Message Archive

January 2018


Reflections for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Well, here’s a situation you probably aren’t going to run into this week: meat sacrificed to idols.

But that was just grocery shopping in Corinth. The life of that mercantile hub was suffused with religion—with public devotions and festivals in honor of local gods and the wider pantheon of gods, with the the constant sacrificing of animals in the temples of the city. That’s where most of the meat available to buy in the marketplace came from.

The church in Corinth came to be through Paul’s preaching.  Paul: a Jew out on the road carrying the good news of Jesus for Gentiles. And the essential heart of his message was that the spirit and power of Christ made it possible for Gentiles to live in right relationship with God. That meant accepting the God of Israel, and acceptance the God of Israel meant abandoning worship of other gods. That’s bedrock.

And Paul had preached Gentile’s inclusion in God’s covenant promises to Israel without circumcisions, without the food prohibitions of Judaism. Eat what you like.

But what about meat from animals sacrificed to other gods? Some of the believers did to eat it, maybe even in the temples, and there seems to have been uncertainty in the church over whether this was seemly, because those who did eat had an argument that Paul quotes back to them: “no idol in the world really exists.”

For them, eating meat sacrificed to an idol that doesn’t exist, is just eating meat. If anything, it became a celebration of their knowledge that “there is no God but one.” And the spiritual elite among the Corinthian believers seem to have appreciated that kind of thing.

And Paul responds “right; we know that there is one God above all powers, and one Christ through whom are all things birthed into being, and through who’s spirit we are becoming something new.”

But in this world dominated by Roman power and Greek culture, acceptance of an imported God almost never meant rejection of others. People saw the cosmos populated with a host of divinities. Many would have reflexively translated whatever Paul said into something that fit their cosmology, and simply incorporated the Jewish God and his Christ alongside the worship of other divinities. Paul knows this, and he worries about it.

His concern is that if believers, who know that meat sacrificed to other gods is just meat, eat it, others may understand their actions differently: as a witness the worship of other gods is still possible. And he goes after the those who claim “knowledge” and spiritual attainment for a failure of love.

When Paul takes this same problem up a second time later in this same letter, he warns them to flee away from the worship in the temples, but then suggests that, if you’re in the marketplace, go ahead and buy the meat that’s for sale, but don’t ask where it came from. And if you go to dinner with those who do not believe, eat the meat they serve it without asking questions about it unless they tell you its a sacrifice. Why? Because the witness of their behavior may confirm others in continuing religious practices.

Paul is saying that the Christian life is less about knowledge than it is about participation. Participation in the life of a body: the body created through Christ’s life and death, and humankind as a body.

Christ set aside all other possibilities of God’s freedom to accept the weakness of the human form, human relations, human death for the sake of God’s beloved. He shaped his human life, his sacrifice, as a gift. And that’s why Paul appeals to that gift in reasoning with the Corinthians; you are wounding, you are contributing to the destruction of those for whom Christ died. And if the goal of human life is to share in the life of God with their brothers and sisters as one family, then this wounding damages their own participation in Christ. He names it sin.

God chose limitless, intimate, commitment to the mess of humanity; God is fundamentally, radically, for us–  that’s the way Rowan Williams thinks about this. I once got the hear the former Archbishop of Canterbury talking about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who hung by the dying Nazi regime in 1945, struggled to decide whether to participate in the plot against Hitler, and to understand the meaning the Church in the face of structural evil.

Bonhoeffer ultimately concluded that the Church bears witness that the human capacity for relationship gains its full expression in Jesus—in the light shone by Christ. Bonhoeffer came to understand, and I quote here, that “by embracing this world, God shows us that routine forms of human life are a way of participating in divine life. The life of grace is the life of ordinary human sociality, revealed through the incarnation.” We participate in the life and work of Jesus as we live for one other, day by day.

So Paul says he will never eat meat—he would rather never eat meat than cause one of them to fall.

The punchline is clear: Paul was called, we are called, to understand our liberty–and lets recognize that we among all the world’s people, we who love liberty, struggle to do this–to understand the whole concept of liberty through the example of Jesus’ love. And if something about the way we live in the expansiveness of our freedom damages our brother, it wounds us.

What does that look like?

Martyrs died rather than damage the hope of others by backing out. But Paul is talking about grocery shopping. So I’ll tell you that I someone who doesn’t drink alcohol. He has no personal history of struggle. No worry about the disposition of his genes. He doesn’t believe that drinking, or even drunkenness is inherently wrong. He’s free. But he decided that he couldn’t know if the people he was with were struggling. And he didn’t want his example to damage them. Its not my choice, but its faithful to what Paul is teaching. I know a worshipping community that gathers to celebrate the Eucharist every week and the priest announces this is grape juice for those of us in recovery and those of us who should be. That isn’t my choice, but its faithful to what Paul is teaching.

And we’re maybe in closest touch with what Paul’s talking about when we recognize that our actions could damage another, and we start to rationalize in defense of our freedom and question whether the cost of the safest path is worth it, because who knows if it actually helps. And Paul doesn’t know, really, if his course of action will make a difference or not. Is there a causal connection between his eating meat and the destruction of a brother? Maybe, but that’s unknowable. The point is: “I would rather. These are my brothers.”


