“I did all this work on the Paul passage and I’m not even going to preach about it tomorrow, I feel like everyone will be totally missing out.”
I said this to my husband while we were folding laundry on Saturday night. It prompted both of us to look up from the piles of shirts and socks and laugh out loud.
We have a running understanding that the last thing any of our parishioners need is an extra minute of hearing us speak on a Sunday morning, especially from the pulpit. No one’s ever said, “Gosh, that sermon was great, I just wish it had been a few minutes longer.”
But I do sometimes hear from folks who wished it was deeper. I do sometimes hear from folks who were still hungry for a little more biblical exposition. And that can be a good thing. That hunger can lead to further study. For most, though, those ten minutes of exposition on Sunday morning are it.
When I try to listen to our readings on Sunday morning with the ears of someone who doesn’t study the bible very often, they can easily sound like nonsense. Two weeks ago, I literally just took the biggest WTF moment in the whole selection and preached on it, because sometimes enough of those moments pass by and I can only imagine folks are looking at each other with this expression that says, “did we really just read about prostitutes and the preacher isn’t going to say anything about it?” So most weeks I’m left wishing that I could just geek out about the bible for half an hour in the middle of the service. (Which, if you’re interested in hearing what that would sound like, join us for bible study at St. Michael’s on the 2nd & 4th Thursdays at 6:00pm). Finding a balance between that and what we actually have room for on Sunday mornings is the trick.
Yesterday, it was Paul’s words about eating meat offered to idols that really had me hooked. I know, I know, the whole thing sounds like a precursor to the Paleo Diet. But this was a big deal for the Corinthian community. Paul takes up three chapters addressing it, so you know it’s gotta be about more than meat and vegetables. It’s about class. It’s about how we lord our intellect over those whom we feel superior to and how we make concessions to folks we disagree with. But it starts with meat. The short version is that meat in Corinth and most Roman cities of the time passed through a temple before entering the butcher’s shop. If you were going to buy an animal you were going to get your money’s worth out of it, you were going to have a tribute to pay the deities in your life and eat your T-Bone, too. This meant that most meat had been involved in some pagan ritual or another. It also meant that meat was a luxury of those who could afford it. The Christian Corinthians who chose to partake justified their dinner by saying that those other gods aren’t real anyway so what does it matter? Meanwhile, other Corinthian Christians (probably the ones who couldn’t afford meat) were appalled that their brethren were still engaging pagan ways.
Paul says: yes, yes, you’re right, no god but God and he couldn’t care less about what you eat, but does your brother or sister care? Are you using your understanding about this to build upon your relationship as members of one another in Christ, or are you using it to belittle them for not getting it? Which one of these seems more Christ-like (remembering how much Christ put up with in us?) If they’re still stuck on this meat-being-too-pagan thing I wouldn’t touch the stuff, myself.
Here’s my thing: I’ve heard this all before. This rationale almost gives me PTSD because it feels so closely connected to the pattern I’ve been in with the Episcopal Church as a gay man. I’ve mentioned before that I wouldn’t be here if the Episcopal Church didn’t ordain openly queer clergyfolk and the Episcopal Church wouldn’t be in that position if it hadn’t been for more than fifty years of tireless witness, advocacy and legislation. The legislative process in particular is often a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of gig. When we took one step back in 2006 by placing a moratorium on more gay bishops, I almost threw in the towel. The rationale I always heard then and still hear now when it comes to our brethren in the broader Anglican communion is one of patient inclusion. We must be mindful of how our understanding affects those who do not share it. While many of us see our sexuality as a grace of God, are we excluding our brethren who aren’t hip to the gift yet by moving forward in it’s celebration? Can’t we find common ground?
This ethic has at least one root in what Paul says to the Corinthians. Paul is reminding us that we do not act in the faith as individuals but as members of one another. As such, the worst thing we could do is degrade a member of our own body with accusations of ignorance. Especially because it presumes that we know something about God’s intellectually elusive character. “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” In this one verse, Paul turns the table on the issue. It’s not about what you think you’ve learned about the world or yourself or God, especially since knowing is one of the ways that we manipulate and objectify the world. God cannot be our object. Anytime we think we’ve made a comprehensible object out of God all we’ve really made is another idol. So begin with loving. Begin with being known.
None of which helps me at all with my question of acquiescence to someone who doesn’t share my theology. If we had made too many concessions as a denomination, I know I for one wouldn’t have had a part of it. So where does that leave us? As of Sunday, it had only left me with the story I remembered about Bishop Robinson, a story about how hard it is to hold space with someone who vehemently, violently disagrees, and about how that’s the space God holds anyway. And so that’s where what I did preach began.