The One Right Way to Be Church?

The Congregational Church of Grafton MA UCC on January 28, 2018

I Corinthians 8:1-13 – Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.


Have you ever gone into a meeting and heard someone puffed up on knowledge tell you how to do whatever, the right way?  Ever made your favorite dessert for a party and then had someone tell you, you did it wrong?

Knowledge puffs up.  I know a better way to make chocolate chip cookies than you do, and I don’t miss a chance to tell you that you’re using the wrong kind of fat – butter? Crisco? Margarine?  The wrong kind of nuts – pecans? Walnuts? None at all???  And don’t even go to what kind of chocolate… Nestle’s chips? Store brand chips? Custom chopped very very expensive chocolate?  Small cookies or dinner plate sized? Crisp or chewy?  And I bet you know lots of other variations…  Whatever you choose, mine is the one right way and all the others are not quite right.

And if I keep spouting off like that, it won’t be long before you don’t even want to have a cup of tea – no, not Earl Grey, but the one right kind – with me.

Knowledge puffs up.

Love says, wow you have a different way to make those cookies, and doesn’t judge them on how far they veer from my right recipe.  Love is open to new ideas, welcomes input from others.  Knowledge is about facts.   Love is about relationship..

Of course, we’ve all met the know-it-all who thinks they’re the authority on whatever…   Alexander Pope wrote:  a little learning is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring,  and for sure, it’s dangerous to just skim the textbook.  But Paul’s advice to us is more than a critique of those who don’t know what they don’t know.

Paul is telling us that it is not knowledge which composes the foundation of our lives, but rather it is love.  That’s what he was worried about with the church in Corinth.  They’d gotten so fixed on doing things the right, the accustomed way, that they couldn’t do things in the loving way.

In today’s lesson, the immediate problem folks are facing is whether or not to eat meat…not because they all wanted to be vegans, but because in those days, all meat was ritually offered to a god before it was butchered, and eating the meat was widely seen as an act of worship to that god – not to our God, but to some deity or another in the community.

The Corinthian church has a strong faction of well-educated, well-to-do, relatively sophisticated members who believe that Christians should be free to eat meat offered to idols. The reason is very simple. Idols do not exist and, therefore, have no power, since there is no God but one, as proclaimed in the Shema of Israel. For such people, this is obvious to all those “in the know.”[1] And there lies the problem.  Those who know the right way think they are better and use their knowledge to put down others for whom eating meat that’s been offered to idols feels wrong.

In other words, in their day, the question is not all that different that whether or not to accept as a gift something that’s been stolen, or to deal with a business owner whose morals you find disgusting – or maybe whether or not to vote for someone who doesn’t always do exactly what you want.

But there’s another question in this text, because the Corinthians are not just wondering whether nor not the moral choice is Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.  Some of them have “studied” the issue and know the right answer and so they’re lording it over the others, trying to cram their answers down others’ throats.  For Paul, that’s the larger issue.  It’s not who’s right, but how do you handle the conversation.

I’ll bet you’ve met people who know all the right answers, who are quick to tell you that they have the answer to whatever ails you.  Professor Kate Bowler, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, has stage 4 colon cancer.  It is incurable and she lives with the fact that she’s not going to live to be 90; in fact, she might well be gone by summer.  She writes that when she goes to parties, strangers come up to her with what they know is the right things to say:

Some people minimize spiritually by reminding me that cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we are here or ‘there.’ It’s all the same,” said a woman in the prime of her youth. She emailed this message to me with a lot of praying-hand emoticons. I am a professor at a Christian seminary, so a lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me. Maybe now?

Atheists can be equally bossy by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning. One told me that my faith was holding me hostage to an inscrutable God, that I should let go of this theological guesswork and realize that we are living in a neutral universe. But the message is the same: Stop complaining and accept the world as it is.  (Kate Bowler, NY Times, January 26, 2018)

All the good intentions in the world can’t keep us from occasionally putting our foot in it.

But that doesn’t mean that good intentions are worthless.  Far from it.

It’s our good intentions – intentions to not hurt people or whatever – which open our eyes to the way in which unintentional superiority can hurt the other, because superiority is not built on love.

Knowing all the rules doesn’t bring us closer to God.

I wish it did.  I wish that all there was about following God was reading and even memorizing a rulebook.  The Bible’s a little too large to memorize, but there used to be a Manual for Congregational Christian Churches, and it wasn’t very thick.

Unfortunately, like most rule books, it is all about how to organize committees, and what parts there should be in a worship service.  When it came to guidance on how to live the Christian life, well, we’d be better off, much better off, memorizing Mary Oliver’s poetry.

Today’s lesson is all about falling into the trap of thinking we know the right way to do or to be, and then getting all hot and bothered when others don’t go along with our ideas.  And it’s all about the trap of thinking that because we know the right way, that we are closer to God than anyone.

