Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse
Forth Sunday after Epiphany
January 28, 2024
1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
Mark 1: 21-28
At the beginning of the new year, we set a lot of goals for ourselves – to improve our habits. But science continues to tell us that one thing matters more to our happiness than how much we eat or how often we exercise. What actually matters most of all is our relationships, and the state of our friendships. And yet, how often do we vow: this year I will be a better friend? It occurred to me this week that Paul’s word to the Corinthians is about friendship and relationship. And more particularly, it is about not being a frenemy. Now while frenemy might seem like a new word of a hashtag age, it actually first appeared in the 1800s, as a recent article in The Atlantic informed me. It seems frenemies – that is, people pretending to be your friend and acting like an enemy when you aren’t looking – have been around forever. The article went on to define three kinds: the two-faced frenemy who is pro you when you can hear them, and bullies you in absentia when you can’t; the competitive frenemy who is always trying to win at your cost; and the manipulative frenemy who does things like undermine your confidence.
Now, I know you are all thinking of somebody right now, a certain frenemy who perhaps has plagued you at one time or another. The article even had a quiz so you could test whether a friend was actually a frenemy without your knowing it.
But if frenemies are so common, guess what that means: we all probably have a bit of frenemy in us.
And I think that’s where Paul’s words are instructive, because ultimately he is talking about our responsibility to live in relationship with others, and to see our role in the paths that others take, or are forced to take.
On Sundays, we vow to be “in mission for others.” To serve others. To care for them. But as our second lesson points out, this is not just a responsibility that God sets before us. It is the responsibility we hold one another to.
Now sure, it might seem as if Paul is just telling us that old rule: set a good example. In the lesson, it is about those who still eat food that is offered to an idol. Paul, preaching to Christians, points out that this is not what we believe: Food, he says, will not bring us closer to God. But if we join in, are we encouraging them to see their food – and presumably their circumstances – as declaring their acceptability to God? Paul suggests yes.
Just to pause here: Of course, in our modern understanding, we know that a communion among people who believe different things can be a time of sharing and learning.
But Paul is not talking about people who choose different beliefs, worthy in themselves. In speaking to this particular audience, his central point is that we are responsible to other people for how we behave. And so we need to ask ourselves: Do we lift people up on their journey and make their steps easier? Or are we stumbling blocks to others living well and honorably and happily?
That phrase “stumbling block” appears several times in the Bible. In another translation of our second lesson, Paul concludes: I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
In Romans, we are told, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”
And in Corinthians, we are cautioned to “take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
A stumbling block is one of those perfect metaphors. We imagine, perhaps, a concrete brick placed in the path of a person, that causes them to trip. In that imagination, the brick was not placed by the one who is tripping – although some stumbling blocks may be. The blocks in Paul’s speech are placed by someone to trip another. A stumbling block is an object of injustice, betrayal, insensitivity, and perhaps most of all, carelessness.
And the point that Paul is trying to make is that we place them in front of people, collectively and individually all the time. Our job is to see the blocks and remove them before the stumble happens. As Paul suggests to himself, “I must be extra honourable, else I cause another to stumble.”
In what ways are we the stumbling blocks for others? We can see how the frenemy archetype puts out stumbling blocks of doubt and uncertainty. But we might also cause someone to stumble by what we don’t do – by not speaking up when we should have done so, or by not offering support to someone in need. And there are plenty of active behaviors that toss out stumbling blocks as high as walls. For example, when we join in gossip or start it. When we post a thoughtless comment online. When we lash out in anger. When we assume we know everything. Each behavior, Paul reminds us, has the potential to influence another. It may be either a stumbling block or a path-smoother.
Our second lesson opens with an important phrase, one we should all remember – especially these days, when so-called “knowledge” is just a Google search away. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It is when we assume we know all things, to know inside a person, to know what caused an event, that creates a stumbling block. When we seek to understand, when we are open from a place of love, we become path-smoothers.
Think of the time when you might have leaned too heavily on knowledge, and not learned how love told the full truth. In this way, knowledge would have served as its own stumbling block.
According to The Atlantic, a team of researchers at McGill University came up with what they called the six basic dimensions of true friendships. Each one is the antithesis of a stumbling block. Companionship—spending time together. Help—providing selfless support. Intimacy—the ability to share confidences without fear of betrayal. Alliance—standing by one another no matter what. Validation—feeling joy in the success of each other. And Emotional Security—providing comfort and confidence. Not only do these six characteristics of relationship prevent stumbling; they hold us up so our steps are easier.
Jesus was a teacher who saw the world as complicated and taught his followers to navigate those complications. Paul’s words are not meant to divide: they are meant to warn us how easily we can become stumbling blocks to one another if we are not careful. They remind us that both the knowledge and the love of a community are built collectively, with each of us being intentional in relationship. In the end, all our paths are made all the smoother for it. Amen