PRAYER: God of love and mercy, remind us today that the things we do – as well as the things we do not do – can have an impact on others as we strive to be a witness to your love. Teach us how to respond to opportunities in life with an attitude of graciousness and love. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
There is a very popular restaurant chain that I will not frequent. Ever. Not because I don’t like their food; their food is fine. I don’t like their policy. One policy, in fact. In the past, the corporate board of this particular restaurant chain has donated money to organizations that do great harm to a very particular segment of society. Look, you can believe whatever you want to believe about other groups of people, but when your beliefs are manifested into doing harm to others, that’s where I draw the line. And that’s why I will never go to this restaurant.
Now, I want to be very clear about two things: First – I do not believe for one moment that my individual decision to not frequent this restaurant has any impact whatsoever on their bottom line. That is not my intent. I am not under some delusion that there are folks in the corporate offices lamenting that the corporate profits will somehow suffer because some random guy in Hunterdon County, NJ will never step foot in their restaurant. You and I both know that I am not capable of that kind of power. And second – just because I have made my decision to not go there does not mean that I would ever tell you to not go there. If you want to eat at that restaurant, that’s your decision and I respect that. I’m not trying to stop anyone from enjoying their food. I’m simply talking about my decision and my decision only.
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of businesses whose money goes to questionable organizations; there’s nothing we can do to change that. The difference is that this particular restaurant chain actually brags about having sent corporate donations to organizations that I do not support, and that’s why I won’t knowingly allow even 1/10th of a penny that I spend to be used by them to do harm to others. That’s just my decision.
Keep that in mind as we talk about Paul’s words in the 8th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Because what Paul is talking about in this chapter may seem on the surface to be completely irrelevant to our 21st century culture. First century Corith was a polytheistic Greek culture. That means that there were many gods who they worshipped. A religion such as Judaism or the brand new Christianity that worshipped only one god was considered unusual to that culture. Any number of members of the Corinthian Christian church would have been faced with issues of eating food that had been sacrificed to other gods. They may have had members of their own families that worshipped other gods and would have brought food into their homes that had been offered up to Zeus or Aphrodite, or any number of other Greek gods. Some members of the Corinthian church wondered about the propriety of it all given their firm belief in Jesus as the only true Lord. They feared that if they ate that chicken sandwich that was offered up to Zeus, then they would be legitimizing Zeus. It was causing some significant debate among the church, which is why Paul is responding in his letter.
At first, his response is pretty matter of fact. He tells the church, “There is one God the Father. All things come from him, and we belong to him. And there is one Lord Jesus Christ. All things exist through him, and we live through him.” In other words, eat whatever you want. Food dedicated to other gods – or false gods – is just food. “Food won’t bring us close to God. We’re not missing out if we don’t eat, and we don’t have any advantage if we do eat.”
BUT – and this is very important – he says that if we do choose to eat food that has been dedicated to other gods, even though it doesn’t make any difference to us, it could be a problem for other people. Paul’s point here is that in our Christian walk, it is important that we are always mindful of how our actions – or even our lack of action – may impact others.
Paul is making the point that some people, in spite of their understanding of Jesus as Lord, may struggle with fully understanding the nuance of living in a polytheistic culture. He makes the argument that if a person like sees you eating food that had been sacrificed to another God, they might make a connection that just isn’t there. They might think that it’s ok to worship both Hermes and God at the same time because they think they saw you doing that.
Maya Angelou wrote in Even the Stars Look Lonesome this amazing line: “If it is true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, isn’t it also true a society is only as healthy as its sickest citizen and only as wealthy as its most deprived?”
Paul is reminding the Corinthian church to be mindful of those who might be considered the least of us. He is making the very clear point that love for the particular member within the body of Christ takes precedence over principles. Our ethics must be directed toward serving others, toward lifting others up. Sure, I know that eating a sandwich dedicated to Zeus is not going to harm me or others, nor will it be disrespectful to God. But if my enjoyment of that sandwich causes someone else to slip in their faith, then the sandwich just isn’t worth it. I’ll go down the street and get a Reuben instead. My freedom to enjoy whatever I want to eat should never be a stumbling block to anyone. Ever.
Paul is reminding us to put love first in all that we do. Even in deciding what to eat or drink. For example, I can tell you that I may have many stumbling blocks of my own, but one of them is not alcohol. I’ve never been a big drinker, although I do enjoy the occasional adult beverage. There are many in our culture however, for whom alcohol is a tremendous trigger. If my having a scotch is going to be triggering for someone who struggles with alcohol, then my choice is easy… I’ll have a seltzer instead.
In the 19th century, when the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was becoming more powerful in advocating for prohibition of all alcohol, there was a Methodist Church in Vineland New Jersey that had a member by the name of Dr. Thomas Welch. Welch became interested in the pursuit of providing an alternative to actual wine during communion and he developed a method of making unfermented sacramental wine. The Methodist Church became one of the first to have non-alcoholic options for communion and instrumental in the creation of Welch’s Grape Juice. Welch’s son Charles wrote years later, “Unfermented grape juice was born in 1869 out of a passion to serve God by helping His Church to give its communion ‘the fruit of the vine,’ instead of the ‘cup of devils.’”
In our breakfast church and dinner church services, we always endeavor to have a vegetarian option because it is simply more welcoming to those who may choose to not eat meat. Most people who are not vegetarian will have no problem eating vegetarian options without feeling put out, but to ask a vegetarian to eat meat is very unwelcoming and unkind. It’s about inclusion and welcoming. It’s about offering grace in all circumstances. It’s about offering love within your community.
Most of you have probably guessed the name of the restaurant that I will not frequent. It’s not hard to figure out. This company has donated about $2 million to organizations that provide what’s called “conversion therapy”. Conversion therapy is a cruel and dehumanizing practice that, according to the Human Rights Campaign, consists of “a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Such practices have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades, but due to continuing discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ+ people, some practitioners continue to conduct conversion therapy. Minors are especially vulnerable, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.”
Now, as I am not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and as I am not at risk of being subjected to conversion therapy myself, you might ask what difference would it make if I went to that restaurant and bought a sandwich? It wouldn’t hurt me. And you would be right. It would be no skin off my nose to buy a meal there. But even if a penny that I spend on that meal were to go to an organization that does great harm to the most vulnerable around us, then I will not do it. I choose to respond in love. I choose to respond in ways that support and lift up the least of us.
Jesus tells us in the 25th chapter of Matthew that what we do to those who are among the least of us – whom Jesus calls his brothers and sisters – that we do to him. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes the case for community compassion over expressions of individual freedom. He encourages the community that even those “without knowledge” – be taken seriously as a person for whom Christ died, and that one’s actions reflect a compassionate and even restraining consideration for fellow members of the body of Christ.
As we prepare to enter into the Lenten season, I want us as a community to pay prayerful attention to how even the most minor thing we do may affect others, and to be cognizant of how God calls us to lift one another up in love and compassion. That doesn’t mean that we have to stop living our lives in the way to which we have become accustomed. But living in a faithful way that honors and worships God should call us to pause to consider the intrinsic value and worth of those who may think and act differently or that may even misunderstand the heart of the Gospel. Paul says that if you have to choose between being loving and being right, you should choose to be loving… every time. It is a calling to humility before God and others, to an awareness of the potential that we have in our lives to lift up even the least among us through even the most minor decisions.
The third verse of our reading says, ‘’If someone loves God, then they are known by God.” As a community, when we are faced with a choice to do something or not, whatever it is that we choose, if it is based in love. It will identify us as known by God. I would call that a good choice.
To God be the glory.