July 9, 2017

Daniel 1:8-21

Romans 14:1-8

Sometime last winter or spring we started talking about summer programming. We thought it would be great for our congregation to have a “congregational wide health challenge.” We were going to have speakers on Nutrition, Exercise and Healthy Options. We thought we might offer body fat analysis at the beginning and end of the summer. We were going to have a nutritionist, yoga, affinity groups for various types of exercise and support groups for cancer and caregiving. Then we as a staff ran into our own health issues. I had this huge C-spine surgery, Jill is having her hip replaced this week, Dee is still ironing out some health stuff and we looked at each other and decided to put the plan on hold until another time. We are still going to address our health on Sunday mornings however! When we started thinking of health of our bodies, minds and spirits, none of us were planning to have any surgeries. We have been given this unique opportunity first hand to think deeply about the health of our bodies, minds and spirits. I know that, by and large, all of you are interested, perhaps consumed with thoughts about health. I notice at prayer times you ask prayers for yourself or others who have cancer, who are having surgeries, who are depressed, who are grieving. You talk about your myriad of doctor appointments every week, about impending tests, about treatments. You talk about what it is like to be a caregiver. You worry about the survival of Medicare and Medicaid.  Health is central to us.

And central to our health is our connection with God. How we see our relationship with God, often determines the spiritual and emotional resources that we have for strength and healing. Let me give an example: A physician tells this story of treating a patient: “I saw a 28 year-old woman whose husband had just left her. She found out that her husband had AIDS, and she asked to be tested. When I met with her to tell her that the test result came back positive, I tried to explain that her illness was diagnosed early and that there had been recent advances in the treatment of HIV that were allowing people to live longer with their illness. She kept referring to God and about why God was doing this to her. I recognized that we weren’t connecting, so I asked her about her comments. She proceeded to tell me about being raped as a teenager and having an abortion. In her belief system, that was wrong. I remember her exact words: “I have been waiting for the punishment, and this is it.” She did not want to discuss treatment or preventive care such as immunization. I encouraged her to see a chaplain, which she did regularly. In the meantime, I kept seeing her, and I talked with her about her issues of guilt and punishment as well as some education about HIV. But it was not until 1 year later that she was willing to seek treatment. She needed time to work out her own issues of guilt before being able to accept her illness and deal with it. Now, she tells me that had I not addressed her spiritual issues in that first visit, she would never have returned to see me or any other physician.

What we believe about God and God’s presence in our lives deeply affects our health and wholeness. When I talk with people about their illness and treatment, it is not unusual for people to wonder what they did to “deserve” what was happening to them, or “What God was trying to teach them.”  People regularly seem to apply this to themselves, but I rarely, if ever, hear them apply it to others. Most people look upon others who suffer with compassion, while affording little compassion to themselves.

Let’s think a little about our connection with God using Daniel as a lens to look through. Daniel and three companions had been carried off to Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar and forced into the king’s service. They had met the king’s selection requirements of been good-looking, blemish free, skilled in wisdom, lifelong learners and able to serve. Their slavery placed them in the king’s household where they would receive three years of language and cultural skills and food and royal wine. If you have to be a slave, it’s not a bad gig. Daniel, however didn’t want to “pollute” his body with the court’s rich food and wine, the text says, so he strikes a deal with the chief official so that he and his friends will be nourished with a diet of vegetables and water. After some negotiating, with promises that they would not become sickly and thin, they were allowed to eat just vegetables and drink water. As the story goes, this test lasted for 10 days, and after 10 days, they were found to be in better health than their counterparts. They were apparently better and fatter than everyone else and were skilled in every aspect of wisdom and literature.

Why didn’t Daniel want to eat the king’s food? Was he trying to keep kosher as a Jew? Perhaps.  Though we have no idea what sort of food was being served. Was he unwilling to eat food that was offered to idols? That is another possibility, though it is also probable that his vegetables were blessed by other gods. Is this a proof text for a Vegan diet? Could be! We are all supposed to eat 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day according to current guidelines to remain healthy. My guess is that Daniel’s choice to eat the diet that he wanted to eat was because of his connection to and deep faith in God. Verse 9 says that God was involved with this decision. By eating vegetables and water, Daniel was actively and peacefully resisting his captors. He was claiming one little part of self-determination. He was standing against the dominant culture.

I’m going to return to the spiritual aspect of our connection to God in relationship to health, but first, let’s talk about the messages we hear about our health from the medical community and the government. We usually hear a VERY consistent message from the medical community: STOP smoking! Eat more fruits and vegetables. Eat small amounts of protein and healthy fats. Limit caffeine, alcohol and sugar. Don’t eat refined foods, high sodium foods, or foods high in trans fats. Exercise at least 30 minutes a day! Five hours a week is much better. The US government has given out similar advisories. Half of our plate at every meal should be fruits and vegetables. Get moving! Don’t eat fast food. We hear these messages and we understand how important they are and we want to comply. But, just like Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, there is NO cultural support for this. To fulfill the directives of your physician, or the “my plate” advice of the government, you have to stand in opposition to the culture. There are no “fast food” healthy options. You can’t just pick up a healthy vegan dish. You have to work HARD at the grocery store to find healthy options. You can look at a wall of 100’s of soups to find 2 low sodium options. You stare at 700 cups of yogurt to find one or two that are just made of milk and little sugar. When you go out for a meal, you are served a plate that will easily feed a family of four. It is like we are Daniel begging for vegetables and water, in the midst of a mountain of “rich court food.” The culture that we live in does not at all support living a healthy life.

This is where our relationship with God comes in. Through daily meditation and connection with God and with God’s spirit within, we can ground ourselves in loving self care, that stands in opposition to what is around us. If you don’t have a way to do this, you can utilize the body scan method suggested through mindfulness meditation. I put a half sheet in the back of the sanctuary for you to take with you. It is not a fancy practice, it is just taking moments every day to check in with your body. You pay attention to your breathing, and you mentally scan your body from head to toe. What is tight? What hurts? What needs attention? Is your breath deep of shallow? How might you invite God’s spirit to attend to those places in yourself that need healing. How might you pray to carry that attention into your day, and join God in your healing process? How might you be given strength as Daniel was to stand against the current culture. How might you be able to resist the high calorie foods bereft of nutrition, the screen time that impedes activity and the addictive substances all around us?

I think the only way to successfully nurture our health is to nurture our relationship with God and Gods Spirit within. We need to pray daily to live differently than the dominant culture invites us to live. We nurture our relationship to this loving God in community, so that we have the strength to face illness and disease in loving support drawing strength from one another.

I want to finish by briefly reminding us that our reading from Romans also admonishes us not to judge each other in this community for the choices we make. Basically, Paul is reminding the church goers in Rome that we as people always manage to develop self-righteous attitudes toward those with whom we disagree. In short, Paul tells us that those of us who believe X should not judge those that think Y and those that think Y should not despise those that think X because God has welcomed each and every one of us. Those who believe that Gluten makes them sick should be supported not shamed. Those who wish to drink wine should be embraces. God has welcomed each of us.

There is SO much to be said about having a healthy spirit, body and mind. I think it simply comes down to these three things: 1) Take time every day to connect with the spirit of God in your body. 2) Accept the reality that this culture does not support health in its public policy or in the options surrounding you every where you go. 3) We need to support one another in living healthy lives in community, with prayer and listening and kind words, and without judgement.