January 28, 2018
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
My sermon this morning is about metanoia, a sudden moment of waking up after which we can never see the world in the same way. I’m going to use the passage from 1st Corinthians as a jumping-off place to think about this. And since Paul in this reading has also invited us to think about the meaning of what we eat, I’m going to go ahead and do that too.
Metanoia is a Greek word that means “change of mind.” It shows up fairly often in the New Testament, and is usually translated as “repentance.” In Luke, for instance, when Jesus says, “It is not those who are well who need the doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” the word for repentance is metanoia. So how does “change of mind” become “repentance”?
Without going into much detail, I can just say that, for the classical Greeks, the “mind” being talked about here would have represented the highest form of awareness which could lead directly to contemplation of the divine. So metanoia is a very deep and profound “change of mind.” It’s not like changing your opinion about something. It’s a change that affects the very way you approach God, to put it in Christian terms, and I’m sure this is why the early Christians chose that term to describe repentance and the changes in behavior that result. Clearly, Jesus is not asking us to “change our minds” in the everyday meaning of that term; it’s something far deeper and life-changing.
OK, back to Paul. You might be interested in the context of Paul’s instructions about meat. I didn’t know anything about this until I researched it for this sermon. Evidently, in Corinth you could buy second-hand or marked-down meat that had been used as a token “offering” to pagan idols and then resold. An idol worshipper would bring some meat to be sacrificed; some of it was burned, some of it was given to the priest; and then the leftovers were sold. So the problem for Paul was, is it OK to eat this food, or would it upset and “weaken” some Corinthian Christians? These people, apparently, still associated eating the meat with idol-worshipping, even though they no longer believed in the false gods.
Paul’s response is pretty clear. He says, first, that of course we all know this is BS, that there aren’t any “gods” to be pleased or offended by sacrifices of meat on an idol’s altar. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with buying the marked-down meat at a good price. However, Paul also warns us not to get all arrogant about this “knowledge” of ours. He points out that some Christians may indeed take the meat-eating the wrong way, and feel guilty and weak because they’re unable to shake their belief that eating this food is still somehow unclean. Thus, Paul declares that he himself will not eat the meat, so as not to “wound their conscience when it is weak.”
Now I find this very interesting. Paul had perhaps the most famous metanoia in history, on the road to Damascus. As a result, he came to know many things, among them the fact that there’s nothing spooky or shameful about eating meat that was originally sacrificed to gods who don’t exist. But he still gives careful thought to the question of what to do with this knowledge. He sees a real danger that knowledge can overshadow love, and he wants above all to do the loving thing. I’m going to take that as a warning to me, in this sermon, not to let the things I think I know come between me and you, my “Corinthians” this morning, so to speak!
I’ll come back to Paul and the Corinthians a little later, but let’s leave them for the time being. Now I want to talk about waking up, which is my own paraphrase of “metanoia,” and its opposite, denial. You’d think that we would have the clearest awareness of the things that are most common, the things we see and do every day. What could be more familiar than, say, eating a sandwich? Yet psychologists will tell us that the opposite is true. The more ordinary and commonplace something is, the easier it is for us to not see it. In fact, we have to go through an often difficult process of detachment, making what is familiar unfamiliar, before we can see what, to others, might be perfectly, starkly clear. Do you remember the words of “Amazing Grace,” and the story of John Newton, the former slavetrader who wrote them? He says that perceiving the evils of slavery was like “being blind, but now I see.” And yet, for us, these evils have, I would imagine, always been clear, precisely because they are not familiar, everyday activities, as they were to Newton.
I want to use an example from my own life as a way of further showing this. Most of you have never done what I’m about to describe, so it will sound, I hope, quite unfamiliar, and you will therefore be able to see it, I hope, quite clearly and accurately. As a young man, I drank alcohol and used drugs every day. For the last several years of this behavior, I got stoned on marijuana a few hours after awakening, drank and smoked steadily through the day, and passed out drunk at night. I did this every day and every night. Can you imagine doing that? It’s not many people’s idea of fun to do this even once a year. I assume, I hope, that it sounds like a deeply strange and unhealthy way of living, because it is. But what you have to understand is that, for me, it was perfectly ordinary. I saw nothing strange about it. Because I did it every day, it was natural and commonplace. How is such a thing possible? How can an otherwise intelligent and sensitive human being fail to see that he is killing himself, and causing great pain to others around him? The answer is, denial. Humans have an extraordinary capacity to fail to see. And when you combine this natural tendency with addiction, then denial is very strong indeed. The addict can’t see, he can’t wake up – or at least not without some moment either of amazing grace or of forced detachment, a naked lunch, to use a phrase from the writer William Burroughs: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of his fork.”
Now let’s consider another occasion for metanoia. Imagine that you could suddenly have a moment like this that was literally about what is on the end of your actual fork. That has happened to many of us in this congregation. We have woken up to the reality that the animal products we eat are almost entirely brought to us through one of the most inhumane and unChristian institutions ever devised, rivaling human slavery in its utter selfishness and refusal to acknowledge the suffering of others: the factory farming industry. Once you see this, you can’t unsee it. But why is it so hard to see?
