Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Deuteronomy 32:15-43) transports me to the Hot Dog King where I went to grab some lunch a few weeks ago. I was in line behind an older couple who ordered two footlong chili dogs all the way, with fries and a coke. As I sat down I overheard the older man saying grace over the meal. When he finished, I turned around and commented that they probably believe in miracles. He said yes, they did, and wondered what made me say that. I referenced the request in his prayer, “bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies.” They got the joke.
If Israel was looking for a similar miracle in the early days of their relationship with God, they didn’t get it. The beginning of this passage sets the stage: Israel “grew fat and kicked; filled with food, they became heavy and sleek. They abandoned the God who made them.” It is one of the ironies of biblical faith that on the one hand, the people are promised a land flowing with milk and honey, but on the other hand, the comforts of all-you-can-eat buffets lead them to abandon God. Prosperity is dangerous to faith. Obesity leads to spiritual dementia where the faithful forget where they came from and who their God is.
This is a truth I rediscovered during my month in Cuba. A simple and steady diet of rice and beans was accompanied by the side dishes of strong faith, resilience, ingenuity, and courage. Yes, there are people, especially young people, who long for the milk and honey of Miami. But there are many who reject the call to corpulence and live out their faith in the challenging environment of a totalitarian state. Immediately after the revolution, there were severe consequences to being part of a faith community. Many pastors, like Raul Suarez of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao, spent years in forced labor camps, alongside criminals and the mentally ill and others the state labeled as having “débiles en ideología” (weaknesses in ideology). After the practice of forced labor camps ended, those labels remained, and the discrimination against people of faith included a long list of jobs they could not apply for. The real miracle was that many of these pastors stayed true to their calling, worked to help the poor and give hope to the hurting, and developed relationships with government officials. By the 90s, after the Russians left, the faith community had convinced the government to ease the restrictions and bring about a measure of religious liberty. Soon after, Raul Suarez was serving as a member of Cuba’s parliament.
I heard story after story of this kind of faith, the kind of faith that comes with consequences, and then I came back to the Atlanta airport with the food courts offering Nathan’s Hot Dogs and McDonalds and Starbucks and Pizza Hut and countless other delectables, accompanied by CNN on every tv blaring the idiocy of our election cycle with power-hungry politicians invoking God’s blessing on their candidacy. We are indeed a fat and sassy people. And our indulgence causes us to unknowingly abandon the simple message of Jesus on a daily basis, making our sacrifices at the altars of power in hopes that we can have a seat at the imperial banquet table. Deuteronomy’s picture of a jealous and angry God may seem a bit too anthropomorphic and primitive for some, but to me, it is a stark reminder me that there are life consequences to overindulgence. We feast and forget at our own peril.