1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (text for Epiphany 4B)
Life Together: Love Builds Up
Once there was a rich man who entertained himself by collecting things. One day in an antique store, he was intrigued to discover what appeared to be a large, full-length mirror. He couldn’t be sure because all he could see was the frame. A heavy canvas covered what was most likely a mirror. A faded piece of paper pinned to the canvas read “Do Not Remove.” He called for the store owner.
“What is this and why is it covered?” he asked. He was used to getting his way. “You won’t believe me,” came the reply. “Tell me anyway,” he demanded. Again, he was used to getting his way. “Well,” continued the clerk. “Under the canvas is a mirror. The story is that this mirror will only reflect the part of you that is alive in God. I keep it covered because it’s bad for business. Too many people don’t see what they expect to see.” “You let people look if they want to?” “Not usually but some people insist. Mostly they are the ones who don’t believe me. Once they take the canvas off and look, they tend to leave in a hurry without buying anything. As I said, it’s bad for business.” “May I look?” “If you must.”
The wealthy man thought for a moment. Then, reassured by the knowledge that his accountant kept his church pledge up to date, he peeled the canvas aside and stood full in front of the mirror. “I don’t see anything!” he shouted, wondering immediately if the light was bad. “There’s always been something before,” responded the owner. “Look again.” He looked up and down the mirror. Sure enough something was there. Down in the corner near the bottom, like a lonely radish, was his big toe. “My toe,” he mumbled. “That’s all there is.” “That’s all for now,” replied the clerk. “You mean it can change?” “So some say.”
“Name your price for the mirror.” The store owner wasn’t all that unhappy to see the mirror go. The collector took the mirror home with him. Many times each day he stood in front of the mirror, but nothing ever changed. Only the big toe of his left foot was visible. He tried everything to alter this one annoying fact. He stood in front of the mirror in a $2,000 hand-tailored suit. He stood there with all his bank and stock broker statements. Nothing. He stood there with his award from a service club for his help during their last fund raiser. He paraded in front of the mirror holding a certificate of dismissal from a well-known and highly respected psychotherapist. He went to church every week - sometimes twice! - and always saved the bulletin to show the mirror. Zip. Zero. No response - nothing but that single big toe.
At last he gave most of his money away. As he stood before the mirror, he thought he detected a small change in the image of his toe, which gave him some hope. A closer examination revealed that it was only that his toenail had grown longer.
Finally there was nothing left of him to pursue. He had no new ideas, nothing more to offer the mirror. Still he could not stop looking at it and thinking about it. In his helplessness he broke down in front of the mirror and cried. He wept for his weakness and his emptiness. He wept out of frustration, and he wept for reasons he couldn’t begin to explain.
Then in the next moment, he let go. He let go of his need to be in control of everything. He let go of his need to figure out how the mirror worked. His heart opened not to how he desired to know the Mystery of the mirror but to how the Mystery of the mirror desired to be known. His eyes were so full of tears that he did not notice, dimly at first, and then with greater and greater definition, his other toes, foot, feet, legs, arms, torso, shoulders, neck, and head filling up the mirror. (1)
“Knowledge puffs up, but loves builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by [God.]”
Paul writes his letter to the Corinthians as a set of teachings and guides to the congregation he founded. Paul built up the church at Corinth, but then travelled on to plant a new congregation of followers of Jesus in Ephesus. However, Paul heard a lot about what was happening at Corinth, and he writes his letter to them to correct, encourage, and challenge them to become the Body of Christ in that community.
