by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Hence, as to eating food which was sacrificed to idols, we know that idols have no real existence and that there is no God but the One, true God.” — 1 Corinthians 8:4.
I want to tell you a personal story, something that happened to me when I was just thirteen. In order to do that, I need to remind you of three things concerning my own history and then something else after that. Many of you already know these things but it’s only fair to mention them to set up the story.
First, I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. Second, for his entire working career my Dad taught at a Jesuit High School.
Third, my Mom went into the convent but left before taking final vows. It was only after she left the nunnery that my parents met and got hitched. Or, given that outline of my parent’s history and given that I wound up working in the church, myself, I always say I simply went into the family business.
Next I need to presume that many of you are not familiar with the practices in Roman Catholicism and this story kind of works off a specific practice so I need to explain that. The practice is called fasting and abstinence. This practice changed and became largely optional for most Catholics in the 1980s. But fasting and abstinence was not optional when I was thirteen.
For those unfamiliar with these practices, that certainly begs the question: what is fasting and abstinence? Fasting has an obvious definition. It is the reduction of one’s intake of food.
Generally, a fast day is a day on which one does not eat anything between meals and limits the typical three meals a day to a small breakfast, a small lunch but a normal dinner. That’s probably not a bad regular nutritional practice. But I am not sure any doctor or nutritionist would recommend that regimen as a weight loss program. But weight loss is not the point.
The point is the same one held since ancient times by mystics of many traditions. It is widely accepted that being aware of one’s own body might help one to sharpen spiritual focus and, thereby, the self-discipline. So, this might be called a helpful practice. Fasting is an honored and traditional way to do that.
Abstinence is similar but different. Abstinence is when one refrains from eating meat or meat by-products of any kind. That’s not difficult task for vegetarians but many of us are carnivores.
Indeed and to reiterate, both fasting and abstinence are simply pious practices with a long history. Even today, many people in many traditions still find fasting and abstinence useful and even observe and practice fasting and abstinence.
The paradox is, for reasons beyond my comprehension and for a lot of years, no one seemed to notice that making these practices mandatory, as was true for a long time in the Roman tradition, transformed these practices into something which was less than pious. You see, once something becomes a rule it stops being a practice. It becomes mandatory. It becomes nothing more than a rule to be observed.
In any case, back before the rules changed a practicing Catholic was expected to abstain from eating meat on all Fridays of the year. During Lent one would also Fast for the entire season of Lent, all forty days and forty nights. Sunday’s do not count as days of Lent— never did. You could eat anything, do what you wanted to do, on Sundays.
Well, all that having been said, on to the story: I was a student at Saint Ignatius Elementary School on the Upper East Side in New York City. The school— based on its name it was obviously under the patronage of the Jesuits, despite the fact that the Sisters of Charity were the teachers— the school was located just across the street from where my Dad was a teacher. The time of this incident was late Spring. I went with a group of the guys from the school to play a pick-up soft-ball game in Central Park.
When we were done I split off and headed toward the Subway to go home. It’s what you do in New York City— you get on the Subway, right? O.K.?
I was famished the way only a thirteen year old can be famished. I would have eaten anything. Just before I got to the 86th Street I.R.T. Subway station I saw one of those ubiquitous rolling hot dog stands you see all over Manhattan.
I pulled out some money and got a hot dog and a Coke. I was about ninety percent done with the hot dog when a classmate who happened to be passing by came up to me, pointed and said, “What are you doing?”
I was not sure what he meant. “I’m hungry, so I’m eating,” said I.
He pointed to the small sliver of hot dog left in my hand and said, “It’s Friday. That’s a hot dog. That’s meat.”
I was totally chagrined and very embarrassed. I don’t know if I was more embarrassed because I had broken an obvious rule or because I had been caught breaking said rule or because I had simply forgotten it’s Friday.
And the truth of the matter is I simply did forget it was Friday. And that’s what I haltingly stammered out to my classmate, “Oh, no! It’s Friday! I forgot it’s Friday! I just forgot!”
He smiled and said, “Don’t worry. I won’t report you to the meat police.”  By the meat police I think he might have meant our teacher, the stern faced Sister Catherine Roberta, a person whose temper was even more stern than her countenance.
Perhaps more to the point, I felt awful, upset, even angry with myself. After all, a rule is a rule is a rule. And I broke the rule, right? (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as First Corinthians: “Hence, as to eating food which was sacrificed to idols, we know that idols have no real existence and that there is no God but the One, true God.” (Slight pause.)
At Bible Study Wednesday night— and by the way you’re all welcome to come to Bible Study Wednesday night— at Bible Study Wednesday night it was pointed out that this may be one of the most convoluted sections Paul ever wrote. On the other hand, that’s just Paul. On the other hand (hold it— are there three hands? O.K.) on the other hand, I think all this is quite simple.
And I hope I just illustrated it with that story from my youth. In my case, meat was forbidden. I unknowingly broke the rule. My classmate was kind. But suppose he decided that since my Dad was a teacher in a Jesuit School and my Mom had been a nun, he could break the rule too? After all— that holy guy did it! Would that be all right?
Or suppose he was not kind and had reported my transgression to the meat police? Would punishment have been (pardon the pun) meted out? Well, perhaps.
But I want to and need to point out the obvious. This is not about the meat police, Paul’s meat police or my meat police.
Paul, convoluted as the Apostle does tend to be, is merely trying to illustrate a very central truth by telling a story. And the message of story is simple: the meat means nothing. God and God only God is central in our lives.
But not everyone knew that then. Not everyone knows that now. Some people think if one person breaks a rule everyone can break a rule.
Other people actually think the rules are about meat and rules about meat are central to our lives. And never mind meat. Some people think rules are central. Put another way, some people think rules are God. Paul has an answer for that too.
(Quote:) “…anyone who loves God is known completely by God.” So, here’s the short version of that— mine, not Paul’s: God loves us. When we recognize God loves us, rules do not much matter. When we recognize God loves us, the love of God is the only thing that really matters— the love of God is the only thing that really matters. Case closed. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I have said this here before; it bears repeating today. Tradition has it that Rabbi Hillel was both a contemporary of Paul and a teacher of Paul. The story goes that a Roman Centurion went to the Rabbi and said if you can teach me everything there is to know about the Hebrew Scriptures while I am balanced on one foot, I will convert and become a Jew. Hillel said, “Love God; love neighbor; the rest is commentary.”
BENEDICTION: People of light, turn toward God with joy and be free and open to the empowerment God offers. People of unity, be one in Christ. People of commitment, dare to run the race with courage. May the Spirit dwell with us and may the peace of Christ, which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts, minds and spirits centered on God, this day and forevermore. Amen.
 It should be noted that there was a good amount of laughter from the Congregation during the telling of this story.