Sermon, 2/7/21: When are Comestibles Not Comestibles?

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5 Epiphany

Psalm 147:1–12, 21; Isaiah 40:21–31; I Corinthians 9:16–23; Mark 1:29–39

“To the weak I became weak.  I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”  I Cor. 9:22

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, … you shall have them for food…. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.  Genesis 1:29 – 31

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching, incline your ears to the words of my mouth! …. He cleft rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep … and he rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.  Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance.  Psalm 78:1, 18, 24 -25

When they came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, he [Jesus] saw a tumult, and people weeping and wailing loudly …. The child is not dead but sleeping …. Little girl, I say to you arise …. And he told them to give her something to eat.  Mark 5:38ff.

And his disciples answered him, ‘How can one feed these men with bread here in the desert?’…. And he asked them, ‘How many loaves have you?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ … and he took the loaves, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the crowd.  Mark 8:4ff.

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Mark 14:22

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’…the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, though whom are all things and through whom we exist.  I Cor. 8:1 – 8

When are comestibles not comestibles?  When is food not food?  This is not an inconsequential question!  Oxygen, water, food, in that order, are the basic essentials of life for us humans.  If that be the case, what is the issue before Paul and the Christians in Corinth, as recorded in Paul’s letter to them and revisited in today’s lectionary?  Does not our Book of Records reaffirm that food is good, that food has been sanctioned since the beginning of creation and throughout the human era? The evidence is clear:  God has proclaimed it very good.  This forces me to raise the question: Is the issue truly one about food, or is the issue of a different, perhaps unspoken, nature?  What caused Paul to describe himself as weak, and why, pray, is that description relevant for us in 2021? 

Not to trivialize the matter, but am I not permitted to direct snide remarks at and push those to the periphery who do not like to eat cinnamon ice cream? Am I obligated to take into dietary restrictions that are caused by biology?  Or conversely, what right do others have to ridicule me because of my preference?  So, the question before us today and every day is, then, not actually about food!  Paul did not declare that he was weak, because he had failed to eat.  Yet, it was food, at least on the surface, that was at the center of the problem in Corinth.

Often are the times when, reading the letters of Paul (formerly known as Saul), the thought occurs to me that he could just as easily have been writing to us moderns, not to some long-since deceased group of people, whom we encounter only through his writings and who, therefore, have little to say to us beyond use in liturgy.  To be sure, some of Paul’s idioms could use a bit of updating.  Yet, we read and reread, tell and retell the “old, old story”—to borrow a phrase from Annabelle Catherine Hankey’s (1834–1911) lyrics “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love”—because, in retelling, we reground ourselves in the truth of our existence.  These stories, which we name “lectionary readings,” are, although ancient in time, vivid reminders of our humanity, of our struggle to reconnect with the Being who gives us our being.

This was the issue before Paul and is before us on this 5th Sunday after the Epiphany.  Paul, not of the original twelve, was a pedigreed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  He had not spent his time fishing, as had Simon Peter and Andrew.  By the evaluation of 2021 standards, Paul stood educationally above James and John; yet he was capable of speaking a language, filled with commonsensical expressions and turns of phrases, capable of speaking with a clarity that moved his readers and hearers to think long and hard about their commitment to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.  Despite his academic credentials, Paul stands out in his letter to the Church in Corinth as being in the real world, the world of real people with real problems and of real possibilities.

Paul was asking essentially the same question that Jesus had addressed: What causes the breach between the Creator God and those who would worship God?  Is it the food that we eat—[specifically,] the food that has been offered to idols—that will be our undoing?  Like Jesus, Paul recognizes that we humans, in order to maintain our own political, social, and economic advantage, are capable of using religion as a cudgel, a weapon.

Paul begs for a reasoned approach to the problem.  First, God has created all things, or given us, created in God’s image, the intelligence to grow things.  Therefore, what we grow and what we subsequently eat is not inherently evil or to be avoided.  To be sure, there are foods that we ought to avoid for dietary reasons.  To be sure, there are foods that we ought to avoid, especially those foodstuffs that have been exposed to harmful microbes.  But those comestibles, in and of themselves, are the fruits of our labor and our intelligent use of the creation over which God has made us stewards.

Paul’s description of himself plants him in the midst of controversy as a problem-solver, not as an ideologue.  This pragmatism carries over into his concern for how our actions might affect others.  Christians often refrain from certain activities or behaviors, not because we are super humans, purer in our thoughts and actions than others.  Rather, according to Paul, we as Christians have before us always the desire and commandment to bring others to the Good News of Christ.  There should be no disconnect between what we profess and that which we do.  Paul is guided by the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth when he acknowledged the need to be hygienically clean, i.e., to wash one’s hands before eating and to consume food that has been properly prepared.  Still, said the Nazarene: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” (Matthew 15:10 – 11)  The Law of Moses, known to all who attended synagogue, finds itself refreshed in the words of Jesus and amplified by Paul. 

The Bible, our Book of Records, offers us ample examples of the expansive and inclusive nature of the Good News.  Covid-19 has brought us to a crossroad.  Not only will things never return to how they once were, because for many being Christian, i.e., attendance at worship, was a matter of affirming social standing.  Because Covid-19 has imposed a distance, i.e., non-attendance in religious services, many have discovered that their standing in social circles has not been diminished, therefore, will not return.  Yet, the challenge to spread the Gospel of Good News is now no less needed than pre-pandemic. 

As we contemplate the “new” look that we will offer to the world, we might wish to consider the conflict of the very early church.  Will we be open to reexamining what lies at the very foundation of our faith?  It is here that Paul offers guidance.  He is grounded in his belief and understanding of the Crucifixion that was, on any scale, a radical act.  The crucifixion, not a failed attempt to honor all the codes of the Law, stands at the center of grace, at the center of human and the Divine relationship.  In this unique act of reconciling humankind with God, Jesus assumed all our tensions, all the alienation and difference of class and ethnic origin.  That radical redemption enhances the possibility that we might become agents of reconciliation and journey on a path, is always fraught with risks and misunderstandings.  It is fraught with risk because our world does not much understand or appreciate reconciliation, especially should we be more concerned with winning and losing, with one-up-man-ship, with showing that our side is ultimately the right side, [more so] than acknowledging our common humanity.  In the final analysis, the issue is, so you see, not at all about food.  Which brings me to the last biblical citation that frames for us Christians everything that we undertake. 

And as they were eating, he [Jesus] took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’  Mark 14:22 

Over the bread Jesus prayed this traditional Hebrew blessing: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu melech haolam, ha-motzi lehem min ha-aretz.  Praised be our Eternal God, Ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.  But then he said: “Take, eat; this is my body.”  This latter was clearly an unexpected, unimaginable addition.  His disciples had before them tactile bread, which reminded them of the real life support that God had provided in creation, and that God had declared as “very good.”  With the addition, however, Jesus establishes his presence at the beginning of creation and assures them of his support.

When are comestible not comestibles?  The issue for Paul, the Corinthians, and for you and for me is, then, not about food, but rather about recognizing the source of all things, a Creator God who had declared that all things at Creation were good.  Could it also just be that the turn of phrase could be rendered:  “If you want to be part of me, you must be willing to imagine the unimaginable and to be prepared to undertake the most challenging.  I have provided you with the sustenance that you will need for the task before you.”  

The evidence, then, is clear.  As we go forward, beyond the restrictions of Covid-19 and all other barriers that will most surely be placed before us, we are challenged to proclaim the Good News, which is so eloquently articulated in a simple saying:  “Whoever has done this to the least of these, have done it unto me.”  Amen