Wednesday, April 27, 2016

April 24, 2016 Voices of Faith: Under Persecution

Today, someone, somewhere in the world, will lose their life.  It will not be as a result of hunger or disease.  It won’t be a result of their age or infirmity.  The loss of life will result from religious persecution.  And they will not be alone.  This tragic reality will be repeated over and over again, in many countries around the world.

This morning we begin a new series of messages.  The theme is – Voices of Faith, and the topics in the series will be – In the Marketplace, In the Family, in the Political Arena, and this morning, Under Persecution.

There are many Scripture texts that we could reference this morning.  We could turn to the book of Revelation, which is often understood as primarily referencing the future, but was written to strengthen and encourage the early church, which was experiencing a great deal of persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire.  In the early service, as the Call to Worship, I read the following passage from Revelation, which I often use at funerals, and which is one of the lectionary texts for today – Revelation 21:1-6 –

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

The text I have chosen for this morning’s message is I Peter 1:3-9.  Peter was no stranger to persecution, as he was arrested on more than one occasion, was beaten, and eventually he lost his life as a martyr at the hands of the Roman Emperor.  In our recent series of messages from the book of Philippians, I remarked several times that it was obvious Paul was near the end of his life, and that realization was a powerful factor in shaping the message of his letter.  In Peter’s letter, there is also the backdrop of persecution, and while it doesn’t use that word in this passage, it is obvious as he writes –

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,
who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1.  The Reality of Persecution.
Perhaps you have seen the symbol in the picture above, which has become widely used on social media in recent months.  The symbol is the first letter in Arabic for Narani, which means Nazarene, and was a designation that ISIS fighters began using last summer for Christians, as followers of Jesus the Nazarene. The symbol was painted on homes where Christians lived, or formally lived. 

As ISIS fighters moved through Iraq and Syria, they began a violent purge of Christians from communities that had a Christian presence for many centuries.  In some cases, ISIS gave Christians a matter of hours to flee their homes or face death.  If they fled, they could only take with them a few items, leaving behind their homes and most of their belongings.  As a way to express solidarity with those Christians being persecuted by ISIS, Christians around the world have taken up the Narani symbol.

According to a report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, one-third of the world’s popluation (2.2 billion people) live in areas of the world where religious persecution increased between 2006 and 2009. (you can find the report at this link –  And some estimates, indicated in other research, put that number as high as 2/3. 

While not all countries are experiencing this rise in religious persecution, it is becoming a daily fact of life for people of faith in the most populous countries, with two of the biggest offenders being China and India.  China has been vigorous about cracking down on the house church movement, as the government fears the move toward freedom and independence that are natural outgrowths of the message of the Gospel.  China, which is officially atheistic, only allows worship to take place in state-approved churches, which probably number somewhere in the amount of 20 million people.  In the state-approved churches there are often government representatives present in the worship service, listening to what is said and monitoring that activities that take place.  In contrats to the state-approved churches, it is estimated that 60 million people – and possibly millions more – worship in the house churches, which operate without government approval and whose leaders are often subject to harrassment and arrest.  Chinese authorities have destroyed countless churches, often coming in the middle of the night with equipment to tear down the buildings.

The Middle East, obviously, is one of the most dangerous places in the world for those who are Christian, or members of other minority religions.  ISIS, certainly, has become one of the primary threats throughout the region, but it is often government authorities who aid in religious persecution.

2.  The Gospel Challenges Power.
Several years ago I read a fascinating article about some research that connected Christian missionary work and the rise of democracy around the world.  The researchers discovered that where missionary work had taken place there was a corresponding rise in the spread of – or desire for – democracy.  This should not come as a surprise.  The gospel asserts that all people are created as free individuals, are meant to live in freedom, and are endowed with a God-given right to worship – or not worship – as their conscience dictates.  Democracy and freedom is what happens when people hear the message that God has created all people as equals and that he desires that they live in freedom.  Paul writes in Galations 5:1 that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

We were not created to live under oppression, or to be pawns of political bullies and tyrants.  The early church faced much persecution because this message of equality and freedom made Rome uneasy.  The Roman Empire was not interested in sharing power with anyone – even God.  And, they were not about to allow freedom and democracy to threaten their grip on power. 

