Sunday, December 09, 2012
Happy Christ the King Sunday! Hooray!
So, what does that mean, exactly? Anyone? Aside from being a kind of New Year’s Eve for the Church—next week is Advent and a whole new church year, you know—what’s Christ the King Sunday about? I mean, don’t we celebrate Jesus the Messiah as King every Sunday? Isn’t that kind of the point of the Resurrection and/or Ascension?
The Greek word for King basileus occurs 9 times in Jesus’ conversation with Pilate before he’s condemned—nine times—so, it’s kind of a big deal. Some history: Catholic Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925
because he saw many of the Christian flock turning their attention and adoration to secular leaders,
dictators on the rise. See, at the time, totalitarianism was seen by many folks as a viable concept. A “sure, get the right guy in there, he could do some amazing things” kind of situation, and a lot of folks thought the whole world might soon be run by dictators. Pope Pius saw how folks were making idols of their national leaders and said, “NO, Jesus Christ is our king, not these folks. Don’t forget who brought you into this world and who can take you out.”
Let’s talk a bit about Jesus, shall we? What was he like? (invite answers—shepherd, truth, healing, etc.)
And now let’s talk a bit about kings—what are they like? (invite answers—rich, in control, despotic, figurehead, etc. Also consider other kinds of kings: political leaders, military leaders, economic leaders?)
What’s similar about these? Yeah, you get the point there—Jesus was and is not what we expect in a king. He’s not Prince Charles or even Queen Elisabeth. And he’s definitely not Mohamed Morsi of Egypt who is not a king, but who this week proclaimed that his office is no longer subject to judicial oversight—his decisions cannot be changed by other arms of government, he is above the law—this is precisely what kings have done in the past and what folks came to expect of them. And this is precisely the point—we proclaim Jesus as King and he’s nothing like those other folks we’ve called King.
Back in the day, the Israelites begged the prophet Samuel to ask God for a king because all the other nations had them. And Samuel said, “you’ll regret this—a king will lord it over you and take your money and make you miserable” and the people said, “nah, it’ll be okay.” And what happened? They got kings who lorded it over them, who took their money and made them miserable. Jesus is not that king.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we went to the polls to elect a new leader of these United States. Some voted for one guy, some for the other, all of us with an eye to making the country a better place And all of us, to some extent, thought, “if we just get the right guy in there, he could do some amazing things." Some sociologists have noticed that we so identify with a political party or ideology that any criticism of the ideology is a criticism of us personally. You don’t like liberalism? Clearly you hate me and all I stand for. You don’t like conservatism? Why don’t you like me? And so we focus inward, on only those we agree with, we lift up leaders who will further our agenda, try to elect folks who will fix everything once and for all.
Course, we know that’s not how it works. For one thing, no matter who is elected, they’re broken and human like the rest of us, prone to mistakes and pride. And President Obama and Mitt Romney were not our saviors—the job was taken already. So the night of the election, some of my cross-denominational clergy friends and I got together our congregations for an Election Night Communion—we gathered for word and meal and remembered whose we were. We remembered God as our President, Congress, School Board, and King. Jesus turns our idea of what Kings are on its head—kings give up their lives for their people, kings don’t eat spectacular banquets while others starve, kings give away both food and wisdom instead of hoarding them in the treasury, kings touch sick, coughing, oozing people and have compassion for the folks no one else will even look at.
But this king is not one to be a doormat. Anyone who says the New Testament is all soft and sweet Jesus hasn’t read it. Jesus our King will tell us NO when we’re going wrong. Jesus our King will turn the governments of the nations to dust if we but follow him and enact his command to love wastefully—Pilate and the Pharisees and all nations do well to feel threatened by our calling him a King. Jesus the King holds all things in his hands,
but not in the control-freak-despot kind of way, holding loosely, cradling, keeping us from falling completely apart. The true King is the one who lives with the people, who speaks Truth to both power and to the powerless, who dies for them both, who defeats death by rising again. The true King who we celebrate today is not our government or our retirement funds or our spouse or anything else we put in the place of God. He is Truth itself, he is humble to the point of death, he sees into the heart of us, our sin and our virtue, and, looking at us, loves us.
The King is dead. Long live the King.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
But I also believe, maybe even more, in bridge-building. I believe that elected officials are trying to do the right thing, no matter how broken they or the system are. I believe voters have much in common and much to commend them no matter which party they identify with. I believe each major party (and the minor ones as well) have nuggets of truth. And I believe we often use those nuggets to bludgeon each other.
