"Their god is their belly"-Sermon for Lent 2, Philippians 3:17-4:1
In my sermon last week on the first Sunday in Lent, I mentioned the old adage…you are what you eat. Specifically, I said…like the saying you are what you eat goes…it could be similarly said that you are what you speak. Which was all to say, that the words we use have power…the power to shape both those to whom we speak and ourselves…for we are always our first and most consistently present audience…the only person who will literally hear every word we speak over a life-time…whether spoken out loud or in our heads. So, again, my contention last week was that the words we say and think shape our own reality…how we understand and value the world we live in and the life we live…and of course they, again, shape others…how they understand the world they live in and the life they live…words, indeed, have power.
But today, I want to return to the more familiar adage…the eating one…you are what you eat. I read recently that this phrase actually originated from the German materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who wrote, “Man is what he eats.” Feuerbach was again a materialist and an atheist. And his point was, and I am oversimplifying, that we are not spiritual beings…we are material beings…we are made up of, quite literally, the stuff we consume…our bodies use the animal and plant cells we ingest to grow and power our human cells…and all of which, both what we eat and our ourselves, are made up from the same atoms on the same periodic table…we are fully material…formed of the earth and to the earth we shall return…just one more species evolved from the earth’s biome…that will eventually be replaced by another till the earth’s biome is eventually destroyed in some sort of cosmic cataclysm.
A little depressing…I know. But here’s the thing…both Jewish and Christian theology actually in some essential ways agree with Feuerbach. Just about 10 days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we were reminded…the priest literally put dirt on our heads and said to us…remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. We are formed of the earth and we will return to the earth. In this sense, the creation narrative corresponds quite well with evolutionary biology. Though the power behind the creation is clearly super-natural in our religious tradition…the stuff of creation is all together natural. Simply said, it is from clay that we were made…according to Genesis.
Further there are important implications then for us to consider if we are indeed to take both this materialist philosophy, that we are what we eat, and our Christian remembrance on Ash Wednesday seriously. For it reminds us…the we are kin to dirt…we share some history…and we are inextricably and forever connected. So healthy dirt, that produces healthy food, makes healthy people…and, in return, healthy people, healthy in heart, body and mind, should then care about making our dirt healthy. Thus, I would suggest that creation care…doing good theological work around environmental stewardship that then informs how we relate, steward, care for and love God’s own creation in ways that lead to everything’s and everyone’s mutual flourishing…this theologically rooted work...matters a whole awful lot. If Christians distance themselves from the dirt we stand upon, we do so to our own physical detriment…and to our intellectual determent…for healthy minds are profoundly impacted by the things we consume…and, speaking from a religious perspective, to our spiritual detriment…for the macroscopic and microscopic grandeur and breathtaking beauty of the whole world and the intricate systems that bind all things that exist together…witness to and sing hymns of praise that transcend words…to the incomprehensible glory of God…the very source of love and imagination from which all that is finds its genesis. I am grateful for Feuerbach’s words of inspiration…humans are what we eat.
And I would say further…we are what we eat…and we are hungry. And this is where I think a materialist philosophy must transcend biology to include spiritual matters. For I believe we are more than the cells and atoms from which we are comprised, and our hunger is not satiated by bread alone. As Jesus reminded us last Sunday in his confrontation with the devil in the dessert…in a moment when he was utterly famished…following 40 days of fasting…he reminds us that people, indeed, do not live on bread alone. Bernard Levin, the late English columnist, writes, “Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches.”
We are hungry…we hunger for connection and meaning and love and significance. And I don’t want to forget the material, as well…for when we are starving for good food…as real live people are as we speak…all the rest is really irrelevant. So, we cannot fall into the trap of bifurcating…of dividing…the material from the spiritual…it is all one. We must attend to and fill both…body and soul. And care very much about what is available to fill the bodies and souls of all those around us…most especially those who are underserved at the tables we set…the tables where food is provided and power is shared and connections are forged…for we are fed by each other’s love…and food. And, this is affirmed for us each week as we gather for Holy Communion…at the center of our faith is a meal…bread and wine…that provides both the physical and spiritual sustenance needed for the living of our days. Jesus was both divine and human…eternal and physical…and as we feed on him by faith and with thanksgiving…we are fed in body and soul…and are reminded that both are needed to be fully alive. And we are meant to leave this church filled with the very thing we have received…to feed both the hungry and brokenhearted…those with a far too little share of all the goodness that God has set before us.
Which takes me at the end of the sermon to our New Testament lesson today from the letter to the Philippians, for Paul reminds, us or better said, warns us…when he says “their god is their belly”…that our hunger, our appetites can overwhelm us…and they are not easily satiated…particularly when malnourished by constantly consuming an unhealthy diet. This does include what we literally eat and drink. For instance, scientists say now that sugar is as addictive or more addictive than narcotics…and un-moderated…leads to disease and death. But, of course, Paul is also talking about what we feed the spirit. And perhaps Lent, a season characterized by self-examination, is a chance to take a good look at that which we consume with both our bodies and our souls…remembering that the two are one and we are what we eat.
And this includes at least three things for us to examine and consider. The first is the literal dirt we are helping cultivate around us…for that is from where our food comes. So are we helping to cultivate a healthy environment…that can literally feed us, those we love, and those around us who are literally hungry, with good food…recognizing that a healthy spirit and a healthy body are inextricably connected. And the second is about the communal dirt that we root around in together. So, are we cultivating healthy relationships…for meaning is found first in human connection…the love that sustains us and gives us purpose and direction is the good fruit of abiding and healthy friendships…growing and maturing into the people we are created by God to be is always work we chiefly do with each other…it requires each other. And, the third is the spiritual dirt that lives in our own souls. So, are we cultivating good habits for the soul…like minding the words we use with each other and ourselves…living open handed with all we have to the benefit of those with far too little…hitting the gym or yoga studio…and, most of all, praying without ceasing. All of this represents the sort of dirt, that we have a part in cultivating, that feeds body and spirit, that are entirely and intimately connected, with all the goodness…all the love…all the grace upon grace that God has placed before us…and that fully satisfies the hunger within. For, we are, indeed, what we eat. Amen.