Under Construction

I Samuel 8:4-9, 19-22I Corinthians 8:1-13

Where there is great freedom, there is even greater responsibility.

A group of American Presbyterians was standing in the courtyard of the Presbyterian Church of Mosul, that ancient city of Nineveh, in modern-day Iraq. It was May of 2001, and the warm air had turned into the cool of the evening. We had just finished worshiping with the congregation, listening to two sermons, and singing familiar hymns in Arabic and English. We were enjoying spirited fellowship when one of the Iraqi elders said, “Forgive me, but I must ask you a blunt question.” We braced ourselves, having had many blunt political conversations over the past few weeks throughout Iraq. But the question caught us off guard: “We see you Americans present yourselves as a moral, Christian nation. But your TV, your movies, your video games are so immoral! How can you, as a nation, be so hypocritical?”

One member of our group was Gary Burge, a Presbyterian pastor and a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. He responded, “Where there is great freedom, there are many good things. And where there is great freedom, there are many bad things. And where there is great freedom, there is even greater responsibility.” The guide for our group, a handler from the Iraqi Ministry of Religion, refused to translate. He understood Gary’s remarks as a political attack on the current regime of Saddam Hussein, and wasn’t willing to touch that hot potato. The walls definitely had ears. But while there was, perhaps, some political meaning in Gary’s reply, there was something much deeper that gets to the core of our Christian existence.

We do, indeed, live in the midst of that conundrum the Iraqi elder identified. Most Americans self-identify as Christian. And yet our most well-known exports are violent and sexually explicit films, TV shows, and music videos. Nothing better exemplifies our apparent cultural hypocrisy than the Internet. It is, without a doubt, an incredible technological innovation. In some ways, it levels the playing field of free speech and information control. But if you are like me and spend a lot of time on the Internet, you find that very few people are taking advantage of this technology for the sake of the common good. Let me give you one example. When you use Google, the Internet search tool, to find web pages about the moon landing, out of the first ten pages, only three are devoted to information on the historic Apollo 11 journey. Six put forth the argument that the whole thing was a hoax filmed on a movie sound stage in LA. The other page in that top ten is devoted to debunking the hoax argument. Rather than a wondrous tool of freedom and progress, the Internet has proven to be as flawed as those who build it. It has become the repository for the best and the worst of who we are. The largest single category of web pages is pornography. The second largest category is religion. Where there is great freedom, there is even greater responsibility.

This question of freedom was at the heart of Paul’s message we heard this morning. Paul is responding to questions raised by the church at Corinth. “What about marriage?” they ask him. “What about spiritual gifts?” The central issue he deals with in chapter eight is that of meat sacrificed to idols. Idol worship, paganism, polytheism, whatever you want to call it, was widespread within both Greek and Roman culture. It was common practice for people to bring meat to be sacrificed to the god or idol of a particular temple. One third was burned up in the sacrifice. One third was donated to the priest. And one third was returned to the worshiper. As a result, much of the meat in the marketplace had gone through this ritual process.

The early Christian community at Corinth was as diverse as the city itself, and contained many who were converts from this paganism. For those who had been Christians for a while, there was logical clarity in their approach: there is no god but God; so these gods to whom people offer sacrifices don’t exist; so there’s no power in this meat once sacrificed to gods who don’t exist; ergo, therefore, eat without fear. And Paul doesn’t disagree with this line of reasoning. These Christians, he acknowledges, are living with a particular level of freedom because of their knowledge. But, he reminds them, there are those in the early church who haven’t attained that level of freedom. They have only recently left behind these pagan practices. They don’t necessarily believe that there is no power in the sacrifice. Perhaps it is not that these other gods don’t exist for them, but that the God of the Hebrews is simply a more powerful deity. They haven’t achieved this knowledge; they don’t have your freedom. Therefore, proceed with caution. Your exercise of freedom, Paul tells them, may cause your precious sister or brother, for whom Christ died, to return to the idolatry they recently left behind. Where there is great freedom, there is even greater responsibility.

These questions of freedom and accountability within the church are not only ancient ones, either. They continue to be part of our ministry and discernment. Mary works in Indonesia with Muslim Background Believers, members of the Islamic community who have converted to Christianity. Initially, these MBBs (as they are commonly known) would simply become part of the local Christian community. But it soon became obvious that there were many problems. The church used wine in its communion service; alcohol is forbidden in Islam. Men and women sat together in the congregation; only a few western mosques have a similar practice. The Christian women dressed in ways to which we Westerners are accustomed – short sleeves, hair showing; the Muslim men were distracted, the Muslim women were deeply self-conscious. In the end, Mary says, the church needed a different approach, one that didn’t offer stumbling blocks to precious sisters and brothers. There are now Indonesian MBB churches where men and women sit separately; grape juice, not wine, is used in communion; and the women tend to dress in the traditional style to which they are more accustomed. Some of these churches even maintain the prohibition on eating pork. The hope is that, within a generation, these churches will be able to unite in worship and practice. But for now, this desire for unity means greater attention and care.

These examples from Corinth and Indonesia remind us that very few choices are clear in life. Most of them end up in this messy middle. In Corinth, those who ate meat sacrificed to idols were not wrong. But, to Paul’s mind, there was simply a greater concern: the fate of their brothers and sisters. In Indonesia, it is tragic that there are churches that have difficulty embracing the Christian freedom that in Christ there is neither male nor female. But for Mary, the good news of freedom in Christ is more important for these new sisters and brothers than how people dress or what they eat.

We live in a complex world where our decisions are almost always fraught with complexity. There are surely times when the faithful option is clear. But most choices, whether it’s where we shop or what we drive or how we invest or what we eat or how we vote, involve some kind of compromise of principles. Every time I use the restroom in a restaurant, I ask myself the same question: do I use the paper towels and waste paper, or do I use the hand dryer and waste electricity? Like the ancient Israelites, we may find ourselves caught between two deeply flawed options: do we stick with Samuel’s corrupt sons as judges, living in an absence of justice and righteousness, or do we submit ourselves to a king, risking the rejection of God as ruler? As with the church in Corinth, there is freedom in the Israelites’ choice. And God allows that freedom. And, in the end, despite being rejected, God remains at work, telling Samuel which king to anoint.

And so, perhaps, in the end, the best metaphor for today comes from the Internet, those ubiquitous, redundant signs that proclaim “Under Construction.” They are everywhere, letting us know that the web page is unfinished it needs more work before it’s done. And they are, ultimately, unnecessary, because the Internet is a fluid, moving, unfinished medium. There is never a website that isn’t under construction, because there is never a website that remains static. I’m not one to advocate for a faith that can be summarized by a bumper sticker or a refrigerator magnet. I do believe that our faith is, in its essence, a mystery beyond our perfect comprehension. Therefore, I hesitate to lift up two simple words as a motto for the Christian life. But we, too, remain under construction. We are fluid, changing, free creatures that never get it right 100% of the time. Our choices are flawed, our decisions imperfect.

But the truth is that God is at work anyway, perfecting imperfect choices. Even in our most imperfect moments, as we turn away to our own idolatries, a divine hand is extended, offering us the wondrous freedom of forgiveness. And where there is great freedom, where there is great responsibility, there is an even greater need for love.

In this place, at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, we continue to increase in our knowledge of God. We are invited here as those who love Christ and would seek to love him more. But we do so bound together. We care for one another, offering our hand to those who stumble. We are, each of us, precious sisters and brothers for whom has Christ died.

sermonsMarthame Sanders