Vegetarians and the American Flag

Transcribed from the sermon preached September 8, 2014

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Romans 14:1-12

14Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. 7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Ok, so is Paul trying to settle a fight between vegetarians and meatasoruses? Not exactly. Even if his logic may apply well to modern dietary wars, Paul, we think, is talking to Christians concerned about meat which has been sacrificed to idols.

One way of taxing meat was the control of salt supplies. Priests also served the role of butcher. And if in the land of no refrigerators, the temples held a monopoly of salt, anyone who wanted preserved meat had to take it to the priest for sacrifice. Of course, if the butchering of an animal should also be a sacrifice to the gods for your spiritual good fortune, all the more reason to take meat there. For Jewish Christians who remembered God’s liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt, there was only one God for whom sacrifice of meat was appropriate.

Not all salt would have been controlled by the state or temple, and not all meat was butchered by priests, but it would be hard to tell once the meat was chopped up and hit the market. So some Christians decided that it was better to be vegetarian that risk eating meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul is also addressing the Sabbath. Some Christians want to honor Sabbath laws, while others consider each day like the other. Again it was a cultural thing. Yet we might note with Bob Coote that the rich appreciated jettisoning the Sabbath since they would not have to give their laborers a rest. Sabbath was one of the first know laws supporting or moving toward sustainable labor and environmental practice. But still it was a cultural issue. It would be possible to be a reasonably moral employer without following the Sabbath.

That, of course, is Paul’s point. Almost nothing is inherently, for all times and places evil. And just because every act someone does is not necessarily the best moral choice, the most Christian choice, doesn’t mean that person is condemned for all eternity.

The reasoning of the meat eaters was that the gods are not real; they are stone idols; so as long as you don’t believe in them it matters not at all if the meat you eat has been sacrificed to them. This is why Paul calls the vegetarians “weak” because they still believe the gods have power. Those who are eating freely are confident that there is just one God, and that the other gods are no gods at all. So the law is not the most important thing. But we don’t want to be self-righteous in our freedom either.   Just because we are smart enough to realize certain cultural forms have no power over us doesn’t mean we should be smug. What matters is our attitude and intention. Are we trying to serve God? Are we living for the Lord? Are we trying to be a loving and honest person?

There are moral laws which govern all the rest. Love God; love your neighbor as yourself. Do not lie, steal, cheat, covet, kill or commit adultery. Let your yes be yes and your no be no: be honest and honorable.

There are many cultural habits we follow. Many seem right. Many may even feel like they are the will or law of God. They may have served a purpose for a time and are now no longer necessary, practical or even moral. “Be fruitful and multiply” worked well until we hit about 5 billion people on the planet, now not so well. The Sabbath was fine until we got professional football. Well, maybe that is not a good excuse. The religious sacrifice of animals itself is an example.

In the Church we have been known to squabble over almost anything: Should we speak in tongues and sing real loud, or pray quietly or contemplatively? We can squabble over music, over language… inclusive or King James. Will God get angry at us if we use a different name for Her?

We have decided that we want to promote cheap, public water.   We think it is a wiser choice to fill up your reusable water from the faucet than to pay a higher price for water than gasoline. We think privatization of water sets a dangerous precedent. But if I go to another church to a rally against discrimination in the justice system, and they are generously handing out bottled water, I don’t go ballistic and overturn the tables of the water changers.

Back 25 years ago it was not considered appropriate for women to wear shorts in Guatemala. So Peace Corps women chose carefully when and where to wear shorts. Was it a sin for a woman to wear shorts, or a sin to prohibit women from wearing shorts? To a community health nurse the freedom to wear shorts was not as important as teaching the importance of using a latrine and washing hands.

Washing hands too, may get you sick, but it is not something to get you thrown in hell. In fact the revulsion of the dirty can often reveal class prejudice more than a moral concern for hygiene. I once saw a group of prissy spoiled suburban girls jump revoltingly away from a working man who was doing them a favor. He noticed; they didn’t.

The smug attitude of people who can easily afford tile floor, organic food and a Prius should be checked. Someone who drives a beat up old Chevy to buy cheap Walmart food is not condemned to hell. In fact they may have grown and picked your organic food, or work in the tile factory, or clean your tile.

One time I was visiting a church. As we took communion I dropped a piece of bread on the floor. I happened to be next to a side door so I opened it and threw it out. A lady looked at me like I had just throw Jesus out the door. Now if she was a Catholic, I had, but being a Protestant, the Holy Spirit is present in the community act. There is nothing magical happening that makes the bread Jesus. We don’t want to idolize the bread or the priest who says the words of institution. Jesus lived and died and was resurrected once. No more sacrifice is necessary. The bread and wine are sign and symbol of the continuing nourishment and sustenance of Christ in our lives.

Now I am afraid that the American flag in church risks the danger of idolizing the nation. But not every church with an American flag in it confuses which is which and what is what. We don’t have to think America is sinless to be thankful and honor the blessings and goodness we do have because we live here. We had better hope and pray that God blesses America. And we have a rainbow flag and we think we can manage to not idolize Gays and lesbians. On the contrary, we are saying orientation does not prevent someone from worshipping the God who liberates the oppressed, welcomes the outcast, cleanses us with grace, and empowers us to honest and loving lives.

In a couple of weeks a synagogue will come in our sanctuary and cover our cross with a quilt and celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Is this blasphemy, defacing our faith, dishonoring the Holy of Holies, dishonoring Jesus? Well, first off Jesus was a Jew and would have celebrated with his people, and he certainly wouldn’t have worshipped a cross. The cross is not what we worship. The empty cross is the sign that not even an object of torture could keep the God of love down. Jesus got up and left it. So we come here to worship the God who conquers evil and death to extend love across cultures. So we will be Christians as we get up and leave this cross and this building to serve. We will be Christian in the love that we extend to all people. The love of Jesus, you can’t nail it down.

We try our best to choose the right way to live, to choose the most kind and loving and truthful path. But we fall short in 10,000 ways and still require the forgiveness of God. So too in humility we ought to extend grace to others. We can be proud and thankful and draw meaning from our sanctuary, ritual and symbols. But they are not what we worship. Christ is not captive in our symbols or our architecture or language. Christ is alive in us. We embody the temple, in the truth and honesty, love and kindness that we live and share. We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.