Sunday, 28 January 2018

Do not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11.00 am, 28 January 2018

1 Corinthians 8.1-13  
Mark 1:21-28   

“But take care that this liberty of yours
            does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

This week, I attended a training course,
            run by the Mennonite organisation Bridgebuilders,
            about handling power in church leadership.

And as preparation for the day, I was asked to do a bit of homework.
            I had to come prepared with a couple of examples,
                        drawn from real life in my time here at Bloomsbury,
                        relating to my experience of power.

Firstly, I had to think of an occasion when I’ve been conscious of exercising power,
            and I was invited to reflect on how I felt about doing so,
            and what I had learned about power from this experience.

And secondly, I had to think of a personal example
            of an occasion when I’ve felt powerless,
            and I was invited to reflect on what it felt like to be powerless,
            and what I did in response to those feelings of powerlessness.

I didn’t find this an easy exercise,
            not only because any kind of reflective practice usually has me running for the hills,
but because reflecting on power and powerlessness, on strength and weakness,
            is such a deeply personal experience, and potentially so emotively fraught.

There are, of course, some Christians who think we should never talk about power,
            and they will point to the example of Jesus,
                        who goes to the cross like a lamb to the slaughter,
                        laying aside his power, and taking on the mantle of weakness.
If we are to be authentically Christ-like, these Christians suggest,
            we too must lay aside all power
            and embrace weakness and powerlessness as a virtue of discipleship.
We must be those who turn the other cheek, who embody meekness,
            who reject all the temptations to act in strength.

But then, of course, there are those Christians
            who seem to talk about nothing other than power,
singing songs about there being power in the name of Jesus to overcome all evil,
            to cast out all demons, and to resist all temptations.
They would claim that if we are to be authentically Christ-like,
            we should embody this power in our lives,
            allowing the strength of Christ to flow through us
                        to bring healing and release to a hurting and damaged world.

I’m sure that you, like me, have met people at both ends of this spectrum.
            And I wonder where you sit on it?
I wonder where I sit on it?
            I suspect that personally, I gravitate rather more towards the powerful end of things.
                        Not in a name-it-claim-it, ‘begone from here foul fiend’ way,
                        but certainly in a kind of ‘highly competent for Jesus’ kind of way.

After all, I am a powerful person.
            I’m white, I’m male, I’m straight,
                        I’m married, I’m Western, I’m English,
                        I’m highly educated, and I’m comfortably off.
All of these things, in our society, give me power.
            Some of them I was born with, others I’ve worked hard for,
                        but putting them all together, a picture emerges, somewhat uncomfortably,
                                    of Simon as a fairly powerful person,
                                    albeit one who wants to use that power for good.

“But take care that this liberty of yours
            does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…
            …says Paul, to the powerful Christians of first century Corinth.

They were a strong bunch of believers,
            relatively wealthy, cosmopolitan, and broad-minded.
They were also a nightmare,
            as strong people often can be when they flock together.

But their issue here was that they had decided that it was perfectly OK
            to eat food that had been offered to idols,
on the entirely logical grounds that if the pagan gods don’t really exist,
            then the fact that their cheap lunch might have been offered to
                        these non-existent gods at some point
            is irrelevant to its taste and indeed, we might add, calorific value.

This is an example of how sometimes the strong, the powerful, and the logical,
            can be both entirely right, and entirely wrong, both at the same time.
Here I’m borrowing a phrase from my colleague Dawn,
            who said exactly this to me fairly recently
when I did something that was absolutely right from a logical point of view,
            but entirely wrong from and emotional perspective.

And this sums up the strong in the church in Corinth.
            Yes, of course it’s fine to eat food that’s previously been dedicated to an idol,
                        if you are sure in your conviction that the idol is a fiction.
            But if by doing so you cause someone else to stumble,
                        someone whose conversion may not yet have bedded in so thoroughly,
                        someone who still feels the pull of the old gods
                                    and is trying hard to resist it,
            then maybe, just maybe, eating that meat might not be such a great idea after all.

This is why many churches embraced the temperance movement, historically speaking,
            at a time when the evils of alcohol were ravaging society.
The artist William Hogarth captured something of the spirit of his age, so to speak,
            in his famous engraving Gin Lane, drawn in 1751,
            and set just round the corner from where we are sitting today.

