The Good, the Bad, and the Not-That-Simple: A Theory of Life Abundant

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

I’ve heard people in some Christian traditions say that the purpose of a sermon is to “take ‘em to the cross.” As a Lutheran, I’ve learned that we generally take ‘em to the table by going through the cross. So that’s where we’re going to end up. But first….

Okay. 

Let’s name the elephant in the room first, shall we? I do not think that getting divorced cuts you off from God or marks a person as somehow more sinful than the rest of us sinners. I know that you may have heard the opposite from pulpits before, and trust me, I know exactly what this Gospel lesson says. So if this passage affects you directly in any way, rest easy. You are safe here. I’ll explain the rest in a moment, but I had to get that out of the way first. Because trust me, I’m just fine with calling people sinners, but you better know that 1) I mean everybody and 2) I’m first in line.

I know what “the Bible says” on any number of issues. I also believe that the good Lord gave us brains and hearts for a reason, and we will be using them both today, as we always should when considering good and evil or just humanity in general. 

But if you’ll give me just a second, I want to kick off this little talk of ours by talking about one of my favorite subjects and yours: food. More specifically, how we think about food in our culture. Because believe it or not, I actually think that how we think about food has quite a lot to do with today’s scripture readings. Namely, in how we couch it in moral language and an overly simplistic, moralistic, good-vs-bad, all-or-nothing mentality that just isn’t healthy for anyone and doesn’t generally lead to good outcomes.

We’re into February, which hopefully means that we’re out of the woods when it comes to weight loss advertisements. Women in particular get inundated with things that tell us that we can get skinny. This is assuming of course that all women want to be skinny, which we do not. 

But of course, this phenomenon is not limited to women by any stretch. The men in the room here know that you all get body image messages too. Men’s magazines tell you all about how to get that six pack with supplements and diet plans. 

Typically, even the best results go like this — person of any gender goes on crash diet. Person may take supplements. Person labels pizza and chocolate and other sweets “bad.” Refuses to eat them. Gives in and eat French fries. Feel bad for being “bad.” Go back to eating “good” things. Tells everyone that the person can’t have the brownies, because the person is “being good.” Person loses a lot of weight, or not, and manages to keep it off, or not, depending on how long they can “be good.” 

Talking about our bodies and food is awkward and hard and rife with shame in large part because of the way we talk about food. We always talk about it in moral terms. Being “good.” Being “bad.” “Cheat day.” “Eating clean.” “Good foods.” “Bad foods.” 

So I’ve compiled this helpful guide: did you know you were getting nutritional advice at church today too? Just one of the many services we offer here at Our Savior’s.

Good foods are foods that contain calories. Foods that you want to eat. Foods that taste good. Foods that you are in the mood for. 

Bad foods: spoiled foods. Foods that you are allergic to. Foods that push people in front of busses or commit crimes. These are bad foods. 

In other words, if it doesn’t kill you, it’s not a “bad” food, and we need to drop the morality language and the all-or-nothing approach around food. It’s making Americans really, really sick, and it’s making us fall prey to all kinds of gimmicks that prey on our body image issues. Being healthy is about developing healthy habits, not about whether or not you have a brownie today at coffee hour. Food is not inherently “good” or “bad.” It’s about what gives you life and makes you feel and be healthy, not about what people who are trying to sell you things tell you.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. 

So just as food is made to nourish us and keep us alive and healthy, so is the Law. We have a lot of law in these texts today: the Old Testament lesson implores us to “choose life,” and the Gospel lesson gives us a whole list of behaviors that are off limits — right? So is God’s point in creating the law to label some behaviors “good” and some behaviors “bad”? 

We certainly think about language and behavior the way that we think about food. I know. If you actually know me, you’ll know that I’m the least offend-able person on the planet, yet the longer I’m in this role, the more I become frustrated with just how much people try to protect me, thinking I’m somehow deeply offended by “bad” things — whether bad language (which my own friends think is hilarious, by the way) or any mentions of sex or violence. It makes being in this role deeply weird sometimes, because in case you didn’t know, I’m just a person. But I’ve come to realize over the years that it’s because we think of everything the way we think of food — good and bad — and people think that God thinks that way too, and they think of me as a stand-in for God. 

So that raises the question: does God label some behaviors good and some always bad?

