Love Builds Up

Message for Sunday, February 1, 2015
Glennon Heights Mennonite Church
Betsy Headrick McCrae
Scripture passage: 1 Corinthians 8
Love builds up
“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols…” Huh? What does this have to do
with us? Why on earth are we even thinking about this? It is a subject that doesn’t apply
at all to our day-to-day lives. And yet this passage from Paul’s first letter to the church at
Corinth is one that I appreciate. It is so very practical. If we are willing to look at it with
perspective, it is full of really good advice on love in action.
Folks in the early church, like those in Corinth, were trying to figure out what it
meant to follow Jesus. Their world was a world full of religions; “there are many gods
and many lords,” Paul himself points out. People were very familiar with the worship of
these other gods, which included making sacrifices – bringing offerings of animals or
grain. Pagan sacrifices typically consisted of three portions: One small part would be
used in the sacrificial ritual. A larger portion would be reserved for the use of the priests
or other temple personnel. The largest part would be retained by the worshiper. The one
who offered the sacrifice sometimes used the remaining portion as the main course in a
meal which might be served at or near the pagan temple. Eating “food sacrificed to
idols” followed participation in the sacrificial worship. This was common practice,
common knowledge.
So, when followers of Jesus ate this food, this meat, what were the folks around
them to think? What were the new converts to think? Those who were strong in their
faith knew that there was nothing about this meat in and of itself that was corrupting to
them. Eating it did not mean that they worshipped idols. But this was not true for
everyone. Folks who were more tentative about their new faith and what it meant for
their lives, had a harder time separating these two things. When they saw their fellow
Christians eating meat which had been used as part of a religious ritual that they were
trying to put behind them, they become confused and uncertain about what their new
faith was all about. This was detrimental to them.
As I reflected on this, I thought of an example from our experience in Vietnam. It
is not about faith or worship but it illustrates the point Paul is trying to make, I think.
When we lived in Vietnam in the mid-1990s society there was rapidly changing.
Suddenly things were available to folks that had never been part of their lives before.
Like TV. Bruce and I were quite used to TV, of course, and we were not enamored with
it. In fact, we had chosen not to have a TV in our home before coming to Vietnam. We
didn’t want our young daughters to get hooked. When we arrived in Hanoi, however, a
TV was part of our household furnishings. We used it to watch videos occasionally. We
were careful in monitoring the time that our girls spent in front of the screen. We didn’t
rule out TV for them completely but we were trying our best to be good, responsible
One of our staff members, Ms. Thuy, had a son about the age of our daughters.
Over the years that we worked with Thuy, the living situation of her family kept
changing. They were able to buy a new house. And they acquired things they hadn’t had
before, including a TV. Some years after we had returned to the U.S. I was back in
Vietnam in a work-related capacity with MCC; I spent some time with Thuy. She shared
with me that she and her husband were very concerned about their son. He didn’t work
hard at school. He seemed to care less about being responsible. “All he wants to do is
watch TV,” Thuy said. Then she really threw me for a loop. “We learned that from
you,” she said. “We saw that you let your girls watch TV, so we did the same.” What?!
But we were being so careful! Our daughters barely watched any TV! That’s not what
Thuy saw, however. What she saw was the simple act itself and it had a negative
influence. “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?” Our actions always speak and sometimes the message is not at all
what we meant it to be.
That is why Paul says, take care. You may think you know the best way to do
things, but if you aren’t paying attention to those around you and their life situations, if
you don’t care whether what you do affects others or not, you are likely to make a mess
of things. You can possibly make things worse. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds
up.” Love is very important. Love keeps things in perspective.
Love pays attention. It takes in the whole picture. It thinks about the
consequences. It sees what is happening and it responds with care. Love focuses on
what will encourage growth for everyone, even if that means putting one’s own
understandings and freedoms to the side for a while. Even if it’s not especially
convenient, or sometimes even dangerous. Love chooses to act in ways – big and small –
that do not put others in jeopardy in the long-run. Instead love strengthens others. It
changes things. Its purpose is to respond to where folks really are and in the process to
allow for transformation and building up of the community as a whole.
Today, the first of February, is the beginning of Black History Month. Bruce and
I went to see the movie, Selma, a couple of weeks ago and it got me thinking a lot about
the civil rights movement. (I highly recommend the movie, by the way.) Selma is the
story of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody
Sunday,” March 7, 1965. The purpose of the march was to demand protection of voting
rights for Black folks. They had recently received the legal right to vote, but in actuality
that right was being denied by government officials who constructed all kinds of barriers,
for instance, asking an applicant to “name all the judges” before she could be registered.
Though resistance was strong, things needed to change.
One of the characters in this film is a young man named John Lewis. He is one of
the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized the
freedom rides. He is on the front line of the first march across the bridge and is among
those who is attacked and brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers. He is there on the
second march which stops and turns around, and again on the third march, which takes
place after President Johnson agrees to enact voting rights legislation. That final march
makes it all the way to Montgomery. As a personal aside, Bruce’s father, Ian McCrae,
along with religious leaders from all over the country, was part of the second march
across the bridge.
