Sermon for Christ the King Sunday 2021

November 21, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

2 Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-37

The readings for this week and next sound odd to my ears, particularly given the secular “holiday season” is upon us. Unlike the sparkly cheer we see and hear everywhere we turn, both the Old Testament and gospel talk about the end of life. Death and other major transitions have a way of bringing things into perspective in a hurry. What’s important — really important? What’s less so? And how do we adjust our lives to reflect this new understanding? 

If we take a closer look and seek a more carefully considered perspective, I wonder what we might learn from the differences between the culture in which we are immersed and the moments we encounter today in Scripture. 

In the reading from Samuel, we hear the last words attributed to King David. Though it’s in the form of a poem, I think of it as the final public speech of his reign. Though he spent much of his life as a mighty (though short) warrior, today I imagine an elderly king hobbling to the podium. He is aware the time of returning to his ancestors is near. And he has accepted this. 

Source: chabad.org

In this speech, David gives glory to God, and calls on his audience — and by extension, us — to do the same. He gives thanks to God not only for anointing him king but for simply being God. As we know well, David’s response to God wasn’t always perfect. (And there is more than a little arrogance in his speech!) But at his best, David strove to rule the precious people given into his care with justice and compassion. At his best, his actions showed an understanding of God’s glory, a respect for that glory and a respect for the privilege of leadership. Earlier in his life, winning battles was the most important. At the sunset of his life, worshipping God simply for God’s glory and caring for those under his rule eclipsed that. Living into the Way of Love took precedence over everything else. 

Today’s Gospel recalls Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. It’s a familiar passage but one we don’t expect to hear outside the context of the Passion story. 

Perhaps there was a moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus could have walked up the hill and out of town. He could have fled and waited to return until cooler heads prevailed. That moment had passed hours before. He discerned his call was to remain in the Garden, to hold the course. After His arrest, he became a cog in a wheel propelled forward by events beyond his control. 

As David stood before the people, acutely aware of what was to come, so Jesus was acutely aware of his fate. He may not have had the power to stop events, but He did have control over His response to Pilate. “My kingdom is not from this world,” He informs Pilate matter of factly. He followed a Divine call to show the world a better way to live by loving others, even — and especially — those the world deemed unlovable. The Way of Love always had been, and continued to be the one, most important thing for Jesus. 

It was so important, He willingly remained in the Garden, awaiting His fate. 

Like King David and like Jesus, the Holy Cross community stands on the threshold of a major transition…It’s an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, where we want to go, and who we want to be. What’s important, really important, to us as a church community?

Like King David and like Jesus, the Holy Cross community stands on the threshold of a major transition. Ours isn’t as permanent as a death, but it is an ending, with a future full of unknowns and uncertainties. I think this ending presents a number of opportunities. It’s an opportunity to celebrate not only Father Mike and his work but ourselves as a community. It’s an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, where we want to go, and who we want to be. What’s important, really important, to us as a church community? How do we view God and ourselves, regardless of who sits in the rector’s office? What is God’s call to our community, and how do we respond to that call? 

Knowing that we worship the God of Love and are loved by God infinitely, we strive to give glory and thanks, and to share that amazing love with others. In response to God’s glory and God’s love, we worship God, we learn and teach our faith, we participate in mission and outreach and we provide pastoral care to those in need. Each of these core areas is stronger with your participation, not only in terms of prayer, but also practically and financially. 

The call to worship the God of glory and share that love with others is incredibly urgent. It’s one which needn’t wait, which shouldn’t wait for anything or anyone. It’s far too important for our own spiritual well-being and a world in need. And it’s at the core of who Holy Cross is as a people. 

So, come join us. Join us as we worship the God who loves us and the world infinitely. Join us as we serve a world in need. Don’t wait! The world needs to know the depth and breadth of God’s love. 

The world needs you now, and so do we.

Women’s Retreat Planning Update 08/2021

Dear Retreat Participants,

Thank you for your past support of the women’s retreat.

I want to update you regarding the retreat planning process. There are two considerations I want to share with you.

The first is the retreat planning team. Between 2019 and 2020, there were eleven members on our team. In recent months, I’ve been communicating with those past members. Of those eleven, only two are available to continue serving. Additionally, I invited new team members to join us through a post in our Facebook group and an announcement in the eblast and Sunday bulletin. One response was received. That means that, thus far, only three lay volunteers have expressed a willingness to serve on the planning team.

