Sermon of the Week:
I Really Want that Cheeseburger
The second of a four part sermon series: Do Unto Others–Being Good Neighbors in a Pandemic
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Keywords: Food Insecurity, Concern for Others, Somebody Feed Phil, Racial Wealth Gap, Black Lives Matter, Wear a Mask, Christian Freedom #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Most of the time, I don’t think much about food.
Food, for me, is often a luxury.
I enjoy food.
I love watching people who love food.
One of my favorite shows to download and watch when I travel,
back in the days when I would travel, when we could travel,
is Somebody Feed Phil,
which is something of a mix between a travel show and a food show.
Have you seen it? It’s on Netflix.
The host, Phillip Rosenthal, travels somewhere—
Chicago, Mexico City, Venice, Bangkok, the most recent episode was to Marrakesh,
and Phil…who is a goofy, oddball sort of guy with not an ounce of guile in him
gushes over the local delicacies
and the people serving and sharing it with him.
I love watching someone who loves food
and who reflects carefully about the way that relationships are nurtured
around the sharing of food, you know? At its best, food does that—brings us together.
I felt that way about Anthony Bourdain’s show, Parts Unknown,
which had a similar, but more edgy, vibe to Somebody Feed Phil,
part travel show and part food documentary.
Whenever I watch these shows,
and see how people all over the world approach meal preparation and consumption
I learn so much about regional differences.
This place might be heavy on the olive oil and the wine,
because there are fantastic olive trees and vineyards in that part of the world
and they pair so well with fresh bread and pasta.
That place might be known for its stockyards,
where cattle wranglers sold steer and a famous barbeque tradition emerged.
Yes. if Phil came to Kansas City, he’d surely make a stop at Arthur Bryants.
Or then again, what about some other place
maybe in a culture where most people abstain from alcohol,
or maybe they don’t eat certain things—maybe no pork, or no meat at all,
or maybe they keep kosher, among other things not mixing milk and meat at the same meal.
It is sort of fascinating to absorb all these differences,
and to appreciate the commitments behind them.
And I’m reminded as I watch that they’re not my commitments.
“They” might not eat something that I love.
I didn’t grow up in a family that restricted what we ate in any particular way.
Well, my family tried to limit my soda consumption as a kid
they didn’t buy me any sugar cereals for our pantry, not that that’s a lingering sore spot or anything
but that’s not what I’m talking about.
We ate meat, for instance.
A lot, it seems, as I think about it.
Growing up, once a week or so my Dad would grill burgers or, if we were lucky, steaks on the grill.
He preferred the kind with the charcoal biscuits and the lighter fluid,
and he would always sauté up some mushrooms on the stovetop for himself,
because he liked them on top of his steak or his burger.
I grew to love a good cheeseburger. Still do, to this day.
I never have known a particular set of dietary restrictions,
limits on the kinds of things we would eat because of a value or a commitment.
Sure, there are things I don’t particularly like.
I can pass on the coconut, thank you very much.
I’m not a fan of wiggly desserts, like flan.
The two things that stand out the most about my mom’s mom
was, one, that she had a wild and beautiful garden in her backyard
broccoli and lettuce and strawberries and green beans, which I loved,
and, two, I remember that she used to love eating liver and onions,
something I never could bring myself to try.
But none of this was because of conviction.
I didn’t avoid something because of a value system.
I just liked something, or didn’t.
And I’m still pretty much like that, to this day.
And that means I don’t have to think much about food,
other than does it look appealing, or does it not,
and maybe how I need to balance all of that with a bunch of healthy, power-food choices too.
There’s something here that might help us understand
something really important about what the Apostle Paul was trying to get at
when he wrote that enigmatic fourteenth chapter in his letter to the Romans.
We’ll get to that, in a second,
but I need to digress for a bit
because we would be remiss if we didn’t note how strange it feels,
during this chaotic moment, today, for us to be talking about food.
I admit, it seems out of place, at least to me,
because food is not the locus, not the catalyst
for our collective discord these days.
Our conflict stems from racism and from a global pandemic,
along with the breakdown of relating to one another in healthy, productive, faithful ways.
But for Paul, food was the source of discord, of conflict.
At that time, Paul was working with a new church
full of people who were new to the faith of Jesus Christ,
some who were gentiles, who were used to the traditions of the empire,
and others who brought Jewish traditions with them
traditions that included a lot of dietary laws and restrictions
values and commitments that helped to shape who they were,
that shaped their self-identity.
