Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: church, community, discipleship, food, idols, Jesus, meat, vegetarian
During our first year of seminary, Pastor Jeff and I both took the opportunity to travel to Guyana, South America, for a short internship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana. There were four of us students in total, and we were sent to different churches along the coast. I learned from a parish, joining Pastor as he served his people.
We did a lot of visiting, which meant a lot of eating. Every time we entered someone’s house, we were served a huge portion of foods I wasn’t used to eating, and wasn’t so sure I liked: vermicelli cake, which was noodles, sweetened condensed milk, and raisons; black cake, which was a West Indies version of rum cake; and some mid-meal stops at Popeye’s chicken, when I felt that my stomach was so full it might explode!
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to the believers about food. Meat, to be precise. In Corinth, meat was processed at the pagan temples. An animal was sacrificed to Zeus or Ares or Artemis, as part of worship. Then, some of that meat was sold in the marketplace. So, if a Corinthian was planning to have beef stew for supper, she would know that her meat was probably already used for religious purposes. If she were a Christian, her supper was already dedicated to a god she doesn’t worship. A god whom she may have turned away from, in order to worship the one, true God shown through Jesus Christ.
The new and diverse community of Jesus- followers at Corinth struggled with the question of whether or not they should eat meat, knowing it had been involved in non-Christian, non-Jewish temple worship.
Some believers thought meat was meat, and was good to eat. The fact that someone else used the animal for their religious purposes didn’t matter, because they were doing nothing more than playacting, sacrificing to a god who didn’t exist. Because the believer knows there is no God but the God revealed in Jesus Christ, there’s nothing sacrilegious about eating this meat. They eat and enjoy, giving thanks to the one true God who provides.
But other believers, perhaps those who were newer to faith in Jesus, thought that eating this meat was participating in the worship of another god.
Paul advises all the believers to think about how their actions affect the rest of the community, especially the weakest among them. If anyone’s faith is hurt by some eating meat, they should all abstain rather than put another in jeopardy.
My time in Guyana satisfied my seminary requirement for a cross- cultural class. Although food is a cross- cultural experience, it was deeper in the context of faith matters that I really entered into a different worldview.
One afternoon, we visited a family, in a large house, whose son was about to be married. After we visited and shared congratulations, we were joined by a small group of family members who ushered us upstairs. We were shown into the master bedroom. The father had been suffering from terrible nightmares. They believed that the room was haunted by evil spirits, who were causing this suffering. They wanted the pastor to do something about it. So, we did. We gathered together in a circle, holding hands, and prayed. We prayed for our most powerful God to claim that room. We prayed in the name of Jesus, who casts out all evil. We prayed for Jesus’ peace to be experienced, rather than fear. The family was very grateful.
I didn’t stay in the country long enough to find out if our prayer had any effect. Evil spirits causing bad dreams isn’t really a part of my worldview, my way of understanding how our world works. Our culture tends to focus more on psychological or chemical causes and solutions. In my own town, if someone was suffering from nightmares, I might suggest consulting a psychologist or doctor instead of, or in addition to, a pastor. But for this family, in this context, spirits were a reality. This family was being troubled by a force opposed to the God they trusted for protection. So, calling on this God, our God, was the correct solution. Me trying to rationalize away the spirits would not have been.
Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is to live into the worldview, the reality, of the other Christians in the community so that all may be strengthened in their faith. Paul advises: Out of love for the other, act within that other’s belief system, so that your words and actions would strengthen everyone’s faith in Christ.
Paul calls us to hold firm to our trust in the one God, the only God who creates and has power. Whether or not Zeus or Apollo are real, certainly there are many objects of worship that vie for our devotion against God. The Christian community is called to work for the strengthening of everyone’s devotion to the one God. Paul writes:
“we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
What matters is that the God we worship is the one who brought all things into existence, who has power over all, and who welcomes us in Jesus Christ.
The only important thing among all the possibilities for belief and action is our trust in God. Some beliefs may be true and others false, some practices may be right and others stemming from misunderstanding. The overarching goal of each member of the community should be forming a community of love rather than forming a community that conforms to one worldview.
I’m not saying we should simply wash over all differences, accept any beliefs, or hold truth to be completely relative. But in our relationship with God, and in our relationships with others, we need to speak and act with humility. Paul calls on all Christians to avoid being haughty, declaring, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Even the most faithful, most spiritual, and most studied among us doesn’t have all the answers. We do receive the gift of educated leaders and wise disciples who guide us, those who are to us like Paul and the local leaders who guided the community at Corinth. Yet none of us has complete knowledge. None of us has seen God face to face, nor do we know all of God’s purposes. We all have the gift of faith, trust, in God, and are called to accept that God is a mystery. We are all only members of a community of believers, humble in knowledge before God.
Paul’s advice goes further than simply encouraging us to put up with each other’s differing beliefs. Paul calls us to sacrifice for each other. Those who are strong in faith, for whom eating meat isn’t an offense, are called to stop eating meat, so that those whose faith is harmed by the practice would be strengthened by the solidarity of the community. For the Corinthians, the well-being of the community was more important than individual freedoms. Not just in church, but in daily life. We who love our individuality, do we love our God enough to give up some power of our own for the well-being of another? For the common good? How might we sacrifice for each other today?
Paul was raised with a worldview in which his relationship to God was based on his bloodline, and his faith was proved in his faithful adherence to correct practice, kosher food laws, and separation from those who believed differently than himself. But, after his encounter with the risen Jesus Christ, he understands that through Jesus, all people are claimed as God’s chosen people. Jesus Christ frees us from the necessity of practicing faith in only one correct way, of praying for salvation with specific words, or of performing the right acts.
Our freedom is bound by our responsibility to each other. We are freed from the need of earning our salvation. We are freed for our neighbor. Freed from the need to bicker about correct belief and practice, right words and worship, political affiliation and values, so that we would have energy and joy to encourage each other towards hope and trust. We are called to live our lives in such a way that we witness to the love we know in Jesus. Not for our sake, or for Jesus’ sake, but for our neighbor’s.
When we gather with other believers, however similar or dissimilar our worldview, it’s important to remember the common center of our faith: God’s fullest revelation, Jesus Christ, on the cross, for each of us. Jesus Christ is the one who welcomes you, forgives you, and loves you. Whatever you have done, or haven’t done, believed or not believed, Jesus Christ is for you. May Jesus make his love so present in your life that you overflow with love for all God’s people. Jesus came fully into our world, and knows each of us fully, so that he might truly love us as we are. In his example, we are called to listen to and know the other deeply in the love of Jesus.
I am not a good decision maker. I should put that more clearly. I don’t mean that I often make bad, unhealthy, or harmful decisions. What I mean is that I am not a quick, definitive, decisive chooser. Especially on the little stuff.
This trait of mine emerged when I was a teenager, and it’s stuck with me ever since. I clearly remember sitting in a parked car with my best friend on the edge of the mall parking lot, debating for over a half hour where we would go for dinner while our stomachs growled. There were many formal dresses I bought for dances, only to exchange them a few days after their purchase. Since I don’t have to preach this sermon in front of my husband, I won’t let him tell you how there’s a bag in my trunk this moment with clothes to return after a few days consideration.
When I think about it, I guess I also have a difficult time deciding on the really big stuff, too. I remember being a senior in high school, none too eager to leave behind what had become a fun and full high school career. I was overwhelmed with stacks of information on various colleges and universities. I wished I could just throw a dart and pick one. I was so sick of all the choices and the various forces pushing me towards one school or another that I wrote my application for Northwestern University in pencil, without much thought, because I thought my school wanted me to go there, and I wasn’t so sure I did. I wasn’t too surprised when that was the one school that put me on the waitlist. Every decision has the potential to change our life course. Even the small decisions become a big deal, when you think about it that way. Then, they just become that much more difficult for me to make.