The second concern is our host site. We’ve utilized Kanuga as our retreat location thirteen out of fourteen seasons. There were concerns about their rate increases prior to the pandemic. (Between 2013 and 2020, those rates increased by 1/3. This meant an additional $64 per retreatant willing to share a room, or over $2,000 for a group of thirty.) Their 2020 rates were already at the top of what our budget could accommodate without significantly cutting programming or raising rates above what is reasonable for a majority of our participants.

Based on these concerns and following conversation with the remaining members of our planning team and Father Mike, the difficult decision was made to request Kanuga refund the deposit for our 2020 retreat. Because a new site is needed, if a retreat is to happen offsite in the Fall of 2022, the planning process will need to begin soon. Roles which need to be filled include (co-)chair, registration chair, and chair of a site search subgroup. I invite you to prayerfully consider whether or not you are called to participate as a member of this special planning team.

Realistically, in order to host an offsite retreat in 2022, this team will need to be in place by October 1.

Sincerely,

Rev. Erin+

Update 09/22/21: A registration coordinator has stepped forward. Volunteers to serve as site search coordinator and retreat (co-) chair are still needed. Our refund is en route from Kanuga.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021

May 30, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

The Song of Three Young Men v 29-34; John 3:1-1

How would you describe yourself? You might start with visible aspects. The color of your hair. Your height. Whether or not you wear glasses. Your family relationships. You might then move on to less obvious things. Your interests, likes and dislikes. Your profession and life experiences.

Here’s a tougher question. How would you describe God? (If you would even dare to try!) Since we believe God was physically incarnate in Jesus, we might start with the attributes He had when He lived among us. There were no smartphone cameras back then, so even this involves some guesswork. He was born in the Middle East, so he probably didn’t look much like me, or most folks in this church community. Carpentry and itinerant preaching were very physical jobs, so He was probably very fit and muscular. We know from the stories left to us in the Gospels that He was an articulate speaker, and could be rather blunt.

Here’s a tougher question still…how would you describe God the Father, or even God the Spirit? There are no visible attributes to use as a launching point. What we know about God quickly becomes a matter of the heart. How have we experienced the presence of the Spirit in our lives? Through those experiences, we (hopefully!) know that God is ever-present and all-loving.

Just as we know something about a person from the work they do, we can know something of God the Father based on His works. In place of a Psalm selection, today we read a short passage from the Song of Three Young Men. This piece is so short it doesn’t even have chapter divisions. You may know it as the story of the three friends protected by an angel of God after being thrown into a furnace belonging to the King of Babylon. The trio responds to their miraculous rescue by praising God. We read the beginning of their song, wherein they praise God for simply being God. They continue by praising God for His work in creation…

Bless the Lord, sun and moon…[and] stars of heaven!

Bless the Lord, rain and dew, all you winds…[and] cold and summer heat! Sing praise to Him and highly exalt him forever. 

Bless the Lord, all that grows in the ground…you springs…you whales…[and] all birds of the air!

Bless the Lord, all people on earth…you servants of the Lord!

Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart; sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever! 

In today’s Gospel, the teacher Nicodemus approaches Jesus. I’ve always thought Jesus’ response to him was overly harsh. However, a bit of linguistic knowledge will, I think, help us to understand Nicodemus’ motivation and Jesus’ response. Unlike English, the Greek in which the Gospel of John was originally composed has both a singular and a plural for you. (For those of us familiar with the Southern dialect of English, this is roughly the difference between “you” and “all y’all.”) In this passage, Jesus addresses Nicodemus using both the singular and the plural “you.” Based on this clue, scholars speculate that Nicodemus came to Jesus not only as an individual but as a representative of the Pharisees.1 Jesus responds accordingly.

The Pharisees are confident in their knowledge of “proper” belief and “proper” religious practice. If  we say the right prayers in the right order, if we sing the “correct” hymns in the “correct” style, then God will be properly acknowledged and pleased. They are confident their outward, visible behavior made them right with God. Nicodemus — and those for whom he spoke — thought their knowledge of God was complete.

Jesus challenges Nicodemus to move deeper. He calls Nicodemus — and us — to true renewal.

There’s nothing wrong with beginning with the visible and obvious when we describe ourselves or even when we describe or worship God. But it becomes deeply problematic if we stop there. God is a mystery, as is each and every person we meet and love. Listening more closely and more deeply will help us to better love those around us and grant us a richer relationship with God. Of course, we will never love them as much or as perfectly as the God who created “the stars…the winds…and the whale” does. But in listening beyond the obvious, we can move a step closer to the richness and depth to which Jesus calls us.

1O’Day, Gail R. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (vol. VIII). Abingdon Press: Nashville. 2015. p 468.

Sermon for Easter 4

April 25, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

The passage read in the lectionary today was Acts 4:5-12. If you want a fuller context, I recommend you read Acts 3:1-4:22.

Today’s gospel passage was John 10:11-18.

Over the course of our lives, we each encounter times when we must decide what it means to “do the right thing.” Sometimes, “the right thing” is not always obvious. There may be several choices to make, several options which are equally good (or equally bad!). Or, the right thing may be quite obvious — but something which is especially challenging to do.

In today’s reading from Acts (as well as in the verses leading up to and following today’s events), two disciples must defend a choice they made. Several days before today’s trial, Peter and John were on their way to the Jerusalem Temple. At one of the entrances, they noticed a disabled man begging for alms. Peter and John stopped before him. The man looked at them expectantly, awaiting their material gift. But material was not what God had in mind that day! Instead, Peter proclaimed him healed in the name of Jesus. Immediately, the disabled man stood and walked, fully healed.

We heard the results of Peter and John’s choice today. The religious authorities’ reaction was similar to their reaction to Jesus. They order Peter and John to stop. Like the weak hired hand in today’s Gospel, it would have been easy to run away from what was truly important the moment danger presented itself. The authorities could have done much to harm their religious and social status. But the two men were strong. They experienced the power of Jesus’ ministry and His resurrection. Those experiences empowered them, and they knew their call. They stood by it, and refused to back down, even in the face of powerful opposition.

It was an ordinary day in late May 2020 for then-seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazer. She took a younger cousin to the store. It was during this visit that she saw a man being arrested on the street outside. Something didn’t feel right. She sent her younger cousin back into the store. Then, she took out her phone, pulled up her camera, and began filming.

One officer kneeled on the man. One knee pressed into his back and the other knee pressed into his neck. He said he couldn’t breathe, over and over and over again. Despite his protests, the officer remained in place. Three other officers stood by. The small crowd urged the one officer to stop what he was doing, and the other three to get the man medical attention. Whatever the man may have done wrong, he didn’t deserve this. As tensions escalated, the officers ordered the bystanders to disperse. They even threatened them with mace.

Sheep flee at the sight of a wolf. They sense imminent physical danger and respond accordingly. It’s a God-given part of their nature designed to ensure their survival. Sometimes, we humans must make the difficult choice to face the danger, counter to our instincts, even at the threat of our own safety.

The danger was apparent to young Darnella that day. It would have been so much easier to flee to safety. And yet she refused to back down. Like the companions of our passage from Acts, she faced powerful opposition. Despite very real threat to her physical and emotional safety, she continued to record. She faced the danger, head-on, for ten terrifying minutes.

At our ten-thirty service today, we baptized a child. Right now, she is under the careful and loving care of her elders. For now, they choose what is best for her, what will help her to grow up to be healthy and strong and whole. Over time, she will gradually make more and more decisions of her own and on her own. Since she is a toddler, I imagine she is already making some decisions for herself! When she’s much older, she will, like all of us,  be called to discern “the right thing.” She will be called, as we all are, to live into the baptismal promises made on her behalf today. As a congregation we joined in that proclamation of faith by re-affirming our own baptismal promises…

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? 

May we, like the brave ones before us, face the difficult choices of our lives with steadfastness and strength. And may the Love of Jesus shine forth in every choice we make — especially the difficult ones.

May we love those like us and those vastly different from us equally, just as God loves each of us equally — and infinitely.

References

Image courtesy of NPR, who credited the AP. Triesman, Rachel. Darnella Frazer, Teen Who Filmed Floyd’s Murder, Praised for Making Verdict Possible. NPR.org. Originally Published April 21, 2021. Accessed here on April 23, 2021.

Sermon for Easter 3

April 18, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

Luke 24:36-48

Do you think this holds true today? Is Jesus still full of surprises? And if he is, are we even attentive enough to notice?

Today’s Gospel immediately follows the events on the road to Emmaus. Do you remember that story? It is the same day the women discovered the empty tomb. Two disciples walk to a town neighboring Jerusalem. The reason for their travel is not given. Only one disciple is named. We’re not even sure where Emmaus was located. What is important is not the where, or even all the deails of the who, but the what. The encounter they have on their journey changes everything. At the same moment they realized who He was, Jesus evaporates before their very eyes. In their excitement, they rush back to the others in Jerusalem. In the moment of their recounting, Jesus appears among them again, despite the locked doors. He sends them forth to proclaim God’s love and call for spiritual renewal.

