Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Naming It

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The passages were 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Mark 1:21-28:

Several weeks ago as I was looking at the upcoming scripture readings, I was a little surprised to see today’s gospel passage; because I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t remember this story.  I certainly remember different times in which Jesus cast a demon outside of someone, although we shouldn’t think of this like the exorcist, this is not Linda Blair with her head spinning around, but I didn’t remember Jesus ever casting out a demon in a synagogue.  There is a duplicate of this story in the gospel of Luke, but as far as I can tell in my research this is the only time in the gospels that something like this happens within the walls of the synagogue, or for our purposes within the walls of the church.  And, I think there is something significant about this because it means that there is evil even inside the church, or at the very least there are disruptions and behaviors inappropriate enough that Jesus feels that he needs to call them out, and that is not something we are really good at addressing or talking about.  Some of it is because we are not good at naming evil, or at least naming it appropriately.

We could probably all agree that Hitler and Stalin were evil, but then that attribute gets applied to others.  It wouldn’t take much to find people comparing President Obama to Hitler or Speaker of the House John Boehner to Stalin, well maybe not so much for Speaker Boehner.  But we’ve sort of come to believe that if we disagree with someone that first of all that must make them wrong, and second it must make them evil.  How did we get to that point?  I use those two names because over the past two weeks I have been called both of those things by someone who is disgruntled with me, although since I started out as Hitler and then became Staling I’m not sure if I’m moving up or down the scale of evilness.  But how do we deal with things like this is the church?  How do we deal with people who disagree with us? How do we deal with things with which we disagree in the church?  Can we name them? Can we call out wolves in sheep’s clothing?  And how do we make such decisions and distinctions? Can we make those distinctions?  And if we do, how do we know that we are right and not just overreacting?  And do we respond to with hatred and loathing or do we respond to it with love and compassion?  What role do individual desires, beliefs and opinions have in and against those of the community?

Now I’m going to be totally honest and say that I don’t believe in the devil or in demon possession.  It’s okay if you do, you don’t have to believe everything I believe, just as I don’t have to believe everything you believe, and we’ll come back to that.  I certainly know people who do and have some pretty strange stories to tell that I can’t quite explain.  But, the reason I don’t believe is because I don’t need something to be the personification of evil in order to believe that there is evil in the world.  I think that we as humans are quite capable of doing some incredibly terrible things to each other, and even to ourselves, all by ourselves.  We don’t need to have anything else to blame it on when we can do these things just fine by ourselves, there doesn’t need to be a scapegoat.  One of the things I like about the movie the Lion King is that although the hyenas are shown as being the bad guys, the really evil person is scar who is also a lion, that is that the good guys and the bad guys are of the same type, but a difference in degree.  We can be good lions or we can be bad lions, we can even be Detroit Lions, but I think we also have to be prepared to name the bad ones, the truly bad ones for what they are, and not call them that just because we happen to disagree with them.  And that’s where Paul and the passage we heard from 1st Corinthians comes into play, and sort of muddies the waters a little.

The idea of having to argue over whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols just doesn’t really have the same import in 21st century America as it did in the 1st century.  But, Paul actually writes about this issue for 3 chapters in his letter to the Corinthians because of what it represents and everything that goes along with it.  So just a little background.  There were a constant series of community celebrations that would be taking place in most major cities, all related to worship of the various gods and as part of these rights, there would be animal sacrifices made, remembering that the same thing was taking place at the Temple in Jerusalem, and then either the meat would have been eaten there as part of the celebration, sort of like a community Super Bowl party, and/or the meat would then be taken to the stores and sold to those who could actually afford to buy meat.  So if you were going to be eating meat in most cities, the great likelihood is that it had first been made as a sacrifice to some god or another.

Now some in the community are saying that everyone in the church knows that there is no God but God, and thus there is not any danger in eating meat that was sacrificed to pagan idols, because those idols don’t exist, and so the sacrifice in which the meat was offered was itself meaningless.  It is crucial to note that Paul agrees with that argument.  He agrees with those he is about to rebuke, he is on their side, except Paul says, not everyone understands this point.  There are some who are weak in the faith, we might say immature, or those who are still children in the faith, who do not have the knowledge or the maturity to see things the way one group does.  And so to them, eating this meat themselves or seeing other Christians eating this meat might cause them to slip back into their old habits and patterns and thus slide away from their recent conversion to Christianity.

