Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

More than occasionally I meet somebody who doesn’t know too much about the Episcopal Church, and almost inevitably I’m asked about rules. The questions are largely what one might expect. Evangelical types tend to ask if we’re permitted to drink, dance, and gamble. Roman Catholics tend to ask questions like can our priests can marry.

I, for one, am grateful that, despite the fact that we do have moral obligations, the Gospel is not about rules but about Grace. The larger culture, as evidenced by those sorts of questions I just mentioned, seems to associate religion with rules, but that’s not the primary message, the primary message being that we are all sinners and we’re all saved. Even so, I think we must take into consideration Paul’s words to the Corinthians in today’s epistle before we go too far with this freedom we have in the Gospel.

Paul was writing, as he often did, in response to a disturbance in the local church, and in the passage we heard a moment ago, he was writing specifically about a controversy regarding food sacrificed to idols. What Paul ultimately says is that there’s no inherent harm in eating such food, since there’s not really any god behind the idol. The problem arises when others, who are less knowledgeable in the faith see it, and it becomes a crisis of conscience for them.

But, since most of us won’t be offered food sacrificed to an idol anytime soon, how does this effect us? I think the lesson is larger than the particulars Paul faced.

Some years ago a friend of mine told a story about going into a movie theater to watch what was a rather edgy film, and another cinema-goer (a stranger) horrified enough to see somebody in a clerical collar watching this particular movie (I don’t recall what it was) that she acosted him about being there. It seemed not to occur to my friend’s interlocutor that she was there to watch precisely the same film he was. Now, yesterday, Annie and I went to see a movie which turned out to be rather explicit; I was grateful that I wasn’t wearing my collar, lest I have a similar experience to my friend, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Now, we are all representatives of Christ’s Church, as we are all members of the Body. It is not the sole responsibility of the clergy to serve as examples, so replace the priest in the story I just told with yourself. You see, our actions are seen by others, and they can cause others to question their own consciences. This can be a very good thing, as we should all strive to determine what that inner voice tells us is right and wrong. But it can also be confusing. Even when we know we’re not doing anything wrong, it can cause others to stumble, and St. Paul says, “Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Now, don’t take all of this to mean that we must always be walking on eggshells, as it were, fearing that somebody might be offended by our actions. Don’t take all of this to mean that anything we do which might possibly cause offense must be done covertly. “If you’re doing something you need to hide, you shouldn’t be doing it at all” is probably a good rule of thumb.

The point is that we need to be sensitive to others’ sense of propriety, even if we don’t agree with it. We need to “take care” as Paul put it. We ought not to rub our freedom in others’ faces. We ought not to go out of our way to scandalize our brothers and sisters whose consciences might be weak.

A little bit of charity in this regard may well be reciprocated, but even if it isn’t, it is nonetheless our obligation to be a wholesome example and to respect those whose sense of wholesomeness is more rigid than our own. The key in this regard is charity, and that should be our driving principle no matter what the particular circumstance.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.