Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sermon for Today: I Cor 8: 1-13

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13 to be preached at VTS Chapel September 11, 2008

Preach to the time.

Preach to the time, and the place, and the people.

They tell me that seven years ago today, on September 11th, 2001, students and faculty climbed the tower of Aspinwall to watch the greasy, impenetrable black smoke ascending from the burning Pentagon, wondering what it meant. I was working downtown, two blocks from the White House, and saw the same smoke, and wondered what it meant. On that incongruously sunny afternoon, many people of faith went to their churches, to hear words of comfort, to try and understand what had happened and why.

And in those churches, many pastors took the lectionary texts for the day and preached. On the face of it, those texts may not have spoken directly to the situation, but those preachers took the text, and the place and time and situation and people they faced, and they preached powerfully, comfortingly.

Preach to the time, and the place, and the people.

God’s Word is big enough, you see, to wrap itself lovingly around any situation. We hear God’s Word in our time, in our location, in our situation. It speaks to us uniquely.

The Apostle Paul, in today’s reading from I Corinthians, is preaching to the time, and the place and the people. He’s gotten a question from the church in Corinth.

Now one of the facts of being a priest is that you have parishioners who ask you questions. “Well, Father Fred, don’t YOU think we should always have the American flag right up alongside the altar? After all, this is a Christian nation!” “Pastor Mary, everybody knows that women are supposed to be subservient to their husbands.”

You know you’re in trouble when the words “always” or “everybody knows” come into the conversation. You strongly suspect that they THINK they already know the answer…the one right, true answer to their question. They’re looking to you to validate their opinion. The same thing is happening here – Paul knows that the key phrase amongst the Corinthians is “We all have the knowledge.” He knows they think they know what the answer is. “Everybody knows that there is no such thing as idols, there’s only one true God, so the meat is just meat, and we can eat it, right?” You can picture them sitting back, having made their very Hellenistic argument, with their hands over their bellies – the same bellies that probably had some of that meat in them.

Paul is a smart pastor, and quite experienced in the art of Greek rhetoric, so he answers the question in a very Greek way. He starts out by agreeing with them. Yes, the Corinthians have knowledge. But perhaps that knowledge is not the be-all and end-all. Perhaps they’re missing the point. Perhaps they’re so involved with their own pride in their knowledge, that they can’t see the other problem their argument creates. Paul preaches not to the question which they asked, but to the place, the situation, the people. He preaches to the context, and how God works among the people in that context.

What does Paul say?

He moves the analysis from an intellectual exercise to a spiritual one. Not everyone is as deeply knowledgeable as this small group of Corinthians. Perhaps there are some who are new to the faith, or just weaker. Paul challenges his correspondents: what is the impact of what you are doing to these weak ones? He makes them face the pastoral issue, one that is driven by where they live, with whom they live, how they live. He challenges them: can you measure what you’re doing not by the single-right-answer yardstick of knowledge, but by the more amorphous measure of agape, of love?

Context matters. In the Warsaw ghetto in 1942, pious rabbis gave permission for observant Jews to eat pork, because it was the only meat available and it was more important to try to preserve their lives in that awful time than to adhere to the dietary laws. Paul says that meat is just meat, until the fact that it was part of pagan worship makes it a distraction or a confusion to those whose knowledge is weak. Meat is just meat until eating it makes someone think that hanging around the pagan temple may not be so bad. Meat is just meat until the familiarity of those pagan idols to whom it was offered seems oh so comfortable…and those who are fledgling Christians, who are weak, are led astray. And that is the sin, a sin against those who are led astray, and a sin against Christ, who died to redeem them and us.

Preach to the time, and the place, and the people. See how God gives us the words to take his holy scripture and use it to speak to a Luo in western Kenya, or an Inuit in Alaska, or a Lutheran Swede in Smoland, or even an Episcopalian who is struggling with her seminary studies in Alexandria.

Preach to the time, and the place and the people. God’s words are big enough.


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