciplines fit into our cultural baggage about food and eating and weight loss and self-control. Because we live in a very different culture than the one that Jesus lived in, and a very different culture from that of the Desert Fathers.

Some things haven’t changed. We all have human bodies, like Jesus did, and that means that we get hungry when we haven’t eaten. It means that we crave particular kinds of food – things that are salty or sweet or fatty. It means that food is meaningful for us – it’s associated with memories and relationships and emotions.

But some other things have changed a lot, and when we give up a food for Lent, or fast on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, it taps into a whole different culture’s baggage. Have you heard of the Master Cleanse? It’s that diet where for days on end, you eat nothing and drink a mix of water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. Its inventors say that it’s for ridding your body of toxins, whatever those are, but tabloids and gossip columns praise it for helping celebrities lose weight fast. If you really think about it, it’s not that much weirder than staring at
a cucumber for days on end, but it’s in pursuit of a different purpose, and we’re used to people doing strange things to try to get thin. And if you listen carefully to the subtext of the commercials and television shows and images and speeches that make up the fabric of our culture, you will hear messages that thin people are good and virtuous and worthy, and overweight people are bad and lazy and stupid. You hear it when a movie reviewer talks as much about Natalie Portman’s weight loss as her acting. You hear it when grocery stores give bigger employee discounts to employees with lower body mass indices. You hear it when almost every overweight character in the movies is either a villain or a clown.

On the flip side, our culture also surrounds us with food that is terrible for the animals it is made from, the workers who produce it, the earth, and our bodies. In the book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser writes about the system that brings us fast food hamburgers. He describes feed lots where thousands upon thousands of cows live their entire lives without ever seeing a blade of grass, and the waste that they produce is deposited into vast, reeking lakes of manure. He describes slaughterhouses where workers work long shifts for low wages, with one of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries of any industry in this country. And the goal of these food companies is to make sure that as many people as possible buy as much of their food as possible as often as possible – and that’s as true for groceries as it is for hamburgers – so they try to convince us that the more of it we eat, the happier we will be.

And that is what a broken food system looks like. It looks like school lunch policies that limit the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to this nation’s poorest children. It looks like big business spending millions of dollars on lobbying and lawsuits to make sure that no government agency or public figure ever says “eat less red meat.” It looks like a commercial promising you that sugar-free gum that tastes like strawberry shortcake is finally going to make you attractive
and happy. It creates shame and guilt and anxiety about bodies and eating.

That shame and guilt and anxiety make the observance of Lent complicated. When I hear someone say that they’ve given up chocolate or hamburgers or soda for Lent, it makes me want to ask, “what’s behind that”? Because my hope is that when we choose to practice a Lenten discipline around food, it makes us more aware of ourselves and of the world around us. My hope is that Lenten disciplines remind us that there are people in the world who not only don’t have chocolate, but don’t have adequate food or clean water. My hope is that Lenten disciplines prepare us for the work of healing the world, because that work is hard and sometimes uncomfortable, and Lenten disciplines can teach us that we can do things that are hard and uncomfortable. That is my hope.

But my fear is that many people take on Lenten disciplines in part because the world has convinced them that their bodies are not good enough, and that the enjoyment they get from eating tasty food is a sin, and that if they give up sweets for forty days, they will lose some weight, and that will mean that they will be a better and more loveable person.

Friends, if you want to use Lent to become healthier, I’m not going to stop you. But I do want to be perfectly clear: your body, exactly as it is at this very moment, is made in the image of God. And Jesus did not go into the wilderness to lose ten pounds.

The passage of scripture that Jesus quotes, the passage that says “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord,” comes from Deuteronomy. And in that passage, God is reminding the Israelites who are about to leave the wilderness and enter the promised land that God fed them with manna in the wilderness. The Israelites came out of slavery terrified of starvation. They were so frightened of what would happen to them that they kept asking to go back to Egypt, back into slavery. But a miraculous bread-like substance would appear on the ground each day, and God told them to just take what they needed. When they tried to gather more, only a day’s worth of bread would remain in their baskets. When they tried to hoard it overnight, it would rot, but more bread would be on the ground.

When the devil tempts Jesus to turn stone to bread, and Jesus quotes this passage, he isn’t extolling the virtue of fasting; he’s invoking a story about learning to trust in God. He’s invoking a story of God leading people out of a broken and anxious relationship with food, teaching them to stop worrying about their next meal and focus instead on building up their spirits and their community.

If you give something up this Lent, I hope that it helps you build up your spiritual life, and your capacity to do God’s work in the world. That’s what Jesus was doing – he didn’t go into the wilderness because starvation is virtuous. He went into the wilderness for a time, to help himself prepare for the ministry that lay ahead of him. He went into the wilderness to pray and meditate and think, and to learn that he could endure pain and discomfort and withstand temptation, if he had to – and he would have to. He went into the wilderness so that when he came out, he could serve the world better.

As we go into the wilderness with him this Lent, as we in this congregation observe a period of simpler, more solemn Sunday worship, as some of us give something up, or take something on, let it be for the same reason. Let it be an act of defiance against everything in the world that tells us that we need more stuff in order to be happy. Let it be an act of solidarity with those who lack the basic necessities of life. Let it be an act of preparation for the difficult and terrifying and beautiful work of changing the world. Amen.

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