Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
The Episcopal Church is, at least in some circles, known as the Church of the Book. This is often not an acclimation as to how we uphold the Bible but more of a criticism of our Book of Common Prayer in which we are seen as being constrained instead of free for extemporaneous prayer. As some of you may know we have additional books, there are a series of supplements that contain liturgies that are more modern or inclusive or were just not part of the original prayer book. We also have a resource called the Book of Occasional services which contains, well, services that are only used occasionally.
In this book, we find seasonal liturgies such as Advent Lessons and Carols or the Maundy Thursday Foot-Washing. There are also other occasional services such as Blessing a Pregnant Woman and the Burial of a non-Christian. But in this list, there is one item that stands out for most people. On page 174, “Concerning Exorcism.” It says,
“The practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas derives its authority from the Lord himself who identified these acts as signs of his messiahship. Very early in the life of the Church the development and exercise of such rites were reserved to the bishop, at whose discretion they might be delegated to selected presbyters and others deemed competent.
In accordance with this established tradition, those who find themselves in need of such a ministry should make the fact known to the bishop, through their parish priest, in order that the bishop may determine whether exorcism is needed, who is to perform the rite, and what prayers or other formularies are to be used.”
Now exorcism is a topic that isn’t really discussed in seminary or even within the wider church, but from what I understand bishops have a small team which includes a physician, a psychiatrist, and a priest with special training. When the bishop has a serious inquiry the team launches an investigation in which their principal concern is to look for a medical or psychological cause for the person’s distress. Again, from what I understand, medical explanations make up the vast majority of their findings but there are still people who are found not to have a direct medical issue. In these rare instances, this team continues to work together in an exorcism to help with the person's spiritual needs. I think the goal of an exorcism is quite simple. It is to free a person free from what separates them from God and to liberate this person so they can follow their own free will again.
Over the years many in the church have downplayed the idea of possession or casting out demons. We may have heard that being possessed was the way in which these ancient people understood a range of physical or psychological disorders. And because we have modern science, medication, and modern explanations we should skim across the biblical narratives of exorcism as an outmoded cultural norm. Maybe we should, but by doing so I wonder if we have silenced some of the ways that these ancient people talked about evil. By keeping silent maybe we lose some understanding of how evil takes part in our lives or the world around us.
Paul’s congregation is having food issues. They are not debating vegan or gluten-free diets. They are concerned whether they can eat certain types of meat. Apparently, the question is whether or not Christians can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. This was a real problem for the early church and this isn’t the only time it is mentioned in the Bible. In part, it is a clash of cultures. On one side we have Christians that say we shouldn’t eat this meat because by doing so we are acknowledging these other gods; gods that they may have been praying to not so long ago. The other Christians seem to be saying, don’t be stupid, this meat is no different than any other. We believe in the one true God and no other gods matter even if they do exist.
Paul acknowledges that this second group is correct. We do not have rules prohibiting the eating of idol meat, but the answer isn’t so cut and dry. Don’t be so puffed up about being right. Knowledge of all the details of our faith isn’t the most important thing here. Paul says, what is most important is that anyone who loves God is known by God. Love is the much more important.
Now I know this is a letter Paul sent to his church but at this point, I can almost envision Paul taking the meat-eating group to the side and saying, look what you are doing. I know you are right but you are hurting your fellow brothers and sisters. You are making them feel bad when all they are just trying to do is be faithful. Through love use your knowledge to build these people up, not tear them down. If this means you don’t eat idol meat in public so be it. Feel free to eat this meat anywhere else you want but don’t do it around them. Paul turns this debate from being about rules and who is right; to how can they include others by being more sensitive to their differences.
Each of us modifies our behavior, we change the way we speak or even how we dress when we are with different groups of people. We know how uncomfortable we feel when we enter a room either overdressed or underdressed. We know how uncomfortable we or a neighbor may feel when people are speaking with sexual innuendo, telling off-colored jokes, or are generally demeaning to another person or group of people.
Now I want to make clear that I’m not talking about the P.C. (politically correct) movement which has recently moved to make safe zones for people in which we are to avoid talking about any subject that may challenge another person’s beliefs, ideas, or even worldview. What I am speaking about is the way we use language. How we speak to or about other people.
There was a time not too many decades ago when black people could be referred to in a myriad of ways which are now considered offensive. We know this to be true and even without me naming them I’d imagine you can think of one or two quiet readily. I was in a recent conversation with someone who kept using the term “wetback.” Initially, it took me by surprise because it isn’t a term I’m comfortable using but as the conversation went on and after about the 4th or 5th time using the term, I had to stop the person.
I didn’t stop the person because I was offended, though I probably should have, I stopped them because I couldn’t figure out who he was really talking about. Initially, this person was speaking about wetbacks coming up from the river near town, then he was speaking about how many of them live in our community. Eventually, the conversation turned to how the wetbacks engage in politics. This is where I became really confused. Are we speaking about illegal immigrants, naturalized citizens, or just people with Mexican heritage? Choosing how we speak or act does not limit our free speech. Often it allows us to speak more clearly and gives others the ability to hear our message better. With clarification, I realized this man was speaking about all Hispanics with the same derogatory term.
Returning to Paul, we hear him telling one group that while they do have the correct understanding of food, the way they are speaking about it is not helping the situation. They are speaking with a sense of puffed up knowledge. They know best so this other group better listen. Clearly, we see one group in this passage as being superior and the other as lesser. The passage even says that the nonmeat eaters have a weaker conscience. The meat eaters believe the other group is overly sensitive and unreasonable. ‘Just eat the meat, it’s OK.’ But Paul says in reality, it doesn’t matter if they eat the meat or not. Whether you eat it or not is irrelevant to following Christ. Helping others follow Christ is what is important.
When we view another group as lesser than ourselves, we tend to constrain the group by imposing our values or ideas on them. We feel since we are stronger, or smarter, or whatever, we know what is right. How different is this from a demon that is controlling someone’s life? The demon prevents the human from having their free will by imposing themselves into the other person. The person is then trapped: unable to free themselves. This trapped person then needs people from the outside to speak for them and to free them.
When we take a close look at our actions and language, we may see how we are imposing ourselves or our values onto someone else. Yet often times we cannot see it. The things we may be doing have been a part of our culture or our very being for so long that we don’t see anything wrong with it.. It may take people from the outside to show us how we are unconsciously hurting others, trapping them into our mold or our worldview. Sometimes we have to listen to others who feel that we are offending them. We have to listen to or accept why they don’t want to eat idol meat even if it seems irrational to us.
A journey like this is difficult. When we travel on a journey we may be asked to take a detour from where we thought we were going. But we are not alone. Of course, we have our friends and family, but we also have Christ. When we allow Christ to be present in our thoughts and prayers, in our life, I suspect we will find Christ’s love. Christ’s love is transformative. It builds mutual love and trust even with those who I may view as lessor, or different, or just overly sensitive. Our journey with Christ isn’t about being right; it isn’t about what we have the lawful ability to do. Our journey is about walking faithfully with Christ, removing the stumbling blocks that prevent us and others from deepening our relationship with Christ. These stumbling blocks are sin. Others may call them evil. Regardless, they are what trap us to this world.
So I ask, what are the things that we may be holding onto that makes other people’s life journey more difficult? Removing these stumbling blocks frees each of us to know God more fully.