This past week I listened to an interview with John Lewis, who is now a
Democratic congressman from Georgia’s 5th district. What struck me most as I listened
to this interview was how much Mr. Lewis talked about love. For him, the civil rights
movement grew out of and was shaped by love. That’s something that is not often
highlighted as the movement is remembered. It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around
that. Perhaps it’s hard for us to really believe. But for John Lewis, Martin Luther King,
Jr., and others, love was the starting point. Love of those who were oppressed. And love
for those who were doing the oppressing. In John Lewis’ words, “The movement created
what I like to call a non-violent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest
forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me,
but in spite of that, I’m gonna still love you.” Whew. That’s very challenging stuff.
John Lewis grew up Black and poor in rural Alabama. He experienced
segregation and racial discrimination. He also experienced hard work and deep faith in
God. He said, “Attending church and Sunday school, reading the Bible, the teachings of
the great teacher, and being deeply influenced by what I saw all around me, I carried this
belief that somehow, some way things were going to get better. I had a sense of hope, a
sense of optimism. I had faith. I had faith in God and I had faith in my own capacity and
ability to change things. I wanted to believe, and I did believe, that things would get
better. You have to have this sense that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s
already happened. It’s the power to believe that you can see, that you are able to
visualize, that sense of community, that sense of family, that sense of one house. And
you live as if you’re already there.”
John Lewis and those with him knew well that what they wanted to accomplish
would not come easy. They spent a lot of time preparing for the work they had to do. He
explains: “Long before any sit-in, any march, long before the freedom rides or the march
from Selma to Montgomery, we studied. A small group of us gathered every Tuesday
night at 6:30 p.m. in a small Methodist church in downtown Nashville. We had a teacher
who taught us the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. And we would act it out.
There would be Black and white young people, students, all playing different roles. We
went through the motions, the drama of getting kicked, getting spat upon, being pulled
off the lunch counter stool. We went through this again and again so that we could learn
to maintain eye contact, so that we would be able to always give the impression, yes, you
may beat me, but I’m human, and I know you’re human, too.”
For John Lewis this training and eventually this work had deep spiritual roots.
“First of all, you have to grow,” he says. “This is not something that is natural. You
have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. In the
religious sense, the moral sense, you recognize that in the bosom of every human being,
there is a spark of the divine. You don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of
the divine in your fellow human being. You may have to work hard to find that spark.
You try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. You never give up on anyone.”
“So,” asked the interviewer, “do you feel that even in that moment on that dark
day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that you were able to love those officers who came at
you with tear gas and night sticks?”
John Lewis replied, “I saw these officers as individuals carrying out an order.
And since then I’ve had opportunity to meet some of their sons and daughters. I had a
discussion on one occasion with Governor Wallace about what happened on that Sunday.
I was honest with him. But I never had any bitterness toward him or any of the officials,
even going back to the freedom rides. When we arrived in Montgomery in 1961 there
was a man named Floyd Mann who was a public safety director of the Alabama State
Troopers. He came and stood and put a gun up in the air and said something like, ‘There
will be no killing here today. There will be no killing here today.’ Years later I saw
Floyd Mann after I got elected to Congress. He said, ‘Congressman Lewis, do you
remember me?’ And I said, ‘Mr. Mann, how could I forget you. You saved my life.’ He
cried and I cried.”
Recently John Lewis was honored in Montgomery, Alabama. The chief of police
offered him a public apology. He pledged to bring the truth about those days to the
Montgomery policemen who are now on the job.
“That was a very moving moment for me,” John Lewis says. “You know, I cry
sometimes and sometimes I think I cry too much. But they are tears of gratitude, tears of
appreciation, joy, happiness, of seeing the distance we’ve come and the progress we’ve
made. This says something about the power of love, the power of nonviolence to move
us toward reconciliation. It is love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was
love in action. We do these things not simply because they are the right thing to do but
because we love our country, we love a democratic society. We have to move our feet.
You can get in the way of injustice, but if you’re going to do it, do it fully and with love,
peace, nonviolence, patience and faith.”
The civil rights movement responded to injustice. It also grew out of deep faith in
God and trust that God’s kingdom is real, that no matter what things look like, what is
right and good is already in place. John Lewis and others knew this. They also knew that
the situation between Blacks and whites wasn’t in sync with this reality. What was
happening wasn’t right or good for anybody, Black or white. Something had to be done.
Their faith in God was their starting point and their impetus. In his letter to the
Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, “Anyone who loves God is known by God.” When
one knows oneself to be known by God, as these strong men and women of faith did,
then love falls into place and what you know is placed in perspective, a perspective that
includes a commitment to the good of all persons. Then actions against injustice are
strong and persistent but never dehumanizing. They are meant to challenge and
transform a system that is rotten into one that fosters life. To set things right for the good
of everyone. This is not always understood. Love is not a magic wand. It can be
spurned and rejected. Sometimes it brings out hatred, its nearest of kin. Sometimes it
takes decades to work. But in the long run, love in action is the only thing that will work.
As a community of believers, as followers of Jesus in a broken world longing to
be whole, we know who we are. We are God’s children, redeemed, deeply loved, and
free to live fully into our inheritance. But even such wonderful knowledge is nothing
without love. Our love for God and for others makes it real. Love cares about those who
are weak and those who are strong, about those who understand and those who are
confused. Love cares deeply about those who are oppressed and about the oppressors.
Because this is so, love jumps into the fray. Love is strong, and it is vulnerable. Love is
persistent, relentless in the pursuit of justice, and at the same time it is patient, willing to
wait. Love pays attention. Love notices. Love makes adjustments for the situation.
Love cares about all persons. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
Sisters and brothers, this is the word of the Lord and it can be trusted. Amen.

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