Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

This morning I was with the good people at All Saints Church in Worcester on this Fourth Sunday after Epiphany.  I preached on the epistle reading, from Paul's Letter to the first-century Christians in Corinth. My manuscript follows.

On this fourth Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany I want to return to something I said when I last stood here on the first Sunday after Epiphany: this word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words: epi-phanos. Literally it means “to shine forth.” This is the work that God has given us to do, not just in these six weeks between the arrival of the magi and Ash Wednesday, but all year long. The Light of Christ has come into the world so that we might allow that light to shine through us, not only within the walls of this extraordinary building on a Sunday morning but at our dinner tables and in our classrooms and workplaces and out on the streets of Worcester.  Epi-phanos. Shine forth!

Within this liturgical context, I want to talk with you today about St. Paul. I’ve always found him difficult to preach on, and the main reason is this: it always seems like we are somewhere in the middle of something with Paul. It’s hard to situate him. Instead of a parable or an encounter we wonder: who is he talking to? What’s he really getting at? Where did we leave off last week and what’s he going to say next week? He’s often misunderstood, I think, and sometimes people “love” or “hate” Paul for all the wrong reasons. So I hope you will indulge me today and bear with me for what will be a rather long-ish Bible study, followed by a very short homily. (I’ll alert you when I’m close on that “good news” part in case I lose you the way or you decide to check Facebook.)

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, those first Christians took seriously their responsibility to “go and tell.” They didn’t sit and wait for newcomers to walk through their doors—they didn’t have buildings, let alone doors! The twelve focused on going and telling their fellow Jews about Jesus. But Paul went to the Gentiles- that is, to the goyim, which is to say, everybody else. And the gospel spread to the east and west and to the north and south. Eventually this good news spread to places like Corinth.

So where exactly is that? Well, it’s approximately forty miles south-southwest of Athens, on the shoulder of an isthmus. As an ancient city, Corinth was extremely important because it was strategically defensible. In Paul’s day, it had become a commercial hub known for its artisan products, esp. pottery and earthenware. It was religiously diverse: a “cultural crossroads” where people from different places came and settled, bringing their own unique religious practices with them. There were Greeks and Egyptians and Romans and Jews.  Politically, Corinth was a colony within the Roman Empire; that meant that Roman law ruled and that Latin was the official language, although Greek was spoken too. Taxes were paid directly to Rome, and in some ways it was more politically connected in the first century to Rome than Athens was. And Corinth was a sports town: every two years they hosted the “Isthmian Games”—second in importance only to the Olympics. Huge crowds came into Corinth for these games.

So it had a lot going on, although the social critics said that the cultural life was superficial. Such is the challenge when you aren’t Athens or New York (or Boston.) But second-biggest cities do have a charm of their own, as we all know, and Corinth had a lot going on. The Christians in Corinth came from all walks of life. Some had been raised as Jews, taught by their parents and grandparents to keep kosher and now, they claimed Jesus as Messiah. Others had not been raised that way, but they had been open to that “unknown god” and when they heard the story of Jesus, something clicked. This is a great thing, to be among people of different backgrounds. But it’s also a challenge. What is the core belief of faith? What do you have to believe to make you a follower of Jesus? How do you have to live? And most importantly, what do you do when you’ve been raised a Jew but that newcomer at church brings lobster bisque and pork souvlaki to the potluck supper? Can you even eat at the same table?

So all kinds of conflicts emerged in Corinth. There is this idea that some people carry around that if we are all following Jesus, then we’ll all get along. But from the beginning, congregations have not worked that way. Conflict itself is not bad; it’s how we deal with it, what we learn from it, and how we are changed by it that matters. Some people run away from conflict. Others pour gasoline on it. I submit to you that neither response is particularly helpful. So how can we learn to “lean into” conflict in faithful ways and work through it, and trust that when we do it can lead to a deeper kind of reconciliation? And more than that: when that happens, that the living, risen Christ is made manifest? The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Epiphanos!