Where are you on the decision maker spectrum? Are you quick to make a decision? Steady in your resolve? Or are you more uncertain and cautious? Do you want to hear the reaction of the whole community before you commit to a decision? Or do you expect people to fall in line once you’ve made a decision- do others follow your decisions? As I continue to share my story, I encourage you to consider your own story, and together we’ll hear God speaking to us through this morning’s Scripture.
One of the problems with my slowness of commitment is that many opportunities have a window of time, after which they cease to be opportunities and are transformed into regrets. Maybe not always regrets, but at the very least, “might have beens.”
I remember being young, sitting with my parents, as they asked if I wanted to do something. I repeatedly said, “maybe,” or “I don’t know” But they wouldn’t let me live in my indecision forever. They explained to me that even not-deciding is a decision in itself. Holding off a decision to take up an opportunity becomes saying no. And, it’s really better to just say no, than to pretend some other force in the universe is going to make decisions for you. Even God doesn’t make your decisions for you, only opens up opportunities and invites.
In our Gospel reading this morning, we meet Jesus as he begins his ministry. He is building up a small community around him. They will be the men we know as the twelve disciples, or apostles. Jesus comes upon two sets of brothers, hard at their work, fishing. He calls them to join him, to learn to fish for people, and immediately, they leave their nets, their families, their livelihoods, and they follow. They don’t go back and forth, consider the pros and cons, discuss as a family what is best, they just up and leave, to be with Jesus.
I can’t imagine it for me. How would I, the slow decision maker, handle Jesus coming and calling me?
Remember that I wished in high school for a dart to decide my future college course of studies? Ironically, that was how it felt my future was decided as I approached seminary graduation, only I wasn’t the one with the dart. The ELCA is really a rather strange in-between of how many other churches decide which pastors serve which congregations. On one side would be something like the model of the Catholic church or the historic Methodist church, in which pastors like my Methodist great-grandfather, at the turn of the last century, would go to a meeting every June and then find out where they would be serving for the next year. Congregations and pastors alike would simply be told, “here you go, do God’s work.” On the other side of the spectrum would be independent churches, who somehow hear of a pastor’s interest in their open position, interview, and hire, and the pastor likewise interviews them, and accepts, or declines, their offer. In the ELCA, right about this time of year, bishops are busy reading paperwork about seminary seniors who are holding their breaths, because very soon all these bishops will come together for what we call “the draft.” The nine regions of our church will in turn select one senior at a time, who will thus be “assigned” to that region, and after a few weeks, to a synod, whose bishop and staff will encourage congregations to consider if this candidate might be a good fit to serve as their pastor.
You received Pastor Jeff and me in this way. We trust that God was working through this process. But let me tell you, even after hours of preparing that paperwork, of prayers, of crossed fingers, it still does feel very much like someone might have stuck my name on a dart and thrown it at a map of the United States, and landed me here, in Ayr, North Dakota.
Please don’t hear me saying that my being here is a bad thing, or not something I wanted… what I want you to hear is the way this lack of control over the process, this lack of control over how and where and when God is calling me, is terrifying, and difficult, even for someone who really doesn’t like to make big or little life decisions on her own.
This is my personality, this is the me I bring to this text, this account of Jesus’ calling these four men, to be his disciples. I think I would be the one brother we don’t read about, because he was immobilized by the very big invitation, the amazing opportunity to join Jesus in God’s kingdom work right at that moment.
We do have a disadvantage, or maybe an excuse that those disciples didn’t have: they saw and heard Jesus calling them, but we don’t have the same public encounters with the flesh and blood Christ, pointing at us, telling us to follow. It’s not as easy for us to know how or where to follow Jesus. Sure, the disciples left everything, but they only had to follow the real man in front of them.
