First Congregational Church
September 13, 2020
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It seemed only appropriate, with a sermon title of “Community,” to offer a little sage wisdom, so that all of us might be the better for it. Many of us are aware of the Biblical concept of coming from and returning to dust. Which is why we shouldn’t dust, since it could be someone we might know. Now see how much time you will save this coming week?
Mr. Wisdom, Yogi Berra, suggested that we should always go to other people’s funerals so they will come to ours. Actor Will Rogers suggested that the quickest way to double one’s money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket. When I was teaching, I would offer Haag’s Helpful Hints to my students - free of charge - mainly to lighten the mood, although I don’t think all that many of them used those hints.
I knew we were going to be spending time on Romans 14 - early this past week - like Tuesday or Wednesday. Friday evening, as I sat on the front porch, discussing an upcoming Listening Campaign, the discussion kept circling around the concept of community, how we live in a connected manner - to people who matter - in which their concerns matter.
It matters that our kids and school adults are going back to school. It matters that the stretch of Highway 31 being reconstructed in Benzonia and Beulah is almost finished. It matters that we check, every-so-often, that Lake Michigan is still at the end of the turn around.
For several weeks we’ve been hanging out in the book of Romans, taking up the large and encompassing topic of love. It’s actually a pretty good place to hang, these weeks leading up to a national election. It’s especially wonderful that the lectionary prescribed these sections, so that I don’t have to take the blame of “always” picking passages about whatever the topic may be. I read the passages, spend a little time discerning what God needs us to hear, put my fingers to the keyboard, and the rest is God’s business.
Scripture Romans 14:1-12
The Weak and the Strong
14 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister[a]? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’”[b] 12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Thank you, Catherine. Perhaps one day I will succumb to the temptation to start the sermon with the first sentence of these verses, and follow it with a 2 minute moment of silence - to allow each person to really chew on the real art of the sentence’s construction - in and of itself - and as it’s connected to the sentences around it. Perhaps one day….
The issue for the Roman Christians - back then - was whether they tapped into their heritage as Romans or their faith as Christians - when it came to deciding what was for supper. Romans probably didn’t think twice about eating pork. But the Christians - who had been practicing Jews all their lives - they were in the midst of a sticky wicket.
Most of us don’t worry about the religious food police coming around to fine us or put us in wooden stocks for eating a steak on Friday. We don’t fear being thrown in jail for eating a pulled pork sandwich. Back in Paul’s day, those were fightin’ meats. And probably far too often, the victuals you ate or refused - either one - became grounds for standing over others in judgment because “I/we don’t eat that.”
It seems like a long ago arguable discussion. Except that I wouldn’t doubt that most of us have engaged in similar discussions when it came to stores being open on Sundays, schools being let out early on Wednesdays for religious education or playing school sports on Sunday mornings. Humans can get a little high on our horses when it comes to defending the way of life we wish to have.
It is interesting that Paul doesn’t stop with mere food and holiday observances. He links this discussion to “weaker” and “stronger” - in terms of resolve or faith. None of us would take pride in having a weak faith. We may, push come to shove, boast about a faith that maybe isn’t as strong as it might be.
Doug Bratt, of Calvin Theological Seminary, put it so perfectly. “We’re not, first of all Canadians or Americans, fans of the Maple Leafs or Red Wings, middle class people or even members of the Christian Reformed Church. Romans 14’s hearers and proclaimers are, first of all, Christians for whom our adoptive brother Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again.”
We live in communities, some of us more closely linked than others. We don’t only live in Democratic communities or Republican communities or purple polka-dot communities. Paul’s point is not about differences, but that as Christians, we can disagree, so when we disagree, God’s beloved adopted children remember that by God’s amazing grace, we belong not just to the Lord but also to each other. We may “get” that idea, but we may not grasp so easily to the idea that Doug Bratt also lifted up, that “the limit of my Christian freedom is the fence that is my Christian brother or sister’s well-being.”
In his book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham describes American President Bush’s popularity. As he was growing up, he was very popular with other boys. They liked him and felt “protected and secure in his orbit” (35).
But one time he stepped out of character and used an anti-Semitic slur to describe a Jewish friend. Bush accused himself for this gaffe for the rest of his life. Interviewed by Meacham nearly seventy years later, “Bush volunteered the story and cried, shaken by guilt over a remark made in the 1930s. He shook his head in wonder over his own insensitivity. ‘Never forgotten it. Never forgotten it.’ (The classmate remained a Bush supporter and friend for many years.”)
In case anyone is wondering, this is not a sermon merely for all of you. It’s for me, too. It’s so easy to want to be right rather than loving. In a recent discussion, I was “afforded” an opportunity to “fill-in” the listeners more of the truth on a subject that was being discussed. But most of those listeners hadn’t been around when the incident took place back then, so what would my desire to raise old dirt really do, except to feed that part of myself that doesn’t like being as noble as the other part of myself.
It would have felt so good in that moment - to be all informative and puffed up. I have to say, it’s a far better feeling knowing that a moment that would have revealed my pettiness is not even a question in the minds of those listeners - at least on the topic of that moment. I’m sure I’ve offered enough other opportunities of revealed pettiness or insensitivity or just plain stupidity often enough. But that’s all for another day.
In thinking of this love that Paul has been discussing in Romans, and how we bring that love to the world, one of the aspects that we may struggle with is courage. It takes courage to live ‘not only to ourselves.’ It takes courage and effort to not judge people. And sometimes, the worse of the fear is the fear to begin with.
I can’t tell you who wrote it, but it was on the internets, so you know it is true. “Recently, I had to help move some furniture. I rented a U-Haul truck and I was scared because I had never driven something that big. I was afraid I’d get into an accident. I was reluctant until the moment I put the key in the ignition. And then I found out it wasn’t so bad. (Fun fact: when you’re driving a U-Haul truck, NO ONE wants to get within 200 feet of you!)
As if the individual who wrote that - knew of this weeks Roman’s passage - as it applies to living in a Christ-centered community, the writer continued. “This applies to much riskier things: creativity, love, and spirituality. You can’t do any of that without risking your ego. The beginning attempts will be clumsy, you might not make much progress at first, and you will feel uncertain. That’s what you have to put on the line, though. Put your own fears on the line and you’ll get back new experiences, wider horizons, confidence—and freedom.”
There’s a wonderful meme out in the big world that goes something like “Introverts Unite - alone and in your own rooms.” It’s cute, but even alone in one’s room, we are still be part of a community, because none of us live alone. We all have God’s Holy Spirit - not as a guest, but as a housemate. We have this church family, whether you live here - in Minnesota, Florida or on the other side of the world - because Christ is our brother as much as our savior. As a community joined together in love, let us pray.
Holy God of One and All, we thank you for your continual reminders that we are a communal people - your people - living in this place that you have given us - living with the fruits of your blessing. Help us to live in your love, not to ourselves, nor to our faith, but in your love. Remind us as often as is necessary, that our calling is not to defend our beliefs, but to love our neighbors. Help us to catch ourselves and then overcome the opportunities, to be loving, rather than right. It can be so tempting to convince those we think are in error that they are wrong. Remind us that it more effective to simply be present to them in love - even in moments of disagreement. We pray these things not only for ourselves, but for the others in this church family, and all the church families in this world - whether they know your or us or not. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.