In this particular passage, Paul is writing about the issue of whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols of the local pagan religions. Some Christians, new converts to the faith from these same pagan traditions, believed that since the gods these meats were sacrificed to were not really gods at all, then what did it matter if you ate the meat? It was just good food. Paul agrees with this concept – in theory. But, he says, some new Christians struggle with this idea, and feel they are doing something wrong when they eat this food that was part of another religious ritual. Paul says that it is right for them to abstain from the meat if they feel eating it compromises their faith. And to those who know better, Paul says they are really acting not like mature Christians, but like know-it-alls, who simply end up hurting those who are weaker in faith by their superior attitudes. Paul concludes: “I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” No sense of being “right” is worth it to Paul, if it makes it harder for others to follow Jesus in the process. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Throughout his letter, Paul is concerned with the Body of Christ learning how to do, and only do the things that build up the whole community of faith.
We have been looking at our goals for our life together. Two weeks ago, we talked about moving from a focus on membership to a focus on discipleship, seeking to serve and follow Jesus. Last Sunday, we talked about getting to know the community we serve better, and understanding their needs and how we, First United, can uniquely meet them. My question to challenge us this week is this: What is holding us back from doing and being what we want to be? What gets in our way of being what we want to be? Remember a few weeks ago I suggested to you that if everyone agrees things should be different, should change, but things stay the same, then we have to seriously consider why that is. Why are things staying the same, and how are we benefitting from things remaining just how they are?
I suspect, like with most things in life, we can be our own worst enemies. When we are not becoming the church we want to be, we can look to the economy, and we can look to changes in society, and we can look at demographics, and so on, but probably, we need to look mostly at ourselves. What are we doing to hold ourselves back? Anne Coughenour said recently something like, and sorry Anne, if I am paraphrasing: We need to be a team. We need to be united in our purpose as a church, and be one team that works together. I think Anne is right. We are not a huge congregation, but we aren’t a tiny congregation either. And among a group of this size, you are likely to have as many opinions and interests as you have people. Just take, for example, the songs we sing on any given Sunday. The very songs that one person loves to sing are the last favorite of another. Which is natural, and good, truly. How boring it would be, otherwise. But if we cannot agree on our basic purposes, and if we can’t agree that we will and are all trying as best we can to carry out our basic purposes, we are sunk before we even start.
Our task, before we can serve in the way we have talked about serving, is to build each other up in love in the Body of Christ. Paul wants us to do some serious self-examination as a community. Are we building each other up? Or are we puffed up on how right we are and how much we know what everyone else should do? Of course, I don’t think, and I think Paul did not think, that we start out intending to become puffed up by our own smartness. But sometimes we have to stop and take stock. Are we building up or puffed up? And if we can’t tell, if we aren’t sure, we need to measure ourselves by the impact we seem to have on others: If you set out intending to build someone up, but the other person seems to feel torn down by your actions or words or attitude, perhaps we have not been acting with love. Love builds up. Paul says that when we tear others down, even when we are in the right, when we know the best answer, when we are the stronger believer – and perhaps especially in these cases – when we tear down, we are sinning against members of our family, and against God. Paul says he would rather never act in ways he believes are perfectly ok to act if it meant causing another to stumble in faith. That is how committed he was to building up the community in love. How committed are we?
I feel like God is calling this congregation to serve, and I feel some movement, some momentum, with people who are trying new things, serving in new ways, asking new questions, hearing anew God's voice, listening and responding in some creative ways. But we cannot respond to God only as individuals and still be the Body of Christ. When we try, we are just a big toe alone in the mirror. We must build each other up, and build each other up in love.
Building each other up in love means practicing the kind of humility that lays our hearts and souls bare before the Mystery of God. It requires practice and patience, and being honest with one another and honest about ourselves with God. It will require communication – really talking to each other. In the months ahead I have some plans to help us do some of that hard work, including working with a colleague of mine who helps congregations figure out what makes them tick, so to speak. But it will take a commitment from all of us – a commitment to fully engage in the hard work, a commitment to God and one another, and a commitment that we want to be guided by love in all that we do.
“Knowledge puffs up, but loves builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by [God.]” Friends, let us build each other up in love.
(1) from The Carpenter and the Unbuilder: Stories for the Spiritual Quest by David Griebner