Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

1/28/18 Wireless Fences and Leashes [The name was a poor choice]

January 28, 2018

What do the Apostle Paul, economist Milton Friedman, and Sir Lancelot have to do with each other?

Just in case you are not familiar with two of those names, the late Milton Friedman was a Nobel Prize winning economist from the University of Chicago whose economic theory work lives on in many ways and in many countries. He did a landmark study on the history of monetary policy more than fifty years ago, and is a major reason people pay so much attention to what the Federal Reserve Bank does. Beyond that, though not wholly unrelated, Friedman was a great libertarian, s strong believer in individual freedom, especially individual freedom with respect to government control over individual behavior. His book, Capitalism and Freedom, argued that capitalism is the only economic system consistent with individual freedom.

Sir Lancelot is not, was not, a real person, but he is one of the central figures in the King Arthur stories and in the musical, “Camelot.” I could as easily have picked another of those fictitious, Knights of the Round Table characters, Sir Galahad, but I thought more of you would be familiar with Lancelot. In either event, the reason I mention Lancelot is not because of his chaste love for Guinevere, but because he embodies the idea of chivalry, a concept grossly misunderstood, but which in its perhaps most beautiful rendition is displayed in a male’s being polite to a female, such as by holding a door open for her, or letting her enter or exit an elevator before him, not because she is weak, but because he puts himself in the position of servant.

And the Apostle Paul. We read an excerpt from his first letter (which is apparently and amalgamation of six such letters) to the church at Corinth as our epistle reading. I have long said that I hoped that I was not deceiving myself in saying that my belief in individual freedom, leaning toward libertarianism, flows from Paul’s letters, such as the passage we read today, but especially from what we know as the Book of Romans. And so in a real way does my fondness for trying to follow chivalry, behaving as my father taught me, I hope, that is, as a gentleman, flow from Romans and what Paul says in other passages, such as today’s.

I am sure you are thinking that I have really lost it, so let me explain.

Paul was an observant, educated, practicing Jew when he received the “call” from Christ on Paul’s “Road to Damascus” experience, after which he became the foremost early evangelist on behalf of Christ and the emerging Church of believers in Christ. As Paul traveled and wrote, he was consulted upon with many questions that he attempted to answer in his letters.

Now, to begin, I need to state that Romans builds upon what Paul first wrote in the somewhat shorter letter we know as Galatians, in which Paul first put forth the argument that it is our faith in Christ — or is it God’s faith expressed by Christ, — not our works, that explains how we are saved from our sins by Christ. I believe that by works in this context Paul meant largely following the ritual aspects of the Jewish law, very specifically including circumcision. Some apparently interpreted Paul, incorrectly, as we can see elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, some interpreted Paul as discarding what we would call the “moral” aspects of the Jewish law, and the need to do good toward others. That is simply wrong.

But Paul indeed cut to the core on what he considered unimportant, and the question to which he responded in today’s reading, about eating meat that had once been laid before idols in pagan temples, is an outstanding example: idols are not gods, there is in fact only one god, so one has the freedom — an important word — one has the freedom as a Christian to choose to eat meat sacrificed to idols made of wood and metal.

And similarly, as a Christian, one has the freedom to do many things, such as to be a boorish person, such as to to talk crudely, the freedom to be a jerk, but, but there are limits!

Paul essentially says in today’s passage and in similar passages in Romans, if my exercise of freedom is possibly going to contribute to your losing faith, then I should think twice about using it in your presence. Very specifically, he was saying in our reading, “There are those in front of whom you had best abstain from eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols.” Similarly there are those — such as children, whose vocabulary might even be rougher — in front of whom one should never consider using crude language.

By the way, I simply do not like to demean my own intelligence and self-control by swearing like a sailor, which I was prone to do when Microsoft came out with Vista some years ago; switching to Apple has made me a much nicer person.

Freedom, Paul says, allows me to do anything, but doing anything is not necessarily good for me — and in particular, it may be harmful to others.

