Sermon by Dayna Olson-Getty on Luke 16:19-25 & Philippians 3:17-21
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Gluttony and temperance are words that – to my ears – sound so outdated and obsolete that it's hard to imagine what they might have to do with the everyday lives of people like us.
But if we set aside images of drunken Roman Emperors gorging themselves or of prim Victorian ladies with anti-alcohol placards, and think about our own experiences with food – suddenly there's a lot to say about the virtues and vices of eating. A lot of our human experience is connected with food – hunger and satisfaction, shame and delight, seeking relief from loneliness or stress, and experiencing joy and human connection.
One of the unavoidable realities of being human is we need food- day after day, to survive and thrive. It's one of those humbling daily reminders that we are creatures, not creators and that, like every other living creature, our lives are dependent on God's provision of daily bread.
But food is a lot more to us than fuel for our bodies. Our food practices – which foods we choose and how we prepare them, when and with whom we eat, and how we eat – are all rich with meaning. They tell us a lot about how we view ourselves, each other, and God – about our belonging, value, and relatedness.
Jesus delves into those meanings when he tells the Pharisees this disturbing story of Lazarus and the rich man. The general outline of this story would have been familiar to them because there are similar folk tales and legends in Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and ancient Jewish cultures.
In the version Jesus tells, the rich man dresses every day in the luxurious purple clothing fit for a prince and feasts on an overabundance of exquisitely delicious food. The crumbs that are under his table probably refer to the flatbread that very wealthy people used to clean their hands between courses – This rich man is the kind of guy who has so much food that he can just toss his used bread to the dogs. He's one of the 1% – the wealthiest of urban elites who control the political and economic lives of the other 99%. This is a guy with a closet full of Armani and a personal chef who serves steak and caviar every night.
And Lazarus is impoverished. His only clothing is the purple of his infected skin. He's not just poor – he's literally dying of hunger right on the rich man's front steps.
In Jesus's world, people like Lazarus became destitute because they fell into debt and lost their land – usually as a result of crop failure, drought, or over taxation. It's quite possible that Lazarus lost his family land to an economic predator and that some of the overabundances of food on the rich man's table quite literally came from Lazarus's land. Once he'd lost his land, Lazarus's only option to survive would have been to hire himself out as a day laborer. But if there was not enough work or the work did not pay enough, Lazarus would quickly have become malnourished and too weak to work. And without the ability to work, he would have continued to sink into destitution, as many people did until he died from starvation or disease.
I'm guessing that's it's not hard for most of us to see Jesus's point about the ethics of wealth and food. It's a terrible injustice when we habitually overindulge while other people starve to death for lack of food. We get that part of the story – after all, we're the people who write cookbooks about eating simply so that others may simply eat.
But making peace with food is more complicated and difficult for many of us than just reckoning with the ethical implications of what kind of food we eat, where our food comes from, and how much food we do or don't waste.
We live in a world that encourages us every day to look to food or drink as a source of comfort, affirmation, pleasure, and emotional pain relief. We hear these messages from advertising, but they are echoed in other ways in our daily lives, and in our own heads and hearts. Do any of these promises sound familiar?
Feel like your masculinity is a little shaky? Try a big chunk of red meat – it's guaranteed to leave you feeling like a lion – powerful and in control.
Frazzled and exhausted from a long day of being the mommy of a ridiculously needy toddler or a defiant pre-teen? All you need is a quiet place to hide out – the bathroom will do in a pinch – and big glass or two of white wine.
Feeling profoundly unsexy, overworked and stressed out? A box of luxury chocolates will meet your longings for sensual pleasure and leave you feeling like a pampered goddess.
In spite of these promises of emotional fulfillment through food, we also live in a culture that tells us that our worth as human beings is directly related to our body's appearance – and that the way to satisfy our longings to be desired and valued and in control is through working our way to a "better body" – often through restricting what we eat and abstaining from the very kinds of foods that are promised to comfort us.
And the messages we hear, and replay in our heads, tell us that the failure to do so is not just a matter of health – it's a matter of whether or not we are acceptable human beings. One of the ways popular American culture draws a line between people deemed shameful and repulsive, and people considered desirable and valuable, has to do with how our bodies look and assumptions about what our body size and shape indicate about our eating habits. When we combine this intense focus on bodily perfection with the empty promises that food will comfort us, we find ourselves in an impossible double-bind – one that can ensnare any of us, regardless of how perfect others think our body looks.
It's no wonder that for many of us food, body image, shame, and self-worth have become an entangled mess that often leaves us estranged from or captive to our own hunger. We crave comfort, pleasure, desirability, relief from stress, control – and indulgence or restriction of what we eat promises to give us all this and more.