I would say yes, tentatively. The Law is created and formed around helping us to stay in community, have peace, and not to harm one another. Reconciliation is good. Loving partnerships are good. Community is good. Harming people is bad. 

And Jesus takes all of that a step further: don’t be proud of yourself for not killing that person who irritated you; go and make peace with them. Don’t be proud of yourself just because you didn’t cheat on your spouse; stop thinking of other human beings as sex objects. And don’t make an oath just so that people will believe you’re serious; become a trustworthy person whose “yes” means yes and whose “no” means no. And divorce? Divorce in Jesus’ day was a deathblow to women in particular. A woman who has been divorced would be cut off entirely in a society where she couldn’t work or hold property. And men could just decide to divorce his wife for no reason, issuing her a certificate of divorce on a whim and dealing her that deathblow rather easily. 

So is Jesus straight up calling divorce sinful? I don’t think so, and neither does the Lutheran tradition.

So my friend Joe says that Jesus didn’t die so that we would all behave ourselves. (1)

Jesus died and rose again because God is a God of life, against whom all the powers of oppression and sin are no match. Deuteronomy shows us rather than telling us that even the Law given in the first books of the Hebrew Bible is not a law of death but a law of life, as the people are implored to choose life by choosing the law. 

In the same way that divorce was a death blow to women in the first century, marriage can be a death blow to two people caught in a cycle of abuse, toxicity, neglect or any number of difficult factors. Many theologians throughout the centuries have interpreted the law of the God of life through this lens: “What will bring the abundant life that Jesus promises?” 

Labeling things “good” or “bad” may be simple enough for us to understand, but just like food, life is not simple. The ultimate purpose of food is to keep us alive. Foods are not “good” unless you think they are and they are not “bad” unless they make you throw up or stole your car. 

In the same way, what God wants for us in all our behaviors is abundant life. 

When we witness to a marriage, the presider says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” And in a perfect world, we would always be correct in our assessment that God has joined those two people together. In the kingdom of God, love lasts forever, and death is no more, and no one is objectified but everyone is looked at as human, and everyone’s “yes” is yes and their “no” means no, and all those who argue find peace and reconciliation quickly. This is life as it’s supposed to be. This is life as it’s intended to be: life abundant. That is what Jesus describes in this passage — the kingdom of God in all its fullness. 

Beloved, I do not need to tell you that we do not live on that side of the kingdom. We strive for it, and we look for it, and sometimes, we see flashes of it in our own lives and within these very walls. But truth be told, we fail all the time. We witness to marriages that were never meant to be, and we grieve. We hear of case after case of sexual abuse. We are surrounded day after day by death and lies. We live in a nation where reconciliation between the two sides seems far, far off. 

With my friend Joe, I do not believe that Jesus died on the cross so that we could behave. God is not as overly simplistic and petty as we are to blindly label things “good” vs. “bad. 

For goodness’ sake, we even do this with our food in the vain hope of looking good.

I believe that Christ rose again to show us that God is a God of new life and hope. And that a healthy person, rather than labeling things “good” or “bad,” looks for what most brings abundant life, whether in food or in actions. Whether in food or in life, an “all or nothing” approach only works if you’re talking about simple stuff, like whether you’re allergic to a food, or whether an action is truly harmful to yourself or someone else. 

Yes, if you always eat cake for dinner, you will harm yourself. But if you don’t eat a really tasting looking brownie that you really want during a celebration you’ve been waiting for, you may also be doing harm. 

Indeed, there’s a lot of Law in these texts today. And the law is helpful in telling us how to live in a better way, one that hopefully brings abundant life to ourselves and all we meet.

And at the end of the road, with all our failures, there is the Gospel which is for all of us: that Christ died and rose again not to correct our behaviors, but because God is a God of abundant life and desires life abundant for each one of us. 

So eat, and nourish your body. If cake at a party brings you abundant life, eat the cake. If vegetables make you feel healthy, chow down. 

And come to this table and eat, knowing that this food is good, and knowing that you are holy and whole not because you’ve acted right, but because God has declared you beloved. And that Gospel, at the end of the road, is all you need to know.

So let’s eat. Amen.

1. Many many thanks to Pastor Joseph Graumann Jr. of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Mass, for this insight and this blog post: Modern Metanoia, The Law of Life, both of which helped me write this sermon.

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