PostHeaderIcon Freedom, Limits, and Love

by Rev. Kevin J. McLemore

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4Hence, 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.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6yet 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.
7It 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. 8“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. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

I want to begin today’s message with a joke, a typical beginning strategy for us preacher types: 
A priest, a pastor and a rabbi walk into a bar to share a drink and talk shop. Someone makes the comment that preaching to people isn’t really all that hard. After a few rounds, one thing leads to another and they decide to do an experiment. They will all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it, and attempt to convert it.

The next day back in the bar, they share their stories. Father Flannery is bandaged head to toe and on crutches. He reports, “When I found my bear, I read to him from the Catechism. Well, that bear just started slapping me around. So I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him, and Blessed Holy Mother, he became as gentle a lamb. The bishop is going out next week to give him first communion and confirmation.”

Reverend Billy spoke next from his wheelchair, an arm and both legs in casts. In his best fire-and-brimstone oratory he claimed, “Well brothers, you know we don’t sprinkle anything. But I found me a barr and read to him from God’s Holy Word! But that barr wanted nothing to do with me. So I took hold of him and we began to wrassle. We wrassled up one hill and down another until we came to a crick. So I quick dunked him and baptized his hairy soul! And just like you said, he became as gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the day praising Jesus and I signed him up for New Members class.”

They both looked down at Rabbi Goldstein who was in pretty bad shape — an IV drip, full body cast and lying in a hospital bed. The rabbi sighed in pain and reflected, “Looking back on it, circumcision may not have been the best way to start.”
So, I have to ask—is that joke appropriate for a worship setting?  Should a preacher tell that kind of joke, especially from the pulpit? 
Well, I know that some people would be pretty offended by it, simply because it named body parts, and made us men grimace, and then there are others who wouldn’t like the way it seems to make fun of other people—priests, and rabbis, and southern preachers—it’s the last group being made fun of that highly offends me, a boy from Mississippi.  But I also know that most of you would be just fine with it—and you’d probably want more of the same!  And the bawdier, the better, I suspect!  The point, of course, is that what might offend someone deeply might just be fine with another person—and what seems like a harmless joke from the pulpit would be for another person a reason to question the faith of the preacher making the joke. 
Speaking of preachers going into bars, I remember years ago going out to a bar with some friends of mine, and, then later, on, I found out that someone who had started going to my church saw me there that particular night and was incredibly offended that he saw his preacher with a beer in his hand.  Now, I have to be clear that it wasn’t my sixth beer and I certainly wasn’t acting badly or in appropriately in that setting—but for this young man who had been raised in a conservative Christian tradition that believed that the drinking of alcohol was incompatible with Christian faith, to see me with a beer in my hand, well, it was unacceptable.  And he never came back to my church again…he believed that preachers shouldn’t drink beer, and yet this particular preacher saw good beer as a gift from God—he was offended by what my faith allowed me to do, and he was clear that his faith didn’t allow that freedom, at least not for the preacher, the moral expemplar of the Christian community.  And yet, I know he was no teetotaler, which is whole other layer to that issue, mostly having to do with expecting the preacher to practice what he the member preached, though did not practice himself.  That, my friends, is whole different issue.
Nonetheless, do you now get the sense of the kind of problem that Paul is encountering here with this Corinthian congregation, with two different understandings of what the Gospel means in conflict with each other?  In Paul’s case, there are seemingly two groups in this church—one who believe that eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols before it was sold in the general marketplace, or placed before the guest, was wrong, simply wrong, and that good, faithful Christians should avoid even the appearance of not being faithful to the one God they have met in Jesus the Christ.  For them, the preacher who tells jokes from the pulpit that borders on inappropriate, and the minister with the beer in his hand, and who eats meat sacrificed to idols, knowingly or unknowingly, well, they are simply conforming to the ways of a sinful world they have left behind.  It was a common practice, this offering the meat of sacrificed animals, to the gods, the many gods of Corinth, and if one wanted to be truly set apart from the ways of the world, in the eyes of some Corinthians, the best way to do that was to turn away from eating any kind of meat that one was not sure hadn’t been offered up to an idol.  It’s interesting here that Paul seems to acknowledge that there are other gods, other lords, he says, thought it’s clear that he doesn’t believe that they exist as actual deities—its more that they represent all the forces in this world that seek to derail us from being faithful to the One God he speaks of here in this text.  There may be other lords and other gods, but they’re only as real we make them, and most of us have a few false gods, a few false lords, that seem to rule our lives from time to time. 
And yet, it’s clear that Paul is siding with those that he attributes with knowledge, at least he sides intellectually with them, those with the wisdom to know that these worries about whether the steak on the table has been sacrificed to the Roman god Apollo, are nonsense, simply because Apollo doesn’t exist.  And, in the minds of those Corinthians who thought their freedom allowed them to eat meat without worrying who it had been sacrificed to, if one was to take those with the opposing view seriously, then it would probably mean the end of eating meat period and certainly it would mean the end of eating at the home of a non-Christian without first inquiring from the host about what god the meat had been offered to—a big social no-no in the ancient world.  Yet, this knowledge, this wisdom that these details about meat don’t matter, so to speak, is causing a lot of scandal in that early Christian community, because those who don’t agree with the idol meat-eaters, the folks who don’t care about whether something has been sacrificed to an idol, they have become upset, concerned—their conscience, their sense of wrong and right has been troubled by those who have chosen this path of not caring about non-existent gods.  These folks are hurting because they saw their pastor in the bar with a beer, or by their pastor’s choice to tell a borderline joke, or the decision of fellow church members to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. 
Now, I have to be honest, my personal instinct is probably to tell someone to get grip, and focus on the things that really matter—and why should I or you stop doing something that doesn’t violate our our consciences as people of faith?  And how many of us have been told that, in the end, one must follow one own drumbeat, one’s own muse, in order to be whole and healthy in this life?  And yet, and yet, Paul seems to be offering us something quite different, something I’m not sure I’m quite comfortable with—this idea that such drumbeats are not always to be followed, or danced to.  But there is also an added layer to his argument, something we miss if we just focus on our rights and freedoms as people of Christian faith—and that was the particular circumstances of that actual Corinthian community thousands of years ago. 
From Paul’s writing, we know that he really did agree with those who allowed for greater freedom in the faith, and he simply didn’t worry about food sacrificed to idols, something he would have been very worried about in his formal life as an observant Jew.  And yet for some that were embracing their new faith, a faith that no longer required sacrifices to a plethora of deities, it did matter that they broke with the old ways of doing things, to the point of even avoiding the appearance of idol worship.  Paul disagreed with this well-meaning decision on their part, but what disturbed him the most was not their misplaced desire to stay so spiritually pure, so to speak, but the arrogant attitude of those whom he agreed with about it not mattering much.  They were smarter, more intelligent, wiser, than these bumpkins, so to speak, who worried about idols that didn’t exist, these idols that had no real spiritual power—and that disturbed Paul, because it seemed to him that these wiser folks were valuing the real wisdom that they did have about this issue OVER the most important value in the Christian life, and that, my friends, is love.  Sometimes I do something that I don’t want to do because I love the person—and so do you.  That mean everything from watching a movie with them that I don’t want to see, to moving across the country because of a particular career path they have taken, though it hurts my own career.  Love does that—it sometimes sacrifices our wants for the sake of another.  And that may mean that I pay attention to my beer drinking in public places, or my bawdy jokes because I care for you and I don’t want to offend, even though a good beer and a borderline joke doesn’t just doesn’t bother me, nor, I believe God much.  By choosing to be in community, in Christian community, or any human relationship for that matter, we make decisions about the limits of our freedom because we don’t want to hurt the other person, or cause them to stumble emotionally or spiritually. 
And yet, of course, it’s a delicate balance, and Paul knows that too.  Later, in chapter 10 of this same book, he also reminds those early Corinthians that there also limits to that love.  He goes back to the subject of eating food sacrificed to idols, and suggests some general guidelines—if you know the meat has been sacrificed to an idol, then don’t eat it, but if you don’t know whether it spiritually tainted meat, so to speak, don’t worry about it—but Paul is unwilling to be forced into being a vegetarian or to cease having dinner at the home of non-Christians.  For Paul, to go further would violate his own conscience, his own fundamental sense of right and wrong, and so the work of love is not just all about self-sacrificing for the other, but also honoring our own core values, our own sense of what Christ has called each of us to do in this life.  It’s a delicate balance, the dance of community, and the dance of love—we all have to give a bit, we all have to decide what really matters to us, and what doesn’t matter and then to make choices based on our own calling as Christians.  And yet, that freedom is limited by love, because love always limits my freedom and your freedom—it reminds us over and over again that there are others that matter in this life, and that I may have to say no or yes to something that doesn’t really matter as much to me as it does to the other person, in our family relationships and in our relationships here at church. 
Now, I’ve always argued that Paul is a mixed bag, in a lot of ways, but there is a lot of wisdom here, and though there are times when I think he strays from the principle of love he so often points us to, there are also moments like these that remind us that he really did sometimes try to get it right, especially when it came to love.  He gets it, he gets it, and in our better moments, hopefully we do too—love for another human being matters more than being right about this or that issue.  There is a wonderful story told about a person who was searching for the meaning of life: Some years ago, in India, there was a famous guru giving a talk to thousands of people. In the crowd were holy men, presidents, film stars, musicians and many, many others. Apparently when this man talked, his voice was kind of “hypnotic” and people became entranced by his words.