Let me very briefly make one of two comments I wish to make, a comment that might be more important for most of us than the other comment I wish to make: Behaving perfectly is great, but the Christian needs to be careful when he or she judges that another might behaving in a way offensive to God. From my perspective, the Christian has the freedom to dance, yet others will judge that as against God’s will. Also, with respect to language, mine is very clean, but I want to show [here] in the sanctuary [at Florence] a much rougher movie than the romantic comedy, “Shop Around the Corner,” that I showed before Christmas; I want to show the magnificent Clint Eastwood movie, “Gran Torino,” the most Christian movie I have ever seen. “Gran Torino” has some rough language in it. “Purity” might object to the movie on that basis, but I believe anyone who wishes to understand or have others understand the essence of Christianity would or will end up saying, “Wow, I am glad you showed that.”

Yet there are those children who are simply too young hear this language and to deal with this movie, and it would violate what Paul is saying is our freedom for me to show it to them.

In other words, and this is my second point, Paul is saying with specific regard to faith what is the more general rule we get from the Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which itself says to me that we need always to consider the impact on others of what we do or say.

Too often, even those who edit Bibles say that this is “The Golden Rule,” which they paraphrase as “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.“

But “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you“ is not what the Bible nor Jesus says, nor is it at all what Paul was saying.

Let me re-introduce Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table and chivalry. Indeed, let me introduce a concept with which most of us were raised that seems to be fading into obsolescence: etiquette, of which chivalry is simply one embodiment.

Etiquette is so much more than “put the salad fork on the outside when you set the table” or “don’t blow your nose on your shirt sleeve”; it is so much more than — but definitely includes — saying “please” and “thank you.” Etiquette is showing respect for an older person by offering one’s bus seat or the like to him or her, not because the person is any worthier of sitting or might return the favor, but because that person might have more need of sitting. Chivalry is not opening the door for a woman because the woman is not capable of doing so, it is because . . . because. . .

It is because what is true etiquette and truly chivalrous is at its heart truly Christian — and truly a part of the Jewish law that Paul explicitly endorses and praises even as he tells us we have freedom: [The whole law is] summed up by, ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ to which Paul adds: “Love does not do wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Such love is not about sentiment, as I so often try to say, it is about behavior; it is about works, but not ritualistic works, but real-world words or actions that benefit another without expectation of reciprocity, without regard to whether another may treat us kindly in return.

Which is why chivalry is so — I will not exercise my Christian freedom to say a word — which is why chivalry is so darned decent and Christian, especially if we consider my earlier comment of “servant” to the woman being the reason a man holds the door. When a man holds a door for a woman, when a younger person yields a bus seat to his or her elder, when anyone aids a woman with small children, it is not in expectation of reciprocal treatment; indeed, It is behavior that we probably most often display toward complete strangers whom we shall never see again.

And it is Christian primarily because it recognizes the other person as a child of God who is deserving of human love, just as we have been beneficiaries of divine love through the gift of Jesus Christ.

And maybe Paul is saying, when he talks about “weak believers,” that those of us who feel our faith stronger than that of the “weak believers” need to set an example for them, an example of consideration for others, so that as their own faith strengthens, they, too, can be adequately concerned about others to show etiquette and chivalry toward them!

You know, I do not expect thanks when I hold a door or offer a seat, though I always offer thanks myself when someone holds a door for me — but would probably bop anyone who thought me old enough to yield a seat to me, — I do not expect thanks when I hold a door, yet I had a delightful experience just the other day. The Session [of Florence] willing, though not at the church, in a few weeks I am going to perform a wedding for two Jewish people who are remarrying having divorced a few years ago after forty-two years of marriage. I was entering the building housing the groom-to-be’s office, where I would spend a lengthy time in pre-re-marriage counseling the other day, and a good forty to fifty feet away was a woman walking to exit the building, so I waited and held the door for her. With a radiant smile as she approached, she said, “Chivalry is not dead!”

And I hope it is not dead, just as I hope etiquette is not dead, because both are manifestations of what Paul elsewhere refers to as loving our neighbor, which often means putting our concern for our neighbor above our own God-granted freedom to do as we otherwise would want. And why yield that freedom? Because the best way to understand “Love you neighbor as yourself” is to understand it as, “Love your neighbor as you have been loved by God through Jesus Christ.”

I think Paul got it right; do we?

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