Was there anything inherently wrong with alcohol? No.
            But if the church of the eighteenth century was to minister effectively
                        to those who still felt its destructive pull on their lives,
            maybe Christians for a time needed to set aside their freedom to drink,
                        in order that those who were seeking escape from alcoholism
                        could find a safe refuge in the community of Christ.
The legacy of this, of course, is that we still have alcohol free wine at communion,
            although we don’t have a blanket ban on alcohol in our church premises
            in the way that some, earlier, churches do.

So I find myself wondering what the issues are in our time,
            where strong Christians might be called to set aside their liberty
                        for the sake of the weak?

Alcohol is still certainly an issue in society,
            but I’m not convinced that reviving the temperance movement is the way to solve it.
Maybe on that one, modelling responsible drinking in moderation
            and helping people engage with counselling and therapy where they need it
            is a more productive perspective than avoiding it altogether.

But what about other areas where our freedom to be strong
            might cause others to stumble.?

One of my favourite singers is called Neil Hannon,
            who performs under the name The Divine Comedy.
If you haven’t heard his version of the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’,
            I’d encourage you to go on YouTube and look it up.
One of his songs is called ‘Eye of The Needle’,
            and in it he highlights the way in which conspicuous consumption by Christians
            can cause others, including him, to look on in doubt:

They say that you'll hear him if you're really listening
And pray for that feeling of grace
But that's what I'm doing, why doesn't he answer?
I've prayed 'til I'm blue in the face

The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German
Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon
And during communion I study the people
Threading themselves through the eye of the needle

Another song, by the group Fat and Frantic, makes a similar point:

Freedom is a sweet word
A taste to savour, say it loud
Exercise your freedom
Freedom means you are allowed to make and guard your pile
            against the people who have freedom to do
As they please but haven’t used it so constructively as you

Freedom is a sweet word
It shines and glistens like a star
But where’s the joy in freedom
When you’re free to obey the colour bar,
            you’re free to starve and free to die
            and free to do anything but express
That Jesus never gave to anyone the freedom to oppress

You know that freedom is a sweet word
But freedom without justice is a freedom for a few
who have bought the right to tell us
            that their freedom lie is true
Freedom without justice
Grows up into slavery
If you’re not a Barclay card-carrying member of the free.

We simply have to recognise,
            if we are to appropriate our passage for this morning to our context,
that there is stuff that the world sees us doing
            that causes them to reject God.

Our freedom is a stumbling block to the faith of others.

It could be our wealth and our conspicuous consumption;
            or it could be our attitude towards minorities;
or it could be our unwillingness to engage in the issues that really matter to the world,
            and our obsession with issues that really don’t;
it could be our hypocrisy.

All these and so much more
            are places where we have the freedom and strength and power to act as we see fit,
but where our doing so is entirely wrong
            when looked at from the perspective of the weak and the powerless.

And all this is true, and we who are strong need to hear it,
            and we need to guard our hearts and our behaviour.

But it is not the whole story,
            and this sermon is not merely a telling-off for those who have power.
There is a cautionary tale here that the powerful need to note, and note well,
            but I think we can go further with this passage from Paul.

“But take care that this liberty of yours
            does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

This verse has been used, and misused, down the years,
            to justify all sorts of oppression both within and beyond the Christian church.

I can think of one church, known to me for many years now,
            where the desire to not somehow become a stumbling block for the weak
                        was used to perpetuate a status quo
            that was profoundly unjust for some others in that same congregation.

The issue was whether women could speak in church,
            whether they could pray, and preach, and teach.
The tradition of the church was that they could not,
            but there was a new generation of women, educated and articulate,
            who were starting to say that they felt God may be calling and gifting them
                        for ministries of leadership, preaching, and teaching.
There was new insight emerging regarding how to interpret the Bible,
            as people found ways of reading the ‘problem passages’ about women
            in new ways which didn’t prohibit female involvement in church ministry.

‘Ah’, said the church leadership, who were of course all male,
            ‘we’d love to have women ministering,
                        but you see there are those in our congregation
                                    who have not yet got a point in their faith
                                    where they can cope with women in leadership,
                        because of the way they interpret the Bible,
                                    and the way they were brought up.
            Maybe in a generation or so things will be different,
                        but for now we mustn’t put a stumbling block in the way of their faith’.

