What’s on your plate these days?
Chances are your first response to that question had little to do with food and more to do with how full your calendar and “to do” list are.
It’s amazing how we Americans have become so obsessed with food that we even envision our lives as a dinner plate! What we seem less obsessed with, however, is what we put on our dinner plates in the first place.
Despite an epidemic of obesity and numerous warnings that our plates are full of harmful foods, we Americans still tend to consume what’s bad for us. In fact, our frenetically busy lifestyles might be the precise reason we tend to eat the worst kinds of foods— those that are fast, cheap and easy. And as a result, every time we turn around it seems we are being reminded and warned about our unhealthy eating habits.
Google, if you dare, “harmful foods” and you’re going to get a belly full of information about stuff you were planning to have for lunch. And if you’re on Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen those articles that say: “4 Foods that are Absolutely Harmful to Your Health.” “8 Foods You Shouldn’t Eat When Trying to Lose Weight.” “40 Food To Never Order When Dining Out.”
I once read an article about the foods you should absolutely, 100%, never ever eat—the article was just one line long and said “You shouldn’t eat everything you currently eat!” Turns out it wasn’t so much an article as it was an e-mail from my wife! (Ha! But the jokes on her! I ate a carrot…last week. By accident.)
But we all know there really are articles that report on research that tell ingesting certain foods will take years off our lives. And the scary thing is, most of us will have one or more of them in their kitchen right now! Fruit juices, margarine, regular soda, diet soda, farm raised fish, artificial sweeteners, processed meat, anything with glutton, anything with sugar, anything with a face on it, anything that was once living, anything raw, anything frozen, anything, anything, anything! Basically, if you eat, you’re gonna die! But wait… if we don’t eat we’re gonna… We can’t win can we? We can’t get it right, can we? That’s what we often conclude any way, and so we just give up, and think, “Well I am going to die anyway, might as well enjoy myself—bring on the Wavy Lays and Beef Jerky!”
But there’s a reason why we call junk-food “junk-food” that is full of “empty-calories.” Such foods contribute nothing good to our well-being and, instead, make us feel, eventually, like junk. They promise taste and pleasure; so we gorge on them, only to realize the pleasure quickly turns to feelings of emptiness and self-loathing.
So, what’s the alternative? How can we fill up our plates, both the culinary and the spiritual, in ways that make us healthy and vital? In writing to his young protégé Timothy, the apostle Paul outlines a strategy for getting rid of the over-enriched junk in our lives and, instead, becoming rich in the things that matter. Paul helps us identify the empty, processed junk that fills our plates, and then helps us take hold of the life that really is life.
In Paul’s day and age, many believed that serving God would lead to financial wealth. Thus, they pointed to their good works in expectation of a blessing. We might think of it as an early version of the “prosperity” gospel where one just “names and claims” wealth as a blessing from God.
For Paul, however, this is the first-century equivalent of a diet soda or a processed bag of chips. It looks and tastes rich, but it’s a diet full of empty calories. Throughout chapter six, Paul warns Timothy of those who think that “godliness” is a means of material gain.
Paul says, “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”
Paul argues for what we might call a diet of “enough-ness,” or that feeling of being full of enough of the right things that we don’t crave the wrong ones. Just as “rich” food can be harmful to the body, so the pursuit of material riches can be harmful to the soul. In fact, Paul offers up his own list of three harmful things that people can consume that will “plunge” them into “ruin and destruction” and “pierce” them with “many pains.”
First there is “Discontent.”
As excess sugar is the basis of a lot of those harmful foods we consume, so does discontent permeate a life that is bent on overconsumption. We seem always to want what we cannot have instead of wanting what we already have.
Paul argues that contentment is a key to health, that happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have. Contentment is recognizing that we are dependent on God’s provision— “our daily bread” as Jesus puts it. It’s not something we earn, but is rather a gift from God. When we are content with what we have we bypass the junk.
Next are “Harmful desires.”
The pursuit of riches can cause people to fall into temptation and leave them “trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.”
Junk food can be addicting and junk riches can lead us to fill up on the empty promise that material gain will make us happier. There are many who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of money only to find that, in the end, they were poorer for it.
And the third is a two-for-one, laid out in verse 10: “Love of money”, coupled with “Eagerness to be rich.”
The old saying that “money is the root of all evil” isn’t actually what Paul says here. It’s not money itself that’s the problem; just like fat and sodium themselves aren’t the real problems in our diets. We actually need them to live, just like we need money. But we need them in moderation and we need them in perspective. When we crave money instead of merely building it into a healthy lifestyle, we’re bound to make ourselves fat and unhealthy.
