worship

Vegetarianism for Carnivores
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
February 1, 2015 - Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13


 

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Vegetarianism for Carnivores
Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13               

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
February 1, 2015

 

I am reminded of the story of the children’s sermon wherein the pastor was holding a stuffed squirrel and began quizzing the children as to what he had in his hands.  None of the children were having any of it – they sat mutely, a hazard, I might add that is only slightly less dangerous than when children open their mouths during the message – but finally, after he had quizzed the children on what he had in his hands just a little too solicitously, one intrepid child finally responded, “We all know the answer is Jesus, but that looks like a squirrel to me.”

Well, as we start talking about Paul’s reflections on dietary practices, just remember that Jesus is the answer, because I will readily grant you that this is a bizarre title for a sermon.  I promise you it made sense to me when I was putting together the worship plans for this month.  I guess after a month of rather formulaic titles in a sermon series, I was feeling my oats.  So just remember, Jesus is the answer.

I can assure you that the Apostle Paul does not appear anywhere to consider himself a carnivore.  An omnivore, maybe, but really, aside from this handful of passages in 1 Corinthians, one here in chapter 8 where he appears to embrace vegetarianism for Jesus and again in Chapter 10, where he takes it up a notch, we very rarely hear about the dietary preferences of Paul.  He instructs his pupil Timothy to take a bit of wine for his stomach on one occasion, but otherwise frankly spends more time debunking dietary restrictions than adding to them. 

This seems an odd title for an odd sermon, to be honest, and I’m not rightly sure how we’re going to get to the Lord’s Table, our ultimate destination today, from here. 

But since we’ve started off talking about vegetarianism, let me share that both my mother and my grandfather became vegetarians before it became a popular thing to do.  My mother embraced vegetarianism immediately after my father’s cholesterol was reported to be too high, and my grandfather did so as soon as he was an adult. 

My grandfather grew up on a farm in Mint Hill, North Carolina, and like many farm children, he had no illusions about the origin of meat.  As an adult, he just wasn’t very interested in it, it held no appeal to him, and my grandmother was a marvelous cook who could make a vegetarian meal into a feast – and to be fair, were I to use the quantity of butter and bacon grease that my grandmother used, I could probably become a  very happy vegetarian indeed. 

But in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, being a vegetarian in the American south made one something of an oddity, and so my grandfather developed an affectation that, to this day, makes my stomach turn. 

In the summertime, cookouts are almost a way of life, and so as not to cause his host to worry about what to serve the odd vegetarian, my grandfather resolved he would occasionally eat meat. 

But not just any meat… where most people would bring their steaks or hamburger or hotdogs to the person at the grill, my grandfather would present the bemused chef with a can of Vienna Sausages to grill. 

Quizzing my mother on two things, first the correct pronunciation of said sausage (Vy-Eena, by the way – it has nothing to do with the city in Austria) and secondly, why in the world a vegetarian, of all people, would eat something so utterly revolting, here is what I learned:

It was more important to my grandfather to be gracious than it was to be a purist. 

And that brings us back to the Apostle Paul and his erstwhile vegetarianism.  In this eighth chapter of the letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses the thorny problem of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. 

And he immediately settles on a simple solution: the idols to which the meat has been sacrificed do not represent real gods, and so the meat’s just meat. 

There’s nothing special about it.  It’s not tainted as a result of proximity to pagan practice, it’s not dishonoring God because the Christians know full well that the idols aren’t real gods, it’s just meat. 

Paul knows this. 

Some of the Corinthians know this. 

It doesn’t appear to be a hard thing to get.

But then Paul says something interesting: knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

He knows there is no harm to his eating meat that was sacrificed to a non-existent idol, but if his dietary practices were going to cause consternation to someone struggling in faith – if his insistence on being right would cause someone else to struggle in faith or turn away from the church, he’d rather risk being wrong than be the reason that someone turned away from Jesus.

So, he concludes, if that’s the case, he’d rather never eat meat again than be the reason that someone weak in faith stumbled and fell.

It is as utterly grace-filled a moment as we see from Paul.

I have a dear friend who is an authority on many topics – she’s a polymath, she’s one of the smartest people I know.  Well, one time, her husband was just sure about something, I knew was wrong, I knew she knew he was wrong, but she astonished me by going along with it. 

I waited until he was out of the room, and then I pounced – “You know better than that!”

She replied, “Well, we’ve seen a marriage counselor and we’ve learned a few things.  He has learned that I need him to be emotionally available to me even if he’s interested in something else, and I have learned that I can be right all the time, or I can be married, but I can’t be both.”

It is better sometimes to be gracious than it is to be a purist, to be right.

Here is what I struggle with – it is important sometimes to be right.  It’s important for the church to be right about a whole host of things – about our witness regarding racism and gun control and consumerism and LGBT inclusion and about the cheapening of covenant commitment with salaciously sexualized advertising targeting adolescents – there are so many things about which we need to be right because getting them wrong means irrevocably harming the fabric of who we are.

And what’s more, Paul knows that too – he’s no pushover for bad theology – there are some Galatians who are still smarting from the letter he wrote to them – I mean, they’ve been dead coming up on 2000 years and they’re still feeling the sting of that letter, but here, here Paul is saying that on a matter where it just really doesn’t matter, it is better to be gracious.  It is better to be kind.

It is better just not to eat that meat. 

And with that, he is saying something pretty profound to us.  He is saying that it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. 

It doesn’t matter how right we are on any number of things when it comes to human cost.

And that is where discernment that can only come with maturity in faith comes into play.

Because, times don’t change that much.  There is still plenty about which it is possible to be one hundred percent right and one hundred percent at odds with the kingdom of God. 

Just off the top of my head, it is possible to be one hundred percent right about the constitutionality of how we handle gun-control in this country, and be as wrong as we possibly can be about gun-violence.

We can be a hundred percent right about what we think about human sexuality and marriage and the Bible – and you all know I disagree with a great swath of the greater Christian church, and be as wrong as the day is long if one child jumps off a bridge because of what the church is said to believe.

We can be as right about economic theory and taxation and the best way to alleviate poverty as all the economic theorists of all time combined, but if we’re letting people starve or freeze, we’re wrong where God is concerned.

And Paul says, we can be right about our understanding of God and meat sacrificed to idols – but if the meatloaf on the table turns someone seeking Jesus away from the comfort of the church, we’ve blown it.

Sometimes we have to give up being as right as we think we are because knowledge puffs up but love builds up.

Sometimes you can be right, or you can be faithful, but you can’t be both.

It comes to discernment.  It comes to growing in faith.  It comes to living in community.  It comes to this table.  It comes to Jesus.  Because in end it is Jesus who will make all of these things come around right.  And so, I suppose, it turns out Jesus is the answer. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Last Published: February 8, 2015 12:00 PM