Well, the industry itself tries its best to literally keep you from seeing it, and largely succeeds. Ask for a tour of a Tyson Foods chicken-house and watch what happens. (You won’t get one.) We’re also surrounded by the advertising propaganda for the many pleasures of meat-eating, everything from the supposed health benefits (though that’s getting harder and harder to make believable) to the constantly reinforced associations between big turkey dinners and “American family life,” and of course the endless illustrations of joy-filled chickens, cows, and pigs smiling and dancing on their way to the slaughterhouse to sacrifice themselves for their human friends. Anyone who has looked at the early imagery of the American South will see some obvious similarities, all those happy enslaved folks just so eager to serve Massa.
Powerful as all these images are, however, I don’t think they even touch on the most significant reason why millions of Americans see nothing wrong with what’s on the end of their fork. That reason, I believe, is familiarity and denial. We are just so used to having things the way they are! How could a way of life that has survived, and helped us survive, for millennia, possibly be wrong? Oh, wait a minute, factory farming hasn’t been around for millennia, actually, but . . . What about “evolutionary biology”? Don’t we have carnivore teeth?
There are rational responses to this, and I’m happy to discuss them with anyone who’s interested. In fact, I wish more carnivore members of Seekers would seek me out and talk to me; maybe there’s an argument in favor of eating animal products that I haven’t heard before. I do take Paul’s warning to heart, about the arrogance of knowledge. But I’m trying to focus now precisely on the irrational, the deep psychological resistance to seeing clearly what has been made overfamiliar and unquestioned. This is not changed by rational argument. It takes, as Paul and so many others have told us, a rebirth, a metanoia, a repentance, a new life. We need amazing grace.
Either that, or we need to hit bottom – our denial system has to simply crash on the rocks of some life-threatening catastrophe. This is certainly what happened to me, in connection with alcohol and drugs. I didn’t wake up one morning singing Amazing Grace. I was forced by circumstances to look, however unwillingly, at what was on the end of my fork. The grace part was that I lived in the US in the 1980s, and an extraordinary recovery community was there to offer help. Millions of humans, throughout history and right now in other countries, are not so fortunate.
That same perspective applies to our animal-abusing habits, I think. We can have an interesting discussion about whether it’s morally wrong for an impoverished Peruvian to eat a chicken. But you and I are not impoverished Peruvians. Our choices, our programs of recovery, if you will, are much, much wider. We do not have the justification of necessity – only the excuse of ease, pleasure, and routine.
It makes me wonder what disastrous circumstances could force this denial system to crash. I hope and pray that it is not the global catastrophe which so many ecologists now predict. Raising livestock is responsible for about 20 percent of all greenhouse gases – but climate change is not the only apocalypse waiting in the wings. We’re also told that, unless the human species finds another way to feed itself, the rise in population coupled with the degradation of the environment is simply unsustainable. There is no practical model under which we can keep this up.
Well, once again, I’m presenting rational arguments as if the problem was a rational one, a matter of thinking more clearly. I suppose in part it is, but mostly not. Mostly, we need a change of heart and mind, we need to wake up and see what is before our eyes. Historians tell us that the institution of Southern slavery was doomed – economic and cultural forces, to say nothing of the abolition movement, made it unsustainable. If the Civil War had not been fought, slavery would still have ended, probably sooner rather than later. But imagine for a moment that the slave labor camps of the South were perfectly sustainable – would that provide some moral justification for them? Of course not. The atrocity of slavery mattered on a whole other level than merely whether it worked for the slave-owners. And the same is true of our animal-abusing culture. What we do has a moral meaning, and we have a constant daily choice between cruelty and mercy.
So I’ll end by returning to Paul and the Corinthians. We know Paul was not recommending veganism. (The Bible does, by the way: Genesis 1:29.) But Paul’s musings on the subject are very relevant to anyone who is concerned about what he or she eats. If I may generalize what Paul is saying, and connect it with what I said a moment ago: Food is not merely stuff; like everything else in the Christian life, it has a meaning. What we eat can help or hinder others. It can add to the sum of suffering, or of mercy. Each of us is free to draw our own conclusions about this, according to each individual conscience. What we are not free to do, according to Paul, is to deny that it matters. It’s not just stuff.
We can also, I think, take another lesson from Paul, in this reading. I imagine that the pre-conversion Paul, the righteous Jew Saul, was probably full of knowledge about many things. But he had his metanoia, he woke up, and he found out that being known by God, as he tells us here, is far more important. And this has something to do with love, with God holding us in his hands. There is another sermon I could have preached, and that many of us here have preached and will preach again, about the transformative, life-changing power of God’s love. This morning I’ll just leave you with that thought: to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbor, human and non-human, as yourself, is the greatest metanoia of all.