Sermon: “Discernment or Dogma?”

“Discernment or Dogma?”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
January 28, 2018

1 Kings 3:9-10
And Solomon said, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

As a vegetarian I have to admit I am a fan of the conclusion Paul reaches in this morning’s scripture reading: “Therefore, if food is a cause of someone’s falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”

Paul’s whole argument seems a bit obscure to us. He’s writing to former pagans who used to worship other gods and regularly ate the food (usually meat) sacrificed in their honor. It’s a problem we don’t run into much these days, but in Corinth’s Greco-Roman society, everything from sporting events to birthday parties, funerals, and even election victories featured ritually sacrificed food. New Christians trying to maintain social ties with friends, family, neighbors, and business associates were often put in the awkward position of being invited to eat a meal that would implicitly honor their old gods – a big no-no in their new, one-God-only religion. No wonder they wrote to Paul asking for help!

I remember living in New Orleans just after college graduation on a shoestring budget and being invited by a friend to a Hare Krishna temple for a free meal. Raised as an unfailingly polite Midwesterner, I thought it would be rude to show up as a freeloader for just the meal, so I attended the accompanying ritual beforehand, which turned out to be a birthday celebration honoring the Hindu god Rama. Figuring it would be like Catholic communion where non-believers respectfully observe but don’t partake, I was pretty surprised when we were all invited to push the swing where miniature figures of Rama and his consort Sita were seated. I felt a bit squeamish about it – although the act for me had no spiritual content, wasn’t this pretty close to idolatry? (I had, however, no qualms about eating the free meal afterwards. As Paul might have guessed, shoestring budgets and grumbling stomachs make a loud argument for accepting free food, regardless of where it comes from.)

But most of us don’t often find ourselves asked to honor someone else’s deity. Apart from the occasional cross-cultural encounter, what does this passage mean for us? What is the modern-day equivalent of eating meat sacrificed to idols, and why should we care?

There are quite a lot of Christian sects or denominations that forbid various behaviors that may not be sinful in and of themselves but that could, the thinking goes, lead the believer astray. Different Christian groups outlaw everything from alcohol to dancing to playing cards to coffee to R-rated movies to women wearing pants, all on the grounds that they could lead the transgressor down the primrose path.

Yet a distinctive feature of Christianity is freedom – freedom from seemingly arbitrary regulations, freedom to decide what following Jesus looks like for us as individualsWe are asked to make our own decisions as to where we spend our time and energy, to discern which inherently neutral acts (eating, drinking, watching a movie) are problematic for us – and which are fine. From Paul’s “freedom in Christ” all the way up to freedom of conscience, one of the UCC’s core tenets, we’re trusted by the God who gave us the gift of discernment to decide for ourselves. Paul essentially says: if it detracts from your spiritual progression, don’t do it. If it won’t derail you, partake!

What a refreshing perspective. To be told your behavior is determined by you and God, not a legalistic code you’ve inherited, must have been exhilarating. Imagine after years of living with the heavily prescribed ancient Jewish or Greek religion to be left to decide all the daily stuff of life for yourself!

It must also have been a bit terrifying. I think that’s part of what makes some modern day Christians want to follow strict behavioral codes. It can be messy and, frankly, with the barrage of advertising and media we face each day, exhausting to decide everything for ourselves, particularly when it comes to our spiritual health. Do you read the article about the latest political upheavals in Washington to stay informed even though it makes you depressed? Do you watch the movie that’s exceedingly violent but got so many Oscar nominations? Do you chime in on your girlfriends’ laments about their lazy husbands or your coworkers’ complaints about your boss – rants which make them feel like they’re in it together but which leave you feeling bitter and deflated? In some ways it’s easier to have it all laid out for you so you don’t have to think so hard all the time.

On top of that, Christianity’s interpretation of one of our founding stories – the Garden of Eden – has often implied that deciding good vs. evil for ourselves is negative – even sinful. After all, it was eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that gets Adam and Eve kicked out of paradise.

Yet eating that fruit is also what makes these first humans more like the God in whose image they were created, freeing them from blind obedience to agency and choice. I particularly appreciate the way our Mormon brothers and sisters interpret Eden – that Eve’s choice to eat the apple was, in fact, the ultimate positive act because it opened the way for all of us, as their descendants, to grow and learn and mature and experience life, in all its beauty and challenge.

Despite its complexities, the power of discernment – of deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil – is indeed a gift, one we’ve been given by a God who created us in the divine image, able to evaluate and decide.