I believe we are made by God for connection and relationship. And I believe that connection-building with folks we really, really disagree with is holy.
I believe this Election Day we--liberals, conservatives, independents, and non-voters--will be faced with a choice beyond that of party affiliation. I believe we will choose between fear and hospitality, as my friend Aaron Klinefelter has written. I believe we have an opportunity to choose not only the candidates we believe in but also the way of living Jesus asks of us. I believe my conservative brothers and sisters have something to teach me and that God loves them just as much as me.
Therefore, I believe I will talk to them, inquire about what they hold dear, and listen for understanding. I believe I will vote. And I believe I will pray with my brothers and sisters with whom I may or may not agree. Join us, won't you?
Election Day Communion
November 6, 7:30pm
Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship (4229 Brownway Ave.)
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
“I don’t love you.” My daughter says. I know she doesn’t mean it, but for a brief moment, it hurts. She’s only three and has no filter. She says it in anger, in jest, because she gets a response from me. She says hurtful things and she probably gets it from me. And I probably got it from my folks. This is what we in the business call “original sin” and, whether you believe that’s an accurate theology or not, it’s a good description of the world we live in. We are all of us sinners, wounding one another with our words. Surely I’m not the only one who wants to physically pull back my words sometimes—no, I didn’t mean that, I was speaking in anger, I didn’t know what I was saying, I didn’t know all the facts, I’m just hurt, I’m so sorry… In an argument with my husband the other day, in the heat of my anger, I said something about hoping he would die of whatever it was we were arguing about—pecans? Politics? I don’t know. I confess that to you now, here in the assembly of Christians, because I need to repent of it. I confess that to you in the hopes that you understand, in the hopes that you see the same idle talk in yourselves, that you, too, need to repent of something.
Maybe you’re not ready for that confession yet. I hear you. Let’s move on. But we’ll be back.
Let’s talk about current events instead. In the discipleship groups I lead at the campus ministry I serve, the students and I have just read a blog post called “Why are Christians so mean?” The author herself is a Christian and had noticed that many folks in our country look at us askance—“you follow the Prince of Peace yet yell at one another and us all the time—what gives?” they seem to ask. She wondered if she was alone in noticing this and she writes:
“Within one quarter of a second, a Google search of ‘Why are Christians so mean’ returned 5,190 results.
To put these numbers in context, I ran the same query for other faiths. As we would expect in the post 9-11 environment, “Why are Muslims so mean” yielded 8,320 results. More telling, however, are the following comparisons:
There were seven results for ‘Why are Jews so mean?’ and four results for ‘Why are Hindus so mean?’ ‘Why are Buddhists so mean’ yielded one result with no results at all when I asked, ‘Why are Sikhs so mean?’
It wasn’t always this way. Certainly not in the early Church, when Tertullian remarked, ‘Look, how they love one another’ or when Aristides wrote, ‘They walk in all humility and kindness.’ When is the last time you heard anyone say anything even close to that about Christians?”
How we act and what we say makes a difference, like James said in his letter. “[N]o one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison” he writes, and “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” Well said, James.
Let’s make this very concrete. You’re aware of the kerfuffle recently over Chik-fil-A? Perhaps some of y’all showed up to buy a chicken sandwich that day or perhaps you were angry at those who did. I’m not here this Sunday to talk about the right or wrong of CEO Dan Cathy’s remarks nor even of the right or wrong of homosexuality. No, in keeping with brother James, consider how Christians responded. How were we perceived by the world when large masses of us went to Chik-fil-A on a particular day? Consider that 99% of the gay population of the world saw that and assumed that we all hate them. And then consider how those same Christians perceived the gay community when some loving, gay couples showed up for a Kiss-In—they assumed that the gay community are all exhibitionists and wanted to force something on them.
Neither of these is true. Both were hurtful. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
The blogger I mentioned closed her post with these questions: “What are the consequences of those things I have done and left undone? How are others likely to interpret my actions? How are they likely to respond?”
How we use our tongues, as James writes, what we say… is everything. And yet our words can be meaningless as well. In someone’s grief, we struggle for the right words, filling the sad silence with platitudes trying to heal the pain. I’ve talked to so many folks who said a well-meaning friend told them God needed another angel and how much they hated God in that moment.
