Stumbling Blocks


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As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

1 Corinthians 8:1-3, 7-13

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 God. Not everyone, however, 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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StumblingBlocks
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.

 

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WHY PRESBYTERIAN?

Last Sunday, the leaders of this church were away on retreat. We sang together, we prayed together, we exchanged ideas, drank wine and ate meals together at a beautiful Catholic retreat center in Marin. Historically, Catholics have some rules that Presbyterians find baffling. Don’t get me wrong, our Catholic hosts were altogether hospitable and patient.

Presbyterians, in my experience, practice a more realistic ministry in God’s world. That’s why I choose to be part of the PC(USA). Always reforming[1], every so often, we throw open the doors of the church – a little wider[2] every time. It wasn’t too long ago that women were prohibited from leadership in the Presbyterian Church, and the newest best kept secret in San Francisco is this: the Presbyterian Church no longer discriminates against LGBT people.[3] Loving everyone has always been a controversial position. Just ask Jesus.

I grew up in the northwest corner of Georgia. In the South, they say that the difference between a Presbyterian and a Southern Baptist is that Presbyterians will say hello to one another at the liquor store. Southern Baptists believe drinking is a sin. Some Presbyterians agree, but tolerate those who like to have a glass of wine at dinner.

PAUL & THE CORINTHIAN CARNIVORES

How many of you, hearing today’s scripture[4] read aloud, think that its author, the apostle Paul, is telling us to stop eating meat, become vegetarian? If that is what God needs you to hear, please do not let this sermon become a stumbling block along your faith journey. I read this passage differently, and since there’s no way to get the whole Corinthian story by reading this letter of their ancient church consultant, here’s what I imagine happened.

The leaders of the early Jesus Movement in Corinth, Greece held a leadership retreat. Corinth was home to hundreds of thousands[5] of people; they needed to get away to really unwind and get down to work. Once the holiday rush was over, the church leaders bought time at a pagan retreat center. Now, the cosmopolitan Corinthian Christians coexisted alongside many other religions, often called pagan in our Bible. Most people of differing spiritualities coexisted happily[6] – and we still do.

The uneducated Corinthians believed that meat sacrificed to idols was defiled, unclean. This is one of the church’s earliest mistakes, subtly demonizing another religion, setting up us against them, condemnation and prohibition instead of love, acceptance and good humor.

So the session and deacons packed their chariots and carpooled toward Sparta’s suburban pagan retreat center. Even from the Roman highway, they smelled the feast awaiting them: filet mignon and tri-tip kebabs with mushrooms and garlic and olive oil drizzled just so.

The pagan acolytes grilled the meat over open flames surrounded by onlooking idols. Then, the pagans offered the meat to the entire community. Now, Paul and the other educated Christians believed that idols were not real. Like Presbyterians, they categorized idol worship alongside hocus-pocus and tomfoolery. Paul writes that the pagans were wasting their time.[7] Whether they said that to the pagans is unknown. I’d like to think they practiced religious tolerance, but history and current events point to other tendencies in the human condition.[8]

After a review of the church’s mission statement and a brief prayer offered by the associate pastor, the Corinthian Christians headed to the dining hall, and there on the buffet were those same steak kebabs. The educated Corinthians ate their fill. The uneducated Corinthians were appalled that their brothers and sisters were eating food that had been associated with a pagan god. But, if those gods didn’t exist, what’s the harm in eating a delicious tri-tip kebab? And here it is, early church conflict. Note that it has little to do with God’s will and everything to do with people’s opinions.

When they get back to Corinth and write their report to Paul describing the perplexing goings on at the leadership retreat, Paul thinks it over and writes his response: “Well, if it were me, I just wouldn’t eat meat.” In other words, why are you wasting time on this instead of doing the work of the church? Now, modern day Presbyterians might have commissioned a study that would be called something like The Church’s Response to Corinthian Carnivores. But Paul stops the conversation by saying: “Look, if eating meat causes conflict, skip the meat.” And that is how Paul ended church conflict for all time.

REMOVE THE STUMBLING BLOCKS,
AND/OR DISCUSS THE STEPPING STONES?

Do you think the problem went away? If what Paul had written to the Corinthians had worked, wouldn’t there be more Christian vegetarians around today? We do not live in a world where stumbling blocks are optional. We cannot avoid the obstacles placed in our path, usually by those pesky other people.

On Tuesday of this week, the worship bulletin was complete and ready to go. The whole church staff was so proud of our efficiency. and teamwork. On the cover was a very colorful vintage suitcase with stickers from all over the world: Borneo, Paris, Hong Kong. I was going to preach on the value of checking our emotional baggage, dealing with our issues, if we are to live together in community. Checked baggage was going to be the image I worked with. Then, Tuesday evening the news broke of a suitcase found in downtown[9] San Francisco. Those of you who know to what I’m referring understand why you were not handed an image of a suitcase as you entered God’s house today.