When Solomon, newly crowned king of Israel, asks God for an extra share of this gift – “Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil” – it becomes apparent that God has changed stances since Eden. Instead of finding it presumptuous that a human would want this power, God is “pleased…that Solomon had made this request.” God is pleased when we ask for the ability to distinguish helpful from harmful for ourselves. As Paul describes in his letter to the Hebrews, practicing this ability so that we get better and better at it is a sign of spiritual maturity.

And practice we need! As Paul writes elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.”  It takes trial and error and time to discern between the two. Eventually we develop our own unique list of what uplifts us and what diminishes us; a list we aren’t meant to beat others over the heat with, but rather to keep ourselves healthy. Years ago my husband Chris decided to stop following the TV show Game of Thrones after the infamous Red Wedding episode; the excessive violence, particularly towards women, made him feel awful. A one-size-fits-all moral code would have us believe that friends who’ve kept watching are horrendous people – but discernment reminds us that they simply have different limits.

Discernment may mean deciding for ourselves, but crucially, it doesn’t mean we have to decide by ourselves; as Solomon wisely acknowledges, God is also pleased when we invite God into our decision-making process: “no one is able to govern this great people of yours,” he acknowledges, “without your help, God.”

Discernment for, but not necessarily by, ourselves is built on relationship – with God and with others. Discerning with God means we pray about decisions; we listen to the still small voice inside and we pay attention to our gut feelings, taking note of these fundamental ways the Holy Spirit nudges us towards what is right and good for us.

Trusted friends or spiritual advisors can reflect back to us those holy nudges and help us hear our own right or wrong better. And discernment in relationship – discernment in community – involves not just determining our own limits, but determining how those limits affect others. As Paul pleas, even if a particular act doesn’t bother you, be mindful of how it affects those around you who have different limits.

Many of us will recognize this idea from parenting – we try to determine what our children are able to handle, what will benefit them vs. what will overload them. Even if you’re dying to watch the new Quentin Tarantino movie, you choose something different for family movie night. Or for an adult example, you don’t invite a friend who struggles with alcohol to go out for drinks. Modulating your discerned limits to accommodate others’ comes down to common sense and compassion.

In my experience, the better we pay attention to where our own souls find uplift and renewal, and where they are sucked into destructive, downward spirals, the richer, fuller, more beautiful our lives become, and the more we grow into the people God is calling us to be. As Paul puts it in his letter to the church at Philippi, “you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble…authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. …Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into God’s most excellent harmonies.”

This doesn’t mean we bury our heads in the sand, ignoring injustice or abuse of power; it means that we pay attention to which responses to those injustices fill us up and which drain us. Discernment isn’t just about movie picks and dietary preferences; it’s also about the difficult, but ultimately rewarding, task of choosing how we will live out our values in ways that matter.

As we approach Lent, we get a very practical opportunity to put this into practice. The 40 days leading up to Easter, commemorating Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, are my favorite season in the church year.  I treat it like a spiritual check-up, a chance to examine what’s standing between me and a healthy, vibrant relationship with God – and, thanks to the gift of discernment, every year it’s different. One year in seminary I gave up reading, where I was spending an inordinate amount of time procrastinating. Without the pull of a new “Celebrities – they’re just like us!” post every five minutes, I felt more present to my school work and also more present to God. (Not to mention I felt considerably less shallow as a human being.) One year I took on reading a short devotional and praying for 5 minutes every morning because my prayer life was feeling rather anemic. Another year I gave up dessert so I could strengthen my self-control and delayed gratification muscles – fruits, we are told, of the Holy Spirit. Last year, at the invitation of friends adopting transracially, I pledged to read a book helping me examine my own unconscious racism – definitely something marring my relationship with my Creator – so I could be a wholly positive presence in their children’s lives.

Lent starts on February 14. In the next few weeks, I invite you to spend some time discerning – having a reflective conversation with God about what might bring you closer to God, what might renew your spiritual life, what might help you grow in a meaningful way.

Maybe you’ll give up something you frequently turn to to smooth over rough places in your life – in my experience coffee, wine, and chocolate are favorites of parents of young children – and practice turning to God, instead. Or maybe you’ll take something on – praying, meditation, a gratitude journal – to help bring you closer to God. Maybe you’ll give up a habit – complaining, worrying, constantly checking your phone or surfing Facebook – to free up that energy for connecting with your loved ones and with your Creator.

Whatever you choose – and it’s up to you – let that choice fill you with God’s loving presence. Seek out what is good, true, beautiful, authentic, compelling to you and let God work you into God’s most excellent harmonies. I can promise you, it’s even healthier for you than being vegetarian.