Many of those rules helped protect the Jewish people over centuries, too
at a time when medicine wasn’t so good.
Not eating shellfish, well, that’s not a bad idea when it might carry some nasty bug you don’t want.
The rules might once have had a good basis in community health, once, centuries ago.
Once you learn those rules, once they’re part of your cuisine, it is hard to let them go.
And then there was the problem of the local meat market, the butcher shop,
the actual place where you’d go
to get your steak or your ground beef or even your chicken or your lamb.
Those butcher shops were often at the local temples,
the very places where people would go to offer sacrifice
to one of the Greek or Roman gods.
That makes sense, when you think about it.
People brought an animal, or paid for one, to be offered to the Gods.
The priests then killed the animal, burned all the parts that no one wanted to eat
fat and sinew and organs and such,
and the rest of the animal was processed over in the butcher shop, and sold for food.
Which means, if you ate meat, at that time, you likely got it from a pagan temple…
and that bothered a lot of people
people who were following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
the God who said you will have no other Gods, other than me…
Now, Paul believed that there were no other Gods.
Just the one God, the one who created all things, the one who gave us Jesus
The one we experience through the Holy Spirit.
And if that’s the case, then those pagan temples are meaningless,
and that meat that they sell there is perfectly fine.
You want that cheeseburger? No worries. You can eat it with a clear conscience.
But not everyone got the memo,
or, if they did, it didn’t matter. They couldn’t handle it.
And there was stress and discomfort and conflict about it,
which Paul needed to address.
So food was a major issue for Paul,
even as it isn’t so much our issue, today. Not directly.
I do want to point out, however, that food is nonetheless important to talk about, today,
because it does matter in this current moment.
There are indirect, but important, ways in which the topic of food relates
to this societal upheaval over lasting and systemic racism, on the one hand
and this global coronavirus pandemic we’re going through on the other.
Food is a basic human good,
by which we mean that food is essential for human life
for human flourishing.
Access to fresh, affordable, quality food
remains a problem for the poor and the hurting in this country.
It was true five months ago, before the pandemic, before these protests,
and it certainly is true today.
To not have to think much about food,
to be able to reflect on food as a luxury, as I still do, even today,
to know where my next meal is going to come from…that’s something I take for granted,
so long as our grocery stores stay open.
And on the other hand, it is something that far too many people have to worry about.
More than a year ago, an article published by researchers at Children’s HealthWatch,
a pediatric research organization,
and the Center for Hunger Free Communities at Drexel University,
revealed that food insecurity impacted less than 9 percent of white households,
but nearly 22 percent of black households and 18 percent of Latinx households.
To be clear: there are hungry kids of every color in our country, in every zip code,
but nationwide, it is particularly pervasive among households of color.
Why is that?
Well, to boil down this complicated study
the authors argued that there are lasting and systemic connections between race and poverty.
“You cannot take on poverty and hunger
without taking on historical and contemporary discrimination,”
said one of the study’s authors, Mariana Chilton, back in February of 2019.[i]
And there are plenty of other economic data to support this conclusion.
For instance, earlier this year,
before the pandemic so negatively impacted the economy,
the Brookings Institution discussed data from 2016 that show
how the average net worth of a white family in the United States
is ten times greater than that of a black family, $171,000 to $17,150.
To say that again, in 2016, the most recent data,
the average net worth of a black household in the United States,
which is to say, the accumulated assets that a family has to build a better life upon,
was under $20,000, ten percent of that of an average white family.
The Brookings Institution goes on to explain
why that is the case, and why it goes back for generations.
“Gaps in wealth between Black and white households
reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination,
as well as differences in power and opportunity
that can be traced back to this nation’s inception.
The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society
that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens”[ii]
To be clear: the existence of hungry children, in particular, of any race,
in a country of such wealth and resources as ours is troubling,
more than that, it is a societal sin,
and while it is a complicated question
to talk about the relationship of poverty and hunger
to the scenarios that lead some to commit crime,
and from there to talk about interactions with police,
it is one element of the complex set of conditions that protestors are seeking to address these days,
in their urging of additional resources to help black communities.
So there’s that. Poverty, hunger, and thus food,
they are relevant to this particular moment
when we are collectively discussing Race in America.
And the pandemic too, that’s been brutal for those combating hunger in America.
