A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 14, 2014
1 Corinthians 10:24-33 NLT
Let’s start with a story; a true story. Some years ago, in a previous congregation, there was a retired couple that I will refer to as Sam and Bonnie. Sam and Bonnie were in their early to mid-eighties at the time. They had sort of become discontented with the church before we arrived and had all but stopped attending. But they took a liking to us and started attending regularly and became, in fact, two of my strongest supporters. We became very close. About once a year, Sam and Bonnie would invite us to their home for dinner. Now, Bonnie had severe rheumatoid arthritis in her legs and hands, which made walking and climbing steps very difficult. Nevertheless, she attended church as long as she could, even though it meant climbing several marble steps to get into the sanctuary. And eventually Bonnie all but gave up cooking, since the arthritis in her hands made it so difficult. So, sweet, thoughtful, and caring man that he was, Sam took over the cooking and dish washing.
Well, one evening Sam and Bonnie again invited us over for an evening of visiting and dinner. We sat in their living room and visited awhile before dinner. Then Sam announced it was time for appetizers and suggested we move to the dining room table. The table was set with their fine silver on a lovely table cloth. Bonnie, Mary Lou and I took our seats, and Sam went into the kitchen to bring our appetizers. In a moment he proudly returned with four big shrimp cocktail appetizers, containing eight big shrimp each. And if we preferred over the cocktail sauce, he placed a bowl of homemade horseradish sauce in the middle of the table.
Now, you have to realize that I have never liked shrimp. I dislike like the taste, and I don’t like the texture. I had never eaten a whole shrimp in my entire life. But here I was at Sam and Bonnie’s table, with eight big shrimp staring me in the face which Sam had proudly prepared and proudly placed in front of me for my enjoyment. I had no idea what to do, since I didn’t think I could swallow and stomach one of the shrimp, much less eight. At the same time, I could not imagine telling Sam that I didn’t like shrimp, and I did not want to run the risk of hurting his feelings. So I was faced with a dilemma; a real shrimp conundrum.
Well, Mary Lou—knowing how much I disliked shrimp and knowing that I did not like horseradish sauce either—was watching me and wondering how I was going to handle the situation. What do you think I did? Well, after taking a deep breath, I decided there was just one acceptable course of action. I would have to eat the shrimp and at least pretend that I liked it. So one by one, I took those shrimp off my plate and I made myself open my mouth, chew, and swallow them, down to the very last one. I think I even dipped one of them in the horseradish sauce. And when the last shrimp was gone, I smiled and thanked Sam for the wonderful cocktails. I did it for Sam, and out of consideration for him, and because of the bond of love between us, and the ties that bound us together.
Sometimes that is what you do when you live together in religious community—out of consideration for one another, you make concessions, you think about the feelings of others, you sometimes do things for the good of the relationship that you would rather not do.
The Apostle Paul touched on this a bit in his first letter to the Corinthians. Granted, the situation in Corinth was quite different, to say the least. Corinth was a city filled with temples to numerous gods and goddesses. Oftentimes meat would be symbolically sacrificed in these pagan temples, and then later sold in the marketplace for food. And so, if one happened to be a strict Christian whose conscience forbade having any association with a pagan god or meat ceremonially dedicated to one of the pagan gods or goddesses, you see where a problem could ensue if someone invited you to their home and served you such meat. This may seem trivial to us, but for Christians of the Corinthian Church it was a real problem which called for a practical response. So in his letter, Paul sought to address the issue of Christian freedom and how one exercises his or her freedom without causing offense to someone else. Paul in effect said, “I personally may have no qualms at all about eating meat that has been ceremonially dedicated to an idol or in a pagan temple. But if it offends another member of the church for me to do so, then I won’t do it. “ In another place (Romans 14:21) Paul talks about drinking wine. Some felt it was perfectly acceptable to drink wine and saw it as a gift from God, whereas others were teetotalers and felt drinking wine was wrong. So in that case, Paul said, “Though I personally can drink wine with a free conscience, if to do so in the presence of another member of the church offends them, then I will refrain from doing so when we are together.”
One of the key words in Paul’s advice to the Corinthian Christians is “consideration;” consideration for the conscience and feelings of others in the community of faith. And consideration goes both ways. If it will offend someone for you to eat something, then out of consideration don’t eat it or drink it when you are in their presence. By the same token he says, “Eat whatever is offered to you . . .” In other words, out of consideration, if you can at all, eat whatever someone gives you so you don’t offend them by not doing so.
One of the things that makes a religious community like this United Church so special is we care for one another. And we are considerate of one another. And we are sensitive to the feelings of one another. Granted, it is not this way in every religious community. And it hasn’t always been in every church or faith community I have been a part of. But it certainly is here, and that is one thing that makes this United Church such a special place and a place to come home to.
But the fact that we are caring, considerate, and sensitive doesn’t mean that we always agree with one another. One may claim to be conservative and the other liberal. One may be a dyed in the wool Republican and the other a dyed in the wool Democrat. One may enjoy a daily glass of wine and another may be a staunch teetotaler. And when we have our monthly board meetings, we don’t always agree on the best course of action on some of the issues we address. But in all of these instances, at least in all of the ones I have witnessed since becoming your minister, we are congenial, considerate of the other person’s opinion, sensitive to the other person’s feelings, and we have a genuine care for one another in spite of our differences of opinion.
We are a religious community. But just what is community? How do we define it? Community gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, an extension of home and family, and a system of values. But to bind ourselves together in religious community is to also bind ourselves together in covenant. And this is what separates us from any other organization to which we might belong.
I have mentioned it in a sermon before, but the 1629 church covenant of the Congregational Church of Salem, Massachusetts, is such a beautiful and important piece of church history, and it seems so fitting for the spirit of this United Church. That church covenant read: “We Covenant with the Lord and one with an other; and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.” For me, the operative words in that Covenant are we “do bind ourselves . . . to walk together. . .” We may not always have the exact same opinions. We may not always agree on the issues. We may not always interpret a Bible passage in the exact same way. Some may love shrimp, and others of us may not. Nevertheless, we bind ourselves to walk together in mutual love, consideration, sensitivity, and caring. There is an apt African proverb that says, “If you want to walk fast, go alone. If you want to walk far, go with others.”
This is what makes for authentic religious community—mutual consideration and commitment to the ties that bind us together. We are so blessed in that this United Church is a model example of what a religious community ought to be. I am truly grateful that some six years ago you have made me a part of it. Amen.