In this short sequence, between morning and evening of the same day, Jesus surprises his disciples not once, or even twice, but thrice. 

Jesus is full of surprises!

Do you think this holds true today? Is Jesus still full of surprises?

And if he is, are we even attentive enough to notice?

If we do notice, do we simply nod, grateful for the Divine affirmation, and go about our normal business? Or do we take it to heart, and transform ourselves — however gradually — in response to that call?

Sermon for Maundy Thursday

April 1, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Like each of us every day, Jesus had choices to make. The evening we remember in today’s Gospel is no different.

Jesus could have chosen to be any number of places, to be doing any number of things. As a man of growing influence who was a threat to the powerful establishments (both religious and secular), Jerusalem was perhaps the most dangerous place he could choose to be. As a respected teacher, wearing the garb of a servant, kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet was perhaps the least likely thing he could choose to do.

And yet…there he was. He knew where he came from, who He was and what He was about. Verse three clearly reminds us that Jesus knew “he had come from God and was going to God.” He knew what His call was, and He would remain faithful to that call until the (apparently bitter) end.

Pope Francis washes the feet of Muslim, Christian and Hindu Refugees on Maundy Thursday of 2016.

Source: America Magazine

He could have chosen to model how to create a philosophically and theologically foolproof teaching. He could have chosen to model how to accumulate the largest quantity of followers. He could have chosen to model how to accumulate more wealth and more power. But he wasn’t interested in any of these “worldly goods.” Instead, he chose service. “I have set you an example,” He tells them, “that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Though Jesus’ transformation into the role of servant appeared temporary, He called on His disciples to make it a permanent one for themselves. He called them — and calls us — to a new ethic of servant leadership.

I wonder how our world….our families…and our lives would be different if we took this call to servant leadership to heart.

May we ever love one another as He loves us.

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Sunday, March 28, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

Mark 15:1-39

This Holy Week, let us walk with Jesus the full length of His journey. Let us not walk around the pain, but through it.

In today’s gospel, the ever-escalating conflict set forth in Mark reaches its apparent climax. It would be easy to skip over the uncomfortable events set forth in the Palm Sunday gospel in favor of the happier events of Easter. Today’s liturgy — and those of the coming days — call us to be fully present in the most painful moments of Jesus’ life.

Jesus worked passionately to convince the people of God’s love for them, and of the urgent need to love their neighbors — fully, and without any condition or regard for arbitrary statuses created and enforced by the religious establishment. His challenges were consistent and persistent. When that same religious establishment could no longer suppress His growing influence, they convinced the secular authorities He was a threat to their power. They were known for their brutal, thoughtless and heartless violence. When prodded by the religious authorities, they responded accordingly.

crucifixion, christ, jesus, cross, easter, faith, religion, christianity, resurrection,free pictures, free photos, free images, royalty free, free illustrations, public domain

The pains of our lives may not seem as dramatic as The Passion, but like Jesus’ pain, they certainly run deep. We each have our own, and our own deep need of the healing only God can provide.

So, this Holy Week, let us walk with Jesus the full length of His journey. Let us not walk around the pain, but through it. Let us walk with Jesus as He walks with us.

Sermon for Lent 5

March 21, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

John 12:20-33

Knowing…the giving up of immediate comforts…goes against our very nature, what are we to do? How are we to respond to Jesus’ call?

Today’s conversations with Jesus take place in the bustling streets of Jerusalem. It was even busier than usual due to the festival. His return to the city comes after he raised Lazarus from the dead. He is more well-known than ever before. His impossibly miraculous deed is known far and wide. I expect His presence created a stir wherever He went, and even more so in the city’s festival atmosphere.

This day was no exception. He is approached by two men. The text makes a big deal of their identity as foreigners, but I think focusing on that detail causes us to miss the point. For unclear reasons, the men ask to see Jesus. Rather than taking even a small moment to absorb and enjoy this fame, Jesus turns this interaction into an opportunity to teach.

I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This is surely not the response the two men expected when they first approached Jesus! And it is a difficult teaching to hear, even today. We are called to give up things which seem important now so we can have things which matter more later on. It’s the ultimate delayed gratification! And it goes against our very nature.

Which candy is the most popular, according to data science?