There had been some good strides made over the last few years,
less so on the racial wealth gap,
but an expanding economy was helping reduce to a certain degree food insecurity for all of us.
In fact, Harvesters, our local food bank, said that before the pandemic,
food insecurity was near an all-time low
and that unfortunately
this current crisis is “likely to reverse the improvements that have occurred
over the last decade as millions of people are newly at risk…
along-side those who were experiencing food insecurity before Covid-19”[iii]
Harvesters predicts that in their service area,
here in Kansas City, one in six people may be food insecure.
16.8% of the local population.
And around 24% of all children under the age of eighteen.
Hunger and poverty are important for us to talk about
and they’re both underlying aspects of this current stressful moment.
The economic impact of this pandemic will mean more hungry people,
and the lasting challenge of hunger and poverty has wide impact,
and particularly so for black and brown Americans,
one subtext for the lasting cries for reform and for justice.
One of the reasons our service team at The Kirk puts such an emphasis on food insecurity
on feeding people at Cherith Brook
on helping out at Harvesters
on collecting canned food for GAP or the Community Assistance Council
or Grace Community Ministries
is because we know that this is one of those places where God’s heart aches in our world today
an indirect but nonetheless significant concern
while we wrestle over inequality and racism
and the impact of coronavirus on our communities.
We will turn to consider the heart of what Paul was trying to say for us today
in his concern about food sacrificed to idols
and how it relates to Christian Ethics,
to how we orient our lives, to how we treat one another, to how we love our neighbor,
but another key part of those same Christian Ethics
is a commitment to fight poverty, not the poor
to feed the hungry, as Jesus did,
and to recognize that systems of racism and injustice play a role in these problems too.
That is one key way that food matters in this moment, in our context.
We worship a God who, in Jesus, proclaimed release to the captives
recovery of sight for those who have been blind
filling the hungry with good food,
offering a blessing to those who hunger and who thirst.
Jesus’ work is our work as well, on a day like today.
But I do want us to spend a few moments
talking about what Paul was trying to get at
with his discussion about that food sacrificed to Idols.
Paul’s churches, like ours, were concerned with fighting poverty and hunger.
In fact, those first churches were widely known for their efforts to combat systemic inequality.
According to Acts,
they pooled their resources, and used them to feed people and provide for them.
There was a special effort to care for orphans, widows, and foreigners,
people who, in that culture, were particularly oppressed and marginalized.
This is one reason why the early church grew so quickly
as all sorts of people were inspired by the compassion and the love
of the people who followed God on the way of Jesus Christ.
The song we will sing, in a few moments: they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
points directly to this early church, the one that lived out their faith in such a way
that others saw it, and knew that God was there.
They did all that, we seek to do that,
as a natural conclusion of the greatest commandment,
the lesson from last week:
you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength,
and you will love your neighbor as yourself.
If you remember from last week, we looked at how Luke
used the story of the good Samaritan to illustrate an answer to the question
‘who is my neighbor?’
The answer is that everyone is your neighbor,
other people who are like you,
those Samaritans who aren’t like you,
everyone is your neighbor,
so love them, as you love yourself.
but Paul had a problem.
The people drawn to this work, to the church,
were torn asunder by what seemed like insurmountable conflict.
They just saw things so differently.
Not just food. That was one area of their disagreement, but it went deeper.
Jews and gentiles. Servants and the wealthy.
Those who followed Peter, or Apollos,
or one of the other Christian leaders of the day.
And Paul spent a lot of his energy encouraging people who see things so very differently
to put that all aside because of the mission that Jesus gives us
to work for the reign of God in this world of ours.
Look, Paul says,
we know that you can eat whatever you want.
In Christ, we are all free, Paul says.
There is a new liberty from the old rules and restrictions that sought to order our life together.
There are new structures now, new ways of doing things when we gather together as the church.
But here’s the rub: just because you are free, doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want.
Everything is permissible…he would write in another letter, the one we call First Corinthians
Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial
All things are lawful, but not everything builds up.
That meant that you might really want the cheeseburger,
but if your sibling in Christ looks at you eating it and has a crisis of faith because of it
you bear responsibility for that.
But Paul, you might argue, it is my right!
I am free to eat what I want! You said so yourself.
True, you are free. It is your right.
But you have a higher responsibility to subordinate your freedom
to the real needs of those around you.
That Samaritan didn’t have an legal obligation to care for the wounded man on the street.