James says that we’re wild horses needing to be broken with a bridle—not very complimentary. I don’t want to think of myself as a dumb beast needing physical restraint, or as a boat going only where the captain directs me with no creativity of my own. But there’s truth in what he says. Our tongues can run wild, speaking truth and lies indiscriminately. We can’t help it. We need something to hold us back from the hurt we inflict. We need a divine and maybe sometimes harsh “no” to pull us up short, to show us what we’ve done. God is, in this moment, a divine parent, speaking truth to us rebellious children, trying to aim our energy in a better direction.
Because sometimes we get it right. Sometimes our tongues speak love and comfort or encouragement in just the right moment. A couple of months ago, in the first week after I gave birth to my son, my mother-in-law stayed with us and helped us out. She cooked for us, cleaned the house, brought me things while I was still in pain. It was, in some ways, her job to be here—she was happy to do it—but I needed to say thank you for that gift. I sent her a thank you note which arrived on a day when everything was going wrong for her.
My words worked, but not because of their poetry. She was comforted in the middle of a cruddy day because I was present with her. Sure, it was only in the form of a note, but it’s like we say, “it’s the thought that counts.” In that thought, I was present and that, more than the words I wrote, made a difference.
And now we get to the heart of it. Showing up is what we are called to do. When someone is in mourning, we sit with them, maybe bring a casserole. When someone is imprisoned, we show up, speak to with them through the glass. When someone is celebrating, we show up and celebrate with them. When someone says something hurtful to us, like “I hope you die from pecans” we stay with them—my husband forgave me because he loves me and because we show up daily in each other’s lives. In the church business, we call this incarnation—I am physically present here with you fine people today, I’m incarnate here. This is what Jesus did—the word became flesh and dwelt among us—he showed up. He sat with us, he ate with us—sure, he talked a bunch, said some impressive and convicting things—but what he did was show up. He was present with us. Most of us don’t take that time—we don’t get to know our gay or conservative evangelical neighbors. We only react, speaking the emotional truth of the moment—I’m angry! I’m hurt!—and don’t think of how we’re perceived. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
Friday afternoon, this discipleship group I mentioned, we met for our weekly conversation. Partway through our conversation we became aware of a group of Muslim students demonstrating across the street. They held signs in support of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya who was killed. They handed out flowers and stood calmly supporting peace. And so we joined them. I and my students crossed the street, showed up, you might say, with our brothers and sisters.
If we can come to rest in the knowledge that God is here too, that God is incarnate in Jesus and a little in us and our neighbors, maybe the drive to be right or to say the right thing can slip away. If we can try to see our neighbors and our enemies as people, as distant family, maybe we can be content sitting with them at a dinner table or on the front stoop. Maybe we can show up and simply be with one another, letting our presence speak for itself. Maybe then there’s room for God to work the wonders that need working. My brothers and sisters, may it be so.
Thursday, April 05, 2012
A very long time ago,
a man and his friends sat down at a table for dinner.
They had been through a lot together, these friends.
They had given up a lot to be together—more than they knew.
They ate together most nights
and because it was the celebration of the Passover,
of course they would meet again
—nothing was out of the ordinary.
Something was coming—they all felt it—
but they didn’t know what.
The men and women around the table talked and joked
with the comfort of brothers and sisters.
They ate slowly,
savoring the plates of lamb, eggs, bitter herbs,
and unleavened bread they passed.
They drank wine and delighted in one another’s company.
And at the same time, even longer ago,
the people called the Israelites sat down for dinner.
They had been through a lot together, these people.
They had given up a lot
—and had had a lot taken from them—
to be together—more than they knew.
They ate together most nights, but this night was special.
They ate with their shoes and hats on,
their walking sticks in their hands,
their luggage packed for a journey.
They ate quickly,
pausing only to pray to Hashem for mercy.
They barely tasted the bread and wine and bitter herbs.
And they ate in both fear and excitement.
And at the same time, far in the future,
a group of brothers and sisters sat down at a table for dinner.
They had been through a lot together, these brothers and sisters.
They had given up a lot to be together—more than they knew.
They didn’t eat together very often any more,
at least not in one another’s houses.
But they did meet every week
to pass a plate of bread and a cup of wine.
They loved one another deeply
and yet didn’t quite know what to do about it
in the vast and changed world.
They talked and joked with the intimacy of family
and remembered all the times they’d eaten together,
every meal for 2,000 years.
They knew something was coming,
they knew what it was
—had heard the story for 2,000 years—
yet they didn’t understand it, didn’t really know their part.
They ate, loving one another, loving God,
loving what they thought they knew.
* * *
The man and his friends, a very long time ago,
were about to depart:
the man would depart this life and he grieved to think about it;
his friends would depart from each other and from him,
running away in fear and grief.
Only Judas would have the courage of his convictions
and only the women would return.
The man knew that this departure, this ending
would also be a beginning
And he knew that beginning would not make the end less painful
His friends knew something was ending
Maybe they thought the rule of the Roman oppressors was ending
Maybe they thought their poverty and directionlessness were ending
They didn’t know that this would be their last dinner together
That this was the last meal of a condemned man
That this last supper would feed them in the wilderness
And at the same time, that people called the Israelites, even longer ago,
Were about to depart:
They would depart from Egypt and the slavery they had endured
They would depart from the life they had known,
oppressive as it had been
and embark on a long journey into the wilderness
but before they left, they covered their doorposts with blood
marking their homes
so that the angel of death would pass over them
they killed the lamb, and ate it in fear and joy
ready to leave for a new life
terrified by what was happening outside their doors
this people had a leader, a man named Moshe
Moshe knew that this departure, this ending
Would also be a beginning
And he knew he would not survive this new story
He knew that beginning would not make the ending less painful
And at the same time, far in the future,
The brothers and sisters gathered here were about to depart
They didn’t know it
They thought their weekly meal was comfort and beauty and joy
And it was
But it was also the last supper before the storm
They would eat hastily, knowing something was coming
They would pray to God to pass them over
Marking their foreheads with ash
And their hearts with regret
These brothers and sisters are the ekklesia, the church
the gathering of people
the people, literally, “called out” of our normal lives,
we are that beloved community
we will depart from the empire,
from the way we’ve always done things
we are always on the move, always at an ending and a beginning
our weekly supper of bread and wine
will be food for the journey
our love for one another will sustain us in the wilderness
* * *
This [gesture to table] is the end, brothers and sisters.
We will eat our meal together hastily,
our shoes on our feet and our walking sticks in our hands,
our luggage packed
For we have been called to witness to the world
We have been called to an ending
We will depart from this place like the Apostles—the ones Jesus sent out
We will leave the expectations of the world like the Israelites left Egypt
We will travel in circles where our calling is foolish
Where we will look ridiculous
for insisting on love and compassion
Where we will be mocked
Where we will be hungry for more than bread
Every time we eat this meal together,
We remember every other time we have eaten together for 4,000 years
And every time we eat this meal together,
God is present with us
God is with us on this journey
We are not alone
Yet, for now, it seems God has abandoned us
We cannot see or feel him
We feel battered and bruised
By the Story we enact this week
By its contradictions and problems
The light is departing this world
Jesus, our brother,
Is betrayed into the hands of us poor sinners.
Saturday, March 03, 2012
Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of eternity. Amen.
* * *
So, today’s topic in our Lenten Journey series called Rooted is, “Is the Bible True?” [change slide—is the Bible true?]
Um…[change slide—yes] yes. Yes, it is.
[Alice sit down, as though sermon is done.] …beat…
[Alice back to pulpit.]
I guess you wanted more than that. Ok. Yes, the Bible’s true, but [change slide—how is it true?] how is it true? In what way does the Bible give us Truth? [change slide—top portion wipes away] That’s the real question.
So, let’s consider that. [change to black slide] One of my favorite books is Moby-Dick—you know, the book about an obsessed ship’s captain chasing after the white whale? Yeah, I know, long, boring, smartypants kind of book—I’m a nerd, what can I say? It really is good though. And, as one of my professors once said, you can be reading along in one of the many chapters on whale anatomy entitled “The Whale’s Forehead” or something, and you’re learning about the average dimensions of a blue whale’s forehead and what’s behind it in its big skull and how, because its eyes are on the sides of the head, once it gets within a certain distance from something, it can’t see it at all anymore—I say, you’re reading all about the whale’s forehead, and you suddenly realize you’re reading about your own life and about the vastness of God. It’s bizarre. And it’s just so…true.
But, of course, that story didn’t happen. Captain Ahab and Ishmael and the white whale and everything—completely made up. Not factual at all. Well, the chapters on whale anatomy are probably factual, but not the story. So, if it’s basically false on some level, how can it be true?
