I don’t know about other preachers in this series of sermons, but this one is in some peril in the light of the fulsome invitation he received. The letter made much of the largesse which he would be offered after Evensong: hospitality so alluring, indeed, that he felt he had almost been lured into sin even by accepting the Chaplain’s courteous invitation.
In truth, however, few if any of us could approach the subject of tonight’s address without being aware of the unmistakable sound of stones clattering on the roof of a very large and vulnerable greenhouse.
But there it is: something must be said on the subject of gluttony, and it is my task – as one sinner among others – to make something of it. But that is perhaps the very point. Of all the so-called seven deadly sins, gluttony is the one that makes me most uncomfortable; for whilst a hungry person’s desire for food cannot be sinful, my own desire, and that of very many of my contemporaries, for much more than I need, is harmful for reasons both practical and spiritual.
Why? Because excess has undesirable consequences; dulled faculties (if I may dare to use that word in this setting); impaired concentration and, at the extremes, a disabling inability to control the appetite.
I remember a certain bishop, speaking indiscreetly at the dinner-table about one of his more eccentric priests. “Can’t control himself,” he said, “Always comfort-eating, that’s his trouble. I know all about that from a psychiatrist chum. By the way, Tom, could I trouble you for another slice of that excellent syrup-roll?”
Well, there is of course a more serious dimension to all this. Gluttony – and not only of food – can provide relief, in the same way as seemingly more harmful drugs, and can enable us to forget for a time those aspects of our life which we find difficult, from the merely boring to the disturbing and terrifying.
Gluttony, viewed in this light, is not a matter of digestion so much as a manifestation of a real and very alluring spiritual problem – the desire – the need, perhaps – to escape from reality. It hinders the awakening of the imagination, and the ability to see, in the sense of that word often employed by Jesus.
The heart of the Good News which he proclaimed is to be found in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – usually and misleadingly known as The Sermon ion the Mount. The deceptively straightforward beatitudes – that list of those people whom God counts as especially blessed – are indeed little more than a list when taken at face value
The pure in heart and the poor
The peacemakers and the persecuted
The meek and the merciful.
To discover the riches of the text and for that matter the revolutionary nature of the teaching, it is necessary to have an awareness of the unpalatable truth of our own emptiness, and our need, as Gerard Hughes puts it, to ‘throw ourselves on the mercy of God’. The Sermon on the Mount is an oblique but unmistakable challenge to an attitude of mind which is concerned with self-sufficiency, and which seeks its security in anything but God and the pursuit of his Kingdom.
That is the besetting weakness – dare I say sin? – of the most righteous of religious people who, as the American priest Barbara Brown Taylor has written,
‘I’m not referring to sinners: their hearts have already been broken. I mean the righteous. They are like vaults. They are so full of their precious values, and so defended against those who do not share them, that even the dynamite of the Gospel has little effect on them. “Woe to you Pharisees,” wails Jesus, “for you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.”’
…which is only another way of saying that tax-gatherers and prostitutes will be the first to find their way into the Kingdom…
This does not make for cheerful hearing, but it may prompt us reflect on another saying of Jesus which is less about physical food than spiritual priorities (John (6:27)):
‘Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.’
Those words seem to echo the First Book of Samuel (12:16-22) which we heard this evening:
‘Do not go after vain things that cannot profit and save…but serve the Lord with all your heart, and he will not cast away his people.’
But can that be so? In what sense can the service of God, the pursuit of his Kingdom, lead to deepened faith and heightened spiritual awareness?
Maya Angelou makes a helpful suggestion:
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage need not be lived again.
To face up to the deep things of faith and daily living with the courage that Maya Angelou counsels, is a rich and potentially liberating process. For sure, it is likely to be uncomfortable, as we contemplate our own history, our besetting sins and weaknesses, but we may well discover that these are in reality ‘the highway of our virtue’.
Like the psalmist before us, we shall find some hard questions – the whys and wheres and hows of faith, but we shall stand a much better chance, like the man in that strange little parable of Jesus, of discovering a faith which is built on rock and not on shifting sand, and with it the food that endures to eternal life.
I have no means of knowing what the hard questions are for you, but I do know, at least in my better moments, that to face such questions thoughtfully and theologically is productive of an attitude of mind and heart which finds its sense of meaning and purpose in God.
The film actress Mae West, who was known for gluttony of a rather exotic kind, once remarked, ‘I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it’.
Well, we might agree with her, but the food which endures to eternal life, which is to be found in the life, the teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is well worth the seeking, not just because it endures to eternal life, but because the pursuit itself provides a means towards knowing the one who is true.
There is no need to seek gluttonous relief, whether of food or other fleshly appetites, in order to forget those parts of life which we find difficult to acknowledge or to live with. All that stands in the way of our facing up to the hard questions of faith and daily living has been overcome by the God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ, ‘and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness’.
That ought to be comfort and sufficiency enough for the time being, for did he not come that we might have life, and have it more abundantly?
The Very Rev’d Nicholas Frayling, Dean of Chichester Cathedral
4th February 2006