Because it’s hard to hear Jesus’ call clearly, it’s good to go through a process called “discernment”- taking time and effort to wade through all the voices and opportunities to figure out what comes from God. Not being one to make quick decisions about life-paths, I’ve had to learn discernment strategies to be able to make decisions I’m ready to stick to. One spiritual teacher advises that, upon facing a decision between two actions, we should envision ourselves taking one. Then, live into that decision. Spend a day having chosen one path. How does it feel to have made that decision? Are there regrets? Are there joys? Imagine it is 6 months later, how has that decision affected your life? Regrets? Joys? Then consider even further in the future. Next, choose the other option. Live into it the same way as you lived into the other. Talk to trusted people about these decisions, allowing them to help you talk through the experience of considering your options, allowing them to point out options you never thought of. By the end of this discernment process, you will have gained insight to shape your path.
That’s a helpful strategy for me. But this long process of discernment is nothing like the disciples’ experience. I suppose I need to take time to be able to hear Jesus’ voice calling me, where the disciples had him right there, in front of them, asking them to drop the work in their hands. Jesus called for a sudden leaving of the only way of life they’ve known.
We’re not used to people making quick decisions to drastically change their lives. If one of our friends was on that boat when Jesus arrived, I think many of us would caution a friend against dropping everything and following! We don’t often advise sudden life changes, especially for religious reasons! What would you think if a friend quit his job? Gave away her money? Left her aging father or young children? We don’t live in a world in which we would find that behavior acceptable. It really wasn’t back then, either. But, after Jesus’ resurrection, the church that emerged was one in which these drastic actions would be expected because God’s action has been that much more drastic!
We meet this church through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. First Corinthians is a letter in which a certain understanding of the world is assumed. It is one in which a sudden change of life makes sense. Paul, the writer, commands the community of believers at Corinth to live in a new way that is completely different than how they have been living. They’re called to ignore all the things that we would think make our lives. Marriage, money, family ties, none of it matters. He does this because he believes that Jesus is THE only thing that is important. He believes that the way of this world is ending now, and Jesus is returning now, or at least, very, very soon.
What can we do with these two examples of disciples following Jesus with a drastic and immediate life change? What does it mean for us who wish to be faithful followers? Are you ready to drop everything and follow?
When an opportunity comes up, I think about all the work I’m in the midst of, all the things I should finish, all the people who depend on me to follow through, before I do something new. I don’t know how or when Jesus’ call comes to you. But I do know that I’m not the only one who wants to finish the work in my hands before I’m ready to follow Jesus. I think you might join me in reticence. You know the work before you is important. Fields have to be worked in the correct season, every hour of harvest matters. Your families, communities, even people around the world are all depending on work to be done on time.
Those four fishermen who dropped the nets from their hands, turned away from the work which gave them not only income but identity, and followed Jesus, haunt me when I drag my feet or want more control over my future, when I’m slow to join them in following Jesus. When I’m not feeling up to making a decision to alter my life for Jesus, then there are images and examples other than these quick-deciding disciples that rise out of the Bible for me.
There is the reading from last week, of the calling of Samuel, who heard God’s voice calling to him in the middle of the night three times, but didn’t realize it was God calling him until the fourth time. There is the calling of the prophet Jonah, who clearly heard God’s calling him to work in the town of Nineveh, but who bought a ticket and boarded a boat headed in the opposite direction, and had to spend three nights in the belly of a fish before he was ready to follow God. There is Jesus, who comes to “seek out and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10), who tells parables which speak of God’s work to chase after those who haven’t followed, rejoicing when they finally come and follow.
These Bible passages remind me that God still invites and welcomes the slow-to-decide into the gift of following and joining God’s work. I may not quite be as ready as those fishermen, but I fall just right in the wide spectrum of the faithful, because Jesus makes room for me, for you, and for all. Jesus invites us to follow, not only once, but again and again, until we are ready to join him. Jesus is calling you to join in his ministry: difficult work, but work that is full of joy, because there you will encounter God.