3.  Faith,Hope, and Love Wins.
The Christian faith was born under persecution.  The theme of persecution is alluded to in many of the writings of the New Testament.  I recently offered a series of messages from Paul letter of Philippians, which was written while he was in prison, awaiting execution at the hands of the Roman Empire.  The book of Acts tells us the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and of how, on that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.  But Saul began to destroy the church.  Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:1-3).

Peter was no stranger to persecution.  The book of Acts tells us that he was taken before the Sanhedrin for trial (4:1-22), that he was imprisoned (5:17-20), beaten (5:40), and imprisoned again (12:1-19).  In this morning’s Scripture text, he writes that in this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine (verse 6-7).  Peter is saying that even in persecution there is some kind of benefit that can be found.  Who among us has not said, I wish I didn’t have to experience that difficulty, but, through that difficulty I learned…?  It is the triumph of faith that can find something good, and even beautiful, even in the midst of suffering and persecution.

This is a lesson that persecutors do not learn – you cannot overcome thepower of faith, hope, and love.  These great qualities of faith, hope, and love – the triumverate of Christian values – hold within them the greatest power on earth, and no amount of persecution can ever overcome them.  This is what led the great church father Tertullian to proclaim that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  As much as the persecutors of the church tried to defeat it, they could not do so.  No power held by an earthly kingdom can defeat the power of faith, hope, and love. 

When Tanya and I were in St. Peter’s Square last May it was interesting to note the presence of an ancient Egyptian obelisk in that square.  What in the world is that object doing in that location?  That obelisk is one of a number located throughout the city of Rome.  They were brought there by Roman emporers as a way to demonstrate their political might.  To take such an object from another kingdom, another military power, was a way to show Rome’s superior military and political might.

Interestingly, that obelisk was probably one of the last things Peter saw as he was crucified.  And look at what occupies that vast territory now.  What was once a symbol of the might and power of Rome has now become one of the centers of the Christian faith.  Not far from that location, at the Colloseum, a cross now stand in the place where the emperor’s seat was located.  It would have been inconceivable, two thousand years ago, for anyone to imagine that a new religion, heavily persecuted by Rome, would not only survive, but thrive.  The vast Roman Empire, which dominated the world, is long gone, but the Christian faith persist.

The Christian faith was born under persecution and has not just survived, but thrived.

4.  Our blessing of freedom.
As we gather for worship this morning, and as millions more gather for worship across our country, we must remember that we are historic anomolies.  For most of the history of our faith, people did not enjoy the freedom we enjoy to worship according to the dictates of our conscience. 

Not one prevented us from attending worship today, and no one compelled us to be here.
No one will tell us how, or how not, to worship.
No one will tell me what to preach or not to preach.
No government regulators attend our worship.
No one will tell our congregation what we can and cannot do.
We need no government approval for what we do.
No one will threaten us for being here.

As Americans, we enjoy the gift of religious freedom, a bedrock principle of our society, but we cannot forget our brothers and sisters who do not enjoy the luxury of living their faith without the fear of persecution.

Perhaps we cannot fully appreciate what we have always had, but we must always advocate for the freedom of others, especially the most basic right of all humanity – the right to religious freedom.

Monday, April 18, 2016

April 17, 2016 The Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth

As we complete our series of messages on the Seven Deadly Sins this morning I want to let you know where we are going for the next month or so.  Beginning next week I will offer a brief series of messages with the theme Voices of Faith.  That theme will take us to these topics – Voices of Faith, Under Persecution; Voices of Faith, In the Marketplace; Voices of Faith, In the Political Arena; and Voices of Faith, In the Family.  That may expand as we go, depending on how I feel led.

Today we come to the deadly sin of sloth.  Ironically, I meant to do this one earlier but just couldn’t get motivated.  The subtitle to this message is, eh, maybe later.

Our Scripture text for this morning is Luke 10:38-42, which is the story of Mary and Martha. Those two personalities demonstrate, I think, the delicate balance between work and rest, and knowing when it’s time to work and when it’s time to rest.

Luke 10:38-42 –

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,
42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

As we consider the topic of the last deadly sin, that of sloth, I will sum up this topic with three words – Work, Responsibility, and Sabbath.

1.  Work.
If you have young children, or grandchildren, you are probably aware of the movie Zootopia.  I have not seen the movie, but I did see a preview a few weeks ago when Tanya and I were at a theater to see a different movie.  Zootopia is an animated movie, with an all-animal cast, and in one scene two of the main characters go to the Department of Motor Vehicles.  All of the animals working at the DMV were sloths, and with apologies to anyone who works in a government office, it was, I thought, rather funny casting (you can see it at this link –  I have to confess, I could actually feel myself getting tense as the sloths moved so incredibly slow.  I wanted to shout speed up!  Please!

