For the past few months I’ve been meeting with a small group of parishioners each week to talk about preaching through a program from the Episcopal Preaching Foundation. Together we’ve studied some of the ways in which sermons get put together, we’ve looked at how to study and interpret scripture, and we’ve spent time exploring the importance of a particular context both in the biblical time frame and for us today. “What might these lessons be saying to us here at St. Mark’s?” is a question we consider each week.
A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 8.
At first glance, lessons about false prophets, meat offered to idols, and a man possessed by an unclean spirit might seem a bit far removed from our parish life now, and in particular on an Annual Meeting Sunday. Yet while the particulars there in Corinth might be different from ours—I’ve not been invited over to a pagan barbecue anytime recently—the group felt that exploring Paul’s instructions to a church community would be beneficial to us, because the deeper issue he’s getting at is one that is timeless.
First, though, some background. As you can well imagine, meat wasn’t often on the menu back in that era. To begin with, it was expensive. There was also the whole issue of refrigeration, in addition to animals being able to provide resources in other ways like fresh milk, wool, and manure. If you had a goat giving you loads of milk and cheese, you’d likely want to keep that goat around for as long as you could. Unless, of course, you needed to sacrifice a goat to a deity to make amends of some kind. And that’s when meat became readily available in that culture. Professor Jeehie Park explains that temples would often have adjacent dining halls, and they were open to all people. She writes, “In the ancient Mediterranean world, religious life was not quite separate from civic and social life. It is likely that some Corinthian [believers] joined those cultic events without hesitation as an extension of their civic and social life and consumed food there.” In other words, they ate meat offered to idols.
Which really isn’t that big of a deal according to Paul, as some of the Corinthians already knew. He explains that since there is only one true God and the idols to whom these other people are sacrificing animals don’t really exist, there’s nothing to worry about. Food offered to a non-existent idol was good for the taking. Except, that is, for one little thing: You need to be aware of the conscience of a sister or brother in Christ. You see, for some of these believers who grew up associating meat eaten at these parties with the actual idols themselves, it might cause them to question their faith in Christ. They might return to their former way of living if they saw another church member eating roasted goat there. So while technically it doesn’t really matter—and clearly some more logical members had teased all that out and knew it to be true—the fact that it could be a stumbling block to another member of the church should be reason enough to forgo the meal. Knowledge puffs up, Paul tells them, but love builds up.
Or as the Message Bible puts it, “Sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds.”
“Knowledge is power,” we’re told, which is true. But being humble and down to earth and seeing more than just right or wrong in a situation can be just as powerful if not more. When we take pride in proving that we are smart, we might lose a friend who feels that we didn’t have to be quite so showy. A humble heart even when you know something to be true might go a long way.
This past year at St. Mark’s I saw this act of humility play out in our conversations about worship. Music has long been a contentious issue for churches. A few years ago, Georgia minister and senator Raphael Warnock was asked how he, as a pastor, could work toward bipartisanship in Congress. He replied, “If you’ve ever had to get the folks who like anthems and [the] folks who like contemporary gospel music to work together, you’re ready for anything.” While some in the church could argue that their music was right or better, what became clear in our conversations was that you all wanted community more. That the music was not as important as being together. And so here we are, and with a new director of music in Bola who can play all sorts of different music for all our tastes!
I saw this in conversations in vestry where there was a difference of opinion from time to time. While not everyone got their way in each case, the important thing was that everyone could express their own understanding without any worry about consequences or being belittled. We always found ways to treat each other with respect.
Which, friends, is sadly not the case in our larger society. Let’s be clear, people on opposite sides of the political spectrum often seek to prove they are right. They do not listen and rarely entertain the idea that someone else might have something of value to say. If there’s a chance to proudly show off knowledge, it’s done there. But at what cost, really?
