(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Baptist Church)
(I Corinthians 8:1-13 – 29 January 2012)
Last Sunday I confessed that I did not want to speak on the lectionary passage provided since it was so easily misinterpreted and only made sense when one understood the belief that the Apostle Paul had that the end of the world was imminent.
This Sunday I find myself not wanting again to speak on the lectionary passage provided but for a different reason. And the reason why I don’t want to speak on today’s passage is because my parents often used it when I was younger to convince to do what they wanted me to do. Or, better put, not to do what they didn’t want me to do. “We know dancing isn’t wrong,” they would say “but by engaging in such an activity you may well cause someone else to stumble in their faith.” When I was older they said the same thing about having a drink or a myriad of other things which Baptist kids were not allowed to do.
When I became a minister myself this passage perched like a black crow on my shoulder. “You know it isn’t wrong but you don’t want to cause someone to stumble in their faith” a little voice would whisper in my ear.
Indeed, so strong was the influence of this passage that when Margie and I added on to our house and the builder put in a wine rack where I thought there should be shelving, I protested long and hard that a Baptist minister could not and should not have a wine rack in their house and made him tear it out before I relented.
Margie found such behavior odd and slightly hypocritical. “You don’t think drinking is wrong,” she noted.
“No, I replied, not in moderation, after all Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine.”
“Well then what’s the problem?” she persisted.
“It just isn’t . . . it just isn’t right,” I stuttered out, “after all I am a Baptist minister.”
Of course, Margie wasn’t raised in the same background as I was. Not only was I a minister’s kid but a missionary kid as well. And a Baptist one to boot! That meant no card playing, no dancing, no going to movies, no make-up (for the women I should add), no swearing, no smoking and no drinking. In fact, the only sins we were allowed were the two “gs” — gluttony and gossip.
And always, if I pushed far enough, and got my parents to admit that in moderation such and such an activity was okay their fall back position would be, “well, maybe it’s okay but if by engaging in that activity you hurt the faith of someone else than it is not right.”
The justification for my parent’s stance was this passage from I Corinthians chapter 8. The background to this passage was the worship of idols which was prevalent in the Apostle Paul’s time. As part of this worship choice cuts of meat and other foods were placed before the idols who, since they were of stone or wood, could not eat the food provided. And so this food was either given away or sold. Some Christians argued that since they did not believe in idols eating such food was not a problem. The Apostle Paul agreed but noted that other, perhaps younger Christians, saw this as affirming worship of the idol itself and so were hurt in their faith, causing Paul to conclude that he himself would not eat food offered to idols because eating such a food could be the cause of other’s Christians falling away from their faith. As he put it, “if food is a cause of their failing, I will never eat meant, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”
Looking back, I realize now, that not engaging in the long list of don’ts with which I was raised didn’t hurt me at all but I still don’t like this passage because it brings to mind the frustration I had growing up. Although, I need to add, in my parent’s defense, that they were not especially strict compared to other missionaries. At one missionary boarding school I attended we weren’t even allowed to talk to some one of the opposite sex unless there was a third person present!
When I was older I came across the biblical passage in Galatians “for freedom or for liberty Christ has set you free.” And I remember reflecting, as I have done at various points in my adult life, that while Christian faith has brought me many wonderful things, a sense of liberty is not one of them.
I struggle with many fears; many worries and I think that I am not alone. Many Christians, particularly those brought up in strong religious homes like mine, don’t really feel or revel in the liberty the freedom which Christ came to bring us.
In part, this may be because we are afraid of freedom. Rules provide safety, secure boundaries within which we can operate. In Dostoyevsky’s celebrated story entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” Christ comes back to earth at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor spies Christ in a crowd one day and has him tossed in prison. In the dark of the night the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his prison cell and berates him telling him that he came to bring people freedom but that the last thing people really wanted was to be free. That people were scared of freedom.
So perhaps we are afraid of freedom but I think that most of the time the problem for some of us at least is that we were raised within a code of dos and don’ts and never really experienced the freedom, the liberty Christ came to bring. Instead, we self censor constantly and confine ourselves to what is tried and what is safe.
