[Sermon preached Jan. 29, 2012.]
Our reading this morning from First Corinthians is one of those moments in Paul’s letters when you know you’re hearing just one side of a conversation, as if he were sitting next to you, talking on the phone. You know there’s got to be a backstory to this discourse on eating food that’s been sacrificed to idols. So let me try to fill it in a little.
As you know, in the Roman world, people worshipped many gods. The Roman religious system itself was polytheistic; plus, the Romans didn’t insist that conquered peoples convert, as long as their local religions didn’t threaten Rome’s power. So in a city like Corinth, there were temples everywhere, and much of temple worship included sacrificing animals. After the sacrifices, some of the meat was eaten in common meals, where lots of people from the local community would attend; and some of the meat was sold in city markets.(1)
So the new Christians, in Corinth and elsewhere, had to sort out how to relate to all this. Was it OK for them to join in a civic meal where meat sacrificed to idols was being eaten? Was it OK for them to go to the market and buy meat that might have been offered in the worship of a rival god? Apparently, the Corinthians had written to Paul, asking for a judge’s ruling. And in today’s reading, Paul basically says: You have the right to do it, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Sure, those who understand that idols are meaningless are free to eat any food that God has provided. But what happens when those who aren’t as sophisticated as you are see you at a temple feast and think you buy into what they’re preaching? What if people who aren’t secure in their faith see you eating in the shrine of an idol and think you’re hedging your bets on which god is the real one? Is it worth it to shake someone else’s faith in order to get a great steak? If your example doesn’t build the church community, Paul says, change your example.
Today, we don’t worry much about eating meat sacrificed to idols. So what does all this have to do with us, 2,000 years later? I think it has a lot to do with something most of us treasure deeply, one of our fundamental values as Americans. That value is freedom, in all aspects of our lives –- political, economic, social, religious. One of our primary self-definitions is that we’re free to do what we want to do, as long as no one gets hurt in the process.
But sometimes our values bump up against each other in uncomfortable ways. In this case, of course, freedom isn’t our only value. Right up there with it are the values of family and community. Sure, we’re free to do whatever we want as long as no one gets hurt; but we also know that we’re part of things bigger than ourselves -– our nuclear families, our extended families, our church family, even the neighborhoods and cities where we live. We know we’re responsible to those around us, even though those responsibilities aren’t cut and dried. Especially as Christians, we know we’re bound together with the people in this room, the people of the Episcopal Church, and all the believers who comprise the Body of Christ in the world.
There’s a great movie from about 20 years ago that’s all about this tension between individual freedom and the well-being of the communities we’re part of. The movie is Local Hero. It’s the story of Mac, a high-powered deal-maker with a Texas oil company, who’s sent to this incredibly beautiful, picturesque village on the coast of northern Scotland named Ferness. Mac’s mission is to buy the entire village so his oil company can level everything, dredge out the bay, and put in a massive refinery. So Mac comes to Ferness looking for someone who can act as the community’s representative in this delicate deal. He finds Gordon, the unofficial community leader who ends up being the real deal-maker. Mac’s trying to account for the people’s feelings, the destruction of the beautiful village, the end of the community’s lifestyle. But Gordon is working behind the scenes with the residents to maximize the cash they’ll each get out of the deal. As the story moves along, Mac ends up being the one who wants to preserve the village with its quaint lifestyle, and Gordon and the villagers can barely keep a lid on their excitement about becoming “filthy rich.”
The crux of the story comes with the one hold-out in the deal, the one villager who doesn’t want to take the money and run. He’s Ben, a deeply eccentric old man who literally owns the beach and lives there in a shack whose only entrance is a window. As Mac says at one point, “How do you do business with someone who doesn’t have a door?” Ben’s job is to “work the beach,” as he puts it –- gathering up all the bizarre stuff from around the world that the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift bring to the Scottish shore. Mac and Gordon try to explain to Ben that with his new millions, he could buy any beach he wants, and they show him pictures from Hawaii and Australia and the South Seas. Ben says he doesn’t want any of those beaches. He explains, “This beach has been in the family for 400 years.… The thing is, I’m still working the place myself. It’s my living.… [The beach] has to be worked; think of the state the place would get into.”
What Ben sees is that he’s there not just for himself but for the good of the community. In fact, what he sees, which the other residents don’t, is that each individual in Ferness is there for the good of the community. And, ironically, that’s precisely what gives each individual his or her own well-being, too. If they all pursue their own self-interest, the community ceases to exist -– and then what would they have? I won’t spoil the movie’s ending, but just know that things work out, and the community endures.
Running throughout Local Hero is this question: Who is the local hero? Is it Mac, who changes from a self-centered deal-maker to someone who wants to save the village? Is it Gordon, who’s leading his people to get the most they can from a heartless oil company? Is it Ben, who reminds the community that they are a community, dependent on each other for the life they’ve known for centuries?
Like the villagers of Ferness, we have the freedom to get what we want out of our lives and our communities. Like the people of Corinth, we can choose to take what we want because we know we have the right to take it. That was certainly my temptation related to church, at a different time in my life. As a young adult, I went to church completely on my own terms. I liked to sing in the choir, so I went to church in order to sing there. Later, when I moved out on my own, I didn’t join a church at all because I didn’t want to get sucked into relationships or connection or commitment. But I did show up every now and then, when I wanted to get my time with God, and receive my Communion, and scoot out before I had to talk to anybody at coffee hour. It left me recharged until the next time I felt my battery running low. I was completely within my rights to go to church, enjoy the community they had built, and slip out again without upsetting anything. I had every freedom to do that -– but I wasn’t being a good steward of that freedom. I was looking for what was in it for me. It didn’t occur to me that my being there might have had the potential to benefit someone else.
The truth is, we need each other. Whether we’re talking about families, or parishes, or neighborhoods, or any circle of relationship, communities don’t work as collections of autonomous individuals working to ensure they each get their needs met. We have every right to do that. But the family bleeds a little with the loss of each potential contribution we could have made.
Last week, down in the undercroft, we honored some of our own local heroes by giving them the Priest-in-Charge’s Cross. These four parishioners share a commitment to be more than individuals in this church family. One hero is Randy Bredar, who’s helped guide some of the most expensive elements of the building’s restoration and helped save us hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. Another hero is Howard Williams, who’s been one of the stalwarts of the BackSnack program and who singlehandedly created a ministry of ushers to serve people at funerals. Another hero is Pete Vogt, who mentors kids at Southwest High, manages funerals for us, serves on more committees than he doesn’t serve on, and offers his photographers’ eye for free. And another hero is Connie Smart, who’s been the St. Andrew’s “Church Lady” for decades, a presence of servant ministry, historical memory, and holy encouragement for everyone she meets.
Who are our local heroes? Not just these four parishioners; not just the 20 other people who could have received crosses last week; but also many, many, many of you. Our local heroes are all those who’ve learned the blessedness of putting the well-being of this faith family ahead of individual liberty. They use their freedom as Jesus used his: Though he was in the form of God -– though he had every right to do it -– he did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. (Philippians 2:6-7) That is the ministry -– that is the glory -– of our local heroes.
1. For more information, see Garland, David E. “The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed to Idols (1 Cor 8:1-11:1).” Available at: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/religious_studies/SNTS2002/garland.htm. Accesed Jan. 26, 2012.