Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sermon -- 1 February 2009

4th after EPIPHANY — 1 February 2009
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00

Deut 18:15-20; Ps 111; 1Cor 8:1b-13; Mark 1:21-28

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.

In the Epistle today, St Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the matter of eating food which has been sacrificed to pagan idols. I suspect, that you were all thinking, as the Epistle was being read, “What is this all about?!” If ever there was an issue that on the surface seems to have nothing to do with life in eastern Iowa in the early 21st Century, eating meat which has been sacrificed to idols has got to be it! (As far as I know, there are no statues of the god Baal in the back room at the Hy-Vee supermarket!) However:

Corinth, where the new Christian community to whom Paul is writing was located, was a major seaport in Greece, a transshipment point for cargo between Asia Minor to the east and Rome to the west. It was a highly cosmopolitan city, with a thoroughly international, multiethnic population, and there were temples to just about every god and goddess on the face of the earth. And with all these temples, there was a lot of animal sacrificing going on, since that’s what you did in many of these pagan cults in those days. And in most animal sacrifices, only a small part of the animal’s carcass was actually wholly burned up as an offering to the god. So there was a lot of leftover meat around. And what the priests of the pagan temples did with all that meat was, (1) they ate it themselves, (2) they ran restaurants in the temple precincts, and (3) they wholesaled it to the city meat markets. So if you strolled down to the market to pick up a couple of lamb chops for supper, it was very likely that the meat came from an animal which had been offered in sacrifice in the temple of a pagan god.

And so the issue arose for the Christians: is it right for us, who worship the one true God and who are witnesses to God and God’s mighty acts for our salvation through God’s Son Jesus Christ — is it right for us to eat this meat which has presumably been used as the focal point of the worship of a false god? A fair question, and a real one, for this tiny band of Christians struggling to live and witness to their faith in a pagan world.

St Paul’s response is that in itself this is a trivial issue — since the pagan “gods” have no real existence anyway, there can’t be anything wrong with the meat, and there’s no inherent reason why it shouldn’t be eaten. However, there are other factors involved: if, for instance, seeing you eat meat which has been sacrificed to pagan gods should cause another member of the Church, a new convert perhaps, to lose faith, thinking that “well, I guess nothing really matters, and we can do whatever we want,” then by all means don’t eat the meat—it isn’t worth your brother’s or your sister’s soul.

The meat-offered-to-idols issue isn’t very real for us any more, but some similar things do arise for us. For instance, how complicit are we in the evils and injustices of the world? Do we know, or even care, whether or not our running shoes or our tee shirts are made by children in third world sweatshops? If we have investments, or at least if we participate in a pension fund that has investments, do we pay much attention to where that money is invested? Perhaps in companies that piously diversify into cookies in the United States, but aggressively market their tobacco overseas? Or who are clear-cutting the Amazon rainforest, or old growth hardwood forests in this country? Or dumping toxic industrial waste into somebody’s water supply?

Please understand: I’m not recruiting for a bandwagon for boycotting any certain product, or divesting of any particular corporate stock. A few comments about that: first of all, sometimes this works. It did with South Africa. (It took a while, and there were lots of other factors too, but basically the boycotts and divestitures ultimately worked.) But it doesn’t always have as much effect as we’d like. And sometimes boycotts and divestments are just a salve to our own guilty consciences. The fact of the matter is, we are deeply complicit in much of the world’s injustice and oppression (whether we own stocks or not!) and we don’t want to face that, and we don’t want to face the fact that there isn’t always a lot we can do to avoid it. Noncomplicity comes neither cheaply nor easily for human beings. Complicity in the world’s evil — even unwittingly — is part of what we as Christians mean by “original sin.”

So it becomes very easy for us to dismiss these things as trivial issues. I mean, it’s not always clear what real difference it actually makes to anyone but myself whether I own a few shares of stock in this or that corporation, or whether I buy this or that brand of sneakers. I’m just one person — does it really matter if I buy this brand, or if my pension fund owns stock in that corporation?

But before we too easily dismiss something as trivial, and blithely assume we can please ourselves regarding it, we need to stop and think about how our actions will affect other people, and how they will even affect ourselves. There are indirect as well as direct effects of what we do, and we are responsible for those effects. We do not have an absolute and unrestricted moral right to do whatever seems good or convenient to ourselves. We are responsible for the witness we make by the way we live in the world, as well as for the immediate consequences of our actions. The well-being of other human beings is never a trivial matter. It is never “not our problem”; it is never “none of our business.”

That doesn’t give us any quick answers to very complex and difficult moral questions. We have to struggle with these things, and people of good faith and good conscience may come to different conclusions. But we must all remember, as St Paul has been reminding the Corinthians and us, as we heard in the epistle reading a couple of weeks ago: “You are not your own. You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
(1 Cor. 6:19-20)

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