Liberation in Jesus

The Gospel story this morning sets the theme of the kingdom of God and more pointedly the mission of Jesus.  Here Jesus and his newly minted disciples head into Capernaum.  In the synagogue Jesus is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit—or to put it bluntly, evil.  Here we see Jesus exercising the authority of God as he calls out the spirit and heals the man.  Releasing individuals and the world as a whole is the major theme that courses through the ministry of Jesus.

In Jesus we are called into a profound sense of liberation from our sins, from those things and attitudes that bind us and urge us to heap chains on others.  Through Jesus we are offered the gift of liberation that comes from the healing of our souls.

About 20 years later, Paul is writing a letter to the small church in Corinth.  He reached the Gospel to the men and women in this cosmopolitan city in Greece and witnessed their conversion from a religion of many gods to the one true God in Jesus Christ.  Before they were pagans, now they are Christians.

Paul, having fulfilled his work in Corinth has moved on to other missionary fields.  But he has heard that this congregation of Corinthians are squabbling.  They are fighting about baptism, about the role of women, about the Eucharist, and they are fighting about food.  In this portion of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul is addressing a food fight.

A wide spread practice among pagans was to buy meat at the market and take it to the local temple to be offered as a sacrifice to one of the many gods.  After the ritual, the meat was back on the market for sale.  Was it OK for a Christian to put that meat on the table?  To Paul, a piece of meat is a piece of meat regardless of its original intent. Paul’s argument was that the idols in the temple are false and no threat to the one true God.  So, the Christians were allowed to eat what they wanted.

The squabble arose because there were members of the church family still worried about the idols and that eating the food that had been used in the worship of idols would lessen their devotion to God.  This liberality was uncomfortable to their conscience.  This reminds us a bit of the fish rule on Fridays that the Roman Catholics authorities rescinded in the 60’s.  Many said “thank God,”   others said “no way, fish on Fridays now and forever” while still others ate their hamburgers with heavy load of guilt.

Paul is well aware that this sort of contention over a piece of meat (or fish) sets up a dynamic of “I’m right, you’re wrong.”  He is not backing down on his teaching about meat nor his teaching on the liberality of God, but he is arguing for a sense of moderation—more than that, an attitude of generosity.  There will always be some who are timid about the changing rules but the sin is not what you eat or don’t eat, what you know and do not know, the sin is about wounding another person’s conscience.  Whenever we wound another in the family of God we wound Christ no matter how right we deem ourselves to be.  Acerbic condescension—that is a sin.

Footnote—to see acerbic condescension in action is to know Maggie Smith’s character  in Downton Abbey, the Dowager of Grantham—the overseer of morals—          wagging her head and looking down her nose.

I read an essay recently by Nicholas Kristoff that focused on a kind of cultural or social phenomenon that we experience today—acerbic condescension which leads to an empathy gap.  The trigger for his essay was the death of his childhood friend, Kevin.  Now, I am quoting Kristoff.

The doctors say that Kevin died at age 54 of multiple organ failure, but in a deeper sense he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs.  Lots of Americans would have seen Kevin—obese with a huge gray beard, surviving on disability and food stamps—as a moocher. They would have been harshly judgmental:   Why don’t you look after your health? Why did you father two kids outside of marriage?

This acerbic condescension reflects one of this country’s fundamental problems: an empathy gap. It reflects the delusion on the part of many affluent Americans that those like Kevin are lazy or living cushy lives and that poor people have only themselves to blame.

Kevin Green grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Ore.  His father had a third grade education but Kevin graduated from high school and got a good job in a glove factory.  He had everything going for him: he was energetic, helpful, reliable, and always ready to lend a hand. Then the bottom started to fell out.  The factory moved elsewhere, the feed store closed.  Union jobs were hard to find.  Kevin fell in love but he was too broke to get married so his twins were born out of wedlock.  Then he hurt his back and couldn’t work, his girlfriend left with the kids.

In the last year of his life he was living on $180 a month along with disability payments and a small income from home grown pot.  Everything in Kevin’s body was failing and at 350 pounds he could no longer even walk.

Did Kevin fail or did society fail him?  There are those who would say that he should have just picked himself by his boat straps, the kind of religion of self-help.   He should have known better and planned for the future, the kind of religion of the crystal ball.

Our talk of “shoulds and oughts” come easily. We who don’t walk in the shoes of the Kevins of the world find it rather easy to let words of judgment escape our lips or at the least spoken silently in our minds.

Paul had something to say about this acerbic condescension that comes rather easily to those who have reaped the fortunes of economic comfort and social know how. He might have been addressing meat on the table but he is really talking about condescension and the acute harm that it causes.

We can be honest and know that this affliction is a part of who we are both as individuals and as a society.  Still we have the capacity to think otherwise.  Paul is always pointing us to the healing grace of God’s love in Christ Jesus—a healing grace that, like a medicinal salve, can draw out whatever infection gets lodged in our soul.  The healing grace of Christ is what increases our capacity to love without judgment, to graciously understand the weaknesses of our fellow companions, to respect one another.  All that capacity is filled with the liberal love of God.


Epiphany 4, 2015

The Reverend Deborah Dresser


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