Sunday, February 24, 2019

Phil Kniss: Restless Heart Syndrome

Matthew 11:16-19, 28-30; Philippians 3:17-21

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I know you’re bitterly disappointed about it,
but this is the last sermon on the seven deadly sins.
I had to combine a few to get it done in five weeks.
So naturally, I put these last two together—lust and gluttony . . .
because there’s not that much to say about them . . .
and they mostly afflict other people, and not us.

Thank you for that nervous laughter.
That’s the reaction I was hoping for.

I did a series here on these sins 12 years ago.
I was looking over some of my notes from then
and I wrote down something I probably would have forgotten.
Early on in the series,
someone stood up during the open-mike sharing time,
and shared that he and his wife would be traveling for a month,
but reassured me, and everyone else,
that they would be back in time for my sermon on lust.
Of course, everyone laughed.

Out of the seven sins, gluttony and lust stand out
for how often humor is employed when talking about them.
We laugh, I imagine, because it eases the tension.
It softens the impact of what we know are serious topics,
and ones that are very personal,
very real in all our lives,
and we don’t speak frankly about them very often.

I would also add,
these two sins may be the most closely related to each other.
That’s the real reason I combined them.
They are both sins of disordered desire.

What do I mean?
I mean they are distorted ways to respond
to good and natural embodied desires.
Notice I didn’t say physical desire.
I said embodied desire.
It’s way too simplistic, and just plain wrong,
to think of food and sex as feeding only physical needs or drives.

Our desires for satisfying nourishment and intimacy and bodily pleasure
are core to who we are as created beings.
God gave those desires to us.
They are good.
And they are as complex and multi-layered as we are.
They consist of physical sensation, of course.
But they also engage us at a deep emotional,
spiritual, and psychological level.
They have to do with aesthetics, with beauty and art.
They impact relationships with others.
They can draw us closer to others.
They are tools of connection with God.
Think about the eucharist, the bread and cup.

But . . . when disordered,
these same good hungers take us other places.
They drive us away from others.
They take what is beautiful and cheapen or objectify it.
They make us self-indulgent and unhealthy in multiple ways.
They distance us from the very God
who wants to commune with us.

As with other sins,
sins of disordered desire
offend against the unconditional love of God.

The very first question in the old Westminster Catechism is,
“What is the chief end of human beings?”
The answer is,
“To glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.”

That’s an ancient core affirmation of the church.
We are relational and covenantal beings,
intended to give and receive the love of God.
We were made to commune with God
in love and enjoyment.

And I have always loved the famous prayer of St. Augustine,
“You have made us for Yourself,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

God is love.
God is known to us in Covenant Love.
And we were created in God’s image.

Lust and gluttony
offend against love,
by undermining this chief end of our humanity.

These sins of disordered hunger misdirect our devotion,
from our great God, to our small selves.
Or to say it like Paul, in today’s reading from Philippians 3,
they “make a god of our stomach.”
They aim for personal, solitary, and momentary physical pleasure
at the expense of truly involving oneself in the life of the other,
or the life of God,
They keep us from entering more deeply and fully
into the relational life we were created for.
They diminish our humanity.

So let’s talk about both of them a bit, separately.

I’ll start by saying this about lust.
God is not a body-hater, and neither should we be.
Our body, our fleshly self,
along with all its fleshly drives and pleasures,
is a wonderful gift of a loving Creator God,
who desires nothing more than our deepest joy and fulfillment,
deep pleasure,
in our bodies, in our flesh!

There are long-standing Christian streams of thought
that radically separate
flesh and spirit
body and soul
earth and heaven,
and say the first is fallen and evil,
and second is glorious and holy.
Certain narrow readings of certain biblical texts
can and have been used to justify
this denigration of the flesh.
I believe a more holistic reading of scripture does not support it,
and in fact leads us to see that God loves it all,
and is on a mission to redeem it all,
to bring earth and heaven together in a new creation.

But this traditional devaluing of the earthly and the fleshly,
have led to certain streams of thought
that could be described as body-shaming.
These streams arose, I guess, to protect us against the sin of lust,
but some Christian groups and other religious groups
have gone to such extremes,
as to utterly hide the body from view,
make strict rules against embodied activities
like dancing or swimming or modeling,
and practically make it shameful
for persons to enjoy being in their own body.

To do so is not only misguided. It’s ungodly.
Our bodies are God’s good creation.
When we denigrate them, we denigrate their creator.
Our bodies, including the hungers and desires planted in them,
are from God,
and were given to us to honor God with them.

Lust undermines this good gift.
Rather than accept our flesh as divine gift,
and receive the gift with gratitude to God,
lust seizes that flesh for its own pleasure, and cheapens it.
Someone said, lust is not a sin of the flesh.
It’s a sin against the flesh.
It humiliates the flesh.
It takes what God gave us in love, to help us enjoy relationships,
and uses it to isolate us from others.
It hones in on our narrow self and our personal pleasures.

The Latin word for lust,
in all the old lists of the Seven Deadlies, is “luxuria.”
It’s the same word from which we get luxury.
And luxation, which is when one of your joints gets dislocated.
So lust, luxury, and getting a shoulder out of joint,
are all related.
Lust puts things out of joint, it dislocates a good gift of God.

Love creates community, lust makes us solitary.
Or as the British essayist Henry Fairlie put it,
Love is involvement. Lust refuses to get involved.

