Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 9.17.2017
Scripture Lesson: Romans 14:1-8
Apparently, I can be even more smug now.
The permission came via news of a recent study by Oxford University. Not just any study. An Oxford study, meaning it has it’s provenance in a University that will soon be celebrating its one thousandth anniversary. This of itself seems grounds for smugness. Oh, your town just turned one hundred and fifty? How lovely! I remember my alma maters one hundred and fiftieth. It was eight hundred and fifty years ago.
Hah. Hah. Hah.
I know my diet better for the environment, because that is precisely what the study at Oxford says. A vegetarian diet uses less than half of the land, and produces half of the carbon emissions of a meat based diet. If we were all vegetarian, it would save the planet, or so the headlines ran. Seriously, how much more smugness potential could exist in a dietary form?
The study itself added significantly to my dietary smugness potential, for as a vegetarian, it is so very easy to feel the teensiest bit superior. It’s been so long since I stopped eating meat that I’ve kind of forgotten when it was I stopped eating meat. It was some time after I got married. That, I remember. So when anyone asks, I’ll say, well, I think it’s 18 years. Sometimes I say 15 years. Other times I say twenty.
I know a diet of vegetables is healthier, because of course it is. There is nothing healthier than being a vegetarian. Now, one might say, oh, it’s too hard to be vegetarian. What can you possibly eat? Hah. Hah, I say. It’s easy to enjoy this healthful diet. Take for example, pizza. Pizza is vegetarian. Pepperoni, not so much. But pizza? It’s fine. Beer is also vegetarian. As a pro tip, I will note that New York Super Fudge Chunk Chip ice cream is also vegetarian. This remains true whether you eat but a spoonful or manage to down the whole pint. Whichever way, it’s vegetarian. See how easy it is?
And it’s so easy, so very easy these days to be vegetarian. There are countless more things to eat, up to and including a nifty new veggie burger that supposedly tastes completely and exactly like meat. More importantly, said veggie burger also smells like meat when you grill it, because the smell of meat on a grill on a perfect summer evening is just about the best smell on the planet. Even after 18, 15, or twenty years of being vegetarian, I still salivate and mutter to myself “dear lord in Heaven, that smells good.” What is this burger made of? Well, a bunch of things, most notably a genetically modified yeast that has been tweaked by science to...for lack of a better way to describe it...bleed. Actual blood. Which is a little gross, but it apparently smells delicious when you eat it.
I know it’s kinder. We get our meat from hideous factory farms, and even if we don’t, well, poor Bambi is still crying alone on the forest. “What’s wrong,” says Thumper. “Someone wasn’t a vegetarian,” says Bambi, at which point even more smugness occurs.
For all of this, it’s not that I’m lacking conviction that not eating meat is better.
Perhaps it’s because I have those three strikes against me that I find the Apostle Paul’s discussion of a form of early Christian vegetarianism so appropriate. Here, though, what’s both strange and worth noting is that the smug folks weren’t the vegetarians. They were the carnivores. Paul, an omnivore himself, describes vegetable eaters as “weak,” which seems actually surprisingly smug and totally unfair, because, gosh darn it, I’m supposed to be the smug one.
The issue for early Christians who chose not to eat meat was not that they were concerned about lipids or carcinogens. They weren’t worried about climate change. Instead, the issue was consuming meat that had been sacrificed to idols. This generally isn’t a concern when we stop by McDonalds or Red Robin or White Castle, but back in the first century, it was a thing.
Meat in the highly dynamic, pluralistic culture of the Greco-Roman world was often...well... “used meat.” That meant that before it went for sale in the marketplace, the animal involved had been sacrificed at the altar of one of the almost countless gods of the ancient world. While a small amount of the sacrifice would have been burned, most of the rest of an animal would have been either 1) consumed by the priests/priestesses of whatever god it was sacrificed to or 2) sold to the market as income for that particular temple.
For some early Christians, this was a major issue. They’d just converted to the movement that worshipped Yeshua Ben Yahweh, and they knew that they were supposed to only worship one God. Having rejected all other gods, they were terrified that they might somehow be violating their relationship with Christ and their Creator if they had some BBQ ribs that had first been sacrificed to Ba’al.
Rome, standing as it did at the very heart of empire, was filled with temples and altars. It was chock-full of ancient religions and mystery cults. For some of the fledgling Christians in the town, there was very real fear that they might accidentally lose their Jesus connection if they ate pagan meat.
For those who were wiser and more well read, the whole idea was just absurd. And it was to those others...and sharing their perspective...that Paul directed this section of his letter. Paul, though a stranger to the Roman church, knew it by reputation. It was comprised, or so we can assume from his writings to them, by the erudite...by philosophers, the wise, the aware, and those who were steeped in knowledge of how things really were.
Paul is not rejecting them. In fact, Paul is showing that he believes exactly the same things. For those whose grasp of the faith was strong, and who understand that from that strength they are free to eat and act and live in ways that stand beyond the grasp of others, Paul is clear: don’t be judgmental.
Remember, he softly chides, that there are things all of us disagree about. Should we celebrate some of the sacred days of the Jewish tradition, or not? Some think yes, and some think no, but what matters most is that we do what we do in a way that honors and respects those who do not share our position.
What he does not share is their willingness to condemn or mock those fledgling Christians who lack the depth of understanding that he shares. He acknowledges that they are “weak,” sure. But what he will not do is act and live in ways that subvert what faith the weak do have. If you love others, you don’t live that way. Possessing knowledge is not enough.
The task of every Christian, even in disagreement, even when you know you’re right, even when your absolute correctness is utterly and empirically provable to any halfway sentient being, your task is to love and to build up.
Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.