February 1, 2015 – What do you know?

Deuteronomy 6:4-9                                                                                                                      

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Mark 1:21-28                                                                                                                                

They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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. 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. For 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? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

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Epiphany 4   Feb 1, 2015 1 Cor 8:1-13   What do you know?

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Knowledge puffs up – but love builds up.” I actually had this phrase from 1st Corinthians taped to my study desk during my seminary years. With homework assignments piled high on the desk, and a hundred pages of knowledge to be digested daily… I often needed reminding –

Knowledge puffs up – but love builds up.

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Today we’re listening in on the apostle Paul’s long letter to the church in Corinth, a church he founded five or six years earlier. We don’t have a copy of the Corinthian’s previous letter to Paul, but we know he’s responding to questions they’ve asked, since he’ll periodically say “now about the matter you wrote about” – or quote back to them things they’ve said, then comment.

And now the apostle starts the longest section of his letter saying – “Knowledge puffs up – but love builds up….

Which might seem like a strange lead sentence – for a long and intricate discussion of the (at least for us, probably somewhat obscure topic) of the ethics of eating (and not eating) food sacrificed to pagan idols. (And probably both the length of the discussion that follows and the catchy topic headline are part of the apostle’s way of saying – what we think of as small, obscure, and inconsequential – still has profound importance.)

And in the first century church food-related idolatry actually was a hot-button issue. People liked to eat meat, when they could afford it, which wasn’t often. Meat was a luxury item for most people – and all the meat available in the marketplace was a by-product of pagan sacrifice. Animal sacrifice was part of all cultures of the day. Meat was regularly sacrificed in temples, and Corinth, a leading city of the Roman Empire, had many temples. Part of the offering would be burned as sacrifice, part eaten by those making the offering. (This much was the same, even in the Jerusalem temple.) In pagan temples, after a feast, all the rest of the meat not consumed would then be sold in the local market. But first this meat was offered up to Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, Poseidon, any of the many other gods of the culture – each with it’s own temple in Corinth… So here’s the issue.

Some in the Corinthian church believe it’s fine to eat anything, anytime. It’s even ok to eat in a pagan temple, because, after all (quote) “we know all of us possess knowledge” and “we all know there is no God but one” and “we all know that no idol has any real existence.” Paul is quoting back what some members of the church have said.

And Paul says he agrees in principle with them on all counts. So why then does he first say – “Knowledge puffs up – but love builds up?

Is he suggesting we should dumb-down our faith and exalt ignorance? Ought we to baptize the ancient Sam Cooke ballad into a hymn? (Don’t know much about biology… Don’t know much trigonometry… Don’t know much about history books… don’t much about French I took?)

Probably not. Paul has carefully thanked God in the opening verses of this letter (1:6) that the Corinthians “have been enriched in… knowledge of every kind…” Later he’ll be naming knowledge as a gift of the Spirit, for the building up of the church (chapter 12).

So why again is he starting off saying “Knowledge puffs up?”

Well – again – some church members were saying – there’s nothing wrong with participating in pagan celebrations – which were, after all, one of the more common ways people got together socially and for business – like going to a ball game or a restaurant with the office crew or the neighbors now. The more socially-and-financially-well-connected Corinthians could probably hardly imagine not going to pagan temples, where so many important birthdays, anniversaries and company parties were celebrated…

And the apostle is agreeing that there is no God but one, and of course no small g god, no pagan idol has any real existence. And yes, we know all these things. But, St Paul continues, we also know (or ought to know) – this kind of knowledge easily “puffs up” – and never builds up. (And –)

Even apparently harmless knowledge can make it hard… for others to see Jesus…Even “knowing” more than we really should know about the food we eat… Can wound someone deeply.

I’ve been remembering Sandy, in one of our Vermont churches, telling me how she left the church. There had been some issues, simmering… but the tipping point for her, she said, came one day, preparing for a church dinner… “I was standing cutting vegetables in the kitchen,” she said. “Someone brought in a half bushel of carrots from their garden. Someone else said, ‘what a miserable-looking bunch of carrots those are!’”

“That was it,” Sandy said. “I just couldn’t stand hearing someone say something so cruel about someone else’s offering. I put down the knife I was cutting with and walked out of the church….I stayed away seventeen years.”

Sandy finally came back…and was a leader again in the church. A core member. But her life had suffered from being away from church, and other people’s lives had suffered from her absence. And unfortunately similar stories are not nearly as rare as they ought to be. We hurt each other and we are hurt by each other too often… Whenever we know what we know… More than we love

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St Paul will eventually (three chapters further on) get around to saying Christians should never participate in eating in pagan temples. But it’s ok to eat any foods from the marketplace. At least as long as nobody tells you it was sacrificed to a pagan god. If they say that, and appear concerned about it – don’t eat. Even if this makes us vegetarians. If what we do causes someone to fall, or confuses them about proper Christian behavior, stop whatever we’re doing. (Unless what we’re doing of course is something commanded by Jesus. But we’re talking here about things absolutely not commanded by Jesus…)

And St Paul takes his time getting us to his bottom line conclusion – because he’s every bit as concerned with getting the church to understand why we do what we do – as he is with getting us to do the right thing. (He knows we need to be able to do Christian theology, listening to God, studying the word, when he’s not around to help anymore…He wants us all to understand how to reason according to the standards of Jesus… )

And of course eating was a secondary issue all along. The real issue is always how we, members of the body of Christ, the church, are called to live together. Because all Christian life depends always on Christian community. None of us can ever be in right relationship with God apart from right relationship with one another. Our individual lives always depend on our common life together… (Which has me remembering now… how, once upon a time… )

The Dannemora, New York church I once served had a ministry of singing in a local nursing home. One of the nursing home residents, Barbara, always wanted to hear us sing The Old Rugged Cross. She’d cry out “sing #504!” But she’d never make her request when one particular other resident, Maureen, was in the room… She’d always wait til Maureen left before asking… Because she knew that Maureen would burst into tears whenever she heard Old Rugged Cross… (It had been sung at her parents’ funerals, and ever since it broke her heart to hear it.)

And Barbara really loved to hear us sing Old Rugged Cross. That was her #1 favorite. But if our singing made someone she cared about weep and leave the room… She’d wait to hear her favorite song another time… She understood the word of God. She knew… Only love builds up…

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I know we all know how to love God and love one another… I see it happening often…. I know we’ve been blessed many times… to see God’s love at work here…

I’m not always quite as sure we always remember – that not everyone else knows God the way we do. Or remember that Jesus is still depending on us…

to help those who don’t know him yet… to get to know him.

We know we can’t avoid contact with the world. We know the world is still full of idols, small g gods that still try to claim our full attention. (And what we pay full attention to ultimately becomes what we worship.)

But we also know, by grace, much more assuredly – that in Jesus Christ we have the power (should we choose to accept it) – to make the demons flee and the spiritual desert-places bloom and blossom…When we live together in the unity of Christ’s love… And call others into Christ’s love with us…

And here, again is the Good News –

When we make the love of God and neighbor priority – absolute priority –

When we live in the love of God who knows and loves us –

When we share the Good News with others in all seasons –

Now we are built up and fed – not by fleeting gods and idols that puff up but never satisfy – but by the very bread of life – the holy wine of new birth – fed in the abundance of God’s grace in the holy banquet to which we’re all invited –

to which we now invite all the world, together –

(Saying–)

“Come, eat of Christ’s banquet –

Come, feast on Christ’s love –

Come share the joy… of the presence of God…who builds us up and feeds us with his perfect love.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen.