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Undernourished: The First Sunday of Lent

April 14, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on The First Sunday of Lent , March 13, 2011

Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7      Matthew 4: 1-11

This past Thursday, the White Plains Religious Leaders met in the church house for lunch and conversation. The WPRL are the clergy from the major mainline or oldline denominations in the community, as well as the rabbis from the local synagogues. We had as our guest Frank Williams from the White Plains Youth Bureau. Frank came to us to speak to us about summer employment opportunities for our young adults, but he had just come from a program on childhood obesity. He shared with us some astounding numbers that reflect the health care costs related to obesity. Nearly one in five children, ages 2-19, are obese. When adults are included, six in ten people in the United States are obese. Direct medical costs related to obesity, the easiest to measure, account for $93 billion, or 9%, of our national medical bill. Attempting to include some of the hidden costs brings that number to $147 billion.

A couple of years ago I was on a youth mission trip in Washington D.C., and I could almost audibly hear the ‘pop’ in the brain of a young man named Bobby when, as he put it, “I blew his mind” by explaining the ironic reality behind obesity: many of those who are overweight are undernourished. Malnutrition, the failure of the body to get what it really needs, looks like indulgence. While consuming, we go hungry.

To paraphrase Isaiah:
Why do we hunger for that which is not bread,
and labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen carefully, says the prophet, and eat what is good… (Isaiah 55:2)

But certainly we don’t only hunger for food that does not nourish. As Isaiah said we also labor for that which does not satisfy. Almost a decade ago, the Harvard economist Juliet Schor, in her outstanding book The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, asked the questions, “Why do large numbers of Americans spend more than they say they would like to, and more than they have? Why do we spend more than we realize we are spending, and more than is fiscally prudent? And why do we spend in ways that are collectively, if not individually, self-defeating?”

Her answer is that we do it as a way of coping with what she calls the new consumerism. What is the new consumerism? Given that our aspirations and expectations are formed socially – which is sociology 101 – Schor begins by describing the old consumerism – the post war consumer culture within which some of us here were formed. In the fifties, competitive consumption meant keeping up with the Joneses. We compared ourselves to our neighbors and did not want to be seen as falling behind. But by the seventies, “the workplace had replaced the coffee klatch and the backyard barbecue:” we were more likely to be comparing ourselves to those we worked with than to our immediate neighbors, which exposed us to people across a much wider economic spectrum, and expectations ticked up. Television was the easiest and most effective way of reaching people of all incomes, and so a new age of television advertising exposed us to ads for products which we once would never have even known about. As women entered the workforce in larger numbers and wages stagnated, additional economic pressure was put on families. By the eighties and nineties, we were as likely to compare our lives and lifestyles to those of characters on television as to our colleagues. A decade ago, studies showed that college students reportedly relate more to commercials and advertising that they do to history, literature or probably anything else. Meanwhile the distance between the rich and the rest was growing. This is the context of the new consumerism.

To quote again,
Why do we spend money for that which is not bread,
and labor for that which does not satisfy?

It is, at least in part, because everybody’s doing it. But how can we do otherwise?

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, recounts an experience a few years ago when he dropped in to the Gap to buy a pair of jeans. Barry is the kind of guy who wears his Jeans until they wear out, so it had been quite a while since his last purchase. He said to the young salesperson “I want a pair of jeans – 32-28.”

“Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy or extra baggy? She replied. “Do you want them stonewashed, acid washed, or distressed? Do you want them button fly, or zipper fly? Do you want them faded or regular?”

Swartz recalls that after several attempts to just buy “regular jeans,” he ended up in the dressing room with one of each, suddenly convinced that while little was riding on the decision, one of the choices was the right choice for him and he was determined to figure it out. Swartz asks why what used to take him five minutes, buying a pair of jeans and possibly settling for a slightly imperfect fit, was now something in which he was forced to invest “time, energy, and no small amount of “self-doubt, anxiety and dread.”

Swartz knows that when people have no choice, life is unbearable. Choice allows us autonomy, control and variety, which is nothing to sneeze at. But at a certain point as choices are multiplied, they become debilitating, overloading us, even, in some cases, paralyzing us.

Why do we spend money for that which is not bread,
and labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen to me, continues Isaiah, and eat what is good,
and delight yourself with rich food.

Our two scriptures today reflect the importance of making wise choices. If “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all,” as the old saying goes, so by Christ’s faithful example are we saved. Our choices have real consequences, for good and ill.

Immediately after his baptism, God’s Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to fast and pray. In solitude he sought to understand the meaning of the words: “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He tried to envision the life that could accompany the words. And after forty days, Matthew tells us “he was famished.” But his hunger had brought clarity. He wanted God. Given many choices – and I’m sure the tempting Spirit offered more than just three – given many choices, Jesus chose God, and God alone. He chose to hunger for God, to trust God, to worship God. And that choice had consequences, for him, and for us.

We have been hearing these words for weeks now:
Blessed are those whose hunger and thirst is for justice, for they will be filled. (5:6)
Seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s justice, and all this will be added to you. (6:33)

St. Augustine, the 5th century North African bishop put it this way, “We are made for you, O God, only you, and our hearts are restless until we rest in you.”

Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, fasting and praying as he considered his identity and vocation. This season of Lent may be, for us, a time to turn away from the pursuits and pressures that lead us nowhere to consider the choices we have made, their consequences, and to commit ourselves anew to seeking what it means to be called God’s child, God’s beloved, and to become those with whom God is well pleased.

If we are able to truly receive God’s love and experience that love more fully as we seek after God, maybe then we will each be able to sing with the psalmist “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:5).

Therefore, I repeat the word spoken in our Ash Wednesday service:

My friends, I invite you, in the name of Christ,
to observe a holy lent: 40 days of seeking God
…through practices of self-examination and penitence,
…through practices of prayer and fasting,
…through works of love
and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.

May God bless you, bless me, bless us, as we travel this road together. Amen

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