And so the women were asked to keep silent,
            and the church was denied their ministry for another generation.

Here’s the point: The desire to protect the faith of the so-called-weak,
            can too easily become an excuse to perpetuate the abuse
            of those who are in fact far weaker, because they have no voice.

The people who didn’t want women in ministry had, in fact, a powerful lobby
            to get their argument across;
they had all the Bible passages lined up,
            and they had the friendly ear of the church leadership
            who heard their perspective loud and clear.

The women who wanted freedom had no power, no voice,
            and were entirely beholden to the decision of the male church leaders
                        who, frankly, had nothing to lose and everything to gain
                        by asking the women to keep quiet and in their place.

In fact, it was worse than this:
            the women were actually allowed to teach, but only children and other women.
It was a classic case of, ‘if you must do this, don’t do it where we can see you’.

And just in case you think this is a redundant issue,
            have you seen the furore just this week regarding John Piper?

He’s a highly influential American Baptist pastor,
            whose sermons and lectures are hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
There will be many sermons preached this morning
            where the preacher has consulted John Piper’s writings as part of their preparation.

Well, this week, he said in a podcast
            that not only should women not be allowed to preach or teach in church,
            but that female academics should not be allowed to teach in seminaries.

And I would just like to raise the question,
            of where strength lies here, and where weakness is to be found…

“But take care that this liberty of yours
            does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

And so we come to human sexuality.

Many of you will know that Bloomsbury is registered for same sex marriages,
            and we’ve so far had four same sex ceremonies here.

Mostly, the response of the wider Baptist family has been one of quiet disapproval,
            coupled with some quiet gratitude that we’re taking a lead
            where others are not able or willing to follow.

The bottom line has appeared to be that as long as we keep our heads down,
            and don’t make too much of a fuss about it,
            others are sort-of-reluctantly adjusted for us to do our thing.

However, a wedding we had here last autumn rather upped the ante,
            as it got us onto BBC1 as part of a programme with Sam Smith,
            who is apparently a popular singer.

Millions of people have watched the short video of the wedding,
            either live or on YouTube.

And suddenly, things changed somewhat,
            because Bloomsbury had transgressed the don’t-ask-don’t-tell status quo.

And here’s where it got interesting,
            from the point of view of our passage this morning.

It has been suggested to us in no uncertain terms,
            through the medium of a public letter,
            and on the basis of this passage from 1 Corinthians 8;
that in our exercising of our freedom to conduct same sex marriages,

                        and in our allowing it to be known about more widely, 
            we were using our power in such a way
                        as to cause others to stumble in their faith.

This, we (and everyone else) were told,
            was something that we should not have done.
Just because we have the freedom to offer wedding ceremonies to same sex couples,
            doesn’t mean that we should.

Can you see the similarity here between this argument,
            and the argument of the congregation I was talking about earlier
            who wanted to prohibit the ministry of women?

And the thing is, I don’t think that the weak party in either of these scenarios
            are those who have a problem with the exercising of liberty by the strong.

I don’t think people who argue against women in ministry are weak.
            I think they’re wrong, but not weak.

Similarly, I don’t think people who argue against same sex marriage are weak.

So if I affirm the ministry of a woman, or conduct a same sex wedding,
            I don’t believe that the exercising of my freedom to do so
            is causing my weaker brother or sister to stumble.

In fact, I think the opposite is true.
            The weak are those who are dis-voiced, excluded, marginalised, and oppressed.
            The weak are the women, the LGBTQ community,
                        and, if I may broaden it a bit, the asylum seeker,
                                    the person from an ethnic minority
                                    the person who has no home,
                                    the person weighed down by debt.

If I thought for one moment that my freedom to act
            was causing such as these to stumble,
            I would fall to my own knees in repentance.

But I don’t think that’s what’s happening
            when we take a stand of solidarity with the genuinely weak
            and join our voices with theirs to advocate their cause.

In fact, I would go further.
            Those who seek to use their influence and power
                        to restrict the ministry of women,
                        to prevent people of the same gender who love each other becoming married,
                        or to stop those in same sex marriages from entering ministry,
            are in my view at risk of the very sin of which they are accusing others.

The thing is, it is notoriously difficult for the powerful
            to judge who is weak, and who is strong.