He was free to go on, like the priest and the Levite did,
but he didn’t. Because he had a higher responsibility, a moral obligation to help.
No one is an island, entire of themselves.
We exist in community. We have a requirement to care about what other people need
and to adjust our actions accordingly…
which is another way to say we are required to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We might learn from all this
as we seek to find a faithful way
to navigate both this global pandemic and this struggle against systemic racism.
For one thing, all this work we’re doing to flatten the curve,
to continue physical distancing where possible during the pandemic,
to wear masks out in public, why should we do any of that anymore?
These days, most of the rules are loosening up, aren’t they? Even as the pandemic continues.
And if you go out and about, you’ll see all sorts of people just going about their business.
This is particularly true in the fascinating squabble over wearing masks,
where some people see it as some intrusion into their liberty
or their independence, to be asked to wear a mask in a store,
and where scientists are more and more showing the benefits to mask wearing
as a way to minimize the spread of covid-19.
I mentioned last week my pastor friend
who had someone assault him over the mask he was wearing
as he was just doing his shopping at a local store.
I could name a dozen more stories of people who have had run ins over this,
going both ways, actually, those who want others to wear masks,
and others who want to assert their freedom from the burden.
But I think Paul’s teaching here urges us to think carefully about all of this,
and to put a greater premium on the needs of others,
on what is needed to best care for them…
Sure, you might not be compelled to wear a mask
but when you wear it, you are helping to protecting others,
and when they wear theirs, they are protecting you.
The whole point of the mask isn’t self-protection.
It isn’t something you wear if you don’t feel safe,
but you can abandon if you are healthy, or not worried about going out.
The mask isn’t about you.
It is to help keep other people safe and healthy.
So you might feel one way, or the other, quite strongly,
but I think Paul would counsel you to wear the mask.
Similarly, I want to relate a particularly powerful moment for me this week
before we close.
J.D. Greear is the pastor of the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina
and the 67th president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Greear made news this week, speaking to his denomination in his annual address.
The Southern Baptist Convention is a conservative evangelical denomination.
There are so many things that we see differently, the Southern Baptists and me.
We’d likely get into a lot of conflict if we had a discussion about God or Jesus or the Christian life.
But Greear floored me this week when he used his address to discuss these protests
and the crisis of systemic racism behind them.
“Southern Baptists, we need to say it clearly as a gospel issue:
Black lives matter,” Greear said.
“Of course black lives matter.
Our black brothers and sisters are made in the image of God.
Black lives matter because Jesus died for them.”[iv]
Greear made it clear that he didn’t agree with everything that the protestors were pushing for
but he found it imperative to say, at this moment, that Black Lives Matter.
Not to merely assert that All Lives Matter, he said,
but at this moment, to say that Black Lives Matter…because they do, to God
and they should, to all of us.
Greear learned something from the Apostle Paul, I think
that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should,
and just because we have freedom,
doesn’t mean that it is properly exercised apart from the common good, the good of our neighbor.
It warmed my heart to see him say that, because I know that it was hard for him,
and that he was going to get a lot of angst from his community about that,
but it was the right thing to say,
because it recognized the yearning and the aching for justice, for an end to state violence,
and Greear realized that that yearning was important to name and to affirm today.
And maybe, if someone like Greear can do that,
then maybe Paul was right after all,
and there is some hope for all of us
as we seek to chart a future together
were each of us aim for something bigger than our own individual aspirations
where we aim for God’s peace to prevail.
The question Paul poses for us today is this:
What can you do, what can I do,
to give up a bit of what I’m free to do,
so that someone else can find freedom and liberation in their own lives?
So may we, my friends,
listen for ways that we can use our freedom to help advance the well being of others
and when we see them, to choose them,
because that’s what we do when we love our neighbor,
and that’s what we do when we love our God with all that we have.
And when we can do that, then just maybe we will help heal this world of ours
one little concession at a time.
May it be so.
[i] https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/hunger-food-insecurity-racism-mariana-chilton/ (Accessed on June 13, 2020)
[ii] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/ (Accessed on June 13, 2020)
[iii] https://www.harvesters.org/Learn/How-Many-are-Hungry (Accessed on June 13, 2020)
[iv] https://www.foxnews.com/us/black-lives-matter-southern-baptist (Accessed on June 13, 2020)
Cover Image from Pixabay under Creative Commons license, and found at https://pixabay.com/photos/hamburger-cheeseburger-ingredients-1030865/