Mar 7th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Romans 14:13-21
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When you were growing up – or if you are currently growing up – did you parents give you guidelines – or rules – for visiting others? When my sister and brother and I were growing up, there were at least two sets of rules. One set of rules was about visiting the more casual members of our family – grandparents and aunts and uncles. The other set of rules concerned the visiting of my great aunts – Agnes, Angenette, and Marie. At our grandparents’ and aunts’ and uncles’, you could play, listen to music, even take a nap if you really needed one. When visiting my great aunts, you sat on their uncomfortable French Provincial furniture, spoke when you were spoken to, sat silently and listened to the same stories you heard the last time you visited. When visiting my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, you could wear pretty much what you wanted to wear, as long as it was clean. When visiting my great aunts, it was the Sunday-best uniform. When visiting my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, where was always laughter. When visiting my great aunts, it was a chuckle behind an upraised hand. One visit was like visiting with people more like you than you realized. The other was like tea with the Dowager Countess.
Special instructions were given when we would be going to someone’s house for dinner. Most dinners were taken with members of the family, so there was no real worry involved. We all tended to eat the same things, though when my grandmother Fleming threatened to serve lamb, there was some consternation. It was when we would be invited to a friend’s house that the customary instruction was given. It went something like, “no matter what they serve, eat it.” This was before the days of dietary concerns that prompt a pre-dinner phone call to see what can and can’t be eaten. And, let it be said, that in those days, we were not particularly picky eaters. As long as it was identifiable, it was consumed.
Other matters of etiquette had been fairly well drummed into our wee little heads. Feet off the furniture, inside voices, don’t ask too many questions, don’t wake the men after Thanksgiving dinner. All of these conversations were about observing acceptable behavior that met with the approval of those in charge.
That was a bit of what was going on behind Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. Remember, please, that the early church was struggling with lots of challenges, not the least of which was the relationship between those of Judaism who were converting to Christianity and those of the Gentiles who were becoming disciples. One group would observe and practice their faith in one way, while the other group who observe and practice their faith in another way. And, as you might expect, one group thought the other was in the wrong and leveled judgment against their practice and behavior.
As you might imagine, the issue of what was acceptable to eat and what was not was firmly in play. What we would recognize as Kosher laws were being observed by new Christians emerging from Judaism. Gentile Christians had fewer (if any) restrictions about what they could eat. And since eating together was a central part of the early church’s life, it made for no small measure of uneasiness when they ate together. Imagine, one family bringing fish to a meal and another bringing barbequed ribs. You can see the inherent conflict.
What follows is something that continues to happen in the church right down to our day. It is the desire to make one’s own experience normative. We don’t so much care about what another Christian does as long as they do it like us. Our way of doing things – believing things – living things – becomes the standard for everyone.
And then it moves beyond the circle of faith and into the world around us. What we hold to be true and right and proper is the only way it can be. And when someone believes something different to be true and right and proper, they are wrong. Even worse, when someone doesn’t hold the same viewpoints as we do, express the same opinions we express, support the same causes and candidates that we support, they become evil, vile, and wicked.
What happens then? Peace dissolves. Conflicts rise and peace retreats and all but disappears. The world around us becomes disquieted, broken, divided. The world becomes reduced to “us” and “them.”
vAnd what God desires for us evaporates and fades away.
To the ancient church – and to those of us today – the Apostle Paul’s instruction is clear: “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not...destroy the work of God. (Romans 14:19-20) Paul urges the ancient Roman Christians – and we Christians of today: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Romans 14:13) “Pursue what makes for peace.”
It sounds so easy. It sounds so sensible. Yet, we know full well the struggle that will be engaged if we commit ourselves to this way. Facing our own complicity is the first step. How many judgments have we personally passed on those who don’t see things as we see them? How do we view those who believe in something in which we do not believe? How do we treat those who have a different opinion than the one we hold?
Make it a bit larger. How do we participate in the fracturing of our society, of our world? What stumbling blocks do we put in the way of the fullness of life for every person on the planet? Oh, by the way, the Greek word for “stumbling block” is “skandalon.” What kind of scandalous behavior and practices to we employ in our lives and living that denies the fullness of life to another? What snares and traps do we allow to continue to be in play that disallows the full participation in all the arenas of life?
If we are to heal the brokenness of our world – if we are to bring all the fractured pieces into a new wholeness – the divisions and detachments we preserve must come to an end. If we are to move toward God’s vision of peace for the world, the separations and schisms in which we have participated must, of necessity, be rendered powerless. The axe which we have ground and ground, must be put away and, in its place, the olive branch must be offered.
This is not optional work for those who would be Christ’s disciples. We are commanded to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” This is not work that can be buried in some committee’s agenda. This is not work that can be accomplished by some office of the General Assembly. The healing of the world and its people is the work entrusted to the people of God by God and by Jesus Christ.
By breaking down walls that divide, by healing the woundedness of the world around us, by reconciling with those from whom we are estranged in any way, we offer service that “is acceptable to God and has human approval.” This is not simple or easy work. The work of peacemaking involves embracing risks, accepting rejection, and demands constant and relentless effort.
It will mean learning a new etiquette, not unlike the rules I learned about visiting relatives. It will necessitate discovering a new way of being with people instead of being opposed to people. It will require personal sacrifice, a new-found restraint, a lessening of self in order to connect with another.
If the season of Lent teaches us anything it is that sacrifice is a part of faithful discipleship. The work of peacemaking – of moving toward the shalom which God intended for the world and its inhabitants – will demand self-sacrifice. It was on this day, March 7, 1965, that John Lewis, the Reverend Mr. Hosea Williams, Bob Mants, Albert Turner, and nearly 600 others attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on their way to rally for voting rights in the state capitol of Montgomery. They were seeking to heal the wounds of slavery and racism that denied full citizenship to African-American people. What happened that day is now the stuff of legend. John Lewis’ skull was fractured and others, including march organizer Amelia Boynton and 14-year old Lynda Blackmon Lowery were brutally beaten. The march failed – on that day. But others came to Selma, in no small part because of the violence that had been unleashed on the original marchers and the march went on to Montgomery. Sadly, 56 years later, we are still facing many of the same struggles as those marches faced in 1965.
And that is but one of the reasons why we must commit ourselves anew to healing the brokenness of the world. The planet itself is broken and in need of committed care. The separation between the poor and the rich grows wider with each passing day. The animosity and contempt which marks our public discourse is excruciating. The inability to reach agreement stalls and incapacitates us. We lessen ourselves with each passing day, accepting brokenness and fragmentation as “just the way things are.”
“Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
Let us put aside division and disagreement.
Let us root out injustice and inequality.
Let us take up the Christ-given work of loving one another.
Let us love one another, even as Christ has loved us.
Then we will be “acceptable to God and [receive] human approval.”
Let us be peacemakers.
For now and evermore. Amen.