“Why I Eat Meat”
As you may have noticed, I have taken the rare and bold move to title today’s sermon, which is not my typical operating procedure. I have done this because I want to be clear that I am not merely an observer in the battle alluded to in today’s two passages; I am a foot soldier myself. I play for one team and not the other, and I very much have a dog in this fight. I want to acknowledge this early on because I know that many of you, shall we say, eat only vegetables. And so I want to pause and say very clearly to you that I understand that you are smart, faithful people who choose to eat vegetables because of your upbringing, your life experiences and your chosen theology. I also want you to understand that I eat meat because of my upbringing, my experiences and my theology.
Furthermore, I want you vegetarians to trust me when I say that I do not think my position is in any way morally superior. I stand on my side simply because when I weigh the pros and the cons, I am led to stand there. I trust that you, having weighed those same pros and cons, spurn meat out of faith in Christ and love for the Church. I offer today’s message as a white flag of parley. I desire to stop the fighting for just a few minutes — not to trick you, but simply to explain why I stand where I do, and why many of your fellow church members choose to eat meat alongside me.
First, let me say this battle is as old as Christianity itself. Paul writes his impassioned letter to the Corinthians only a handful of years after Jesus died and was raised. The war did not end with Paul’s plea; neither was it contained to Corinth. In truth, every one of the original seven churches fought this battle, and it has been fought in churches across the globe ever since. Of course, some of the details have changed over time, but the essential conflict is sewn into the very fabric of what it means to be a Christian.
And yes: the conflict that Paul and Matthew fought simmers in this congregation too, and has simmered here in one way or another since the day Montavilla was founded. Saying that, I acknowledge that my clear allegiance to meat eating has brought the conflict into greater relief during my tenure than under some of your previous pastors.
To begin to explain, let me first remind you that early Christianity was an urban phenomenon. In the countryside, where people had their own flocks, meat had no religious overtones. If you wanted lamb for supper, you went out with an axe and came back bloody. But in the cities, where Christianity first thrived, meat had great religious significance. In the cities there were no secular butcher shops—none. All meat was purchased from the priests and priestesses of the various temples that performed animal sacrifice. People wishing to curry favor from a deity brought their acquired goat or dove to the officiant of the temple of their choice. The priest or priestess would say prayers on behalf of the worshiper, sacrifice the animal, and then sell the remains out the back door. This was not done in the shadows; it was simply the economics of religion. Selling meat that had been sacrificed was how temples made payroll.
Thus, in Corinth and Ephesus and all the other urban centers, to eat meat of any kind was to consume what had been offered by pagans during pagan rituals to appease pagan gods. The early Christians were unique in that we did not make animal sacrifices. Christ had been our “sacrificial lamb,” so no others were needed. In Paul and Matthew’s day, half the church thought that we must be vegetarians so as not to condone these competing religions. The other half of the church said that since these other religions were false, and the idols they worshiped were just stone, eating what they had to sell asserted Christ’s dominion over them. As is so often the case with church fights, people of good intention and sound reason weighed the pros and cons and came up with different conclusions.
Eventually, as we all know, butchery slowly left the shrines and temples and became a secular profession, but the underlying issue about what the Christian church should do with offerings to other traditions did not disappear. Paul argued that in Christ we certainly had the freedom to eat meat, but decided for himself that restraint was best, because he did not want those who were new to Christianity to be confused. Matthew, facing the same question, put into the mouth of Christ a strong argument for why eating meat was almost an imperative. If we refrain from eating “what is not clean,” then we lose the opportunity to state that it is what we do with the offerings that matters—and not where those offerings were first sacrificed.
I recognize that much of the reason I clearly side with Matthew has to do with my Presbyterian upbringing. I believe Methodists most often side with Paul. This makes sense, really. Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a priest, born of a priest, and he and his brother, mother and wife were indoctrinated into the sanctity of Christian particularity. The purity of what his Anglican flock consumed and how they worshiped was paramount to him. Presbyterian thought, on the other hand, was crafted by scholars and lawyers. They loved science and civics, literature and cultural exchange. The universities and the courts they served relished knowledge wherever it came from, and in their minds, Christianity encompassed everything they felt passionate about. In the idea of the merging of flesh and spirit, humanity and God, matter and divinity, all other truth took shape.
In my confirmation class, I remember my teacher bellowing out, “All truth is God’s truth!” If he said it once, he said it a hundred times. The other point he hammered into us was that Christ was not Lord over the church; Christ was Lord over all creation. This language may sound dangerously triumphal, but the point was that “meat” from any source—secular or not, refuted by that source itself or not—testified to Christ, and to the merger of flesh and spirit, humanity and God, matter and divinity.
And this, above everything else, I want you to understand: when I offer you a reading of grace from some president or TV personality, when I read to you some beloved poem, when I quote from the sayings of Buddha or use the Jewish Shabbat prayer or reference the Quran, I am not trying to be politically correct. I am, if anything, the exact opposite of politically correct. I am claiming these “cuts of meat”— regardless of where they were originally sacrificed — for Christ. He is Lord over it all, and all of it — regardless of whether the author saw it as politics or popular culture or poetry, regardless of whether it was first uttered by a Buddhist, a Jew or a Muslim — all of it points to Christ, because he is Lord over all creation.
Paul urged his flock to refrain from meat, to refrain from indulging in anything was not USDA-stamped “Christian,” for fear that those young in the faith might be confused about what the church was all about. I recognize that concern. I recognize that when a visitor first comes here, it might be confusing for them to hear a reading from a different faith tradition or a quote that is contrary to their expectations. Those are real concerns. I know that. I acknowledge that. But there is another danger, one that Paul could not imagine in his day. It is the danger that those already in the church might come to think that Christ is Lord only over this little building, only over the one book called the bible, only in the rites and worship services we perform here.
Society tells us in a thousand ways that they are fine with us believing in Christ as long as we do so privately, as long as our faith does not escape the confines of our church buildings. My fear is that we might come to believe this, too.
Matthew says, eat everything, find Christ in everything: in law, in politics, in nursing, in house construction, in where you shop and how you vote, in the cheesy novel you are trying to finish before the library wants it back, in the religions and cults that surround you, in the science lab, in the movement of astral bodies across space, and in the summer blockbuster that you are dragged to by your grandkids. Christ is everywhere! Search for him everywhere! These things, these wide and varied cuts of meat, do not defile you. Matthew’s Christ declares that they are not distractions. This is the world, Matthew says, that Christ came to love and celebrate, and you should love and celebrate it with him.
Friend, know this to be true: I have never read a reading of grace, a scripture from another tradition, or a poem in this church that I did not believe pointed directly towards Christ. You may not agree that such cuts of meat are appropriate to this setting. People of good intention and sound reason weigh the pros and cons and come up with different conclusions. As I said in the beginning, I do not expect to change the minds of any of you — especially my beloved, my cherished vegetarians. What is more, I hear your concerns and those of Paul before you. They are real. But in the end, to my way of thinking, they are simply not as dangerous as closing our eyes to Christ’s presence in the fullness of creation.
Hopefully, I have shed some light on why we omnivores elevate Matthew over Paul. I know that I never want our faith to relinquish the world, even if the world wishes that we would. I know that I never want Christ to be confined to the safe, acceptable covers of our hymnals and bible. And so, because I hold Christ to be Lord — not of the church, but of the all creation — I eat meat. Amen.