In the midst of this tangle, it's easy to miss out on the fact that food – and our practices of eating – are not only meant to be the way that our bodies are fueled – but that savoring food and sharing food can be a sacramental practice – a holy moment, an embodied experience of God's presence among us and of joy in our deep connectedness with each other. Food doesn't just nourish our bodies, it also nourishes us emotionally and spiritually. It's one of the ways we give and receive love, provision, comfort, security, and celebration.
Reconnecting with experiences when food has been sacramental – when we have felt God's delight or tender care or joyful abundance as we ate – is one way that I think we might be able to sidestep some of our tangle about food, at least temporarily, and catch a glimpse of what it might look like to eat in a way that feeds our bodies and souls.
For the adults – I want you to take some time to remember – in as much detail as you can – a meal that has nourished your soul as well as your body. Remember where you were and who else was there. Remember, if you can, what you ate and drank, and how it felt and tasted in your mouth. Remember the sounds and sights of the meal, what it was like to be present at that table. Remember what made the meal meaningful and pleasurable. Remember how you felt in body and soul. Savor God's presence in that meal.
For the children – Guided eating meditation using chocolate chips and mini marshmallows, followed by a prayer of gratitude.
In Jesus' story about the rich man and Lazarus, they meet up in the afterlife. The rich man's gorgeous clothing has been replaced by tormenting flames, while Lazarus is resting in the seat of honor, next to Abraham. And the rich man, seeing Lazarus and Abraham, and feeling the agony of his own thirst, begs Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with water.
It's this part of the story that helps us see the poverty of the rich man. In valuing his own bodily pleasure and comfort, the rich man missed out on recognizing and responding to Lazarus as a brother. In life, if he saw Lazarus at all, he only saw him as someone in need, and not as someone whose life and presence might be part of God's goodness in the world, part of God's provision for him.
Even in Hades, this rich man is ordering Lazarus around as if he's a slave – and he doesn't even manage to address Lazarus directly but instructs him through Abraham. Lazarus is sitting with Abraham, their mutual father, but this rich man is still blind to the reality that Lazarus is his brother. The rich man sees Lazarus as an object, as valuable only for his ability to meet the rich man's needs.
And because of that, the rich man misses out on communion. He has had food, but no satisfaction of his deepest longings. He has had wine, but none of the joy that comes from giving and receiving. He thinks he can meet his own needs, but he misses out on the greatest gift of the table – on communion with his brother. He values his physical hunger and bodily pleasure so highly that he misses out on what he really most deeply wants and needs.
So before we start imagining ourselves as Lazarus burning in the fires of hell, it's important to take a pause and ask what our hunger is trying to tell us. As with envy, lust, and greed, we need to pause before jumping right into shame and judgment and self-condemnation and listen to what our desire is telling us. We need to ask, what is it that my body and soul need in order to be well-nourished?
What do I really need? It might be food, but it might also be something more. Rest? An opportunity to be seen and heard, to know that I'm loved and accepted? Comfort and companionship for a broken heart? Affirmation that I'm a delightful human being just as I am?
Asking these questions isn't easy. It opens us up more fully to the vulnerability of being human. Any of us over the age of five can feed ourselves in a pinch – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a bowl of cold cereal will quell our hunger pangs. But these other needs – to be known, to have deep relational connections, to savor the delight of human companionship – they are needs that we cannot meet on our own. They are needs that can only be met through God's provision and through giving and receiving in relationship with other hungry, vulnerable, human beings. Receiving the nourishment that will satisfy those hungers requires bringing our hunger to the table. It requires relinquishing some measure of control and entrusting our nourishment to the care and provision of God through our brothers and sisters.
And that's risky. Sometimes people we entrust with our need don't respond or don't respond well. And sometimes our trust is betrayed by people who appeared to be trustworthy but are not – and we are wounded. But, my friends, it is worth the risk.
When I think of meals where God's delight and joy has been tangible to me, I think of a dinner with some of my dearest college friends who traveled hundreds of miles to visit me during one of the loneliest years of my young adult life – a year when I felt lost and invisible in a city where I knew almost no one. I can't remember what I cooked that night, but I do remember setting the table with a tablecloth, real china, and wine glasses, with a bouquet of spring tulips and a pair of candles in the center. As the sunset and the room grew dimmer, the table sparkled in the candlelight, and the faces of my friends glowed in the warm light. I remember savoring every moment of what had been commonplace when we lived together in dorms – the opportunity to linger over dinner together, talking and laughing and soaking up the joy of each others' presence- and that it nourished my soul.
I think this may be why shared meals are so much a part of the story of our faith – why the Gospels are full of stories about wedding feasts and lavish banquets and massive picnics where bread and fish are multiplied, and of Jesus welcoming his beloved friends to his table. Why a shared meal of bread and wine is one of the central practices of our faith. Because God's invitation to us in Jesus is to come to the table hungry – to bring our longings and needs as well as our abundance and generosity, and to receive God's good gifts of nourishment, communion, and joy from each other's hands. May it be so. Amen.
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