One-night stands, the hook-up culture, use of pornography,
all of these are about maximizing individual pleasure,
releasing one’s own pent-up sexual energy,
without the complicating factor of a deeper connection.

People usually engage in pornography by themselves.
The danger of pornographic images
is not that they excite our sexuality,
they weaken it.
Pornography is not an innocent outlet for sexual energy.
It’s a cheap and degrading and addictive substitute for love.
It does substantial damage.
It damages our own capacity to love.
It damages our important relationships.
It damages the way society begins to view people.

And once when we get immune to looking at other human beings
as objects for our satisfaction,
where does that lead?
It leads us to engage in dangerous behavior with those objects.
It leads us to engage in sexual coercion and sexual violence.
It leads to system human oppression and abuse,
like human trafficking and sex slavery.
And yes, the buying and selling of human beings,
happens in this community,
and nearly every community.
That is the ultimate offense against the God who
created human beings as good and beautiful,
in the flesh, and in God’s own image.

Love invites us to offer ourselves for the sake of the ones we love.
Lust only wants to be serviced.
Love leads toward some form of self-sacrifice.
Lust is a shield against self-sacrifice.

The sin of lust is not that it stimulates our sexual drives,
it’s that it suppresses our deepest selves.
It withers our capacity to be intimate.
It makes parched deserts of people.
That’s why lust offends against love.

Covenant love, on the other hand, offers the best chance
for deeply satisfying and embodied pleasure.
Covenant—the kind revealed in scripture,
and taught in the best of Judeo-Christian tradition—
gives us relational security,
a place to find rest.
Covenantal love is the cure for Restless Heart Syndrome,
as in the prayer of St. Augustine.
“Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in you.”
Covenantal love is what Jesus offered in today’s reading—
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Now a few words about gluttony.
Like lust, gluttony offends against love.
It isolates us.
It withers our richly textured inner lives.

Gluttony is not the same thing
as enjoying an abundant feast or decadent desserts,
which I have done,
and will continue to do on occasion.
Gluttony is a disordered focus on the self.
It is a reaction to bodily craving,
that takes a short-cut to self-satisfaction,
at the expense of building community
and strengthening our health.

Ironically, a quick and disordered response to the craving,
often leads to harming the very thing we are trying to satisfy—
our bodies.

Now, I’m not saying there’s a direct connection
between the sin of gluttony
and the physical condition of obesity.
There’s not.
There are many possible causes for obesity.
And there are many people of average weight, or even thin,
who have to continually guard themselves against gluttony.

Speaking of gluttony may conjure up images like
compulsive overeating,
downing containers of ice cream while binge-watching TV,
hot-dog eating contests, and the like.

Those things are not my particular weakness.
But I have others.
There’s a fairly healthy snack mix I like to make at home,
out of mixed nuts, sesame sticks, and such.
And it stays within easy reach.

If I am working at home alone,
and I’m feeling some stress, or pressure, which isn’t unusual,
it’s a hard-to-resist habit
to take a handful whenever I walk by the container.
Not because my body needs nourishment,
but because it tastes so good,
and I’m in the vicinity,
and it’s better than stewing about whatever is on my mind.
It’s called nervous eating.

Do you see the tell-tale signs of that seemingly innocent behavior?
Being alone.
Using momentary pleasure to mask deeper anxiety.
Enjoying something good, but in excess.

Sure, I could lose some pounds, but I’m not obese.
Still, gluttony nips at my heels and I must be on guard.

There are many good ways to eat, and eat plentifully.
Especially when the food is of high quality,
and full of love,
and shared with family, neighbors, strangers.
We can and should abundantly feast,
to our good pleasure,
and to God’s,
and to share our lives with others at the table,
especially those on the margins.

Jesus set the bar for feasting.
How many stories in the Gospels tell about Jesus at a banquet?
And you know, gluttony was the sin he got accused of most.
It happened in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 11—
“Here is a glutton and a drunkard,
a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

But the scribes and Pharisees and other holiness police
that went after him for his eating and drinking,
misunderstood the sin, I’m afraid.

Jesus was using food and drink in exactly the way God intended—
to build relationships,
to give dignity to the poor,
to offer reconciliation.

The religious elite called him a glutton and drunkard,
not because of the amount he ate and drank,
but who he ate and drank with—
tax collectors, sinners, lepers, women!

Here are some things to ask—about gluttony and about lust.
Here’s a way to evaluate how we are living with
our God-given embodied hungers for food and intimacy.
And these are deeper questions.
They don’t have quick and easy answers.
They are not rules-based, like,
“exactly how far can I go, with whom, under what conditions?”
or, “how much can I eat of what kind of food, and how often?”

Ponder these questions, as we discern what is right and wrong . . .
Does it build up relationships?
Or does it make us solitary?
Does it honor the other, while respecting the self?
Or does it prioritize the self
at the expense of objectifying the other?
Does it protect the vulnerable?
Or does it endanger them, and blind us to their plight?
Does it honor the self-sacrificing covenant love that God gives us,
and that God invites us to enter into more deeply,
and that God calls us to emulate
in our relationships with each other?
Or does it offend against that love?

All of us suffer, from time to time,
with Restless Heart Syndrome.
But there’s a treatment available—
going deeper into the love of God,
and resting there.
God’s invitation is costly,
but it is richly satisfying.

As George Matheson wrote in the 1880s,
O love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee.
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean-depths its flow may richer, fuller be.

Let’s sing together #577 in HWB.

—Phil Kniss, February 24, 2019

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