I still remember a video we watched in one of my undergraduate psychology classes. Children were put in a room, alone, seated at a table. Each child was given two pieces of candy. The fewer pieces they ate immediately, the more they were given later. I don’t remember the exact number. It was something like: eat only one, and we’ll give you two more, don’t eat any and we’ll give you four more. But there was a rub! That one little word: later. You can probably imagine the body language of debate which ensued during this brief by highly challenging “waiting period.” I’m sure the thought makes you smile. (I can see some smiles behind your masks!). But it is a serious issue, even for us grown-ups. Put in a room in the same circumstances, I don’t know if I’d do any better than the most impatient kid. Would you?

Knowing delayed gratification, the giving up of immediate comforts — goes against our very nature, what are we to do? How are we to respond to Jesus’ call?

I think we are called to do our imperfect best, knowing it will be imperfect and knowing through God’s grace and continued presence in our lives and in the world it will be enough. We need only love the best we can, every day, and trust God will do the rest.

Sermon for Lent 1

February 21, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

 

Rainbows are part of the myths of many cultures around the world. One of the most famous stories of the rainbow is the Biblical story of Noah, shown here in a mosaic at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Italy. God sent the rainbow as a symbol to never again destroy the Earth with flood.
Mosaic of Noah and his kin, Basilica of San Marco, Venice, Italy. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Shortly after making the decision to attend Virginia Theological Seminary, I began to plan The Big Move from South Dakota to the Metro DC area. Though I love Sioux Falls and many people there, I looked forward to discovering the wider world. I decided to see everything, from the moment I rolled out of the driveway, as an adventure. I bought a tent and made plans to camp my way across the country. More than once, I chose my route based on what I wanted to learn and experience, rather than getting there quickly. I visited the Lincoln and Hoover Presidential libraries, spent days watching and learning about the animals at the Columbus Zoo, and took time to honor the 09/11 Flight 93 Memorial. Most importantly, I enjoyed several long and quiet lulls before the (sometimes overwhelming) busyness of seminary.

Pennsylvania was the final overnight stop before I arrived at school. The last day included time on the turnpike between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. For someone inexperienced in metropolitan driving, it was like riding down an icy hill in a toboggan with no breaks in uncomfortably close proximity to other drivers — some in extremely large vehicles — who had breaks but didn’t care to use them. I was exhausted by the time I merged onto the interstate which would take me to my destination’s exit. Despite the assurance of my brand-new GPS unit, I was unsure I was going the right direction. I was also filled with the apprehension of so many questions. Would I like my classmates? Would they like me? Would my dormmates be noisy and rude? Would I love my classes? Be overwhelmed by them? Or just flunk them? And on and on.

It was that moment, on an otherwise sunny day, that I looked to my left — beyond the normal field of vision for driving — and noticed a brilliant rainbow. It immediately brought to mind the promise God made to Noah on that fateful, muddy day so long. Whatever happened in the next few days, over the next three years, and in the years of ministry ahead, I would be okay. God would be with me every step of the way, just as God was — and is — with Noah and his descendants.

Rainbows are a miraculous turning of nature. Their beauty alone is miraculous, but that is not the only thing that makes them special. They are visible only in very specific circumstances. Adequate water and light are required — but too much or two little of either will prevent their creation. They can be perceived by the human eye only when viewed from a limited angle. They are visible from great distances yet disappear when we move too close. They begin in the white light of the sun — a blending of all colors visible to the human eye — and become what they are only because they enter a droplet of water and make a turn. Only then, after the light turns and leaves the safety of the droplet, are the white colors separated into a brilliant array.

Not only was God’s promise a promise of protection; it was a promise of presence. God would become like the water in the atmosphere: always there, even in the driest desert, but clearly visible only rarely.

The ancients may not have understood the physics of rainbows, but they did understand their miraculous nature. In today’s passage from Genesis, we remember the ancient Judeo-Christian experience with rainbows. God placed one in the sky before a storm-battered Noah as a memorial to the Divine Promise. Not only was it a promise of protection; it was a promise of presence. God would become like the water in the atmosphere: always there, even in the driest desert, but clearly visible only rarely. Like Noah, we have only to be attentive enough to notice and we are reminded that we, too, are heirs to the same Promise.

One of many turns I took during seminary was a pilgrimage to Palestine. Like Jesus, we, too, sojourned to the River Jordan. Tradition held Jesus stood at the same site centuries before, awaiting John’s call. His life was about to take a major turn.

