Sunday, January 29, 2012

am I my brother's keeper?



May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit – Amen.

In our epistle today, St Paul talks about food sacrificed to idols … and I think the passage serves as a good example of a passage where a modern reader might easily begin by saying: well I have no idea what is going on here; & once they do know what is happening, might well say – that's interesting, but of course it has no real application to the world we live in, in general, or me, in particular … and I think that would be the wrong way to look at it … our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy says that God will raise up a prophet for his people and they must heed such a prophet – why? Because people need guidance … the guidance that comes from the revelation of God … and St Paul's passage today contains such revelation … the fact that it may require some work on our part to understand what it saying to us makes it no less relevant …

So let us begin by trying to understand what is going on in this passage – what is this food sacrificed to idols that St Paul is speaking of? In the ancient world, most of the meat came from temple sacrifices … the meat from the sacrificed animals was sold off in the markets as a way for the priests to supplement their incomes … the problem for the early Christians was this: some were revolted at the idea of eating meat that had been killed as part of a pagan sacrifice; others fall into the 'o for goodness sake' category … there's no other gods, therefore what we are eating is not sacrificed to a god, therefore it is OK to eat it and so I will …

and St Paul said, yes, that's true, but what about your brothers and sisters … they see you eating this, and so they do too, but it weakens their faith because they are not 'strong minded' like you … in their hearts they can't get past the fact it was sacrificed to an idol, forget that they aren't real … it makes them feel that they are taking part in pagan rituals … and if it is OK to eat the meat, why not other things to do with pagan rituals … and it begins to eat away at their faith, causing some of them to fall back into pagan ways … St Paul says that for that reason he would rather never eat meat again …

That's where we come to the: it is all very interesting, but what has it to do with us part of things … the meat in our supermarkets has nothing to do with idols … it's nice to know what was going on back in St Paul's time, but it is an issue that was solely of its time …

Except that would be to miss the deeper point … St Paul may be speaking about meat and idols, but we should see these as only illustrating a far more important aspect of Christian living … in a way, what St Paul has done here is to take the question that was asked all the way back at the beginning of the Bible, the question asked by Cain 'am I my brothers keeper' and answer it with a very firm 'yes.'

And it is in line with what Jesus had to say about loving our neighbour as ourselves … we, as Christians, are one body, and as such it is not enough to simply worry about our own salvation – we have to worry about the salvation of each other also … it is not enough that we do not sin directly ourselves … we have to consider how it is that the example of our lives may act to encourage others not to sin also. The paradox is, even if what we do is not a sin in itself, if it encourages others to sin, then we have ourselves sinned … because we have failed in our duty to our brothers and sisters …

No doubt some of you are at this point thinking: that sounds all very well in theory, but how does it work in practice … what are the areas of our lives in which we are in danger of leading others astray? It is a delicate matter … for a start, it is definitely one to be cautious about if for no other reason than it is very much 'speck in the eye of another while ignoring the beam in my own eye' territory … and it is, I think, more beneficial for each of us here to go away & quietly think about how it is that we might be failing in this way rather than my trying to come up with a list of examples, which if they don't apply to you, might come across as being offensive as if I were trying to accuse people of such behaviour …

but on the other hand, I think it is useful to have some kind of a concrete example of how this might apply in the modern world … & so I thought I'd use an example from my own life … how the example of others, none of whom were doing anything wrong as such, influenced me … and not for the good …

when I was in my late teens and in college, life was very busy … not only were there my studies, there were all the clubs and societies I belonged to … and going to Mass on Sunday … well, not only was that a big chunk of time, but also, it meant having to get up on the one day I had to lie in … but I started to notice some things in Church first I noticed that a lot of people came late ... no doubt they had their reasons ... & while it wasn't best practice, they were still meeting their Sunday obligations ... so I started to come a bit late ...
And then I noticed that quite a lot of people left directly after the celebration of Holy Communion … they went directly from the altar rails and out the door … some didn't even receive … the moment the priest invited them to come forward, they headed for the exits! Well, I thought, no doubt they have a good reason to go early … and so do I! every extra moment counted for a tired student …

before long I was coming late & leaving early … & then as I came late, I noticed all the people standing at the back … if you're only going to be there a few minutes, easier to stay at the back so as not to be delayed leaving … & then the next thing was that quite a number of people stayed in the porch … why not? You're still technically in the Church, there was a speaker (installed for when the church was full, not so that people could stay as far from the altar as possible!) … and then I saw the groups who stayed outside altogether, near the door, where they could sort of hear what was said on the speakers …

it was death by a thousand cuts really ... as you can imagine, it wasn't too long before I wasn't going altogether! In a space of a few years I'd gone from being an altar boy, serving at God's altar, to a non-church goer ... and why? Many reasons ... but part of it was the example set by others … a slippery slope that I headed down, influenced by those who as I said were not actually doing anything wrong … but who also didn't stop to consider the impact that their behaviour might have on an impressionable young person, who like a lot of young people had come to a point of questioning … my story ultimately worked out all right ... but I can't help wondering if for many in the same situation it did not ... if they didn't slide out the doors of the church never to return ...

perhaps if you thought about it, you might find areas in your life where you have also been influenced by the example of others … or perhaps if you thought even more carefully you might come to wonder how does your behaviour possibly influence others … St Paul warned the Corinthians that what they were doing, though not wrong in itself, was wrong if it acted to weaken the faith of others … so for us today I pray that we have the strength and the courage to examine our own lives for such behaviour … and  the Grace from God to change it if need be … amen

(Sermon notes 29 Jan 2012 -  Epiphany 4)

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