Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Do We Value?

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Deuteronomy 18:15-20; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

My first impression, reading these appointed lessons today, was to wish I’d invited someone else to preach. Slim pickins’, I thought to myself. But since God gets to hear those first impressions, it didn’t take me long to wonder if it might be arrogant (even offensive) to be slamming the book shut solely because I couldn’t feel a stirring of my imagination. I found myself wondering if God wasn’t holding me to a higher standard than my first reactions.

At work in both first and second lessons is the ancient belief that there are many gods, many lords. All three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—insist that there is one God, only one God. Our Abrahamic bunk-mates, both Jewish and Muslim, find fault with us in our doctrine of the Holy Trinity, asking if this doesn’t smack of polytheism. But we quickly remind them of the missing word: ours is the doctrine of the holy and undivided Trinity, and we pound the table as hard as they do in asserting there is one God who presents in more than one way, but one God, by God!

Our readings today show how hard-fought and hard-won was the rise of the new belief, monotheism—one God. The nations neighboring ancient Israel had their fertility gods and goddesses, their martial gods, their tribal gods, worshiped at many altars with the flow of much blood, some of it human. Worshiped also on the high places with cultic prostitution, and in temples with food offerings. There was a certain libidinal appeal to how these gods were worshiped—never a dull sermon—and thus it was that the worship of one God in ancient Israel faced chronic competition, a recurring theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. As we heard today, the vestiges of polytheism could bring out the worst in the followers of Israel’s one God, including threats to murder any prophets who spoke in the names of other gods. Gosh, what kind of religion is that?

Fast-forward many centuries to the first in the Common Era and find St. Paul counseling the church at Corinth on the knotty question whether Christians were allowed to eat meat that had been offered in sacrifice at a pagan temple. Some things just don’t change. The old-time religion of many gods had a long shelf-life.

Today, I suppose our assortment of idols, household gods, and lesser divinities could include fame, wealth, beauty, athletic prowess, popularity, tenure, retirement… And, in our national pantheon, what? Nuclear supremacy? Single-party control of the House, Senate, and White House? A balanced budget? Winning the race for outer space? They all have their worshipers. And what is worship—worth-ship—but the repeated actions we take in service to what we value most?

That could be a sermon for another time. Let’s return to Paul. His answer to the Corinthians’ question carries a message that would outlast anything we think we know about the idolatries of his time. Paul constructs a careful argument asserting that idols have no real existence beyond the way that carved wood or hammered metal occupies space on a shelf, so it ought to make no difference whether the food offered to please the idols gets sold at the back door of the temple and taken home by Christians… or not. More important, he insists, is what message is heard when new Christians, in whom a fresh new conscience is being formed, converts from those pagan temples, watch church leaders serve up that lamb stew at the potluck supper as if it doesn’t matter.

Mattering, in other words, can’t be determined by logic alone. Compassionate thoughtfulness trumps reason in how believers treat one another within the intimate community of the Body of Christ. “Getting it” matters more than getting. The knowledge we claim must be a knowing of people, a knowing of God, more than a knowing of principles. And if we forget that, and make decisions and choices that wound our newest, weakest, youngest members, then we sin against Christ. The church family is that intimate: What we do to one another we do to him.

What made the apostolic community known and respected in Paul’s time was the way their communal intimacy trained them to be that way in the world. They didn’t just take care of themselves: they were generous neighbors and gracious citizens, a powerful antidote to the brutality and cynicism of imperial Rome, the force that occupied their lands. They practiced what their teacher Jesus had modeled: table fellowship that set equal places for poor and rich, Greek and Jew, female and male, free and slave, mainstream and marginalized. They took him at his word when he instructed them to treat the poorest and sickest as if they were treating him. They found their fulfillment in what he had announced he had come to fulfill: the binding-up of the broken-hearted, release of the prisoner, bringing good news to the poor.

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul’s words, but they surely were Jesus’s words, too; at least they spoke his Spirit.

In the civic and political life of our nation in a year of presidential campaigning that puffs up anyone aspiring to lead, in this long season of partisan wrangling, listen, watch for anyone who demonstrates love that builds. Vote for that person!

Be astounded when you encounter such authority, as Jesus’s first hearers were at Capernaum, when he did much more than speak. In the same intimacy that marked his table fellowship and would characterize his Church, Jesus fully encounters, entirely engages a very troubled man.

If there are many gods in the background of our first two readings, here in the Gospel stands someone with multiple personalities. The result is not dissimilar. What is inherently one, meant to be one, necessarily one, has become fragmented, fractured, chaotic. In place of a confident, centered, peaceable, creative spirit there is about this man a constant competition within him, a being-at-odds with himself that consumes his vitality, distracts from pleasure and joy, an endless appeasing of conflicting demands.

Facing this splintered person, Jesus unifies him, reconciles his oppositions, speaks into his chaos the Word of re-creation.

I want to say that we need Jesus to do much the same thing for our fractured dysfunctional nation, for we are in the grip of our oppositions and show signs of having an unclean spirit.

But as I hear myself say those words, I shudder at sounding like a right-winger who would insist that the United States of America is a Christian country that must become an entirely Christian country… and I recognize how easy it is turn a source of unity into a disintegrating influence that could shatter the very equilibrium we need.

So I will ratchet down my rhetoric, having heard a certain degree of puff in myself, and ask that we keep committing ourselves in this parish family to allowing love to build up an intimate community where taking care of one another informs not only our religious life, but also our citizenship in this country and our role as good neighbors beyond our borders.

To commit ourselves to this caring will keep requiring us to examine our little shrines, our household gods, to answer unafraid the question: Just what do we value?