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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

Not What You Know, But How You Love

The Rev. Sara Warfield

Sermon/Rector's Annual Address

Okay, you don’t have to raise your hands or anything, but how many of you kind of glazed over during the reading of the epistle. Not to demean Pete’s fabulous reading, it’s just: who cares about who’s eating meat in front of who, Paul? Why are you talking about this?

Well, because it was actually a serious issue in Corinth. There are some new Christians in the church there who are still struggling with how their former life has taught them to believe. In that time, the main religion was one of worshiping many gods: gods of a particular trade, gods of a particular family, gods representing their political leaders. It was common, indeed socially and civically expected, for Corinthians to gather and celebrate these gods by sacrificing animals and eating the meat together.

These gatherings were also a place where merchants networked, where political decisions were crafted by the powerful, where business of all sorts took place. If those Corinthian Christians in high standing—and there were some—couldn’t attend these gatherings, then they might miss out on opportunities. And, let’s not be naive, it was wealthy and powerful converts who funded the early Christian communities, who enabled Paul to travel and teach.

Now we don’t have the Corinthian church’s initial letter to Paul. It’s been lost to time. But Paul seems to quote that letter in his response to them: “All of us possess knowledge,” the Corinthian Christians said to Paul, defending the practice of eating meat offered to idols. They go on to say, again quoted in Paul’s letter: “we know that no idol in the world really exists” because “there is no God but one.” And so, they argued, it doesn’t matter if they eat the meat because to them the meat has no special meaning. It’s just food.

“You’re right,” Paul responds. “Because there is only one God, that meat is meaningless.” He takes care to affirm these Corinthians to whom he’s writing. “You are free to eat whatever you want,” he tells them.

But, he says, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Now by weak, Paul doesn’t mean spiritually deficient. He means people who have not yet had the chance to build up their faith. This is still a new way of believing, one that is very much on the margins of Corinthian society. The belief in those many gods, and in their presence in the meat offered, is still ingrained in some of these new converts. However they’re promised by Paul and their church community that the meat doesn’t mean anything, it’s still hard to let go.

It would be like if some new and wonderful power that we trust, that we believe in, swooped in and told us that green now means stop and red means go. That might be true now, and we trust that there’s a good reason for it, but it would take some getting used to.

So, Paul says to the Corinthians, it is in fact meaningless for you to eat meat offered to idols. But if a new follower of Christ sees you, and they haven’t had the opportunity to build strength in their faith yet, they might be challenged, confused. It might set them back in this new, budding faith of theirs.

So even though maybe you yourself have internalized that red now means go and green means stop, it’s probably best not to blast through red lights for a while, to maybe slow down, because people are still learning, and we want to keep everyone safe.

“All of us possess knowledge,” Paul says, affirming the Corinthians, but "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

I’ll give another example. Many of us are perfectly capable of drinking alcohol in moderation. We have a glass of wine with dinner. We meet friends for drinks. Alcohol, like that meat, is a relative neutral in our lives. But we may have a friend who has struggled with drinking. They’ve lost jobs, their family is on the brink of falling apart, and one night they find themselves lucky to be alive after wrapping their car around a tree—which finally leads them to getting help. They’ve been going to AA and just got their red chip: a month of sobriety. And they ask if you want to hang out.

Do you invite them to meet you at a bar? After all, alcohol is neutral, right? It’s not the alcohol that’s the problem, it’s the way a person uses it. That’s what you know. And technically, you’d be right.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Love would ask you not to put your friend in any environment that might challenge their sobriety, even if that same environment would be perfectly fine for you. After all, they’re still growing into this new way of being.

“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.” Paul is telling the Corinthians, telling us: faith is not about what you know, it’s about how you love.

Now I don’t mean to brag, but…I think that could be the motto for our St. Luke’s community.

Faith is not about what you know, it’s about how you love.