In a smaller church, I might’ve moved ahead with the potentially insensitive image and talked about it with everyone as they entered the building, but that’s impossible in a church this size, so, we removed the image which, for some but not all, would’ve have been a stumbling block. Why? Because at the center of our faith is a self-sacrificing person named Jesus. We are called to be Christ-like, to empty ourselves[10] and become servants, to love one another. That is our call and our challenge.

At communion, we serve grape juice rather than wine because there are a number of people who walk through our doors who are battling addiction. Why should the church trigger a possible downward spiral when it’s so easy to choose solidarity in recovery with our precious sisters and brothers?

We take Paul’s advice and remove the stumbling block, but it can become as meaningless as idol worship if we don’t understand why we are doing what we do. Presbyterians value education and believe that each one of us is a holy living testament to the goodness of God – the priesthood of all believers. That’s a lot of responsibility, especially when we ask questions like:

  • What stumbling blocks get in the way of you serving God in the world?
  • What obstacles do you need to remove before you can love your neighbor?
  • If you can’t remove them, is it possible to transform them through reflection, dialogue or prayer?

Perhaps you gotten the message that you are somehow unworthy, and you carry that baggage of spiritual abuse[11] around with you. The love of God transforms stumbling blocks into stepping stones every moment of every day.

KENOSIS: “LET IT GO! LET IT GO!”

A few years ago, on a trip back home to Georgia I encountered one of the women in our small community who had helped my parents raise me. I will call her Sharon. Her son, Rami, was my childhood best friend. In our Appalachian town of 300, Rami was a clarinet virtuoso and half Filipino. As a baby, Rami’s father had run off and left him with Sharon. Back then, single parent households were rare in our small community.

Now, I always knew I was odd. At eleven, I realized that I was in love with Starsky and with Hutch! Perhaps that why I befriended Rami so readily. He looked like and lived like an outsider. He was the clarinet-playing Squidward to my piano-playing Spongebob.

We grew up, and we grew apart. The years rolled by. Rami opened his own hair salon in the town next over. After the death of Rami’s partner, Ryan, he lived alone and was often very sad, unprocessed grief eating him. I wish I had helped him, but I did not. A few years ago, Rami died in his sleep. His mother, Sharon, found him.

Forty-something years ago, when we were children, I used to think of Sharon as an overly-strict disciplinarian, grounding Rami and sitting beside him with a belt until the clock said that he was finished practicing clarinet for the day. But this time, when I encountered Sharon, she was changed dramatically. She had lost her son. She had also recently lost her second husband. I thought that she would bitter and angry. But I sensed that she had a lightness to her that made her almost unrecognizable to me and my childhood memories of her.

I asked her, “You’ve lost everybody in your family. How can you be doing so well?”

And she said, “We had a service for Rami where everybody let go balloons and watched them float away. I think that was the beginning of it. I finally began to realize that I had to let go of every person and every thing I have ever loved. It all has to go away at some point.”

And now, having emptied[12] herself, she was free again––to love and be loved.

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 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.[13]   1 Corinthians 8:5-6

[1] Reformata e semper reformanda is a motto of the Reformed tradition, particularly the Presbyterian Church (USA).
[2] The Presbyterian Church (USA) began ordaining women as elders in 1930, and as ministers in 1956. By 2001, the numbers of men and women holding office were almost equal.
[3] The PC()USA) still has work to do on marriage equality, but it is just a matter of time.
[4] Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus, 53 to 57 AD.
[5] Probably less than 200,000 citizens.
[6] Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Knopf, 2014) Introduction.
I am enjoying this fascinating book, and I recommend it to you if you are interested in the topic.
[7] “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.’” I Corinthians 8:4
[8] Armstrong, Fields of Blood.
[9] “More Body Parts Sought After Headless Torso Found in Suitcase” ABC News, San Francisco (Vic Lee), accessed online at <http://abc7news.com/news/more-body-parts-sought-after-headless-torso-found-in-sf/496907/> (January 30, 2015).
[10] Vernon K. Robbins, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Advent (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), “Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Theological Perspective”.
[11] “San Francisco Archbishop Doubles Down on Homophobia and Discrimination” Human Rights Campaign (Ianthe Metzger) June 13, 2014, accessed online at <http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/san-francisco-archbishopdoubles-down-on-homophobia-discrimination> (January 30, 2015).
[12] Paul uses the word kenosis to describe the self-emptying love of Christ. Armstron discusses this beautifully, as does Robbins.
[13] This New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is Calvary’s usual translation, although I am becoming partial to The Inclusive Bible by the Priests for Equality, 2007.

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