Sermon preached February 1, 2009
Scripture Reading: I Corinthians 8:1-13
A hen and a pig are having a discussion around the barnyard. They both agree that the farmer who is caring for them is a good man – that he knows his business and that he cares well for his fields and animals. They think that it might be nice to do something special for him. They consider their options. Finally the hen suggests that they fix him a nice meal. “What should we make?” asks the pig. “How about bacon and eggs/” suggests the hen. Pig: “Bacon and eggs?! Bacon and eggs - - - for you that is a nice contribution, for me that would be the ultimate sacrifice.”
Sacrifice. That is a part of the story of our Scripture reading for this morning. Sacrifice, sensitivity and sacrifice. Here’s the story. The Christian congregation at Corinth was a diverse congregation. The people who constituted this Jesus community came from different backgrounds, they had differing opinions, they came with different life experiences. This created tension and conflict.
One issue around which the church disagreed had to do with eating meat, specifically meat a part of which had been offered to idols. This is where the passage becomes a little difficult for us. We would be surprised if our local butcher cut off some part of the meat he was putting out in the case and said a prayer to say Apollo, Zeus, Artemis, Asclepius, Dionysius, offered that piece of meat to that god and then put the rest out into the case. I worked in a grocery store for five and a half years and I never witnessed anything of the sort in the meat department. But for the people of Corinth, such offerings were commonplace. The meat market would have been full of temple meat. Furthermore, many of the regular social functions in the society of the time were held on the grounds of the temples of gods. One can still find the ruins of a temple to Apollo in modern Corinth. If you were a part of the social life of the more well-to-do in Corinth, you would expect to participate in feasts, and celebrations on temple grounds.
Apparently some of the people who were part of the Christian community at Corinth were well-educated, well-to-do, and relatively sophisticated. They did not see their new found Christian faith incompatible with continuing participation in the social life of Corinth. Perhaps they would not pray to gods like Apollo, but they could eat food served on social occasions. They offered a well-considered and theologically-sophisticated argument for their position. As Christians we affirm that there is only one God and we know this one God in Jesus Christ. These other so-called gods are chimera, unreal, pure figments of imagination. How can eating meat that may have been offered to a fictional god affect my relationship with the real God whom I know in my Lord Jesus Christ?
Paul responds by agreeing with this argument. It is true, there is only one God that is real. It is also true that “we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” They have it right. Yet, Paul poses some questions: What about love? What about community? What about relationships? What about the effect of your actions on others in the Jesus community? Paul is asking for sensitivity. Paul is asking that people consider sacrificing some of their legitimate rights for the sake of community well-being, for the sake of stronger relationships.
Well, the whole business about idol meat makes this passage strange and difficult. And a diverse congregation where people bring different backgrounds, experiences, thoughts – who ever heard of that!!!! I want to tell you something – I can only preach the sermon I am preaching today because right now our diverse congregation is not embroiled or embattled. I am not concerned about the words I speak today being misused in an on-going dispute. I am not saying we agree about everything, but we are not in the midst of intense conflict right now and it is at such times that it is good to take a look at ourselves and ask how we can strengthen our community and how we can improve our community-building relational skills.
Sensitivity and sacrifice – these words arrive in a culture that takes “rights” very seriously. Our founding document, The Declaration of Independence states unequivocally that persons are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights among which are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I would argue that this view of inalienable rights is deeply Christian in many ways – it is a recognition of the value of each person, an acknowledgement that each person carries the image of God within. If this notion is deeply Christian, though not exclusively Christian, so too is the journey of our country in trying to expand the notion of “all persons.” The Constitution drawn up to express the principle of The Declaration of Independence exclude women from voting. African-American persons were considered property, not persons. We have had little compunction in our history in treating Native peoples less as people and more as obstacles in the way of our manifest destiny. We have grown in our inclusion as a society and grown in our understanding of the importance of rights for all.
Though rights can be deeply rooted in Christian understanding, Christian community pushes us beyond “rights.” The church as a community of people gathered in the name and spirit of Jesus is concerned for freedom and rights - - - and concerned about love, relationships, sensitivity and sacrifice. We ask the questions: what are my rights? What am I free to do? We also ask: How will my actions affect others? How can I best use my freedom to build up others and not only myself? When would it be good to sacrifice my rights in the interest of love, community, relationships? Difficult questions. Necessary questions.
This passage invites and challenges us to be sensitive.
We need to be sensitive to the experience of others. The past two weeks during our adult faith forum, we watched videos about difference in our society and discussed them. The first video, produced by The United Methodist Church, was called “Truth and Wholeness” and it was about “white privilege.” My guess is that that term is uncomfortable for many of us. It has been for me. I grew up in Lester Park. I remember at least two times when my dad came home from work having been laid off. My parents divorced when I was in my early twenties. I paid my own college expenses, working at a grocery store. When my dad dies in the coming weeks, there will be no inheritance. “Privilege” doesn’t seem to apply. Yet when I listen with sensitivity to the stories of others, especially people of color, I know that I have never had to worry that someone may be following me in a store because of how I look. I know no one will ever turn me away from an interview because of the color of my skin. No one will doubt my competence just because of my gender or ethnic background. White privilege is less about having advantages than about not having hurdles – and the deepest lesson as I deal with issues around race is the need to listen deeply and with sensitivity to the stories of others, especially others who are different from me. The church needs to be a community of sensitivity to others.
