Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.

Sermon from January 29, 2012 (AGM Sunday). Mark 1:21-28

I recently watched the movie The Help with Erin one evening. It’s the story, as many of you will know, of black maids in the American South in the 1960s who were raising children and cleaning floors and cooking meals for white women and what their lives were like. You learn how they raised babies, loved them like mothers, and then later went to work for those grown babies, who treated them like slaves. Or that their employers built washrooms in their garages believing that they’d get a disease if they shared a toilet with a black person. Or that books could not be shared between black and white school students. You watch it and you think that this seems like a time we have learned from. But of course, it’s only the context that has changed, really: as humans we are still pretty good at segregation, even if we now have different targets. Muslims. Poor people. Mentally ill people. Disabled people. Different people.

I want to talk about the second lesson, because really it would be hard to find a better passage from the Bible than this for our annual meeting. Of course, we don’t have much issue with sacrificing food to idols these days – at least not in the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And so like The Help, the specific context might make it seem like a time that doesn’t relate to us. But let’s look at what Paul is saying. In his historical context, he’s saying that some Christians are still sacrificing animals to idols; but others know better. If you are among the ones who have given up the practice, he says, then you need to set an example, and what’s more you need to create an environment where it stops happening, where it is easier for others to stop themselves. If food sacrificing doesn’t relate to us, then many other things will: if we don’t participate in bullying, it becomes harder for others to do so. If we stand up to bullies, other will join us. Paul is saying it is not just our responsibility as Christians to follow the gospel ourselves; it is our job to create a world in which the gospel is more easily followed by everyone.

At the beginning though, Paul says something really important: knowledge puffs up, love builds up. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.  Let’s say you have an issue and you are trying to decide where you stand.  Here’s a good exercise and it works especially well for Christians. Consider the position of the two sides, and put it into words. It’s best if spoken out loud. Then ask yourself:  how does each viewpoint ring in my ears? Which one sounds like the right position? Which one sounds like Jesus? Try it out and the answers come to you. Are you puffing up? Or building up? What’s the example being set?

Paul had the sociology figured out even before sociology was invented. We understand intrinsically how much we influence one another. People who donate to charity inspire more giving in their social circle. Parents who drive too fast raise kids who drive too fast. Handle stress well, and it’s likely the people around you will also handle it well. The strongest contagion in humanity is not germs; it is behaviour.

But setting an example is not so easy; otherwise presumably Paul wouldn’t have to lay it out. It requires to think not just about our own behaviour, but also how that behaviour appears to others: what message is it sending? If we want to alter someone else’s behaviour, we have to consider what part we played in creating it. That’s tricky. It’s hard enough in society; it’s even harder in our personal relationships. But ultimately, the exercise is the same as the one I described above: look hard at your own behaviour; consider what message it is sending: is it based on knowledge or love, grace or law? And ask how you might change that message.

Of course, knowledge is essential to love: Paul is not saying to be blind. He is saying not to let knowledge influence everything, but to allow love – that is, the spirit of faith and trust – to guide you toward what you do with the facts you see or hear or hold to. Of course, in The Help, we can say easily that we could discard certain racist so-called “facts,” and respond with love – at least in our own homes, were we in that situation. And it’s easy to see how one good example in your social circle could give others the permission to do the same.  But we can find out all sorts of examples, without looking very far, of so-called knowledge that has trampled on love; or law that has squashed the life out of grace.

Today, at our annual meeting, we will be asked to vote as a congregation to affirm the direction of our National Convention this past summer concerning the sexuality statement and the practice of the larger church in response to the GLBT community. You all know where I stand on this – and, to be clear, my knowledge and my love on this issue are not in conflict. In fact, while I sincerely hope we pass this resolution wholeheartedly, I am not sure how much praise we deserve for doing so. We are, as a larger church, extremely late to do this – and we have spent far too much time bickering about it, while most of the world – the one at least most of us want to live in – has settled it and moved on. The sad thing is, ultimately the church is the reason behind it all. At the root of a tolerant, democratic, rights-based society are the Judeo-Christian principals that the church first taught. If the world that The Help represents has decayed away, the church played an extremely important role in the civil rights movement to make that happen. The gospel created the bold idea of equality before God long before any government did. The church started the ball rolling. We ran beside it a while. And then it got away from us: the ball took off too fast for us and we did not keep up. That rolling stone of equality and tolerance that I believe the church first pushed into movement makes me extremely proud to be a Christian. I grieve for the fact that, in many areas important to the society in which we live, the church fell behind. And I have hope that the church can still set important examples in the world – even though, in this case, it seems as if the world set an example for us.

Looking ahead, now – for I believe we are sitting on our next rolling stone – it is right in front of us. Social inequality may be the most significant issue of the decades ahead. You hear the dissent everywhere you turn, the questions about unfettered capitalism and careless consumerism, and the mess we now have to fix.  What we do next, both in our community and in the larger church, will be either a missed opportunity or a stone we help push down the hill. And we do not have to look far to find our own example to guide us.

Knowledge puffs up, Love builds up, Paul said. Gather knowledge. But, when all is said and done, live with Love.

Amen


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