When he had finished speaking, the guru asked if there were any further questions. There was a silence as people absorbed what they had just heard until a man stood up. He was a business type, a Western, skeptical man and half-laughing he said to the guru, “All right then, if you know everything, what’s the meaning of life?”

The man was trying to embarrass the guru, to kind of belittle him. But, the guru answered, “I’ll answer your question, but first let me tell you something about yourself.”

Now the man was the one that everyone was looking at and became uncomfortable.

“You have never truly loved another human being, have you? Real, deep, true love?”

“No,” replied the man, now slightly embarrassed himself, “No, I haven’t.”

“Because ...” said the guru, “... a person who asks the question that you asked me, about the ‘meaning of life’, is really only telling you something about themselves. They have missed out on, or not experienced ... love. Basically, a person who knew real Love, from their own direct, personal experience, would never even be able to ask the question, ‘What is the meaning of life,’ because they would already know.”
I think this Indian guru got it right—to have loved someone else, a particular other, your friend, your spouse, your children, the stranger, even, is to know what it means to limit oneself for the sake of love, to honor their conscience, their stories, their pain, their limits.  Sure, there are times when there must be a parting of the ways because people disagree on what is actually core to their very selves or their faith—I know I’ve had walk away a few times in my own life, knowing that I could not in good conscience continue inside this or that particular faith community, or be friends with this or that person.  Having acknowledged that, we all need to figure out what is that core set of values that our faith gives us that we cannot comprise on and, yet, on the other hand, we must figure out what we value, but are willing give much latitude on.  What I think Paul is hoping for us, and for that church in Corinth, is that one list is smaller than the other, that what we fundamentally care about is much smaller than the things we simply care about but are more than willing to compromise on.  Love asks us to distill what we believe, to focus on what really matters to us, and then to let go and let God, and each other, figure out the rest.  Amen. 

This week at Epiphany
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