Listen to this sermon:
In 2015, during my final year at Yale Divinity School, I had the privilege of taking part in a 10 day Immersion trip to the troubled Central American nation of El Salvador. I’ve preached about that trip before – though it has been a while. The experience was an important one for me.
One day our group was driven out to the outskirts of San Salvador. We left the main road, which led to the airport, and turned onto a dirt road that wound its way into the hills. Our van kicked up a swirl of dust. We were in the countryside now. Barefoot children watched us driving by. Scrawny chickens darted here and there. The weathered tin roofed shacks seemed to lean perilously into the shadows under the palms.
At length, we pulled off the road and parked. Before us, was a humble redbrick chapel standing quietly in a place where the surrounding brush had been cleared out. The earth around the chapel was dry and as red as the brick. A white cross stood in front of the chapel. On its base were the names of four women: three Catholic sisters: Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and one lay missionary named Jean Donovan.
On December 2nd, 1980, Donovan and Kazel, who were under surveillance by the El Salvador National Guard, went to the airport to pick up the other two nuns: Clarke and Ford. On their return from the airport, the four women were stopped. They were taken down that dirt road – the one we’d just taken – and on the spot where this chapel now stands, they were beaten and killed.
We went into the chapel. The effect of that devastating violence – now decades in the past – seemed to haunt the spare chapel, with its rude wooden pews, and it’s dark crucifix. A framed picture of the four martyred women stood at the center of the altar. We sat down in the quiet chapel. A tiny old woman was sitting in the pews, waiting for us. Our leader introduced her to us. Candelaria, who was now in her late fifties, had been a catechist training under Sister Dorothy Kazel at the time of that Sister’s martyrdom.
Candelaria recounted details of the martyrdom – more echoes of that dark night – about how misunderstood the Sisters were. Candelaria believed that the four women were not feared because of their religion, or because they were American. They were feared, and killed, because they were religious Americans – a group that would only cause unrest.
Mercifully, Candelaria, who had known Dorothy Kazel, knew more about her than just the way she died. She could also tell us about Sister Dorothy’s life.
Arriving late one day, Candelaria walked into the midst a celebration. She was surprised to learn that Madre Dorothea (as Candelaria called Sister Dorothy) had baked the cake that everyone was now eating. In Candelaria’s experience, if a person was in a position of authority, as Madre Dorothea was, they did not bake cakes.
Seeing that the late comer had arrived after the cake was all served, the Madre beckoned to Candelaria to join her, and insisted that the catechist eat from her piece of cake!
Questioned about the incident later, Sister Dorothy laughed and said: “I learned this from the Salvadoran people,” she said. “Being poor, they are accustomed to share.”
“Being poor, they are accustomed to share.”
I was taken by this story.
I couldn’t help thinking about that famous story about Marie Antoinette, who, being told that the peasants had no bread, said “let them eat cake.” In that tale, cake symbolized the decadence that separated the rich and poor. In Candelaria’s story, the cake eliminated that very same separation. With her unassuming “everyday” manner, Madre Dorothea swept aside the bitter cultural assumptions that govern social hierarchy. More than that, her off-hand wisdom conferred a well earned dignity to people who live in poverty.
Candelaria was surprised to discover that her mentor was capable of such low tasks as baking cake, serving it and sharing it.
For her part, Madre Dorthea learned that poverty was a place to gather new strength.
If you would indulge me for a moment, I would ask you to take a quick look at the reading from the 8th chapter of first Corinthians, that Deb kindly read for us earlier.
Are you with me – it’s right there on the second inside page of the Bulletin.
Take a look at the first two words of the reading…
I want to emphasize these words:
The observant among you have already noted that I have chosen these incredibly boring words as the title of today’s sermon.
What fascinating significance could these totally normal, everyday words have?
Well, I suggest to you that these two words are a door. These words are a door that we can open, that will lead us to the 1st century Greek city of Corinth.
The Pauline epistles – which account for more than half of the New Testament – are letters that Paul wrote to the early Christian communities that were popping up in different parts of the Mediterranean.
