Have You ever been at a bar and ran into a pastor or a priest? And it was kind of weird. Like seeing a dragon walk through Riverside (Latrobe) park. Like they would be super out of place and scary because of some perception that we’ve all had ingrained in our heads about the clergy.
(I mean, no one here would probably find it weird if you saw me there. Or maybe even Pastor Lauren. But you get my point.)
Like when you were younger and you saw one of your old elementary school teachers at a bar. I know I’ve ran into that before. And a few things run through your head, like maybe some judgement towards the priest, that they are sinning and breaking some vows or rules right? Or maybe some shame. Like you don’t want them to see you there. Are you going to get in trouble if the priest knows you are drinking at a bar?
A few years ago, I was helping rebuild houses suffering loss from hurricane Sandy on the eastern shore with the United Methodist disaster relief, and one of the church leaders told me that he NEVER went out locally for a drink, not even with his meal. He would drive way out of the way where no one would know him. And this wasn’t even the pastor, it was just a lay leader.
For him, there was a sense of shame, of not wanting to be judged by the local parishioners he would see in the bar. Now, in his defense about how his perception has been formed, the Methodists have historically had a much different stance than either Episcopalians or Lutherans about alcohol. I mean, they did start prohibition.
Now I want to be clear about something. I am not advocating for or against the consumption of alcohol. I am not saying you should or should not go to bars. That choice is purely your own. This sermon is not about alcohol… its about perceptions and judgement.
Particularly, I want to talk about perceptions on a somewhat touchy issue to many.
In our new testament reading today from 1st Corinthians, Paul is addressing a similar hot button issue of the time. The issue is this, “should we eat the meat that has been sacrificed to another god?”
Animal sacrifices were very prominent in the day, especially to pagan gods. The church in Corinth is made up of mostly Greek and Roman converts. Aka gentiles, not Jews. So they are unfamiliar with the basis of Jewish teachings that underline the practices of the Christian faith.
They came from a polytheistic view in their old religion and now as Christians are trying to navigate through this monotheistic, meaning only one God thing. BUT they still live in a predominantly pagan society. So after pagan believers would do their sacrifices to their pagan gods, aka killing an animal, the meat is still good meat right, like don’t waste it. SO it's just sold in the market.
The church of Corinth writes to Paul about this meat, like should they eat it? Would it be a sin? Since it was sacrificed to another god. Is it ok?
And Paul’s response is, “nah, well none of those other gods are real so the meat is just fine. You can eat it and it’s not a sin, it won’t damn you. It's not about whether you know all the right things or the right traditions, but rather what honors God is how we show love.” Paul says, “love builds up.”
It's about our actions. What we say and what we do. It’s about the loving your neighbor thing.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “its not what you put in your body that defiles you, its what comes out of your mouth that defiles you.”
We, as humans are really really good at judging. At taking one look at someone and rendering our judgement upon them. No wonder so many people feel shame! We often get focused on the gossipy things. Like how scandalous it is to see a pastor at a bar!
But the thing is, is that sometimes to do the loving your neighbor thing you have to meet people where they are. That is what Paul is doing with the church of Corinth. He isn’t expecting them to know everything about the faith, about being a christian. That was the whole point of his letters, he is meeting them where they are!
Some of the most pastoral conversations I’ve ever had have taken place at a bar. A place where you wouldn’t think to find a pastor. A place where the person I was talking with was comfortable, way more comfortable than they have ever been in a church.
When I was the chaplain at the Johns Hopkins Center for Addiction and Pregnancy, I went out with the ladies for their smoke breaks. Yes you are correct, you are not supposed to smoke when you are pregnant but one step at a time, at least it wasn’t heroine. This allowed me to meet them exactly where they were in their journey. Not on heroine but still smoking. No judgements, just love.
If we can take the time to let go of preconceived notions about certain things and take the time to meet people where they are, there is so much love we can show those around us. Eat the meat, don’t eat the meat. Whatever. Just love.
Our great example of this is in Jesus. This man whom we heard today is already at it. Meeting people where they are. He went up to a man with an unclean spirit, say what?!?!?!?! First of all, based on those perceptions and ingrained social norms, that guy shouldn’t be in the synagogue.
But instead of telling him off, “uh excuse me sir, you aren’t allowed to be here.” This guy who is out of place, a dragon in Riverside (Latrobe) Park, instead he heals him.
The entirety of Jesus’ ministry is meeting people where they are, where they aren’t supposed to be, and loving them and healing them anyways. The woman at the well, the lepers, the tax collectors, and prostitutes. He sees them, he comes to them, he loves them.
Wherever your ministry field may be... a bar, a coffee shop, a construction site, an addiction center, we are called to meet people where they are and love them.
No judgements. No shame. Just love. Amen.