We just heard a reading in which Paul, the missionary who founded the church in Corinth tackled the question of whether it was okay to eat food offered to idols. The whole thing may sound strange to our 21st Century ears, without some context.
Corinth was a seaport in ancient Greece. Trading goods and people from many cultures and natins flowed through the port. The city itself was under Roman rule in Paul’s time. There were public temples built to honour the Roman gods, as well as those of other religions. It was normal for people to keep their own religion, and also honour the gods of the official Roman religion.
A lot of the tension that arose between the first Christians and the Roman rulers had to do with the Christian idea that there is only one God. Christians, like Jewish people are monotheistic, but as far as Roman law was concerned, they were atheists, because they refused to honour the state gods. Some Jesus followers refused to go to the Roman temples, or take part in festivals for the Roman religious holidays. They saw the Roman gods as false idols.
There were other Christians who saw no harm in attending a banquet at a Roman temple- because as far as they were concerned, the Roman religion was all make-believe, and honoured gods that didn’t actually exist. Why not enjoy a good meal?
Paul, as the spiritual leader of this fledgling Christian community, was asked for an opinion. He agreed with those who felt free to eat whatever food was available, but also said, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. “
Paul recognized some people might be confused if they saw Christians eating food offered to idols. It might appear they were worshipping Roman gods. Paul said, “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”
Paul did not want anything to be a barrier to a new believer finding their way into the love and acceptance of Christian community. It was more important to him that people gain a knowledge of God’s love, than to enjoy the fine cuts of meat available at a Roman temple.
This is a story about our response to God’s radical hospitality. It puts out a healthy challenge to all of us who gather to follow Jesus. Are there things we do, consciously or unconsciously, that make it harder for people to find their way to God’s love?
I spent most of last weekend in a curling club in Peterborough. Thanks to the Little Rocks program at the Oakville Curling Club, our kids have had the opportunity to learn to curl, and also to curl competitively in bonspiels. I liked the Peterborough club. They had free wi-fi, which helps when I am working on my sermon, and they don’t have a dress code, like some of the fancier private clubs.
It was a culture shock the first time we went to a bonspiel at a club with a dress code. To be frank, I still don’t get it. The parents sit in what is basically a bar, and all around us people are quaffing beers and talking too loud, and sometimes rudely, while ostensibly watching their kids, who are down on the ice. But you are not allowed to wear jeans, or shirts that don’t have a collar.
Part of me resents being told what to do, or what I am not allowed to do, and rails against the dress code. But I have to get all the sarcasm out of my system before I get to the club. The host clubs are being generous in offering their venue for a youth bonspiel. I try to be a good guest. I resist the urge to mock the notion I am somehow more acceptable if I wear dress slacks.
When I lived in rural Manitoba, the curling rink was in the same building as the town hockey rink, and was a place for everybody. The foursome I curled with included two farmers, the local insurance agent, and me, the United Church minister. I curled all winter for around $100, and had a great time. Some people had fancy curling gear, but most of us were less formal. Heavy wool sweaters and jeans, and the old corn brooms.
It may not be that big a deal that a private club enforces rules designed to keep out people who look a certain way. After all, the club is not claiming to be for everyone. It is a very different thing when a church acts like a private club, and has written, or unwritten rules, or attitudes that leave people out. For many years my mother did not go to church, even though she made sure us kids were up and dressed and ready to go. We walked ourselves to church, and mom stayed home. Ironically, my dad was often at the curling club on winter Sunday mornings.
My mom’s feelings were hurt when two church ladies visited our home one evening, and said she really should be wearing a hat and gloves to church. They had also come to talk to my parents about making an annual pledge. At that time, my family was scraping by, living in a small apartment on the top floor of someone’s house. My dad drove shifts for Lacey’s Taxi Company, when he wasn’t at the community college finishing his high school equivalency. My mom worked part time as a department store seamstress, and most of what she earned paid the babysitters.
A church should be a place where no one is looked down on, or rejected. There should be no rules to keep people out, or to limit God’s love to the people we find acceptable. That’s why we have an open communion table. That’s why I will marry or bury, or baptize anyone.
I am glad to be part of the United Church. Over the course of my lifetime, our denomination has struggled to remove barriers that were part of our tradition. In 1962 we declared it was possible for people who had been divorced to be re-married in the church. In 1969 we decided a minister could be divorced, and still serve the church. In 1988 we said sexual orientation was not an issue when it came to membership in the church, or a barrier to serving as a minister. In 2003, the United Church took a leading role in advocating for legal recognition of same-gender marriage in Canada.
None of those changes happened easily, and many congregations, including this one, were scarred by conflict. Each time one of these issues have come up, there have been some who said of course we need to change. Each time there have also been those who came out with a different opinion. Usually a majority of people hesitate to take a side at all, often out of fear. They don’t want their church to suffer losses of people, or revenue, or status. They want everyone to get along.
The other story we heard this morning was from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. It describes Jesus’ debut as a preacher and teacher, in a synagogue in Capernaum. Things went well until “he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out.”
The story says he was afflicted, or possessed of an evil spirit. What I find most interesting is he was not a stranger to the congregation, he was one of them. When he yelled at Jesus, he said, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!”
In other words, “Hey Jesus, don’t come in here with your radical ideas and try to change us!” I can imagine the same things being said to the first Christians who dared to oppose slavery, or advocated for the legal rights of women and children, or worked so women could vote, or pushed to make it possible for women to become ministers.
It brings us down to earth to realize this critic of Jesus was a member of the congregation. He was not some stranger. Jesus confronted the spirit within the man. Jesus said, “Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out.
The story says that Jesus confronted the evil spirit within the man, and told it to get out, but the man himself was not rejected. He remained a part of the community. I read a quote this week from The Gulag Archipelago, a book by the Nobel Prize winning Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.”
Every human being is capable of doing terrible things, and leading other people astray. When we are bound by the power of our own fear of change, or fear of the unknown, or fear of people who are not quite like us, it is harder to be a force for good. It is hard to be really hospitable, in the way that God would have us be, if we are possessed by selfishness, or close-mindedness.
Jesus confronted the narrowness, and fearfulness that can live within us, and can limit us. Jesus came to help us know about ourselves, that we are each capable of doing courageous and loving things, extending the God’s radical hospitality to all people who hunger for acceptance and love. Amen