In fact, God loves us when we don’t know the right answer.  God loves us when we don’t even know the right questions.  Moreover, God loves that person who doesn’t have the same answer, whose answer is wrong.  God loves them when they are wrong.  God loves us when we are wrong.

God’s everlasting, reliable, trustworthy love is something we don’t have to work for; it’s right there in front of us.  Right answer, wrong answer, if it comes with love, it is of God.

And from Mary Oliver:

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.

 

How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever in allegiance with gravity while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the scars of damage, to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.[2]

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

[1] Rigdon, V. B. (2008). Pastoral Perspective on 1 Corinthians 8:1–13. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 1, p. 302). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Mary Oliver, “Mysteries, Yes”, Devotions, 2017, Penguin, New York City, p. 85

Getting Those Ducks in a Row

Congregational Church of Grafton, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10 – Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening

John 1:43-46 – Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.


Nathaniel asked, “can any good come out of Nazareth?”

Does kinda make you think there was something less than desirable about Nazareth, doesn’t it?

There’s nothing easier than blaming where someone’s from – it makes it possible to dismiss everyone who “comes from Nazareth”, but, you know, it’s just not Christian.

Jesus Christ came from Nazareth, the Haiti of his day, filled – according to his detractors – with lazy ignorant folks who weren’t ever going to be good enough to be welcome in the halls of power and government.  Those folks from Nazareth had nothing to offer, no love, no mercy, no grace and certainly no power.

Jesus Christ came from Nazareth.  He was poor, uneducated, didn’t wear fancy clothes, didn’t know all the current in people.  And no one in the seats of power thought much of him.

Things haven’t changed much.  It’s still ok to put people down because they come from whatever passes for Nazareth in our part of the world.  Sometimes it’s kinda vulgar, always it completely blows off what Jesus himself had to say about who is in, and who is out, in God’s world.

While there are some people who measure whether you are a “real Christian” based on what you believe, and some who measure it by whether you belong to the “right variety of Christian church”, I’ve always felt, and our denomination has always taught, that being a Christian is about how we live.  When I was a kid in Sunday school, I read that in my Bible, and it’s stuck with me:  It’s in Matthew, chapter 7 – “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits…every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Mt 7:15-17)

Later on in that same chapter, Jesus says, (in the Message translation): “Knowing the correct password — saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance — isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now — at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’

What we do, how we live, matters.  And when we ignore the bad, just hoping that if we keep quiet, it’ll go away, we’re actually giving the bad permission to keep right on going.

When we stand up for what is right, we are joining in the eons-long struggle to become the world God made us to be.  That’s what Jesus is saying in the passage from Matthew…every good tree bears good fruit.

This isn’t just about meaningless, harmless words.  When we condemn people, our condemnation is real.  When we say we don’t want people from this country or that to come here, we’re saying to real people – you, you are not welcome here.  Policies are never solely theoretical; they always are about individual people, real families.  So, we hear that our country ought not welcome people from Haiti, and what we know, here on the ground in Grafton, is that someone thinks that Daniel Gregoire, the pastor over at the Unitarian Church is unwelcome in this country.

But it’s not just about our friends, those Haitians (or people from Nazareth) whom we know.  It’s about a whole class of people, worthless because they come from a worthless place.  And when we condemn a class of people, we offer permission to put those folks down, to cheat them, treat them like dirt, to lock them out of the fullness of life.

This is about life and death, and we are always, always on the side of life.  That’s a call, a message, that isn’t always easy to hear, or easy to act on.

When God called Samuel, Samuel heard him, but didn’t understand him… he kept thinking that it was Eli who was calling him. At any rate, the third time Samuel came to Eli, Eli realized that God was calling Samuel, and told him to listen.

Now, Samuel didn’t like the message God gave him.  Because God didn’t praise him or promise him all kind of good things in his future, but instead foretold the destruction of Eli’s family, and said it was to be Samuel’s job to tell Eli.

Samuel didn’t want to do it, saying the words was a struggle for him, but the story came out.  Eli accepted God’s judgement.  But that’s not the end of this story; it goes on to say,  “…all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”.

Samuel knew what was right and did it, even though he knew it would be hard.  He lived out his commitment to God, and he was known as a trustworthy prophet.

It is by consistently listening to God that we become trustworthy God-followers.  So what does God tell us, on this weekend dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr?

Good comes out of places like Nazareth.

God loves everyone, no matter where they come from, no matter what they look like, no matter what language they speak, no matter what.

Whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey, God loves us.

And we are called to share that good news to our world, to be witnesses to God’s inclusive love.

We are called to confront the forces of evil which would proclaim that some people are better, more acceptable, than others, that some people don’t deserve the necessities of life.  We are called to model the life of Jesus Christ, who healed lepers, spoke to women, served the poor, came from Nazareth to save the world.

We are called to be Christians.

Amen.

© Virginia H. Child, 2018