In this book we’re reading as a congregation, Making Sense of Scripture, the author talks about the fact-value split, and this is exactly what he’s talking about. He’s saying there are facts—things we can prove or look up or verify with someone—and there are values, truth—what those facts mean, what we believe about those facts. So, something like Moby-Dick has the facts of the story which we know didn’t happen, but those facts mean something. Or something like a history of the 30-Years’ War has the facts of the battles which we know did happen, but those facts mean something. They mean more than a listing off of events. Does that make sense? So, say, something like the creation stories in Genesis—yes, I did say stories plural—have a listing off of events, a list of facts if you will. Now, the point of the stories is not the order in which things were created or that it took a certain amount of time—those are all interesting and important things to discuss—but the truth behind them is, what? That the creation was created, that everything we see has the breath of God running through it, that God saw what God had made—what we see outside these walls and in the faces of those around us—and God called it all good. This is meaning and truth which is much bigger and more powerful than facts.
Here’s another way to look at it: this is a clip from the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers. They’re fantasy films set in Middle Earth about an epic fight against evil. A whole lot of stuff has happened by this point, some of it good, most of it violent and disturbing. And our heroes—Sam and Frodo—are at a low point. Can they go on? Should they? What’s the point? Let’s watch…
[change slide to LOTR clip--Sam's speech about stories and holding on to something]
[at end of clip, change to black slide]
Good stuff, right? There’s at least two truths going on here: (1) there’s what Sam is saying—that we’ve been through so much individually and as a people and we continue on because we’re holding on to something good and true and hopeful and (2) there’s the truth of the entire story—it didn’t happen, it’s not factual. Middle Earth didn’t really exist and those battles and journeys are made up for the story. But they’re deeply true. They’re about friendship and commitment and pity and sacrifice and good fighting evil and seeming to fail and yet refusing to give in.
Are you seeing this? The difference between truth and facts?
Before the crucifixion, the Roman administrator charged with dealing with Jewish criminals, a man named Pontius Pilate, spoke with Jesus and famously [change slide] said, “what is truth?” Was he a seeker of some kind, asking earnestly for an answer: “what is truth?” or was he bored and just dabbling in philosophical conversation: “what is truth?” Who knows, but his question is our question—“what is truth?” [change to black slide] What makes something true?
I suppose it might be that it is factual [change slide—orange and blue Venn diagram]—something like gravity. We can test it and have facts about its consistency and how strong it actually is. And it means that we don’t float off into space—facts are a kind of truth, but don’t tell the whole story. I bet there are other kinds of truth [change slide—more blue dots]—like our experiences, like our relationships, like the beauty we experience in art and the natural world—things that can’t be reduced only to their component parts but which have deep meaning and the power to transform us in themselves.
So, [change slide—what is truth?] what is truth, really? How do we tell [change slide—how do we tell?] if something’s true?
This is where the church comes in, and this is where we have a great blessing to share with the world. [change to black slide] We aren’t a place where things have to remain the same for centuries, we aren’t a place where one person tell us what The Truth is period. We are a hospital for sinners. We are a lab for experimentation. We are a dinner table for conversation. How do we tell if something’s true? We wrestle with it here in Christian community. There is no real rule of thumb I can give you that will answer all your questions and will point you unerringly on the path of truthful Biblical understanding. That’s not how it works—we do this as a group, a group which includes God, I hasten to add.
Well, maybe there’s one rule of thumb. [change slide—love] It’s love. God created the world with love. God chose the Israelites with love and guided them and freed them and got angry with them and forgave them for love. God became human in Jesus and lived and died and rose again because of love. We keep coming back to hear the stories because of love. And we are transformed by that love. We can’t figure it out on our own, we need one another. [change to black slide]
Now, this doesn’t make it easy—in fact, it makes it harder. For one thing, having to work out truth with others requires us to pay more attention than maybe we’re used to. And, for another, we can’t ignore texts we don’t care for—there’s truth and transformation there as well.
BUT God’s moving in all of it somehow, God who is the answer to Pilate’s question. And so we keep coming back—because another part of truth is our faith that God is speaking through all kinds of surprising things. Truth is slippery and sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it appears threatening, but it is always, always, always the love of God working to open our eyes.
