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Thinking You Know Better

Katie Omberg
Sun, Feb 01

Text: 1 Corinthians 8:4-13

Friends, please pray with me: May the words of my heart and the thoughts of all of our hearts be pleasing in your eyes, O God, for you are our rock. Amen.

I’ll be the first to say it: I’m skeptical of Paul. Right, there’s the whole “Paul doesn’t want women to speak in church” thing and “Paul said that being gay is bad” thing. But even before that I was skeptical. If I had been around in the early days of the church, I would definitely been on Team Peter. I mean, he knew Jesus personally down to the point of being his right-hand man, so like, who are you going to listen to, him or someone who fell off a horse en route to Damascus?

So when I saw that 1 Corinthians was on the lectionary this week, I was completely ready to skip over it. When I read it the first time, I had the same reaction some of you might have had just now: “really? we’re gonna talk about idol meat?” But when I read it again and really took a pen to the text in good grad student fashion, I saw that it had some good stuff in there. So get ready: we’re going to talk idol meat.

While we usually shorthand the title of this letter to “First Corinthians,” it’s better to think of it as “First Letter *to* the Corinthians,” as it is actually a response to a letter the fledgling Christian community in Corinth sent to Paul. Paul had started to build up the church there around 50CE, and now they write to him with a list of questions about how to actually live out this whole “Christian” thing: divorce: yea or nay? The Lord’s Supper: what do we do about class differences? Meat sacrificed at pagan temples: fair game or what? And it is that last question that the eighth chapter of this letter is focused on. The social backstory on this is this: it was custom at Temples to various Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities to sacrifice animals to the gods. Once sacrificed, the meat would then be sold at the market to eat at home. The writers of the letter from Corinth to Paul seem to argue that: if we know the gods the meat is sacrificed to are just idols, then eating the meat is morally fine: it’s a delicious roast that just happened to take a pit stop at the Temple of Isis en route to the market.

But Paul raises concern for those Christians who are concerned about the morality of eating this meat. If you know it’s not sacrificed to a true god, but they are worried that it is, but in seeing you, someone who “knows more than them” eating it, they might be tempted to eat it, worrying the whole time that they are offending God. And *that* is where the sin happens: in putting your own intellect above concern for the conscience of your Christian family.

Are you still with me? It can seem to be a stuffy, boring passage about something that’s no longer important. I mean, when was the last time any of us can, in good faith, say that we ate meat sacrificed at a temple to a Roman god?

But buried in this treatise on idol meat were three lines that stuck out to me in a way that made this passage relevant for us: in verse one, where Paul says that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” and the caution to “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak,” and finally Paul’s conclusion that “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling,I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”

And my God did this hit home for me. You mean, knowledge isn’t the trump card? Being smart isn’t the end goal? Knowing enough minutiae to get on Jeopardy! isn’t the currency we should be trading in? This realization made me take stock of my own life, let alone this passage, in a new way.

A bit of self-disclosure: I grew up in Montgomery County MD, which has one of the best school districts in the country, and my high school was within the top 100 high schools in the nation while I was there. I went to a prestigious college, and am now at BU with a bells-and-whistles scholarship. And I’m proud of all of this. I know intimately the “puffed up” feeling Paul is talking about, where you sit at home and count all the feathers in your hat.

But is this resume I’ve just given you what makes me happy? Do I feel satisfied, loved, and “built up,” as Paul would put it?  Let me tell you where I have felt “built up.”

I have felt built up when others in my community have sort of “circled the wagons” around me. My depression got the best of me this summer, and I emailed my friends around the country letting them know that I was feeling pretty down. I didn’t know how to fix it, and I didn’t really know what exactly I needed to feel better.  But my community built me back up (well, my community and going back to therapy): I received phone calls, emails, and Facetimes that helped me feel less alone, loved, and included.

I have felt built up when I have had difficult conversations across differences. Last fall my school hosted a Circle Worship where we discussed the events in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Holding space for people to say what was on their hearts and minds was a holy event. And while it was tempting for me to walk in to that room thinking I’ve done my work, I’ve done my research, I know how to do white solidarity….that was not going to build up anyone, including myself. I had to reign in my pride, and in some ways my knowledge, so that I could be in community, and not only that, but even increase my knowledge by listening.

Contemporary Episcopalian queer theologian Carter Heyward in her book “The Redemption of God” defines love as “the particular human experience of bridging differences, of reaching and being reached by persons beyond ourselves.”  Walking into a space thinking “I know better” isn’t the loving mindset. Puffing myself up so that I can only look at others’ down my nose is not an ethical way of relating to others, and is not a responsible way of being in community.

Paul instead calls us to “take care that liberty ...so that it does not somehow become a stumbling block” to any others. The word that is translated as “liberty” is the Greek word “exousia,” which means “power of choice” or “liberty of doing as one pleases.” The concern Paul raises is that the ”power of choice” gained through wisdom creates a responsibility as well as a freedom, and that we do not overlook the responsibility we have.

Another contemporary Episcopalian theologian, Ellen Charry, speaks eloquently and directly to this point, noting that “the community is strengthened when the stronger cater to the needs of the weak. At the heart of Pauline ethics is the notion of self-restraint in order to strengthen others.” She goes on to describe Christian community, saying that it means “using one's body, mind and talents for the common good.” She then delivers a line that I just love:  “It means helping others...and asking others to do the same for you.” While Paul is describing one situation where there is a wise side and a weak side, I would be inclined to think that these sides are not consistent; sometimes we find ourselves wise on one topic or issue, but in need of support from our community on others.

And so where does God show up in this back-and-forth of love? Following service today will be an opportunity for healing prayer, where members of this community make their needs known, and in this act of vulnerability, are built up in loving prayer by other members of the community who are able to accompany them. On any given day, we might find ourselves on either side of this equation: in need of prayers and assistance, or offering prayers or assistance. We might even find ourselves switching from one side to the other in the course of a day! 

And so, to bring it back to Paul’s story about idol meat. It seems to be that God—and possibly some of us here--care less about idol meat than about community. And so the message to First Church Corinth is the same for First Church Cambridge: keep knowledge from puffing us up, so that we may better build each other up with love. Amen.

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