Sunday, March 15, 2009

Audio from Mar. 15

Sermon from Sunday, Mar 15

Based on Romans 14:1-4, 13-24.

If you’re like me, you really resonate with the first part of this passage. The first four verses of Romans 14 are a passionate plea not to judge, not to be judgmental. “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” says Paul, “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” And every little bone in our Exton body goes, “Yes!” Because that’s what we believe here, that the Gospel is not a matter of agreeing about every little thing, but agreeing on our common calling in Jesus and our call to be like him. Paul gives an example from his time, the example of whether or not it was proper to eat meat, or whether Christians should be vegetarians. Apparently at that time there was some disagreement about this, likely related to the fact that most meat available to the Roman Christians was meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Even that meat which was supposedly clean, and had not been sacrificed to idols, had probably been mixed in with meat which had been at some point, and so you couldn’t be sure if what you’re eating was clean, spiritually speaking. So some Christians believed you shouldn’t eat meat at all as a matter of principle—you shouldn’t eat what had been sacrificed to a false God, and you should avoid all meat just to be safe. Other Christians thought it was fine to eat meat even if it was sacrificed to idols, because those were just false gods anyway; since they weren’t real, how could they possibly have the power to destroy perfectly good meat?
Then we hear Paul say the words we love to hear, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not despise those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgments on the servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. In other words, you don’t get to judge another person’s servants—only the Master does. In the same way, only God gets to judge us, so we should not judge each other. Only God gets to decide whether we stand or we fall, and those who believe in him will stand (even though they may be wrong about these things), because God is able to make them stand.
As I say, we love these words because we fancy ourselves tolerant religious types, like I said last week, “Christian, but not THAT kind of Christian.” And texts like this texts we like to wrap ourselves up in and feel all cozy in. Further, they are the kind of texts that the average non-Christian does not realize are in the Bible. One of our small groups is studying the book They Like Jesus but Not the Church. We’re reading a lot of how non-Christians often find the church narrow and judgmental. Perhaps this is a text that we should preach on a bit more, as I think it resonates with the world in which we live. Kids today perceive themselves as non-judgmental and are quick to join movements and causes that work toward what they perceive as righting injustices. This text can perhaps tap into some of that youthful energy. Non-judgmentalness is something that the current generation does awfully well, and perhaps something we as the church can learn from them.
Yet at the same time we can congratulate our culture for not being judgmental, we surely need to challenge our culture. Because while our culture does non-judgmentalness really really well, it does not do relationships very well at all. One of the banes of my life is instant messaging. Now I realize that I’m talking to people here who instant message all the time, and people who never have done that and have no idea what it is. Essentially what instant messaging is is a way to type messages back and forth to people over the internet. A little screen pops up and you type a message to someone and they type back to you and you can have a conversation. What’s wrong with that? Well, nothing. But I still hate it. Because I never focus on this kind of conversation when I’m having it; I’m always doing something else. I’m on the internet, someone types something to me, I keep doing whatever I’m doing on the internet, ignore the message for a couple of seconds, then write back. Often, people IMing (as it’s called) will carry on multiple conversations at once, never giving their full attention to any one person at any one time. One internet friend says he can talk to five people at once; another says he can carry on up to twelve conversations at one time! The result is a world that is a paradox: in our world we are in touch with more and more people but in increasingly shallow ways. All of the sudden, I am not a person with deep experiences, rooted in a community with a complex personality, rich in nuance; all of the sudden I am whoever I project myself to be on the computer, who I can convince you I am before I move onto something else.
I’ve been reading a book by Maggie Jackson called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. She paints a stark picture of the human cost of our lack of deep relationships:
“I think we’re beginning to see a time of darkness when, amid a plethora of high-tech connectivity, one-quarter of Americans say they have no close confidante, more than double the number twenty years ago.” Think of that for a second—one out of every four of us here says that we don’t have any real deep friends. And how amazing is that that the number is double what it was twenty years ago? What does that mean? In essence, the increased productivity of the last twenty years has cost one out of every eight of us our best friend. Just shocking stuff. “It’s a darkening time,” writes Jackson, “when we think togetherness means keeping one eye, hand, or ear on our gadgets, ever ready to tune into another channel of life, when we begin to turn to robots to tend the sick and the old, when doctors listen to patients on average for just eighteen seconds before interrupting, and when two-thirds of children under six live in homes that keep the television on half or more of the time, an environment linked to attention deficiencies.” Her point? We live in a culture where community is being sacrificed on the altar of productivity, on the altar of entertainment, and on the altar ironically of connection. We are connected with everybody across the globe yet deeply connected to no one. Is it any wonder that we watch the breakup of the nuclear family at astounding speeds? Is it any wonder that husbands and wives do not know how to relate to each other for the long haul? Is it any wonder that children mock their parents and parents amuse their children rather than raise them? Is any of this a surprise in a culture like ours?