Jesus warned us what would happen if we did so, teaching that when we are eager to fatten up on riches; we can become envious of those who have more than we do. The more we pursue a lifestyle beyond our means as a way of keeping up or putting our faith in money to make us happy, the more likely we are to wander away from the faith that actually sustains us.
Paul tells Timothy to avoid these things like we should avoid the junk food aisle in the grocery store. Instead, we should go for the things that have a high value in spiritual nutrition: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. These are plate filling foods we can consume and share as much as we want!
In fact, says Paul, these things come to us unprocessed and straight from the source—from “God who gives life to all things”, and from Jesus, who will bring about the fullness of his kingdom on earth. Because God supplies what we need, Paul encourages Timothy to put those in his congregation on a real diet where they can see their riches, their time, their choices as a tool to take hold of the life that really is life.
Now, this is all easier said than done—it is hard to change one’s diet, one’s mode of being, one’s way of life—especially when everything around us makes such alternatives nearly impossible. Believe me—I get this. My personal unhealthy lifestyle is everywhere in every fast food, dollar menu, drug-dealing restaurant. And so when I was recently talking about grocery shopping with a clergy colleague, and he reminded me of something we all know, a pragmatic perspective clicked in me. He reminded me that when grocery shopping, it is wise to stick to the perimeter of the store, the outer edge, the far reaches of the store. It’s there where you find the fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and the dairy cases.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the perimeter is where we should concentrate most of our grocery shopping, because, as we know, fresh foods are healthier than ready-to-eat foods found in the middle aisles. Perimeter food choices help us better control fat, sodium, calories, and junk in our diet.
But sticking to the perimeter, the outer edge, the far reaches is not only good in the grocery store, it is good in being faithful followers of Christ because, after all, that is where Jesus spent most of his time. He didn’t stick to the center; to only his base; to only that which was cheap and easy. Not at all. Rather Jesus went to the outer edge, the far perimeter, the far reaches of society where the lost and hungry had been pushed to. And he brought them food and drink—the bread of life, their “daily bread”, he brought them living water.
Jesus models for us the consumer lifestyle that will fill our plates with all that will fill our life so that we may take hold of the life that is really life. Whether it’s in what we feed our bodies or our spirits.
Paul is warning Timothy, and us, to be careful of what we fill our plates with—our actual plates and our calendar/lifestyle plates. He then urges us to fill them with faithfulness and goodness, for ourselves and others.
Finding contentment in what we have, and turning from harmful desires, assures us of a healthy life. Putting money to work for others provides good, nutritious fuel for the soul, burning off the excess fat and making others healthy in body, mind and spirit. Paul knows, a good spiritual diet will lead us to less consumption and more distribution so that others may come to know Christ and experience real, eternal life and health.
So let us be asking ourselves, often—whether in the grocery store, church, in our kitchens or at the dinner table: “What’s on your plate?” Because truthfully, a full plate can either be a good thing or a bad thing. It just depends on what fills it up. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, September 25, 2016
God of life, it often seems daunting to live as you call—especially in a time and place where such is rarely so explicit. It seems daunting to not get trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that will inevitably plunge us into ruin and destructions. It seems daunting to not want to be eager to have more and more, to acquire a lifestyle that will make us comfortable, lofty, and admired for what we have amassed. It is daunting until we remember, and put our faith and trust in the one who was able to overcome such desires and temptations.
In these challenging times, in these moments of worldly focus, help us to heed the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy, and follow in the likeness of your Son, Jesus. We know he was patient, full of love, and never selfish. We know he cared for the poor and broken, and he welcomed the least of these into his arms. We know he was one with you, that he always made time for prayer. We know he knew the Scriptures and was always proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom. And we know that we desire to be like Jesus in all of these ways.
So enable us to see where true treasure and riches are, and that they are there waiting for us to receive them anew from you, again and again and again, without limit, without end. It is our prayer O God, that in those places where we are pursuing the things and ways of this world, that lead us away from you and your ways, that you would turn us around so that we put people above things, loved ones above work, and healthy choices above junk food and sitting around idle. Help us, we pray, to live our lives according to what you would have us value, so that we can truly take hold of the life that really is life.
Hear now, we ask, the prayers we offer from our hearts to yours, in this time of holy silence.
All this we pray in the name of Christ Jesus, our Lord and our Savior, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”