Epiphany 4

I think I’ve mentioned to you a few months ago this amazing book “Tattoos on the heart” by Gregory Boyle, the autobiography of a priest in the barrios of Los Angeles whose main ministry is to rehabilitate gang members by offering them a chance to work and to create community within the sphere of the church. Each story Boyle tells is quite extraordinary, and nonetheless extraordinary are the reflections he offers based on his experiences. One of the remarks that was the most striking to me – commenting on the way he would interact with the young – Boyle said: Act as if the answer to every question was compassion.

Act as if the answer to every question was compassion.

And it seems to me a very good way to summarize what it is to be a Christians in the world and to follow in the steps of Jesus – Jesus who always showed compassion to everyone who would come to him. We see that again in our Gospel today. Jesus is in the synagogue in Capernaum and it is an important moment for him – as of Mark’s, it is likely to be Jesus’s first sermon, his introduction to the people as a rabbi – but then suddenly this man, possessed by an evil spirit, pops out of nowhere accusing Jesus of the most terrible things: You came to destroy us, he screams. And yet, instead of taking offense or ignoring the man, Jesus interrupts his teaching, take pity on the man, and heals him by rebuking the unclean spirit.

Maybe that’s not the point of the Gospel, but it gave me something to chew on as I thought about the way in our churches ministers start rolling their eyes when a cell phone goes off or when little children start to be a bit restless in their pews. Jesus does not take offense and is not irritated when he is interrupted – even when he is interrupted by a demon! Jesus drops what he is doing and addresses the situation with concern, pragmatism and love.

Jesus acts as if the response to every situation is compassion.

And I think this is a very good key of reading to help us understand the first letter to the Corinthians on which I would like to spend a little more time with you today. If you’re interested, you can stay on line / on the phone after the service and I will present to you a video that is a short introduction to the whole letter and it will give you even more background.

In a few words, in Corinth, Paul raised up a church in pagan territory, and most Christians (some Jewish, some Gentiles) struggled to find the Christian way among the worship of Greek and Roman deities. In Chapter 8 which we have heard today, the question was whether it was okay for them to eat meat out of animals that had been sacrificed in the Temple: Would it be considered as idolatry? Would it associate, somehow, the people consuming the food with the sacrifice to the pagan gods? Or on the other way around did it matter at all since the Christians aren’t supposed to believe in pagan gods, moreover don’t even think they are real since there is only one God, and besides, hadn’t Jesus declared all foods clean? The church of Corinth was divided on this issues, and to answer that, as to answer other questions throughout his letter, it is interesting to notice that Paul does not offer philosophical considerations or a treaty of theology –

Throughout the Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes as if the response to every situation was love, compassion.

And for example, in this chapter 8, although we understand that, clearly, for Paul as for the other educated folks, eating meat from animals that had been sacrificed to the idols did not matter, did not do anything wrong since those idols didn’t even exist to start with, nevertheless Paul said that Christians should refrain from this practice at least in public, not to keep themselves clean, but in order to not “wound the conscience” of those who hadn’t yet come to the same understanding.

And so, of course, this question debated by Paul in not very relevant for our church today – it’s been a while we haven’t had to deal with meat sacrificed to the idols, but the way Paul answered is still relevant, and that’s what we should consider today.

Paul said that the answer was compassion. For the sake of “Not wounding another person’s conscience“. Well, it’s been a while I haven’t heard this expression! Paul insisted that Christians should have respect for other people’s beliefs, ways of thinking, even if they would hold those beliefs for lack of a better education. This Letter of Paul reminds us that we don’t build the church “puffing ourselves up with knowledge” but “building out of love”. And this Letter says something that a lot of Greeks people would have understood:

“Anyone who claims to know something does not have the necessary knowledge”: Socrates, the smartest man of all in the Antic world, used to say that the only thing he knew is that he didn’t know anything. An idea that is also brought forth by our psalm this Sunday, a psalm which reads: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – if we understand fear as awe, reverence, respect and not anxiety, terror or defiance.

The real knowledge comes with respect, compassion and love. And beyond knowledge there is wisdom, acting kindly and out of consideration for each other.

And well, as I was reading this, and thinking of all of that, as I was wondering what it means for us today, what kind do Letter Paul would write to us today – the Episcopal Church – a church where we understand ourselves so often as the “enlightened Christians”, knowledgeable, progressive, inquiring kind of folks? I wonder what Paul would think about the way we treat or consider other brothers and sisters in Christ who may not have the same education, tradition or maybe just the same sensitivity as us? Are we worried, as Paul says we should, about not wounding their conscience or being a stumbling block for them, or are we more worried about not being associated with them – the “ignorant and superstitious” Christians?

A few months ago, I read a very good article about a priest – from the Lutheran church I believe – who went on a pilgrimage to Holy land. She said that as a Protestant and as an intellectual, it was kind of embarrassing for her to see so many pilgrims bowing before icons, lighting candles on the holy sites, or kissing the foot of the statutes. Knowing that the deity indeed wasn’t in the works of art, as surely as it was probably very unlikely that Jesus was born into this or that house or made there his first miracle or preached his first sermon – The pilgrims’ reactions looked like superstition to her. And yet the priest said, as she observed them, she realized that maybe she was kind of smart and educated, but maybe she was missing something as well. To her, she realized that her faith was a lot in her head but she struggled to express it with her body: bowing, kissing, making offerings…and just let herself go in prayer and adoration. Looking closer at the other Christians instead of looking down on them, she started to think that probably there was a lack of awe and reverence in her faith, and maybe a lack of love as well, or at least her love struggled to find a way to express itself.

Well, I think it’s beautiful that not only she started to be able to have compassion, to understand with her heart what other Christians were doing, but that she was even able to put herself into question and learn something from them. I wonder how often it is that our inquiring minds are only inquiring about others, to judge and criticize, instead of questioning who we are and what’s going on inside of us.

Awe, reverence, respect, that’s maybe what those Christians criticized by other Christians in Corinth were feeling for God – They didn’t want to take a chance to do something disrespectful to God by eating the meal of idols. They wanted to do right by God, and surely the other Christians needed to respect that, instead of looking down on them as ignorant.

Now am I saying that when it comes to faith ignorance is a good thing? Certainly not. I love it that today in our Gospel, we see Jesus standing in the pulpit, reading and teaching. It was not a usual thing at the time for everyday people to be able to read – certainly it was not usual for a carpenter’s son. And we see throughout the Gospel that Jesus was indeed knowledgeable on many topics: he knew about religious tradition and Scriptures of course, but he knew also a lot about construction, farming, baking, wine fermentation and he even knew how to sew a tunic! – yet, never, never, Jesus used his education to look down on others or make fun of them. We often says that Jesus welcomed the poor, the foreigner, the sick and the disabled but we forget that Jesus welcomed simple people, the uneducated – even when they were uneducated in their own religion and their own tradition. And instead of using knowledge to “puff himself up”, as did a lot of religious leaders at the time, Jesus used his knowledge to educate the uneducated and to help them come closer to God instead of taking advantage of them.

I wonder today if we have still the same compassion and care for people? If sharing a bit of our education with others – or getting more educated to be able to share our faith – is really on top of priorities? I wonder also is – as the Lutheran priest I was talking about – we are willing to learn from others Christians – and be able to see, beyond what may seem to us like naivete or superstition, what it’s really about? Most of us are preoccupied about growing the church (in number) but how can our churches grow, if we don’t grow spiritually and intellectually and encourage one another to do so? How can we see love as playing a main part in the knowledge we want to share, to receive and to offer?

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