Note: I preached a version of this sermon on February 23-24, 2013 (the second Sunday in Lent) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
“Their god is the belly.” It’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? We don’t know exactly what Paul the Apostle means by this, or whom he’s talking about. So I’m going to explore this idea of the belly as a god today. There are two ways in which our bellies become our gods, and to help me illustrate them I’m going to need the help of one of my favorite cooking companions–corn syrup!
I don’t know about you, but I can’t get through the holidays without corn syrup. It goes into rum balls, it goes into caramel sauce, it goes into candy. But as you may very well know, it goes into a lot of other things too. Not this stuff exactly, but its amped up cousin “high fructose corn syrup.” You’ll find that in darn near everything, from steak sauce to yogurt.
It’s so useful because it’s so powerfully sweet. Back in Jesus’ time, sugar was a rarity. Unless you could afford honey or cane sugar that traveled from India, the only sweet food you were likely to eat was fruit. Figs, pomegranates, apricots, that sort of thing. Today we have cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, beet sugar, and this stuff. And it’s funny–we started out loving sugar because it was a way to get the sweetness of fruit at any time of year or any meal. But now, the imitation is more popular than the original. Think about how intensely sweet a tangerine is, and yet in terms of sweetness it can’t compare with a Snickers bar. And because of our farm policies, corn syrup is a lot cheaper than fruit or even cane sugar. We Americans eat a lot of it.
Indeed, you can really crave this stuff. You can get kind of compulsive about it. And I think most of us have experienced how helpless we can be against those cravings when the food that will answer them are available everywhere.
It’s not just sweet stuff, either. I think about double cheeseburgers. A lot. I’ve given them up–well, mostly–for Lent, so I think about them even more. Double butterburger with cheddar from Culver’s, everything on it, grilled onions, the whole nine yards. The cheeseburger is an act of wizardry when you think about it. You need wheat for the bun, you need a great deal of grain and water to feed the cattle that produce the beef and the milk, you need cured pickles, fresh tomatoes, and fresh lettuce all at the same time. You can get one of these marvels for a few dollars almost anywhere in the country, 24 hours every day. I want one right now.
This is one way in which our bellies become our gods. If you’re like me, then you know that there are some things you can never really get enough of. The more you eat, the more you want to eat. And not just food (Paul is never just talking about food). Alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, you name it–the belly can become a very hungry god indeed. And this god wants to be fed without any regard for the consequences for ourselves, for our families, for our neighbors, for the planet. I know this. I don’t want to know what that double cheeseburger is doing to my body. I don’t want to know what the eight pounds of carbon emissions it caused is doing to the world.
But that’s only one way the god of the belly gets hungry. The second way our bellies become our gods is by withholding or stigmatizing food. It is almost as easy to become overly discerning and even self-righteous about the choices we make. This belly-god craves something more subtle than sugar and grease. It craves admiration, it craves discipline, it craves superiority. My diet is healthier, my diet is more sustainable, my diet is more responsible than yours. Or worse than that: my body is too big. My habits are too bad. God hates my body and God hates my choices. There are even “ministries” that urge this sort of view on people–the idea that Jesus wants you to engage in extreme dieting or even anorexia.
My hunch is that this sort of thing was what Paul probably had in mind here. And the giveaway is that he calls these people “enemies of the cross of Christ.” That is, they are people who aren’t content with grace. So they needed to have a whole bunch of new rules about food and drink, about circumcision, about sexuality. And they used those rules to divide people.
That’s the belly-god for you, though. He says “fill me up,” and you try to do it but he’s never full. He says “empty me out” and yet he’s never empty. He’s an easy god to worship, because he’s always with us and he’s never, ever satisfied.
So how do we know the true God from the belly-god? Look back at today’s rather strange lesson from Genesis. God promises Abram (not yet Abraham) that God will make him a great nation, with more descendants than the sands of the sea. But Abram is childless and understandably doubts God’s purpose. So God requests a sacrifice. This was common–gods in those days were hungry, and they wanted our food. Abram does as he’s told, dividing the animals in half and protecting them from the birds.
This is where it gets weird. Abram falls asleep and into a dreadful dream. He sees a smoking pot pass between the halves of the slaughtered animals, and he understands. You see, God has enacted a treaty with Abram. In those days the weaker party would swear to a treaty with the king by slaughtering animals, cutting them in half, and then passing between the halves. This was his way of saying, “May this be done to be if I do not fulfill my promise.”
That’s exactly what God does for Abram. God says, “May I be cut in half if I do not do as I have said.” Our God is not hungry. Our God would rather become food for the birds of the air than to accept our faith in vain.
Just as Jesus, last week, refuses the devil’s invitation to turn the stone into bread. Think of how powerful he could be, how many loving followers he would have if he would use his power to feed them at will! But Jesus says no. Jesus would rather go hungry than dominate us through our bellies.
That is our God–not a god of excess, and not a god of deprivation, but a God of grace. Our God is not one who demands to be filled, but the one who would rather be emptied into us. Our God does not demand to be fed. Our God instead offers to be food, for us and for the whole world. Amen.