You can see why I did not want to speak on this passage from I Corinthians chapter 8, because what the Apostle Paul is saying in this passage is that if my sense of Christian liberty allows me to do something, I still should not do it because it undermines the faith of the other. There are, in other words, limits to freedom, limits to liberty.
But as much as I don’t really like this passage I have to admit, especially after listening to the Republican Presidential candidate’s debates, that the Apostle Paul has a point.
The Americans love to talk about liberty. In this they differ from Canadians. The Canadian vision is one of “peace, order and good government” while the American vision is that of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And each Republican candidate is claiming he is the true champion of liberty. Obama has stolen individual liberty and he will be the one to restore it.
Indeed, one of the candidates, Ron Paul doesn’t even claim to be a conservative but a “libertarian.” And to be fair to him, he is the most humorous of the four candidates remarking drily about Newt Gingrich’s plan to put a colony on the moon, “I don’t think we should travel to the moon but there are a few politicians I’d like to send there.”
And when the moderator pressed him whether at age 76 he was too old to stand for president of the United States, “he replied, “you’d better watch it there are laws against age discrimination.”
He was joking but in his comments, I thought to myself, there is the contradiction between those who want to do away with regulations which restrict their liberty. You see, you cannot claim protection against age discrimination and, at the same time, pledge to do away with regulations which impede liberty.
More importantly, all the candidates would do away with most environmental protection laws, and indeed, one candidate who recently dropped out, vowed that if he became president he would get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency. The problem with such an approach is that when I am free to do what I want, to pollute as I will, I may not suffer from it but someone else will. The classic case of this is climate change where the effects will be felt of those who can least afford to cope with them.
I think the Apostle Paul’s caution that there are limits to liberty also is pertinent to the discussion going on today regarding our health care system. Granted there are problems, drug companies push drugs which are new and better and horribly expensive even when no needed, physicians operate as private business people in a public system and reap rewards for so doing, we have forgotten how to die with dignity and scratch and demand to prolong life for a few months at an exorbitant cost. But the direction that the politicians are taking us in, in a might add the name of liberty, liberty from excessive taxation and freedom to choose one’s level of treatment will negatively impact on those who cannot afford proper insurance. More privatization in our health care system will not save money but reduce service for those most vulnerable. What we need, in my opinion is less privatization and a strong community agreement that we will also do with a bit less so that everyone can have enough.
I realize there are those who disagree with me and feel that introducing privatization will save money. Ron Russell and I would always debate at caucus and he would claim he never saw anything that the private system could not do better and cheaper. But whether I am wrong or not the system as a whole must no discriminate against those who are unable to pay for their care like others can, that is the point I am making. We live in a society and my liberty cannot be pushed to the point where it hurts someone else. If that happens we no longer have society but merely a collection of individuals each trying to do their own thing and if you look at history you now where that leads to! I can tell you because I grew up in Bolivia and it is the control of the few over the money, the wealth of the few over the many, the liberty of the few over the economic slavery of the many.
Liberty is a wonderful thing but liberty needs always to be balanced with responsibility, something we have lost sight of. I realize that this balance is easy to talk about but hard to achieve. How do we balance these two so that others are not hurt but the individual also experiences the freedom Christ came to bring us? Fortunately, Paul provides guidance for us not just in this specific instance of eating or refraining of eating meat sacrificed to idols. If this was the only guidance Paul offered we would be in trouble because that practice has gone by the wayside thousands of years ago. No Paul offers guidance which can cover the multiplicity of situations which we face in our lives where our freedom and someone else’s well being may seem to be in conflict with each other.
Right at the beginning of this passage that I read he writes these words, “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” And not too many chapters later in this letter he writes those famous words, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love I am a nosy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Love, love for God, for the other, for self is the light which can guide us through the thorny issues of liberty and responsibility, not knowledge, or power, or wealth, or science, or religion but love because all these other things I mentioned “puff up” love alone “builds up.”