The river in front of us was barely a river at all. It reminded me of Skunk Creek back home, only narrower and dirtier. Aside from the Jordanian soldiers on the other side, armed with automatic rifles, I imagine it looked about the same when Jesus stood there. What was he thinking and feeling as he prepared to step into the dirty waters? He was about to become a cornerstone of a movement which did not begin as his own. What drew him there? Did he know what he was getting himself into? Did he have any inkling of the highs of miraculous healings ahead, of the lows of heart-rendering grief and the pain of separation from everything and everyone he loved?

When I left for seminary, my life took a turn. It was one of the best turns I ever took. It wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last. Sometimes, like my seminary journey, we chose the turnings which happen in our lives. At other times, they are thrust upon us. I’ve often found these turnings are not the end of faith but the very beginning. Presiding Bishop Curry’s Way of Love suggests this turning can be a first step to faith. The Way of Love also specifies that to turn towards God is not a “once and done” type of thing. It’s something that happens to us over and over again throughout our lives. The question is not whether we will need or want to turn, but when.

I think the more important question is not whether we turn, but the reaction we choose when we do. When forced to turn, will we get stuck lamenting what was lost? When we choose to turn, will we see only what we want to see about God and those around us? Or will we turn and choose to have an open mind and heart, and a watchful eye for God’s work in and around us? If the Miraculous Promise of the rainbow is there, will we even notice it? Or will we be too focused on our own problems to see the Divine Presence and Miracles — some large, but mostly very small — unfolding before us every day?

References

Evers, Jeannie. Rainbow in Resource Library: Encyclopedic Entry. National Geographic Society, last updated December 5, 2013. Accessed here on February 17, 2021.

Wells, Sarah. The Science of Rainbows. Smithsonian Science Education Center. No Date. Accessed here on February 17, 2021.

Sermon for Epiphany 4

January 31, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In today’s epistle, Paul calls out members of the Corinthian church for bad behavior and attitudes. He talks a lot about knowledge and the kinds of food they chose to eat. Knowledge and eating aren’t bad things in themselves — or are they? Why does Paul react so strongly to such mundane things? In order to better understand what’s going on, it may help to learn about the communities involved.

Corinth was a prominent trade center in ancient Greece, home to not one but two major seaports. Heavy trade meant the city was a cultural and religious center. It was home to temples honoring Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, and Apollo, the son Zeus himself. Like large cities today, its inhabitants were diverse — though in this case, solidly pagan.

A majority of the Cornithian church membership were Gentile rather than Jewish. Unlike their Jewish counterparts, the Gentiles grew up participating in the pagan cultural milieu with its festivals and celebratory foods. Such festivals were one of the few opportunities lower-income residents had to consume meat. Despite their conversion, they still had many social connections in the pagn majority — friends, business associates, even family members. Naturally, they wanted to hold to their new faith without giving up lifelong social connections with all that entailed. This is at the heart of today’s dispute.

Asklepios - Epidauros.jpg

Statue of Asclepius; Source: Wikipedia

Some of the church’s Gentile members continued to fully participate in pagan festivals, as they had their entire lives. Other members of the community objected to this. The meat consumed at these festivals was slaughtered in honor of the pagan gods these festivals sought to worship. Does eating this “blessed” meat communicate to others in the community, be they Christian or pagan, that one believes in the gods supposedly receiving the sacrifice? Paul argues it does not. He clearly states, “there may be so-called Gods…yet for us there is one God…and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” Choosing to believe in the one, true God negates not only the power but the very existence of all others. But not everyone in the church community agreed upon or accepted this understanding. Imagine that! A disagreement — in the church! They worried not only about how the consumption of festival meat was perceived by their neighbors but what eating it meant for their very souls. And they looked down on those who disagreed with them as superstitious fools.

Though we no longer have the letter the Corinthians sent to Paul which prompted this passage, I expect the community couched their question on the matter in terms of theology. Paul does not see the problem as one of theology; rather, it is one of relationship. Paul quickly and directly cuts to the heart of the matter. Verse one includes the phrase, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge puffs up. Love…builds up. One should not take excessive pride in one’s own theological “rightness” if it causes poor treatment of neighbor. Paul cautions those who consider themselves in the right that “anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.” He urges them to be gentle with their neighbors, beloved ones of God, lest their influence “become a stumbling block…destroy[ing]” other believers.

I wonder how our own communities would be different if we approached each other with the same humility Paul urges for the church in Corinth. Like Corinth, we live in a diverse culture. And like humanity across time, it feels good to be right. I wonder how our interactions, from national political debates to one-on-one relationships, would yield different results if we took a different approach. If we approached each other with humble and open hearts, and sought to build up others in love, rather than elevating ourselves first.