It was the unspoken theme of our Meaning of Membership gatherings. So much of our time together in that space is spent deconstructing what we had been taught to know, been taught to be certain of, been taught what is “good” and will get us to heaven or “bad” and send us to hell. We break those experiences, those lessons, down and then lean into the Episcopal ethos: that we don’t gather around particular dogma or rigid belief, we gather around prayer, entrusting God with our joys and concerns, loving the world through giving our hope for the world to God.

After those gatherings, we welcomed ten new members into our parish family last year, and saw the recommitment of another.

Faith is not about what you know, it’s about how you love.

It’s what holds us in our Bible Study, which started in Lent of last year and continues to go strong every Tuesday afternoon, with anywhere from six to twelve people joining us every week. We learn there what is challenging for different people about the Bible and about what is life-giving. Not what is correct. Not what is the “right” understanding. We learn that there’s no real understanding of the Bible in isolation. In order to truly understand, we must read the Bible in community, which is to say we must read the Bible through the lens of relationship, of love.

Faith is not about what you know, it’s about how you love.

We were challenged to practice this as a community when an unhoused man started sleeping on our grounds at the end of last summer. It was complicated. The law said that the right thing to do was to prohibit him from sleeping on our land. Many Christians, many Episcopalians, in fact, would say that the right thing to do was to allow him to stay and to tend to his needs. But what would deep, authentic love have us do? We decided that it was to connect him to the resources that were available, which we did, while also honoring the law of our city, our larger community. The man was welcome to rest on our grounds during the day, but we encouraged him to seek the shelter that the city provided at night.

But then what love meant shifted. We had good reason to suspect that this man started a fire under our Junior Warden’s car one weekday. Love in that situation meant caring for the safety of our Junior Warden and our St. Luke’s community. Love in that situation meant holding the man accountable to his dangerous and harmful actions. It broke my heart, but I had to ask him to stay off our church grounds.

Faith is not about what you know, it’s about how you love.

We saw this in the breadth of gifts offered during worship this past year. We made space for all sorts of music and art. It wasn’t about getting it “right”—as often evidenced by my chanting during worship—but about our willingness to let ourselves be seen, to be vulnerable. Through cantoring the Prayers of the People, though displaying your works of calligraphy (thank you, Pete, for that wonderful class), through the poems you shared with all of us, through the words of several gifted lay preachers, none of whom talked what we’re supposed to know about the Bible, but about their own experiences with the scriptures, their own interpretations. Your vulnerability is an act of love.

Faith is not about what you know, it’s about how you love.

We lost a few members of our church family this year. Because of their health conditions, neither Ann Muir nor Mark Ebberts had been able to come to worship for a long time. But when they died, that didn’t matter. You loved them, loved their family and friends by showing up. Showing up to Ann’s funeral at Oaks Pioneer Church in south Portland to remember and celebrate her. When we held Mark’s funeral, so many of you showed up. From Altar Guild to reception, y’all supported Vicki and her family through their loss. In fact, many of you who never even knew Mark showed up and helped out.

Faith is not about what you know, it’s about how you love.

We also gained a new member of the capital-C Church. We baptized Wrenley Elizabeth Iverson on Easter Sunday. My first ever baptism, by the way. We didn’t vow to bring Wrenley up to make sure that she has a perfect understanding of the Trinity, or that she would attend church every Sunday and believe what she was told to believe. We vowed to do all in our power to support her in her life in Christ.

Faith is not about what you know, it’s about how you love.

I could tell you that we’re growing, that there are more people in the pews and on Zoom, which there are. I could talk about the discernment we’ve been engaged in to refresh our sanctuary, which is indeed a big deal. But my main concern about any of this, all of our ministry, will always be: how is this in service to growing God’s love in the world?

When we go downstairs, you’re going to hear from our Ministry Team leaders even more ways we practiced faith growing God’s love here at St. Luke’s in 2023. The ways you’ve each given of yourselves, the ways you were each open to receiving. And I want you to remember that all of our gifts, all our works, all of our love pieced together in this little part of the Body of Christ, is how we bring the Kingdom of God, how we sow the love of God, into this broken world. You being you, St. Luke’s being St. Luke’s, that’s how we change the world.

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