Over the past 40 years, I have preached controversial sermons on race, sexuality, war and justice. But no sermon caused me so much hesitation as one I preached in 2009 when I told the congregation that many of us need to lose a significant amount of weight. I worried that overweight people would think I was judging them. I was concerned that people who were overweight because of medical issues would be angry. However, few sermons I have preached produced such a positive response.
The sermon was delivered as I began my own personal journey to lose about 40 pounds. That year, my doctor told me, “John, you are a textbook case to have diabetes unless you lose some weight.” As I walked back to the church, I decided my problem wasn’t a weight issue; it was a spiritual issue. I take pretty good care of my marriage, family, career and house. Why? I feel a religiously rooted responsibility to be a good steward of my life. But my health? If being 40 pounds overweight was any indication, I clearly felt little responsibility to be a good steward of my body.
Now it is true that I have been a gym rat since I was in my mid-30s. My day usually begins with a 5:30 a.m. visit to the gym. So my cardiovascular and muscle systems have remained in pretty good shape. However, anybody who knows anything about weight control will tell us that exercise, in and of itself, will not control weight. What we eat and drink combined with exercise and good sleep reveals whether we are faithful stewards of our bodies. When it came to my food intake, I was treating my body like a garbage disposal, not a machine in need of high quality fuel.
Paul saw the people of Corinth abusing their bodies. He had no hesitation about raising the issue directly: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). If Paul went to a presbytery meeting today and looked around the room, I think he would pose the same question to many of us. After all, as a whole, we are not a physically fit group, are we?
How can we be so committed to the welfare of others — our congregants, the poor and people suffering – and not be committed to our own well-being? How can we talk about the dangers of polluting the environment and then pollute our own bodies? How can we preach about being stewards of our money and time but not stewards of our bodies?
For those who want the church to be a countercultural force for good, what could be more countercultural in the U.S. today than to be a group of physically fit women, men and children? Only 35 percent of Americans are of normal weight, with 2 percent underweight. Everyone else is either overweight or obese. If a person walked into a PC(USA) church and saw two-thirds of the people at normal weight, now that would be shockingly countercultural!
When I lost the 40 pounds, a number of things in my life changed dramatically. First, I felt really good about myself. I had always felt guilty about being overweight and had finally done something about it. Second, I had an enormous amount of extra energy. I put that energy to use being a better husband, A healthy ministry father, pastor and activist.
In December, all the regulars at my gym started joking about the wave of people who will arrive in January, having made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. The joke is, “Don’t worry, they’ll all be gone by the end of February.” Sadly, it is true. In the gyms where I have been a member, I have watched it happen for 30 years. In fact, the gym industry counts on most people dropping out.
What would the PC(USA) look like if we all made a commitment this year to being better stewards of our bodies? What would it look like if we ate right, drank less alcohol and exercised more? I think we would look great. Indeed, I think it would bring a smile to God’s face.
Yours in Christ,