Sermon of the Week:
What Freedom Means When You Follow Jesus
Keywords: Empathy, Rule of Love, Food Sacrificed to Idols, Anne Lamott, Ethics. #pcusa
tw (trigger warning): ED (eating disorder)
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Empathy matters to the person who follows God on the way of Jesus.
Empathy is when you care what another person thinks or feels.
Not that Empathy is the only thing that matters,
But it is essential.
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately.
A lot of what I’ve seen in the news
About covid or politics or whatever
Has revealed an empathy-deficit of sorts going around right now.
Martin Buber, the Austrian Jewish philosopher
Wrote a moving book on the idea almost a century ago that he called Ich und Du, or I-Thou,
Where he argued that other people, just because they’re people
Command a respect and a dignity about them,
That we are forbidden from treating other people as an it, as an object,
As someone I don’t have to care about, have empathy for.
In our better moments, this is where we get our capacity for building
a legal system with due process
prisons with three square meals a day and exercise and access to books and the like.
It helps us find common ground with people of good will
Or at least to struggle against them for some higher purpose
In ways that still maintain their common humanity.
In our weaker moments, we decide that my freedom matters more than your wellbeing
That the point I need to make means I can totally crush you as I make it.
But Empathy matters, because empathy is an essential part of love,
And the scripture readings today ask us, once again,
to explore what Love means to those who follow Jesus.
But first, let’s talk about rules, and boundaries.
Let’s talk about ethics.
Sarah, a pastor friend of mine,
once opened a sermon
on that special tree that Genesis describes in the mythical garden of Eden
the one that Adam and Eve and the serpent all made apple pie from…
Sarah opened that sermon,
with a story about her daughter.
Sarah and her husband were out in their yard one day
when their daughter was, oh, around 5 years old.
Her house was in a tranquil part of suburban Denver,
and while it wasn’t a particularly busy street
she wanted to be CAREFUL.
So they told her: Look, you can play anywhere you want to in this yard.
you can run up and down the porch
you can dig in the garden with ma and pa
you can draw in chalk on the sidewalk.
the only thing you can’t do is go into the street.
They looked at her very closely and asked her if she understood.
Of course, she nodded,
in that very cute way that 5-year-olds have mastered.
And no sooner than they had turned their gaze away to gather their gardening tools
their daughter walked directly to the curb in front of that house
and stopped, turning to see that her parents were watching
and ever so gently tapped her toe on the asphalt of the street!
Does any of that sound familiar?
I have seen that in my own children, and other children,
More than a few adults, and when I’m honest,
I can see a lot of that in myself.
One of the things I love about the bible, when we read it with open eyes,
is the way that it reveals something about us, something human,
and tries to get us to reflect on how we might grow
more the way God wants us to be, created us to be
The bible reminds us that from our first days we have had trouble with
with rules and conventions that ought to govern human behavior.
And sometimes, the Bible tells us,
we can certainly swing too far the other way,
and become CONSUMED, and I mean consumed, with following rules
until legalism snuffs out our spirit and does real harm
and we make bad decisions
out of attempts to avoid the feeling of guilt
or we start applying those rules uncritically to others
often without knowing the full context of what they’re doing….
My friend’s daughter demonstrates how ALL OF US,
wrestle with these issues of right and wrong,
obedience and authority
STRUCTURE and FREEDOM.
And that’s not a bad thing.
To be human is to be a moral creature, a decision-making person
a “social rational animal,” as Aristotle bluntly put it,
inexorably in relationship with other people
and, because of that, one who wrestles with what to do.
It is what we are.
So what do we do when we begin to walk into ethical waters?
How does a preacher do that, in a way that doesn’t have you
reaching for your cell phone to check your Facebook status
over the next 15 minutes?
Trust me, I know:
One of the things that turns people off to religion in general today
according to the researchers
is a fear that someone is going to tell ME what to do
that a preacher is going to get up
and teach that, to be faithful, to be a Christian,
means EXCLUDING those who aren’t part of the club.
More than that: they see people who say they follow Jesus
Cheering on the worst sort of behavior
Not caring at all about what Jesus actually cared about.
Here’s one way to understand what is going on:
too many religious communities get so RULES heavy
that they forget the whole point of it all,
which is really, really simple:
And while people, all of us, in our own way
struggle with how to balance freedom and structure
license and order
the world knows that THAT is the heart of the Gospel
that God is love
and who wouldn’t be turned off by communities that get so
focused on LAW
that they miss the point that LAW is meant
to nurture relationships, not tear them apart.
Let me be honest with you,
if there weren’t churches like ours,
I would be very skeptical about religion too.
Somewhere people got ETHICS and JUDGMENT confused.
But even so, living life is hard,
and people are seeking some guidance, some help, some direction.
And the truth of the matter is that the scriptures offer it,
or, maybe better, that God’s offers it,
and that scriptures are one way of listening for
what God might be suggesting to us.