Friday, February 17, 2012
My meditation from last Sunday's NOSH. The lesson was Matthew 1:1-17. Thanks to Rob Shrader and his Christmas Eve sermon years ago that I thought was brilliant and only dimly remember.
In Kentucky, one of the things I used to hear a lot was “who’re you kin to?” It means who are you related to, who are your people—which, of course, means more than just who your cousin is. It means, what are you like? Where did you come from? What do you stand for? Can I trust you? And it’s one of the more important questions folks ask when they join a church—who are these people, what do they stand for, and can I trust them?
Here at the Edge House, maybe you’ve made some connections already about who folks are kin to, in a more metaphorical way. Edward is certainly kin to CS Lewis, for one thing. And Matthew here is asking a similar question about Jesus—who’s he kin to? On one level, he’s establishing credentials—Jesus is related directly to Abraham, founder of the faith. He’s a big shot. On the other, this family is…shall we say, interesting. Surely Jesus’ family would be beyond reproach, the family of the Son of God would be theologians and kings and prophets and just the cream of the crop…
Abraham and Isaac both lied and told kings that their wives were actually their sisters to save their necks and almost got their wives raped.
Jacob wrestled with God, it’s true, but he also was a bit of a mischevious liar.
The first of the women mentioned is Tamar, a woman who’s first two husbands were brothers and who died while married to her. When her father-in-law refused to let he marry his third son and threw her out, she dressed as a prostitute, seduced the father-in-law, got pregnant, and then had a gotcha moment with him. And she was considered righteous, according to the story.
Salmon and Rahab had a son Boaz—but what it doesn’t tell you is that Rahab is another prostitute who sold out her people to massacre when the Israelites entered the Promised Land.
Ruth, grandmother of King David, was a filthy outsider, a non-Israelite and a widow before Boaz took her in.
David had a son, the famous Solomon, by the wife of Uriah—scandalous enough—and to make things worse, David lusted after Bathsheba and had her husband sent to the front lines of a war so he’d get killed so David could have her. And so it goes…
What does this suggest about Jesus’ family? About who he’s kin to? What do they stand for? Can we trust him?
Saturday, January 28, 2012
“St. Paul and Miss Manners”
You know what really burns my toast? People who don’t turn on their headlights when it’s raining. Or snowing. Or foggy. I mean, the other 98% of us have our lights on—can’t you see them? Doesn’t that remind you of something? And why aren’t they on, anyway? Did you just forget? Or is it because it’s daytime and therefore it must be bright enough for you to see where you’re going? First, if it’s raining or whatever, it’s not bright enough. And, second, as Brother Doctor Phil would say, “it’s not about you!” You may indeed be able to see fine without your headlights on, but I can’t see you. It’s the polite thing to do. As it turns out, it’s the legal thing to do, and, if preventing accidents is something you cherish, it’s the safe thing to do. I’ve read all of Miss Manners’ books and here’s what I think about etiquette: it’s meant for the benefit of others—and ignoring it can have significant consequences.
And Paul’s talking about just this in Corinthians—see, the letters to the Corinthians may seem antiquated to us today—the language is notoriously dense and the issues seemingly past. But Paul’s writing to these new Christians in the bustling city of Corinth because they’re trying to figure out how to live well together. They’re a bunch of individuals with their individual tastes and their individual, personal relationships with God and now they’re trying to figure out how to be a “we.” A community not just a collection of “I’s.” Basically, they’re saying, “Man, Paul, we all think this Jesus guy is something else, but it’s each other we’re having a hard time with. How do we follow Jesus when we don’t agree on what that means?”
So, you get today’s reading about eating meat sacrificed to idols. Right, not something we have to worry about on a day-to-day basis. They’re literally talking about animals sacrificed on altars to various other gods—not Jesus—and that meat, as a part of the ritual, was eaten by the priests and the faithful. And, according to some historians, it might have made its way into the food supply for the general population. So these new Christians are trying to figure out what to do about this meat. Again, less of an issue for us now. But we’ll get to that.
So, Paul says, “look, kids, you and I both know that those gods aren’t real, that those rituals mean nothing, and so the meat is just meat. Go ahead, eat it, it’s nothing.” And then he says “BUT” and we should all know from reading scripture that when someone says “BUT” we’d better pay attention. Paul says, “BUT there are folks in your community who are brand new or folks outside your community looking in and none of them know that the gods and rituals are false and that the meat’s okay. They’re looking at you eat this hamburger that was dedicated to Zeus or whatever and they’re thinking, “wait, we worship Zeus? I thought it was Jesus” or maybe they’re thinking, “man, those Christians sure are a bunch of hypocrites.” This is, as we say in the theology business, Not Good. So, even though your actions might be innocent in themselves, you shouldn’t do them because it could hurt someone else. (Now my headlights in the rain rant is making sense, right?)