The church should be a community of sensitivity to the earth itself. Paul, in I Corinthians is focused on the quality of human relationships that should characterize the Jesus community. As we have come to a deeper understanding of the human interconnection with the natural world, I think we also need to include sensitivity to that world among the characteristics of the contemporary church. What is the earth telling us about how we are living? Are we being told to be more careful about our use of resources? Are we being told that we need to pay even more attention to our sources of energy? Are we being told that if we don’t care for the earth, it may come back to haunt us?
Sensitivity to others, especially to those who are different; sensitivity to the earth itself, are part of what it means to live as Christians in community. Our sensitivity also needs to be attuned to the pain and hurt in our world, maybe especially attuned to the pain and hurt in others and in the world. Henri Nouwen, in one of his books writes, “Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken” (The Way of the Heart, 20). Christian community as Paul encourages it is a compassionate community.
Sensitivity may lead to sacrifice. Frederick Buechner writes, “To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love” (Wishful Thinking). When we listen deeply to others, when we are attuned to the pain and hurt in others, in the world, in the earth itself, we may come to that place where we realize that it would be better to sacrifice our right to do or say something in the interest of healing, in the interest of caring, in the interest of compassion, in the interest of love.
Listening is itself a sacrificial act when done well. We give up our right to be thinking of a response and instead listen deeply to others. When we have heard their stories, it may be that we simply thank them and give up our need, our right to respond.
Decision-making in the midst of on-going dialogue requires sacrifice. We agree to sacrifice our own particular preference in favor of a decision that may be more widely shared. In the coming years we may have challenging decisions before us. We will talk. We will listen. We will have to make decisions. We hope to be able to do that in love and care and in such a way that even when our position may not prevail, we stay connected. That is part of the sacrifice community asks of us.
Sometimes for the sake of community, we also need to sacrifice our need to be right. I am a fairly bright person. I have a number of diplomas on the wall in my office and I can put: BA, M.Div., and Ph.D. after my name. I also enjoy trivia games, where the object is to get the right answer. I don’t know when it was, but somewhere along the line I learned that life is not a game of Trivial Pursuit. It is o.k. not to be right all the time, and it is o.k. not to press the point even if you are right. Not every mispronunciation needs to be corrected, not every inaccurate statement needs to be set straight. Somewhere along the line I learned, though I am still learning it, that one can be right in all the wrong ways. In many ways, that is what Paul is trying to convey to the well-to-do, well-educated and sophisticated Corinthian Christians. You can be right in all the wrong ways. You aren’t doing anything wrong in eating meat that may have been sacrificed to idols, but your lack of sensitivity to those troubled by your actions is doing harm to the community and you need to think about that, and maybe sometimes sacrifice your right to eat meat for the good of the community. Give it away for love.
To be sure, this lesson can be overlearned and misused. Sensitivity to others and an openness to sacrifice for the well-being of the community does not entail running away from difficult issues or controversial matters. We do not want to turn away from the doors we have opened wide to others here – opened to all people regardless of race, ethnicity, background, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status. We will not discontinue talking about challenging issues like white privilege, or interreligious dialogue. But we will seek to be prophetic and progressive and questioning in a loving and sensitive way. Sometimes, even then, people will decide to leave because we have tackled a tough issue, and there is only so much we can do about that. The image for such leaving should be centered in the image Paul uses in other places for the church – a body. When people leave it is like an amputation – there is pain which we feel and there is a scar which we acknowledge.
Together we are on a transformational journey. Together we are seeking to figure out what it means to live the way of Jesus in our day and time. Together we are seeking to respond to God’s Spirit as it invites us into new life. One important part of this kind of life is to be in a community of sensitivity, a community where sacrifice sometimes makes sense.
I often like to end with a story that reaches inside and fires the imagination, stimulates the mind, grabs at the heart, and there are such stories to illustrate what it means to live in a community of sensitivity and sacrifice, but we will enact that in a little bit, with communion. Stay tuned.
Communion centered in Jesus who sacrificed himself, not because God needed some kind of sacrifice but because faithfulness to his friends and to his teaching lead down that road
We come together. We may stand next to someone we do not know, yet in that standing there is a connection. We may stand with someone with whom we disagree, and we see them as a sister as a brother in Christ. We come open and vulnerable, and we stand with open and vulnerable people, and we offer our sensitivity to others
All are welcome here, no outsiders and we know that means welcoming difference
Just being here is a sacrifice of a type – we are giving of an hour for our own benefit, but also for others