So here is the question I have about the deadly sin of sloth – is sloth really a problem for many people?  I know we sometimes question the health of the work ethic in this country but the pace and busyness that consumes so many lives today is not at all healthy.  For many people, it’s not a question about the need to get moving and get busy as much as it is the need to slow down and stop more often than they do, if they ever do.  I’m not sure I need to tell anyone this morning that they need to get motivated and step it up; I believe the message I need to share, to many, is to slow down.

Work is a gift of God, I believe.  It is not a punishment, although we sometimes act as though it is.  Work is a gift of God that allows us to use the gifts and abilities he has given to us, it allows us to be useful, and it can bring meaning to our lives. 

But we also have a complicated relationship with our work, especially in a couple of areas.  Somewhere along the way, for many people, work became the primary means of self-fulfillment. Having a good career can be a wonderful blessing, but so often these days, it seems, career becomes so consuming that it becomes almost an idol, as it becomes the object to which we devote our highest loyalty and affection.  In the past, it seems to me, that it was more likely that people found their sense of self-fulfillment in areas of life such as family and faith.  Increasingly, it seems that people turn to their work to bring them a sense of worth, fulfillment, purpose, and meaning.  If you love your work and career, I say good for you, but I would also caution that it can be very problematic when we tie our identities, sense of worth, and sense of fulfillment to our work.  Many of us have taken note that retirement can be difficult for some people, as they struggle to fill the void that is left after leaving their work.  For some, they must re-establish their sense of identity after retiring, and find it difficult to reconnect with life apart from work.

Work also becomes, for some people, a way to avoid what might be going on in their lives; that is, work becomes a tool of avoidance.  If you keep moving, if you keep busy, you have a reason not to stop and talk with someone you need to talk to, and if you keep busy you might keep your mind active enough to even avoid thinking about some of the matters that need your careful thought.

It is this avoidance that leads some to become workaholics.  Workaholic is a word that has a modern origin, first coined by Dr. Wayne Oates back in the 70s.  Interestingly, being a workaholic doesn’t have anything to do with work.  Being a workaholic, I think, is primarily about avoidance.  A workaholic can’t slow down because if they do, it might be necessary to talk about an issue they don’t want to talk about it, and so work becomes a very convenient method of avoidance.  And our culture is happy to help with this avoidance, because we sanctify workaholism into a virtue.  We provide various rewards for those who put in long workweeks, get to work early and stay late, and take work home on the weekends.

2.  Responsibility.
My father was only nine years old when his father passed away, and it became necessary for him to help support his family.  My dad was a hard worker, and because of his circumstances, it was ingrained in him from an early age to work, and to work hard.  He was a steelworker – putting in long hours at the mill – and had a number of small business pursuits on the side, as a farmer, a gunsmith, a sign painter, doing tractor work, and other work as well.  It was a very rare occasion for me to witness my father either sitting down or being still.  Consequently, he worked very hard to instill in my siblings and I a strong work ethic.  All of us had regular chores to do, and one of the first for me was shoveling the ashes out of our coal furnace.  Did anyone here grow up with a coal furnace?  If so, you know what it was like to be covered from head to foot in coal ash.  I knew, on Saturday mornings, I was not free to do anything or go anywhere until I went down into our cellar and shoveled out that coal ashes.  And I didn’t like it, but it was good for me.  My parent’s insistence that I have regular responsibilities around our home was good for me, as they helped to teach me about responsibility. 

It is important that we learn to fulfill the responsibilities that we have in life, but how we do so can vary from one person to another, as we are all different in our personalities. This is why the story of Mary and Martha is so interesting, because people react to the story according to their personality type.  The Marthas of the world read or hear this story and think she’s right!  It’s the people like us that do all the work and if it weren’t for us nothing would ever get done!  And they have a point.  The Marys of the world read or hear this story and think people need to slow down.  Be more like me.  Be laid back.  That working all the time wears a body out!

Mary and Martha make an interesting contrast, because neither of them are wrong.  But take note of something interesting – Martha complains about Mary, but Mary does not complain about Martha.  Martha goes to Jesus and says, Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!  Martha frames that question in an interesting way – Lord, don’t you care?  It wasn’t a question as much as it was an accusation – Lord, you don’t care that I have to do all the work!  Mary’s sitting around when she should be helping me!