So when we, here at the Kirk or in our Presbyterian way of being church,
when we venture into Ethics,
into more overt conversation about
how we live our lives,
what it means to choose this and not that
please know that this is something each of us has to work out
through our own efforts and prayer and study and decisions.
The preacher, that is, me, today,
is here to offer food for thought,
not to judge you, not to cajole you, not to decide for you,
but to open up, humbly I would submit
my best reading of how I think the text is speaking to us today
knowing that what we do with it, takes work,
and we might differ in the details. And honestly, that’s ok.
But the Bible tells us that these things matter:
how we live our lives, spend our money, choose to eat, seek to kiss,
how we welcome the stranger,
deal with people who are different from us
care about those on the margins,
how we vote, pay our taxes, care about the issues,
that these things matter.
Just look at Jesus. Just read some Paul.
So we have to preach on it from time to time
because faith can’t bracket off part of our life, our existence
as if our bodies don’t matter,
as if all that matters is our head, what we think.
How in the WORLD can we do this?
Well, we might start by trying to stay simple,
and to acknowledge that it is hard to walk in this
space of trying to do the best we can
trying to love the best we can.
Paul knows this, how hard it is:
Today’s scripture finds Paul in a real mess.
If we want to understand the cause of that mess,
we have to look back a few chapters earlier.
Scholars understand Paul’s writings to the church in Corinth,
these letters we call First and Second Corinthians,
to be a MOMENT in a series of letters that went back and forth between
Paul and the faithful back in that Gentile city,
and much of this letter we read from today
is in response to previous letters
that the Corinthian church sent to him for his urgent response.
Something Paul said had gotten him into trouble:
This thing actually:
‘All things are lawful for me’,
By the tone of Paul’s writing, it is clear that this prior BOLD statement of his
must have sounded, to the Corinthians, something like this:
“As Christians, my Corinthian friends, you are no longer bound by the law,”
Or, in brief, a very generous,
“All things are lawful to you in Christ.”
Can you imagine it! No laws.
No Guilty Consciences.
Run those red lights
Steal that Coach bag next time you’re at the store
Bring a cheat sheet to your next trigonometry exam.
No Restrictions on Anything! Go for it! Whatever you want is fine! Hurrah!
And that is exactly how the church in Corinth took it. “Just do it!”
“If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with!”
Starting to get the idea?
Trouble was, Paul had been taken out of context.
The line that the Corinthians were quoting, “All things are Lawful”,
was something Paul had said to Jewish Christians in another community
—those who had been so bound up by laws
that they could hardly put one foot in front of the other
without tripping over them,
without being more concerned about those laws than the people they were hanging out with.
But the Corinthian Christians never had that problem—
they were, for the most part, gentiles,
and had no similar history with trying to interpret a religious law,
trying to walk a faithful life because God wanted them to.
No history of being bound by dietary restrictions or purity rites or things like that.
Theirs was a very different beginning from which to embrace the teachings of Jesus.
The Corinthians, as a community, were a pretty darn free lot already.
And unfortunately, they tended to engage their religion only from the neck up,
and not from the neck down.
They thought that the BODY was UNIMPORTANT in religious matters—
the main thing for them was the head, or better, the spirit.
They thought that what they did with their bodies
really had no effect on them spiritually.
So in this first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is engaged in DAMAGE CONTROL.
Chapter 6 starts:
‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial.
‘All things are lawful for me’,
but I will not be dominated by anything.
And THEN Paul starts doing it again. He starts making bold statements—
about food, and sex, about the body and cravings, and about God…
‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’,
and God will destroy both one and the other.
The body is meant not for harmful intimacy but for the Lord,
and the Lord for the body…
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . .
Or do you not know that your body is a temple…
and that you are not your own?
Talk about Bold Talk!
Paul is saying: “Look—what you do with your body is important,
and it involves your spirit
because your body and your spirit are not separate.
You are your body, and your body is a temple!
You carry within you the presence of Jesus Christ—
the one who has set you free!
For instance, it’s not that Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to have sex.
Or that he thought Sex was bad.
He wanted them to THINK—about what intimacy was and what they were doing.
He wanted them to be conscious decision makers,
about sex, yes,
and frankly about everything else they did with their lives…..
It’s that conscious decision makers part that gets us into trouble, I think.
It is so easy for us to just abdicate decisions all together.
Anne Lamott tells a story about the need
to become CONSCIOUS in her struggle with her body and an eating disorder.
After years of wrestling with it, she was slowly killing herself.
Interesting enough, given the reading that Erin offered this morning
Lamott calls this period a time when she was
possessed with something that had taken control of her.
In order to heal, she literally had to relearn how to eat.
In one of her sessions with a therapist, she was asked what she had for breakfast:
“Cereal,” I said.