Our culture does non-judgmentalism well but it does not do relationships well. Which is where the church comes in. Or at least where the church should come in. Consider the rest of this passage which we have read this morning. While Paul is urging the church not to be judgmental, at the same time, he is presuming a certain depth to their relationships. Paul says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” In other words, I know that there’s nothing wrong with eating meat. But, he says, it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean. That is, if you are sure that God doesn’t want you to eat meat, then it is wrong for you to be eating meat because you are choosing what you want over what you think God wants, which is an attitude and a posture you just don’t take with God. That being said, then, Paul says, “I’m going to choose to forgo meat, choose not to eat it, even though I can, because I don’t want to harm the spiritual walk of my brothers and sisters. I’m not going to let exercising my rights harm another person; I’d rather just not exercise what are my rights than harm them.” There is a sense here that goes way beyond normal non-judgmentalism—because there is this deep relationship where what I do impacts not just me, but a whole community. The community rises and falls because of the acts of its members, and each choice individuals make on issues of controversy affects not just themselves, but everyone around them in the church.
Paul sums up his point by saying, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual edification.” In other words, in our dealings together, when we talk about whatever may be an issue, let’s strive for two main things. The first is peace, suggesting let’s not let conflict gain a toehold among us. Let’s assume the goodwill of each other rather than assuming that the others are out to get us. But the second goal we should always have in mind is mutual edification, mutual upbuilding as the NIV says it. Our relationships exist so that each of us through our actions and speech can help everyone else in the community grow closer to the example of Jesus. We should not take action that would drive people away from growth into the image of Jesus, and everything we say and do should be done with this goal in mind: helping to build each other up.
This is a far cry from the world’s non-judgmentalism. Because in the eyes of the world, being non-judgmental is essentially “live and let live.” You do your thing, and that’s cool with me, because what you do doesn’t really impact me at all. That may be true in society, but it is not true of the church. Paul says the church can be open to a diversity of understandings on controversial issues, but not because “what I do with my life is my business.” Instead, the church can be open to a diversity of understandings on controversial issues precisely because we are all on a journey together into becoming like Jesus, and it behooves us when we are trying to become like Jesus to listen to all points of view just in case Jesus is in there somewhere. Because we all have the same goal, and because we are all traveling together, we can afford to be nonjudgmental—because we all want to become like Jesus, we can help each other grow by working together through difficult things.
What is most important to Paul here is the idea that the church is an intricately woven web, not a mere group of individuals, but a family headed by God where the actions of one person impact the whole body. This both excites us and terrifies us at the same time; it excites us because we all want this kind of family in our lives. We need it to survive; we need to have people willing to walk our journeys with us, people who are present with us when we are suffering, who make us casseroles when we have a family member in the hospital. We need people like this in our lives, people who speak love to us when we feel unloveable, people who challenge us to live up to our best impulses, people who encourage us not to settle for being less than God made us to be. We need that sort of family, and we thrill at the thought of finding it here among God’s people.
But at the same time we find ourselves recoiling because it costs a lot to be in this kind of relationship with each other. If we’re going to be in a relationship, a real relationship, a relationship of the depth that Paul seems to be talking about here, it means that we both can’t just do whatever we want to do; because what you do affects me and what I do affects you. Relationships mean wonderful benefits and intense sacrifice. Consider for a second the most intimate of human relationships, marriage. Marriage as a relationship has so many benefits. Marriage, more specifically marriage to Jill, has meant so much to me—I’m a different person because of my marriage to her. I have a stable footing in the world because of our marriage. I am promised continued loyalty and love; I have the benefit of being married to someone who has complementary gifts from me, so it is as if I have access to all the many gifts that she has and she has access to the gifts that I have and together we can enjoy those gifts and use them on behalf of the great God who created us. It’s unbelievable because since we are one person, it is as if I am twice the person I was before I met her!
But marriage has incredible costs as well. Because I’m married there are things which I must never do. I can never give my heart or body in the same way to someone else, no matter what seems natural or right to me. I have to be sure I am protecting time with my family. I have to lay down what I want to do in order to protect and nurture that relationship that brings so many benefits. This is the way it is in all our relationships; marriage is the most intense human relationship, and has the most potential benefits and is the most restrictive on our behavior. But if a relationship truly has the power to give us benefits, it also must mean that we give something up to be part of such a relationship.
So it must be among us. Our church covenant talks about the need for mutual support. It means simply that we will be there for each other, that we agree not to simply go our separate ways on Sunday afternoons, but that we will care for each other. As with any relationships, this must be costly if it is to be beneficial. It must mean something in terms of our time and our attitudes toward each other if it is to really help us when we are down.
Jill joined a “Mothers of Pre-Schoolers” group a couple years back in Downingtown. One thing I noticed right off is how often she was cooking meals for other people in the group. Just taking a casserole to one person, a dessert to another. I thought to myself, how many people are in this group? But then we had Jack—and we had meals, 3 meals a week, for a month. So many different people pitched in and made it so easy for us that first month after Jack was born. Then I realized that the women in the MOPS group were committed to helping each other as family even though it meant a lot more cooking on their own end. The relationship cost everyone more but it was more meaningful and more beneficial as a result.
The world’s non-judgmentalism is easy. We don’t judge other people because their lives in the end have little to do with ours; you do your thing and I’ll do mine, and you’ll be responsible for the consequences of your actions and I’ll be responsible for mine. But Paul says this is not what the church is. We do not judge each other because we have a relationship strong enough to say, “I trust you.” But a relationship that strong is costly. It means we must be about the work of building each other up and supporting each other—not just with our intentions, but with our lives.