That is truly the thrust of Paul’s argument with the Corinthians. It might be easy for you to logically prove your point, yet there are consequences for others who might be more prone to making decisions based on their heart rather than cold logic. So what might it take for you to consider your brother or sister’s weaker conscience? Again, the Message Bible puts it starkly: “Christ gave up his life for that person. Wouldn’t you at least be willing to give up going to dinner for him—because, as you say, it doesn’t really make any difference?” What are you willing to give up for a sibling in Christ? What would you let go of in order to be in relationship with others?
Our diocesan mission strategy offers two broad responses to that question in our relationships with those who have been historically marginalized in our church and in our nation, and in our relationships with the natural world. It’s hard for those of us who are white to talk openly about racism and white supremacy. We easily default to our own individual lives and our own responses to people of color to ease our own conscience, while failing to look more broadly at the systems in place in our nation because the data is there. The US has indeed been and continues to be a country where those of us with lighter skin receive preferences that those with darker skin do not.
I am reminded of a conversation I once had with Ovid Fraser, one of our parishioners and an African American. Many years ago now Ovid founded the Southborough Veterinary clinic and also taught at Harvard. He learned over the course of many years that if he had to pursue repayment through small claims court in Worcester and went to represent himself, he always lost. Always. He then began to send a younger white woman who worked at the clinic as a vet tech to represent the practice in those cases. And she always won. Always. Having grown up and attended college in Guyana before immigrating to the US to do advanced study, Ovid hadn’t been fully aware of the blatant racism. It saddened him that some one of his stature would be so overtly ignored and rebuffed in the court system, presumed by the court to somehow be untrustworthy. His story is just one of a plethora of others in our country that expose again and again the inherent bias of our systems.
Might we be willing to give up the assumptions we have that the system works the same for everyone? Might we who are white sit a bit with the uncomfortableness of all this and not quickly dismiss it and be more open to the reality of things? And might we begin to move toward deeper relationships with others who experience similar things in our society—be it ethnic minorities, people who are poor, those who are LGBTQ, or those who live with different abilities? It might mean being intentional, and moving beyond our own comfort zones to engage in relationships—and that’s where to start, just begin a conversation—but wouldn’t we be willing to do that for the sake of a fellow child of God?
This past Tuesday the Washington Post published an article titled “The surprising environmental benefits of doing nothing” by Michael J. Coren. Coren describes his more recent practice of taking a weekly Sabbath each Friday at sunset, closing his laptop, refusing to look at email or his social media accounts. Instead he spends time with friends and loved ones usually outdoors and shares meals and swims and just does nothing. He writes, “It has rekindled a sense of joy I last felt when I was a kid with nothing to do, and gratitude for whatever miraculous series of events led me here to this moment.” Cohen then points to the environmental impact if we collectively took a day each week free from commerce, eschewing screens, and limiting—or perhaps forgoing—driving our cars. He points to Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si in which Francis says that “not resting is not just bad for the soul, … it’s bad for the Earth. The constant drive to produce and consume more is not only squandering natural resources, it prevents us from treating the living world, and one another, with dignity and respect. The Sabbath forces us to consider how we spend all our days.”
Imagine the impact that we could have if we all decided to give up work and purchasing things and limiting driving one day each week. Could we do that for another child of God and our planet, recognizing that the climate crisis has impacted and will continue to impact most those who are poorer in our world? Could we give up something small in exchange for a better life for both ourselves and for them? Might we give up our insatiable need for more and recognize that we and our planet could fare much better on less?
Because what this really comes down to is Paul’s main thrust in his letter to the Corinthian Church: can we imagine ourselves as part of something larger? Can we recognize that we are members of the Body of Christ? Each week we partake in that Body that is broken for us. Could we recognize that just as Christ gave his body for the world, so we as the Church—very members of his body—are called to do the same? To offer ourselves, our desires, our privileges for the betterment of all? As Paul said, “Christ gave up his life for that person. Wouldn’t you at least be willing to give up going to dinner for her?” Wouldn’t we be willing to truly follow Jesus on the way so that all might experience the fullness of life that he offers?