A Baptism, on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Samuel 3:1-20

The sons of Eli were scoundrels
who did not know the Lord.
That’s what the Book of 1 Samuel has to say about them.
They were priests, like their Dad,
serving in the temple at Shiloh.
And when the people would
bring meat as a sacrifice to the Lord,
the servants of Hophni and Phinehas
would take it before it could be properly offered.
They stole it from the Lord
and they demeaned the people
who made real sacrifices to fulfill their
obligation of thanksgiving,
only for it to be swallowed up by these priests.
They did this to everyone—
everyone knew that when they went up
to the temple at Shiloh they would
face these scoundrels and their forks and bellies.
Which is to say that that Eli knew,
and he let them go on like this.
One of the people who came up to Shiloh
in those days was a woman called Hannah,
who was a childless second-wife.
And she was desperate. She silently
poured out a plea to God for a son.
Eli saw her, and once she made him
recognize what was happening,
he blessed her and prayed
that she may have what she has asked for.
She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy.
On that day at Shiloh she promised God
that she would offer the child to the Lord’s service
and that’s what she did:
she took him to the temple
as soon as he was weaned—he was only two or three—
and left him there with Eli.

She left
him and went home,
and every year would try and
guess how much he’d grown
to make him a new little robe,
to give to him on their yearly trip to the temple,
when Eli would pray that she might be
blessed for this gift of Samuel.
And now we’re getting into today’s story.
The boy Samuel is asleep one night
and he hears a voice calling him by name,
and he answers “Here I am.”
But he thinks its his master calling him,
so he runs to Eli to ask why. And Eli says,
like a father says in the night, “its nothing son.
Go lie down and sleep again.”
It happens again, and Eli sends him to bed again.
But the third time, Eli realizes that the voice
the boy hears is the voice of the Lord,
and he becomes a teacher, he becomes the midwife.
This falling, failing priest becomes the midwife for the thing
which is about to happen in Samuel’s life.
He tells the boy just what to do and say:
“go lie down and when he calls again, you say:
speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

What Samuel hears is a terrible word
against the man who, as far he was concerned,
may as well have been his father.
And in the morning, he was afraid to tell it.
Eli knows its bad, but he calls for the boy,
and in a gentle, but absolutely clear way,
demands the truth, demands that Samuel
be the prophet and priest the Lord has made him.
God is seeking Samuel to be
a remarkable person among and for his people.
But becoming that person
depends on the willingness of his parents
to give him up to that identity.
And it depends on Eli becoming his guide.
It depends on Eli respecting the possibility in this child.
The Lord calls Samuel, but he calls him through Eli;
he doesn’t name or reveal himself.
He chooses to require an interpreter: Eli.
A person who has failed his vocation,
failed his people, failed his sons.
He chooses Eli.

We are going to baptize Margot today.
And for the people who love her
that will mean entrusting her to the Holy Spirit:
the same breath that hovered
over the waters in creation, mothering, loving
all that is into being, and that hovers over her now,
and always will. Re-creating her, enlivening her.
And that Spirit is beyond our control. Like Hannah,
you can only give her up to that.

And at the same time,
she becomes a part of our life and our calling.
We receive her into the family of God
in which each of us bears the obligation to always,
always see her through the lens of this moment,
remembering that she is a child of God
and therefore a child of infinite possibility,
and to trust the possibility that God may reach toward her through us,
as God did through Eli.
Through our regard for her as a sister bearer of God’s image,
through our encouragement,
our care and honest concern,
our walk and witness as baptized people.

In a few minutes
we are going to reaffirm our baptismal covenant,
as we do at every baptism.
And I beg you to hear yourself saying these words,
to hear one another saying them. Together.
Because this is who you are,
this is who we are called to be.
This is what it means to be joined into
the life of Christ through the water of Baptism,
to be joined into the resurrection here and now,
into that inexhaustible, transforming, creating power.

Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you choose this way of life?
Will you let your life be shaped
by the body which you’ve been made a part of—
by the teaching and tradition carried
by the Church across centuries,
by the patterns of prayer that have been the root of her wisdom?

Will you come to this table
where the whole story of God with us becomes present,
and where we’re asked to risk seeing
God’s hope and future already present
in the faces those we love
and those we struggle to get along with?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you refuse to allow what distorts and breaks us,
what turns us away from the light and our own aliveness,
the pain of sin that we endure,
to make you forget that there is a bond between you and God.
Will you remember that perfectly faithful
relationship is the nature of God,
and that God holds onto you.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you be a witness?
A witness in what you say
and in the way you go
that Jesus is here, at work in you and in the world;
reconciling, gathering all things to himself.
Will you try, one commonplace decision at a time,
in your times of reckoning,
to try and live like that’s true?
Will you live like that?
Will you practice to die like that?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
The willingness to see Christ
in all persons will take us places we may not want to go.
We can’t strive for justice at a safe distance,
without placing ourselves, our hearts and bodies,
where injustice lays its wounds in the vulnerable.
To strive for peace
means placing ourselves where peace is being broken.
To respect the irreducible dignity
of God’s own image within every human being
challenges some of our deepest
and most distorted
instincts to separate and devalue
what God has made precious.
Living that kind of life means seeing with the eyes,
feeling with the heart, of Jesus.
And we have to be reborn, remade,
again and again for that.
And it begins here, in water.
So let us pray, as we baptize this child
that she, and we ourselves, be upheld
in that life by the Spirit we have received,
because it isn’t easy. And let us give thanks,
because it is a beautiful life.