“And you were hungry when you ate?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, did you experience hunger, and then make breakfast?”
“I really don’t understand what you’re asking,” I said.
“Let me put it this way,” she said. “Why did you have breakfast?”
“Oh! I see,” I said. “I had breakfast because it was breakfast time.”
“But were you hungry?”
I stared at her for a moment. “Is this a trick question?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “I just want to know how you know it’s time to eat.”
“I know it’s time to eat because it’s mealtime,” I said.”
“It’s morning, so I eat breakfast, or its midday, so I eat lunch. And so on…”
To make a long story ever so slightly shorter,
she finally asked me what it felt like when I was hungry,
and I could not answer.
I asked her to explain what it felt like when she was hungry,
and she described a sensation in her stomach of emptiness,
an awareness of appetite.
So, for the next week,
my assignment was to NOTICE what it felt like when I was hungry.
It was so strange! I was once again the world’s oldest toddler.
I walked around peering down as if to look inside my stomach,
as if it was one of those old-fashioned
front-loading washing machines with a window
through which you could see the soapy water
swirling over your clothes.
And I paid attention until I was able to isolate this feeling in my stomach,
a gritchy kind of emptiness,
like a rat was scratching at the door, wanting to be let in.
“Wonderful,” [my therapist] said, and then gave me my next assignment:
first, to notice when I was hungry, and then—
and this blew my mind—to feed myself.[i]
In our culture, like the Corinthian culture, we tend to live life unconsciously
—we simply take in, absorb, and consume what is in front of us.
If it looks good, buy it!
If it tastes good, eat it!
If it feels good, do it!
It it makes me angry, yell about it!
How many times this week have I just gone through the motions,
not registering what is really going on?
Without question: one could call that freedom.
But in a very real way, that’s not REAL freedom.
It’s a sort of BONDAGE, something akin to being dulled and asleep.
It is so important, Paul says, for us to just THINK about what it is we are doing
why we are doing it, for whom we are doing it.
Sometimes, Paul says, the WHAT is not nearly as important as the WHY.
Which brings us to today’s reading.
To us, it might sound so strange, this concern of the Corinthians
about whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols.
But the only way to get meat in Corinth
was from the town butcher.
But the town butcher worked at the temple,
The one dedicated to the Greek God Aphrodite
And that meat was butchered for pagan offerings and rituals.
Those butchers were the same people who were the temple priests.
So if you ate that meat, didn’t it mean you were supporting that Goddess too?
Some people in Corinth were really, really worried about that.
So they turned to Paul, and asked him
whether a faithful Christian can eat this meat.
And Paul gives a straightforward answer: SURE. Of course you can.
There ARE no true idols,
No other GODS, they’re all imaginary.
There is only God the Father,
the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,
and knowing this
you KNOW you can’t damage your true faith in the one true God
because to bring home a steak for dinner tonight.
That’s the answer to the legal question.
But note this:
Paul QUICKLY, SWIFTLY moves to the heart of the matter:
Far more important is WHY you want to eat this meat
and what it means for those around you…
Eat anything you want. Drink as you wish.
But consider, carefully, what it is you are doing,
what effects it has on your relationship with others
and on their relationship with you AND with God
because, while you are indeed free,
true freedom is lived out with care and concern and love for one another. With Empathy.
Paul introduces here the rule of love for our actions:
I may know all sorts of things about scripture,
about the rules, and about God.
I can know whether something is good or bad for me,
I might even know something most people don’t know.
But none of that matters if what I do isn’t rooted in love.
None of that matters if what I do isn’t ROOTED in love,
so that my FIRST concern isn’t about me, and what I am FREE to do
but what MY action might mean to YOU.
What is love, if it’s not concern for the one you love,
for their well being
for their happiness
for their health and strength and faith and comfort?
Love is ALWAYS going to mean that I understand my FREEDOM is limited
limited not because I CANT do something
but because I CHOOSE not to, for the sake of someone else.
This is the heart of Christian Ethics for Paul: the rule of love
love of God
love of neighbor
love of self
This is what FREEDOM means for the follower of Jesus,
that while there might be SO MANY THINGS we COULD do,
we choose to wait and see if those things
are GOOD to do for those who might be impacted by them.
So, maybe you don’t eat that tasty, tasty hamburger in front of a vegetarian.
Or, you at least ask first,
and maybe talk a bit with them about food
and about treading lightly on this fragile earth
and care for all God’s creatures
you know, to see what is going on with them.
In other words, maybe you develop a bit of a relationship, first,
so they understand you, and you understand them
and you develop a bit of mutual respect and dare we say it,
love for each other.
And then, perhaps, you might eat that hamburger.
Or perhaps not today…
The rule of love.
May we have ears to hear, hearts to care, and a conviction to follow.
May it be so.
[i] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (Pantheon Books, 1999, p. 195)