Part of what we can understand from this passage is that not everyone approaches work in the same way, and that’s all right.  Some people have a very driven, type A personality, and some are not. Martha was a type A personality.  Maybe a type A++.  She is the one who criticized Jesus when their brother Lazarus died (John 11:17-21 – 17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.  21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died).  Only a strong personality would have the boldness to approach Jesus in such a way.

Martha was not wrong because she worked hard. I would never fault Martha for being a type A personality.  I am married to a type A personality, so I understand them very well.  I am not a type A personality.  Some day I’ll get around to figuring out what type I am, but not today.  We need those driving types of personalities in the world or a lot of things would be left undone.  But in this story, Martha failed to realize that there is a time to work, but part of the understanding of responsibility is to know when not to work. 

We have a bit more information about Martha, but we don’t know as much about Mary’s.  Perhaps Mary needed to be a bit more motivated.  Perhaps Mary was willing to let Martha do the greater share of the work.  But whatever the case may be, Mary understood that at that moment, work was not the most important.

We have to work, but we are not just created for work.  We are created by God with a spirit, a soul, and they must be tended, and that is a different kind of work.  It is a responsibility, and sometimes that responsibility supersedes work.  That being said, our final word is –

3.  Sabbath.
Exodus 20:9-10 says that for 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.
Jesus and his disciples worked hard, but they knew there was a time to rest, and at times he even led them away from the overwhelming need that surrounded them, in order to find a quiet place to bring them refreshment and renewal (30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”  32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things).  I think that if Jesus saw the need for rest, we can give ourselves a break and rest some as well.  I don’t believe in the idea that it’s better to burn out than to rust away.  I worry about burnout in the church.  As important as our work is, we need to make sure we are getting adequate rest and spiritual renewal. 

One of the most meaningful moments of my sabbatical last year came on the last day, when I went to the Abby of Gethsemani near Bardstown.  If you have never traveled to that beautiful place I encourage you to do so.  I found it really moving to sit in the back of the sanctuary there and to listen to the prayers and the songs of the monks.  And the weather that day was beautiful, and I walked up to the top of a hill across from the Abby, where there was a cross, and on that hill you could look around and see for miles at the surrounding countryside.  I told myself that day that I would return there with some regularity but have yet to return, but I go there often in my mind.

We are blessed by God to be given the opportunity to have meaningful work, but we are spiritual beings, with souls that must be nourished.  We must never forget to have times of Sabbath rest.  So rest today, and don’t feel badly about it!

Monday, April 11, 2016

April 10, 2016 The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

Gluttony, of all the deadly sins, is probably the one that seems the most innocuous to us.  Aside from the health implications of a bad diet, how can eating be a sin?  We need to eat; we all like to eat; in fact, we celebrate it in our churches!  I have, over the years, lingered over many a table heavily laden with food at church dinners.  Isn’t it good to celebrate the bounty that God has provided for us?

For our Scripture text, I will read a passage from the book of Deuteronomy, and I chose this text because it speaks to the larger issues involved with gluttony, because gluttony is about far more than just food.  Gluttony touches upon a number of issues and I have summarized them in three categories this morning – hunger, compulsive, and consumption.

Here the words of Deuteronomy 15:1-11, in which we do not read about either food or eating, but we do read about some of the larger issues that are involved, especially the issue of poverty –

1 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.
This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.
You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you.
However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,
if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.
For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.
Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.
10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.
11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

1.  Hunger.
I have never truly been hungry.  Very often I will say that I am hungry, and sometimes will even say that I’m starving, but the truth is, I don’t know what real hunger is. 

One of Tanya’s brothers retired from the Air Force last July, and I remember listening to him talk about his survival training many years ago.  He was dropped off in a remote area for a number of days with only a minimum of items, among them a knife, some fishing line and a hook, and a live rabbit.  One of the goals of the training was to see how long he could survive before eating the rabbit.  It doesn’t take long, he said, before you become not only willing, but anxious to eat just about anything, and are rooting around in the ground looking for something that can pass for food.  

It is interesting that the first temptation offered to Jesus after he had been in the wilderness for forty days after his baptism was to turn stones into bread, to eat.  Matthew tells us in that passage (Matthew 4:1-11) that Jesus had fasted for forty days and at that point had become hungry.  I’m sure he was.  That he became hungry after forty days of fasting sounds like quite an understatement to me.  To be hungry is to be very vulnerable.

Food is, perhaps, what we most take for granted on a daily basis.  Until we don’t have enough.  When I sit down at a meal to eat I offer the same prayer – thank you Lord, for the blessing of being able to eat when I am hungry, to be able to feed my family, to have food in our home, and help me to remember and to help those who do not have enough.

When we become hungry almost everything else takes a backseat.  When we become hungry, it’s hard to think, we get irritable, and we think of little except for food.  Hunger is an incredibly powerful urge, and I think it would take anywhere from three to, perhaps, seven days of not having enough food before our society would deteriorate into what none of us would want to either imagine or witness.

That gluttony is considered a deadly sin reminds us that food can be deadly in a very literal sense.  It can be deadly when we take no care about the way in which we eat, because we can develop multiple health problems from a bad diet, or one can be at risk in their health because of a lack of food. 

Many people fall into the latter category.  According to a United Nations report from a few years ago, there are now more hungry people in the world than ever before.  Over a billion people, about a sixth of the worldwide population, are hungry to the point of being undernourished or malnourished.  Back in the 80s there was a very large, public concentration upon worldwide hunger, with help for the continent of Africa, parts of Asia, and other hunger-stricken parts of the world.  We don’t hear about hunger as much today, perhaps because at some point the numbers simply become so overwhelming to us that we begin to believe there is not much that we can do.

But the point of the passage from Deuteronomy is to remind us there is much that we can do.  In verses 4 and 5 God says that there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.  God reminded his people that the manner in which a society is constructed can, and does, make a difference – a very big difference.  A society can order itself in a manner that can either insure that people are trapped in poverty and hunger or it can order itself in a way that helps to bring blessing and abundance to all.

The message of the Gospel is both personal and corporate, micro and macro, local and universal.  It speaks to us as individuals but also speaks to the larger issues and needs of our community and our world, and one of those needs is certainly that of hunger.

We cannot be everywhere, taking care of every need, obviously, but together, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), through the ministries of our denomination, such as the Week of Compassion, a real difference can be made.  One of the dangers, I believe, of the almost complete privatization of faith is the turning away of institutional structures that can make such a difference in our world.  I can’t do much as an individual, but partnered with others, a real difference can take place.  There are places in the world where we cannot go and where we cannot serve, but when we come together and pool our resources, others can go and they can serve.

2.  Compulsion.
About a year and a half ago I preached a message about addiction, directed at substance abuse.  But the reality is, there are many addictions, and one of the prime addictions is that of food.

Some compulsive and addictive behaviors are not as problematic as others.  A compulsive behavior that centers on food will not manifest itself to the level of destructiveness that comes with alcohol and drugs.  But it can still take its toll.  As can compulsive behavior that manifests itself in shopping and spending or other way. If we are unable to get to the root of our compulsive behaviors, we find that, whatever we happen to be consuming, we need more and more of it as time continues on.  And then we find that we have an issue of addiction in our life.

Gluttony is a compulsive behavior, and compulsive behaviors become addictive behaviors, and we are a culture very much consumed by addictive behaviors, with food as, perhaps, the most common.

We often talk about comfort food.  As I was editing this message the other evening I got that phrase comfort food in my mind and couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I got up, went to the pantry, and got into a bag of cookies.  That rush of sugar helped me to think better!  At least that’s what I told myself.

The truth is, we all have some type of compulsive behavior.  And our compulsive behaviors are driven by a spiritual hunger, so there are two different types of hunger.  There is physical hunger, and there is the hunger of trying to fill some type of void in our lives.  As society becomes, in some ways, more secular, one of the ideas that can be lost is that we are spiritual beings.  We are not just physical beings; we have souls as well, and those souls much be tended and they must be nourished.  One of the reasons why, I think, our society is struggling so with addictions is because we are forgetting to nourish our souls. 

3.  Consumption.
Gluttony is about far more than just how much we eat.  Gluttony is about how we live with abundance in a world where so many live with great scarcity.  And I don’t say this in order to invoke any sense of guilt.  I have said before and I will say again, I don’t believe in ever using guilt as a tool to motivate people.  Guilt is destructive.  I don’t believe in guilt.  I do, however, believe in conviction.  Conviction is different from guilt, because conviction is when the spirit of God takes hold of us, convinces us of a truth, and drives us to live in a different manner because of that truth.

Poverty has always vexed mankind.  Unfortunately, both the words of Deuteronomy and Jesus’ affirmation of them have continued to be true – there are always poor people among us.  In our own country, for example, billions upon billions have been spent on government programs, with the purpose of eradicating poverty, and yet it stubbornly persists.

There are many reasons why poverty and hunger continue to exist in our world.  There are some personal reasons – some people are not able to manage their money or make poor decisions and fall into poverty – but there are many reasons beyond the individual. 

The Scripture text for today takes up this difficult issue of scarcity, and it provides the background for some of the most famous words of Jesus – the poor will always be with you (Mark 14:7).  In Deuteronomy, there is an interesting contrast in the words about the poor.  In verse 4 we read that there need be no poor people among you.  In verse 11 we read the words that Jesus quoted in the Gospel of Mark – there will always be poor people in the land.  So, if there need not be any poor people in the land, why are we told that there will always be poor people in the land?  One reason is because there are structural issues that not only cause some people to fall into poverty, but also serve as powerful forces that make it almost impossible for them to escape the trap of poverty, of hunger and other accompanying problems.  The text from Deuteronomy emphasizes that the people of Israel must take care to not allow social structures to be erected that will trap people in debt, in poverty, and hunger.

Last week’s Sentinel-News had this headline – Feeding the Masses.  The Serenity Center – here in Shelbyville, and where many of our congregation volunteers – was named Kentucky’s Best Food Pantry.  About 1,300 people per week receive food through the ministry of the Serenity Center, which amounts to more than 55,000 per year.

It’s kind of a double-edged sword that the Serenity Center received this award.  I’m pleased that they did, but it would be far better, wouldn’t it, if there were no need for that ministry.  Wouldn’t it be great if it went out of business because of a lack of need?  That it exists, and that is serves so many people, is evidence of the amount of need that is present in our community.  And if Shelby County, viewed as one of the state’s most prosperous counties, has such need, what is the level of need in other parts of the state?

Consumption is a very important issue for our world, especially those of us who live in a part of the world where there is much more prosperity.  We are taught to consume from the time we are young.  We are reminded constantly that we live in a consumer economy; if we don’t spend and consume, the economy slows down.

I think we must ask ourselves some very hard questions about our consumption, especially at a point in time when we have come to understand that we do not have infinite resources and there are so many who live with such scarcity.  I know I sure need to ask myself some of those questions.

A friend of mine traveled with a group of businessmen some years ago to Kazakhstan.  As a group, they had two purposes – to encourage and offer advice to the business community and to seek opportunities to speak of their faith.  At the time of the trip, my friend was working hard at getting his business off the ground, and while it is now doing very well, at the time it was early enough to still have its share of struggles.  After the trip, he told me that he was by far the least successful businessman on that trip.  After one of the gatherings, at which several very successful individuals spoke, all the attendees were invited to speak to and ask questions of any of those who had traveled with the group.  My friend had not spoken and none of the attenders knew anything about him, but most of the crowd came to ask him questions.  He was very puzzled about this so he asked one of those who attended the workshop why they were coming to him with their questions, especially when there were other, more successful businessmen present.  I should mention that my friend is a big guy, and that is why the conference attenders came to him.  In their view, he must have been the most successful because he appeared to them as the person who could most afford to eat well.  Imagine living in a part of the world where you are judged as successful based on the appearance that you can afford to eat.  That is hard for us to imagine, but such is the reality for many people in our world.

All week, as I worked on this message, I thought about my own habits of consumption.  I really need to make some changes in my life.  We are at a point in history where our present patterns of consumption must change, both for the health of our world and its inhabitants.  With a world population approaching 7.5 billion, we our facing the limits of our resources; certainly any sustainable use of those resources.

Writing sermons is not easy.  It’s not the process of selecting a topic, doing the research, writing a manuscript, and presenting it that makes it difficult, however.  What makes it difficult is standing here, knowing how different my life is from the words I speak, and on this topic, the gulf is much wider than I wish it were.  I live with too many luxuries in a world where so many do not even have life’s necessities.  I speak of finding freedom in faith and allowing God to guide our lives, while too often I am at the mercy of my compulsions.  And I speak of being wary of consuming too much while I am very much a consumer.

Gluttony, as we know, does speak to food, but it speaks to many other elements of our behavior as well.  Our physical appetite can exert a great deal of control over us, but let us always remember that we must do more than feed our bodies; we must also feed our souls.