Any loss of power by the powerful runs the risk of becoming, in their mind,
            an experience of persecution;
whereas in actual fact it might just be an equalising of power
            with those who until now have not had any.

And so Christians sometimes fail to challenge injustice
            because of our deep-seated, internalised, and unacknowledged commitment
                        to maintaining our powerful place in the status quo.

And we then end up passing judgment on others who challenge the status quo,
            because we have become so smugly entrenched in our position of strength,
            that we cannot see the alternative as anything other than an attack on our liberty.

Putting it very bluntly:
            one person’s stumbling block is another person’s justice issue.
And we need to take a long and hard look at ourselves
            before we decide whose side we are on.
And assuming we end up siding with the weak,
            we need to decide what we’re going to do about it.

How courageous are we willing to be,
            in the cause of lifting up the broken and the damaged?
What price are we willing to pay,
            in our efforts to welcome the stranger, and love the unloved?

This last week has been the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,
            and there have been many words preached, and many prayers prayed,
            for the unity of the body of Christ,
            both within and between denominations.
And amen to all of it.
            I would love to be able to share bread and wine with my Roman Catholic friends;
            I would love to be united in ministry with my Anglican colleagues;
            I would love to live at peace with my Baptist family,
                        both in this country and throughout the world.

But sometimes, I wonder if we prize unity over principle.
            Sometimes, I fear we turn a blind eye to the oppression in our midst
                        in the interests of preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.
            Sometimes, I think we fail to realise that to discover true unity,
                        we will have to unite around a cause
                        rather than around avoiding an issue.

I just don’t think that sweeping issues under the carpet and hoping they’ll go away
            is a viable strategy for Christian unity.

The thing is, you can stumble trying to avoid something,
            every bit as much as you can tripping over it.

The issue of women in ministry is not going to go away,
            however much some might still wish it does.
Neither is the issue of same sex marriage
            and our broader response to the LGBTQ community.
The issue of asylum seekers is not going away,
            neither is the issue of homelessness,
            nor our struggles with ethnic tensions.

Clearing the streets of Windsor of those who normally sleep there
            may make for better wedding pictures,
            but it does nothing to solve the problem
                        of vulnerable lives lived in hardship and danger.

Sometimes, the way to help the weaker to not stumble in their faith
            is to shine a light on the object that might be causing them to stumble,
to highlight the issue at hand.

Trying to hide things in plain sight is a far more dangerous path,
            certainly for those who are weak and most likely to trip.

So perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much that as a church
            we’ve put a stumbling block in the path of Christian unity
                        by allowing our voice to be heard loud and clear
                        as we speak and act to include the excluded.

Perhaps we should instead focus on highlighting the issues
            so the truly weak can learn to stand tall and feel welcome,
while those who persist in tying themselves up in knots over it all
            can use our light to begin untangling themselves.

After all, when Jesus met the man who heard voices,
            he didn’t say that he should be locked in an asylum,
            hidden away from others because of his disruptive behaviour.
Rather, Jesus spoke to him, and loved him,
            and took decisive action to restore him to his rightful place in society.

And new issues that challenge our worldview will continue to emerge,
            and so will people who make us feel uncomfortable
            because they aren’t quite like us.
Our definitions of normal will continually be re-written if we allow them to be,
            because normal for me is not normative for all.

And we will have to decide, again and again, what we’re going to do
            with our power, and our privilege, and our freedom to act.

Will we take decisions that include the excluded,
            restore the broken,
            and empower the weak?
Will we allow the Spirit of Christ to guide us
            into new places of being,
where we are no longer threatened by the loss of our power,
            because we have learned to give it willingly to those who have none?

“But take care that this liberty of yours
            does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

One final song lyric to close:

I went this week to see the Welsh singer Martyn Joseph in concert,
            and his ability to take my soul and strip it bare,
            and bring tears of sadness and anger and repentance to my eyes,
            is as strong as it was when I first saw him perform thirty years ago.

And he sung his song for the NHS, celebrating the vision of Nye Bevin,
            who dreamed of a society where no-one was left behind.

The song’s chorus is a combination of quotes from Nye Bevin and Nelson Mandela,
            and on this note I’ll close:

“The purpose of power is to give it away
This is my truth tell me yours.
Freedom isn’t freedom until poverty is gone.
So Nye your dream’s alive and strong.”


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