A sermon for the Churches of Epiphany and St Bartholomew, Euclid and Mayfield Village, during the shared sabbatical plan, Epiphany 4, 2018
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1)
Paul’s letter is not about eating meat or going vegetarian. It’s not even about idolatry. It is about relationship. It’s about consideration. It’s about love. Anything less brings the gospel into disrepute.
Many years ago and many miles away, my child’s class was studying world religions in a modest, six-year-old way. One of the students was a member of the local Sikh temple. I don’t know a lot about the Sikh religion, to be honest; I know that the men wear turbans, and from that elementary world religions class I know that their devotions involve a lot of food and feeding the community, reaching out in love to their neighbours.
The student’s family invited the class to take a field trip to the temple on a Thursday lunchtime, to taste the curries and see first hand the way that this congregation fed the community around it. Permission slips were sent home, along with guidelines for how to dress and to behave in the temple; how the children might show respect and gratitude to their hosts. Honestly, as in most religions, the youngest children, these six and seven-year-olds, could have been exempted from most of the requirements of tradition and convention, but their teachers wanted to make sure that they understood that they were entering a space that was holy and important to their hosts, so they asked the girls to cover their heads.
I was part of a group of Christian parents who met monthly to pray together for the school, its staff and students. A week or so before the field trip, we met, and one of the women expressed her concern at providing a head covering for her daughter. “Isn’t it worshipping false gods?” she wondered. She had no problem with her daughter visiting the temple – there would be no prayers or other confusing religious rituals to contaminate her child’s Christianity, but she worried about the dress code. “If we show respect for their religion,” she explained, “isn’t that the same thing as honouring false gods?”
Well, no, some of us countered. It’s more like respecting our neighbours, honouring rather than dishonouring their home. If the alternative is either to shun them or to insult them, by staying away or by showing up uncovered, what ambassador is that for the gospel of Christ, which demands first the love of God and immediately following that the love of one’s neighbour?
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Teaching a child that her religion is superior will puff her up; teaching her to love her neighbour, one of the founding commandments of her faith, will build up the whole community.
We serve a Christ who was a faithful and observant Jew for the whole of his life – not the demographic of most of us here. We serve an Incarnate God who spent his life among us as a man of the first century, in the culture and climate of the Middle East, at odds with the western traditions of the Romans. We should know how to respond in love to those whose traditions differ from our own. We should know how to build community across difference, responding with love rather than condescension; respect rather than rejection.
We serve Christ, who cast out demons and reconciled the word of God to its application, healing on the Sabbath because love is more important than letters. Anything less brings the gospel into disrepute.
At our Community Meal, which we host on the fourth Sunday of every month, we stretch our hospitality, and we exercise our love. We encounter people different from ourselves, and we are challenged whether to know better than them, or to love them better.
For a start, this Meal came about as a partnership between two parishes. Each wanted with a loving and grieving heart to do something to feed the needs of our neighbours, to do something more than to write a check, to reach out in love and to build relationship with those who live around us, who surround us but with whom we never, almost never sit down and have a conversation, or share a meal. Each parish had its heart in the right place, but neither quite had the resources to put the meal on alone.
There was a division to overcome in order for these two parishes to come together, to work together, to get this ministry started. There were the old traditions by which parishes competed for members – let’s face it – and argued over styles of music and liturgy, and whether or not it was ok to call a woman or a gay person as their priest, and whether or not decaffeinated coffee belonged at the coffee hour. Parishes divided and isolated themselves, in the old days, in the old ways, knowing better than one another, puffing themselves up instead of building up one another’s ministries. It happened with the first disciples, too; they argued among themselves as to who was the greatest, and Jesus told them that the only way forward was to stop, to kneel at the feet of the other, and to serve him.
In order to work together, to start this Community Meal, our parishes had to set aside our pride, acknowledge our need of one another, and find out how we could serve and help one another before we could serve our neighbours. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up, and in mutual love we were able to build something beyond what either parish could manage by itself.
And because we learned to love one another, we were able to build something that feels loving and nurturing, welcoming and respectful to our guests, many of whom present themselves differently than the Sunday morning crowd, and some of whom have special, secret knowledge which they love to share over the dinner table, and some of whom look and sound just like their servers.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The key to greatness is not knowing better than anyone who comes through our doors; not even knowing Christ better than anyone; but the key to greatness, as Jesus told his first disciples, is to love one another, seeking and serving Christ in all persons; even the ones closest to us. Anything less brings the gospel into disrepute.
But here’s the kicker. Here’s the gospel that we proclaim:
God knows it all. God knows all of our hopes and fears, our secret sins and shame, our desires, the love that dares not speak its name; God knows how small we have become, and how much God knows. And what does God do with such knowledge?
God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up; and God knows you and loves you in the most mighty way possible, and through Jesus Christ that love has been proved and found to be true.