These words “Now concerning…” are a direct indication that Paul was not writing these letters just out of Christian charity. He was not anticipating the concerns of the early Christian communities – he was responding to the concerns of the early Christian communities.
In other words, the letters that Paul wrote, that have been handed down to us through the centuries, are like overhearing half of a phone call.
The words “Now concerning” indicate clearly that Paul was not just writing to the early Christian communities – he was also receiving letters from the early Christian communities.
This is a fascinating consideration!
When we see the phrase “Now concerning” – we can read what follows and assume that Paul is answering a question that has been put to him by the early Christians. These answers, then, give us a window into what the early Christian communities were concerned about. The letters to Paul, are lost to us, but these answers are clues – clues to help us find the DNA that gave rise to the second half of the New Testament.
So, what did the early Christians ask Paul about? Did they ask about Christ’s divine nature? Did they want to know when and how they would be saved? No. Doctrine was not on the agenda. The thing that they were concerned about was…
what they were allowed to eat.
Specifically, were they allowed to eat food offered to idols.
To understand the significance of this concern, we need to go back to 1st century Corinth.
During Antiquity, the most dangerous waters for the merchant ships sailing to and from the eastern Mediterranean were at the southern tip of Greece. To avoid these treacherous waters merchants took to unloading and moving their cargo over the narrow isthmus that connected the Greek mainland to the Peloponnesian peninsula. This is how the city of Corinth, strategically located on this narrow spit of land, became a hub of trade, and in turn, a kind of melting pot of Mediterranean culture and religion.
Altars to the Greco-Roman pantheon of Gods were abundant in Corinth, and a robust economy existed that supplied, offered and distributed food for ritual sacrifice. In this setting, religion was not about personal salvation or the afterlife – sacrifice to the Greco-Roman gods was a more of a practical measure, a ritual to insure commercial success.
Corinth, in other words, was a teeming port where people from all over the ancient world converged, rubbed shoulders, offered sacrifices, and ate.
So the early Christians, naturally, wanted to know if they could take part. Could they eat food that had been “sacrificed to idols.” Would the God revealed by Jesus Christ be ok with this practice? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
But Paul’s pastoral response to the Corinthian’s question concerning “food sacrificed to idols” is not exactly a straight answer. He hummed and hawed about “theory” and “practice.” Theoretically idols, being nothing more than pieces of wood or stone, are empty of any real meaning and so, regarding food sacrificed to idols, “we are no worse off if we do not eat it, and no better off if we do.”
In practice however, eating food sacrificed to idols is a problem for social reasons because not all of the members of the Corinthian community of faithful are equally convinced of the essential insignificance of idols. Some of them – the so-called “weak” who are still “accustomed to idols” may still labor under the misconception that idols represent real Gods – and so, for their sake, the “strong” should forgo eating such food.
This may seem a straight-forward and practical enough response to the problem of food… but I want to suggest to you that it is not so much a response to the problem of food, as it is a response to the problem of living in a multi-cultural, religiously diverse community, where the practices of people from all over the place have to be considered.
Contrast the sensibility that Paul brings to this problem, with the assumptions that the El Salvadoran Government made about the four women that they had executed on the side of the road.
Had they known about Candelaria’s story – about the essence of Madre Dorothea’s Christian message – the message that learned from, and communicated the lessons of the poor, would they have been as threatened by her?
I think they might have been. Because they were in power, and for people in power, the poor are the enemy.
For Paul, the idols were not the enemy, as such – they were something to be careful of… something to learn from.
Paul’s position was not one of power. He was not threatened. His new religion was trying to stand on its own in a place – Corinth – that was rich in many cultures – and so his response was one that made practical sense to normal people.
Religion – our faith, that follows the teachings of one who lived among us, – our religion, I say, may struggle with eternal questions about good and evil, providence, grace, forgiveness and salvation, but at its best, it does so in ways that make real and practical sense in our lives.
The Apostle Paul, and Sister Dorothy Kazel taught us a Christian truth that is worth learning. Love happens in our lives, not when we say “let them eat cake” but when we say – “here, let me share my cake with you.”