So it seems that some in Corinth were buying meat that had been sacrificed to idols. It’s hard to get at all the details of this practice, but the gist of it goes something like this: suppose a bull or a lamb is sacrificed over at the temple of some other religion and they decide to sell the meat at the public market. So you can buy your ground round for $4.99 a pound at the Corinthian version of Fairway Beef or you can buy the same basic meat for $3.99 a pound from that temple. What to do? Some of the Christians in Corinth say, “don’t do it, it’s tainted – it’s unholy—it’s polluted.” And others said, “hey, meat is meat. Go for it. We all know the god it was sacrificed to isn’t real anyway.”

And then – this is the hard thing – they would come to church together and sit in the same pews. (Alright I made that last part up to see if you are still with me – remember they had no buildings, no red doors, and definitely no pews!) But even so, the same people who were neighbors and had gone to the Isthmian games together for years now come to a vestry meeting and all hell breaks loose.  It’s like the pork souvlaki and lobster bisque thing all over again. Listen if that guy brings pastitsio to the potluck I’m not touching it, because I know where he buys his hamburger! No, more than that: I’m leaving this church if the pastor doesn’t do something about it. So what does Paul say?  

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one." Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth-- as in fact there are many gods and many lords-- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. "Food will not bring us close to God." We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Ah, that last line is so crucial. Paul encourages them to remember who they are, and while there may be no specific prohibition about eating such meat, compassion might suggest not throwing it in someone else’s face. The needs of the weaker members and the real possibility that their faith may be injured should at least be considered in making this dietary decision. In other words, it’s more than an individual choice – it’s a question of how to take into consideration the whole body. Does this build up the Body in love, or does it become a source of tension that sounds like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal?

Most of us here don’t probably get too worked up first-century dietary debates. But here comes that short homily I promised. Some of you may remember, back in Lent 2007, the Presiding Bishop wrote a rather brilliant pastoral letter to the Church. At the time the Episcopal Church was embroiled in heated arguments about human sexuality. Here in part is what she said, referencing this very issue:

The current controversy brings a desire for justice on the one hand into apparent conflict with a desire for fidelity to a strict understanding of the biblical tradition and to the mainstream of the ethical tradition. Either party may be understood to be the meat-eaters, and each is reminded that their single-minded desire may be an idol. Either party might constructively also be understood by the other as the weaker member, whose sensibilities need to be considered and respected. God’s justice is always tempered with mercy, and God continues to be at work in this world, urging the faithful into deeper understandings of what it means to be human and our call as Christians to live as followers of Jesus. Each party in this conflict is asked to consider the good faith of the other, to consider that the weakness or sensitivity of the other is of significant import, and therefore to fast, or “refrain from eating meat,” for a season. Each is asked to discipline itself for the sake of the greater whole, and the mission that is only possible when the community maintains its integrity…None is complete without the others [and] God’s dream is of all people gathered at a feast, and we enter Lent looking toward that Easter feast and the new life that will, in God’s good time, be proclaimed.
Now that work far from finished, but we have come a long way in the past eight years. And thanks be to God for the faithful witness of parishes like this one that have helped lead the way. And thanks be to God for the pastoral guidance of people like Katharine Jefferts Schori. Personally, I think we are way stronger for what we have learned in this past decade or so. It wasn't easy, but we have a clearer sense of who we are...
But for today, what I want to invite you to notice is what Katharine did with that old text in a new situation, which I think was to rightly build on St. Paul by giving us a way to think about conflict and community. Justice, tempered by mercy, builds up and strengthens the Body of Christ. 
And I think this is precisely where we will find good news in this old text on this forth Sunday of Epiphany. This wisdom has implications for our families, for vestries, for Beacon Hill and Congress and everywhere else in our broken and polarized world. How can we be passionate about what we believe and still make room in ourselves for the other? How can we respect the dignity of that other human being who sees things differently from us? How can we act in ways that bring more light and less heat?
I don’t have any easy answers. So I leave you with the questions, and with today’s epistle, and with a prayer that, with God’s help, we might continue to allow our light to shine forth in the darkness. 

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