March 13, 2021
Our second reading this morning is a few verses from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Keep listening as God now speaks to you from chapter 3 starting with verse 17.
There are two phrases in this passage that really caught my attention. The first is “their god is the belly…” The images those words brought to my mind just made me laugh. I’ve imagined all week people walking around with big round bellies and short cropped shirts to expose their belly… rubbing their belly with oil and praying to it… or singing hymns of praise to their belly. Oh belly you are so big! Maybe a stick of incense sticking out of their pocket.
And as wonderfully silly as those images were… and as much as I wanted just to enjoy the silliness… because a silly distraction from reality is so needed at the moment… I couldn’t help but also admire how Paul nails it. It’s like he looked into the future to see us and our consumer driven lives… our pursuit of status with its accompanying symbols and objects. The god of the belly is the god of appetites and wants. And it is a god that is well fed, if we’re honest with ourselves. There’s a whole culture today centered around the commercialization… the buying and selling of the god of the belly.
But really… Paul didn’t have to have amazing future seeing powers to understand the god of the belly. Earlier in the letter, Paul references those who proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition. That’s the god of the belly. Paul later writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” That’s one of those lessons we know… and we hear from time to time… but it is a lesson that is easily forgotten when it comes to the moment of the choices and the decisions of our lives.
Now… already I know someone hearing Paul’s lesson on humility… in their minds… is going to counter that lesson with the wisdom of airplane emergency oxygen masks… the wisdom that tells you that it is better to put your own interests first. You put your own oxygen mask on first… so that you can then safely assist others who may need help with their own oxygen mask. Saints, if you ever find yourself in an airplane that is in such distress where the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling… I encourage you to do just that. But as a metaphor… we all know how this ethic plays out when applied in life. Those who have the oxygen congratulate themselves on having their oxygen… boast how no one but themselves got them their oxygen… and then turn and look down upon those who don’t have oxygen. It’s your own fault you don’t have the oxygen that is available to everyone. If I gave you oxygen or assisted you in getting your oxygen, then I wouldn’t be helping you at all… I’d be hurting you in the end. I’d be denying you the valuable experience of pulling yourself up by your own oxygen mask straps. And besides, if everyone were sucking on the oxygen wouldn’t that mean there’s less oxygen for me… and wouldn’t my oxygen run out sooner? There’s only so much oxygen to go around. Oh god of the belly, I thank you for the oxygen you have provided for me and I thank you that I am not like those who are without. Maybe if I exhale in their direction that will be enough. Afterall… there’s 2 O’s in CO2.
“Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”
Selfish ambition. The faith of the belly god. Pascal’s wager comes to mind. Do you know Pascal’s wager? Not the best theology, but theology that gets repeated again and again to justify our own selfish ambition. Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher, theologian, mathematician, and physicist. Pascal’s wager is the theological argument that it is in one’s own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage in believing otherwise. So… if God doesn’t exist… you’re not out anything. If God does exist, though, you get the reward of heaven after you die. What kind of faith… do you think… is created when this theology gets lived out… when faith is a wager that… at its center… is only about me… what I get or what I don’t get? How is such a faith wrapped around my own self-interests supposed to… somehow… transform into seeing to the interests of others as a pillar of my faith. I can construct a pillar like that for show, but it isn’t holding anything up. It isn’t vital to my faith. It isn’t where my true heart lies. If that pillar were to crumble from neglect… it wouldn’t matter because the focus of my faith is on myself and myself alone. So… it should come as no surprise that such a faith works hard at bringing glory for the self… at making a good show of it for others to see.
The glory of the belly god. Now… I’m going to say something here that is indelicate… that may sound offensive to delicate ears. Be prepared. But in this season of Lent… where… yes, we are being self-reflective… and trying our best to look unflinchingly at the reality of our own faith… at the state of our own discipleship… I can’t help but think about the true nature of the transformational power of the belly god. Think about all the food that passes your lips. Some of it is very fine food. Some of it is cheap, fast food. Food that has been lovingly prepared for hours on end… with many complicated steps and ingredients. Food that has come from a can and has been microwaved for minutes. All of this goes past the lips and into the mouth… chew chew chew taste taste taste… and swallowing gets offered up to the belly god who then transforms it into so much excrement. The glorious end result of the belly god’s transformation is excrement. Am I right or am I right? Faith in the transforming power of the belly god leads to so much excrement.
And I have the demographics to prove it. As part of our looking ahead at where Parkway might go in our next chapter of ministry together, I have been using this demographic service to understand better the people who live within a five mile radius of the church… and the number one reason given to why people do not attend or participate in a church… by far… it’s not that they don’t believe in God… you know what the reason is don’t you… it’s that “people in the church do not behave as Jesus would behave.” Paul writes to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” And then he continues with… “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” There’s that cross again. Obedient even to the point of death on a cross… which was not only a horrific way to die… but Paul is referring more here to the shame of it. That going to the cross was as far away from selfish ambition or conceit as you can get.
When our reading began with Paul encouraging us to join in imitating him… to observe and live according to his example… our first thought might be “what an ego on this guy”. But those words have followed Paul talking about how… by the belly god… he had everything. He was tops in everything with his own oxygen mask squarely and tightly fitting to his face. He didn’t have to wager about God’s existence… Paul’s status and glory was proof enough there was a God. “Circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul had all the bona fides. He was the real thing. And then his encounter with Christ revealed it all as the excrement it was. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that come through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” That’s what Paul is wanting to be imitated.
It's funny how in the season of Lent, traditionally we are encouraged to give up something… and how many of those things are belly related. Chocolate. Soda. Some kind of something that we perhaps have an unhealthy appetite for. Maybe some of what people give up during Lent are offerings regularly made to the belly god of self-interest and selfish ambition. Perhaps… perhaps this year… we can really work on giving up on the belly god altogether and take another step forward in being the church that we are clearly being called to be. Maybe our Lenten goal ought to be imitating Paul a bit more and realizing what really has true value… and that what deemed valuable by the belly god is truly… in the end… rubbish. I suspect the Greek word there could also be translated as excrement. Maybe in doing this imitation and in being the bearers of crosses… maybe the next time they gather the information for those demographic reports… maybe next time we might see a significant change in the perception of people in the church… maybe next time instead of clearly seeing how we do not behave as Christ would behave… they instead see Christ through us… and join in in imitating. Wouldn’t that be exciting? Amen.