So what about now? I’m fairly certain we don’t still have big temples set up to Mithras or whomever where animals are being slaughtered and from which Arby’s purchases fixin’s for their Beef N Cheddar. What could Paul be saying to us now?
First, that the “eating idol meat” thing is a metaphor for more than just eating meat. That, somehow, there are things we do and say which may be perfectly fine, but which cause others to fall in their faith. It’s been pointed out to me, for example, that some folks hear in my sarcasm or my jokey comments real insult—please believe me when I say that the very last thing on my mind in any circumstance is a desire to hurt someone else—the Very Last Thing—yet my desire to be charming or silly can cause others pain or even disillusionment. And so, the meat sacrificed to idols which I shouldn’t eat is flippant and sarcastic comments—or, at the very least, it means I ought to consider my audience before speaking.
Second, that Paul is speaking of something beyond the specifics of this particular controversy within the congregation at Corinth, he’s saying that we Christians have some knowledge of how to act, how to respond to God’s free gift of grace, but that knowledge is not the only important thing. Blogger Rick Morley writes: “[R]eason is a valuable tool in interpreting what’s right and wrong in the Christian faith and life. And, perhaps most importantly, we find that even when you have the ‘correct answer,’ that’s not enough. There are pastoral and spiritual implications of keeping the whole Body together. And those implications are more important than being right.”
Let me suggest an example that I see regularly on UC’s campus. I run into a whole lot of students who dislike the Christian church—for many reasons, of course, but often because of denominations. The thought goes like this: if Jesus is the Son of God and said and did some awesome things and y’all are all his fans and followers, why the heck aren’t you all getting along? Students’ dislike ranges from mild curiosity to active hatred. Huge numbers of them attend nondenominational campus groups or churches for this very reason—there shouldn’t be denominations, because all we do is fight each other about who’s right. We don’t even have to go far afield to see it: Missouri Synod Lutherans practice closed communion, believing that they have the correct interpretation of both the Sacrament and of the Scriptures, while ELCA Lutherans seem to have disdain for our Missouri Synod brothers and sisters and continue blithely on with our own interpretations. I say this not to be offensive or to suggest that one or the other denomination has it wrong—it’s the continued antipathy that’s the issue, not different interpretations. Folks on the outside of the Church Universal, those atheists or agnostics or folks hurt by the church—those we most want to reach with the message of God’s love—they look at Christians as a block and say, “what is wrong with you guys? Why can’t you just get along?” We all know it’s more difficult than that, and yet we often stay complacent where we are—we can’t make Missouri Synod like us any more than we would agree to not ordaining female clergy any more. BUT, and here’s where you should be paying attention, BUT there is hope.
I am an Episcopalian, not a Lutheran. How in the world do I get to stand in front of you and preach and celebrate communion? Because our two denominations came together over 10 years ago and said “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Or, “we’re all okay.” We are in full communion with one another. Where the church has historically pulled itself apart, the ELCA and the Episcopal Church have begun pulling back together. There is hope. There is God working in the middle of broken, seemingly hopeless places.
So as you consider your own life, or the life of this congregation, consider the rule of love that we have been given in Jesus, consider what theologian B.W. Johnson wrote in 1891: "The Christian principle, the rule of love, is, 'If eating meat, or going to the theater, or going to a ball, or attending the fair, or drinking wine or beer, causeth my brother to offend, I will not do these things while the world standeth.’” What is it that you do which is pretty much harmless but which might make me or someone else question our faith? What do we do as a congregation which makes seekers turn away? And don’t ask these questions because we want to increase our numbers but because each of those people is beloved by God and ought to be beloved by us.
I’m not going to lie, some of the rules and stories in the Bible may seem harsh or arbitrary, like some of the rules of etiquette, but the point is not the rule, the point is to live generously with one another. The point is that God takes the meat we sacrifice to idols and makes a glorious feast that every denomination and faith and non-faith person is invited to. So, do what Miss Manners tells you to, be generous with your neighbors, and write a thank you note to God with your life.