So Paul says, while knowledge is important, and he is not castigating knowledge here, it is not everything and it can lead not only to the destruction of others but even ourselves because, Paul says, knowledge puffs up.  That is that knowledge, or at least the belief that we have knowledge, can lead us to believe that we are better than others, that we know more than others and that we are right and they are wrong.  It causes us to become braggarts, sort of like those people who talk all the time about how they went to Harvard and you just want to smack them around.  In addition, knowledge can emphasize the individual over the community, which is really the heart of this matter.  Are we going to value the individual over the group, or are we going to value the group over the individual?

Certainly in American culture we put the individual first.  That’s not true in every culture, and it’s not true in some American sub-cultures, but as a whole for us it is the dominant force.  But Paul says that in the church we are called to something higher, we are called to something more, we are called to be in community, but not just any community.  We are called to become a part of the body of Christ, that is that our individualism is subsumed in the collective, but not just the collective of us as a people, but we are subsumed into Christ himself.  Knowledge puffs up, Paul argues, but love builds up.  And this is not the love we’re already seeing spreading around the grocery store in preparation for Valentine’s Day, this is not a feeling or an emotion, this is about an action, a way of being in the world, a way of being in community.  Socrates, or Einstein or perhaps Dick Van Patten, said that the more you know the more realize how much you don’t know.  The inverse of that is also true, that the less you know the more you think you know.

And so Paul is saying that if someone claims to knowledge in something, don’t believe them, but instead, love God, not as a belief, but as an action, and when we love God we are known by God.  Thus the knowledge we should be seeking it not really personal knowledge, although that is still important, but the most important knowledge is of the love of God, being known by God, and then acting on that in the community by building up, not by tearing down, by working together for the good of the whole, not for the good of the individual, but supporting the community, not supporting only ourselves and puffing ourselves up in showing how good, important or knowledgeable we are, of saying or acting as if we are the only thing that matters, or believing that without us everything would fall apart, that we are the most important piece of the puzzle.  What Paul says is that every single puzzle piece is important and the image that the puzzle represents is not that of us, or someone else in the group, the image on the puzzle is none other than God.

And yet, although Paul does not make the argument in this particular passage, being in community, being one in Christ does not mean the subversion of everything that we are and everything that we believe.  That we are still called to be who we are, but to understand that role within the greater part of the community.  That means that we don’t all have to believe the same things.  We can think different things and still get along.  We can root for the Patriots or the Seahawks, you can even root for the Red Sox, and we can still be in community and in relationship with each other.  Indeed if you and I believe and do exactly the same thing then one of us is superfluous in this relationship.  We need differences within the whole in order to make the whole, we cannot all be corner or side pieces, and we cannot force the interior pieces to be something they are not.  There is strength in diversity as long as we understand the purpose of community and are willing to disagree without being disagreeable and to sometimes subsume who we are and what we believe, our knowledge, for the good of the whole.

And yet, returning back to the gospel passage we also have to be willing to call a spade a spade and to name disruptive forces in the body and to be willing to call them out.  The man that is healed by Christ in the synagogue is disrupting the body, he might not being intending to, and I suspect that we would probably name his demon as mental illness or something similar, but it is still a disruptive force and it needs to be dealt with appropriately and effectively.  And so Jesus calls him out, or calls the demon out.  But notice what Jesus does not do.  He does not make disparaging remarks about the man, he doesn’t actually call him evil, he in fact in many ways deals with him with compassion, and I think this is the teaching we might be amazed about in hearing this story.  We don’t all have to get along, we don’t all have to believe or think the same things, in fact I would argue that it’s better if we don’t, we don’t even have to like everyone that is here, but what we do have to do is to love one another, not as a mere emotion, but to love one another in action, and that means being willing to live in community.

That means sometimes things are not going to go our way and we’re metaphorically not going to be able to eat what we want to eat, and sometimes loving each other means giving up that meat, giving up things we think are really important for the good of the community.  Not at the tyranny of the majority, but as the body of Christ.  To help those who need help and to bring down those who need to be brought down, and to realize that we are all in this together.  A flock loses a lot when it loses sheep, but it also needs to recognize that sometimes sheep might actually be wolves in sheep’s clothing who build themselves up and by doing so tear the body down.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up, Paul says.  Let us be amazed at that teaching and live into that message this year, that we are all in this together, that we are the body of Christ, that everyone of us is important and that when we live into love, when we live out that love, that people will want to be a part of this flock and that then we will truly by known by God.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment