Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sermon: Don't sweat the small stuff

Browns Presbyterian Church
September 14, 2014, Ordinary 24A
Romans 14:1-17

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

I remember a strange experience from early in my college days.  I was at a picnic dinner on campus, sponsored by the school’s campus ministry office, with a nice spread of all sorts of good food.  Plenty of fried chicken, a grill putting out hamburgers and hot dogs as fast as possible, a station to make whatever kind of sandwich you could imagine, and my first introduction to what the server called a “low country boil.”  I looked in the pot and saw mostly shrimp and potatoes – of course there was other stuff too, but shrimp and potatoes looked just fine to me.  In the spirit of trying new things I took a bowl of the stuff and was pleasantly rewarded. 

Oh, yeah, corn and sausage too.

A fellow freshman, a girl I had met a time or two thus far, was passing by and stopped to look in my bowl.  I told her what the server had told me about and said that it was really good.  She looked again and said, “It does look really good, but I can’t eat shrimp.”
My first thought was, “Allergies?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t eat it for religious reasons.”
Now I was not the most worldly-wise young man at this point in my life.  I had a vague idea, though, that shrimp might be one thing that was considered not kosher.  Since the picnic was open to persons of all faiths, and I had noticed that there was a decent-sized Jewish student group on campus, I offered that guess next; “Oh, um, are you Jewish?”
Her response was “Oh, no, I’m Baptist, our church just doesn’t eat shrimp.  Or scallops.”  Which was lost on me, since then I didn’t even know what a scallop was.
But I was confused, and my face must have said so.  I was raised Southern Baptist, and all I could think was that I’d seen plenty of Southern Baptists eat plenty of shrimp in my lifetime.  But rather than press the question I let it go and stuffed a large chunk of potato in my mouth to stop myself from saying anything.   So she went on and explained that her church’s pastor taught that a true Christian actually ought to keep the dietary laws found in Leviticus and occasionally in other parts of the Torah.  I nodded and said “Huh?” a lot until the subject finally changed, but I didn’t stop with the low country boil.
This experience (and a couple of others later, when I had changed colleges and majors and ran into another Baptist church with similar leanings) always comes into my head when I encounter any of Paul’s writings on the subject of eating and differences in eating between what he unapologetically calls the “weak” and the “strong.”  He has to deal extensively with such questions in his letters to the Corinthians and also to the Galatians, and the subject comes up again in this letter to the church at Rome, chronologically the last of Paul’s letters.  What is, to be blunt, the big deal about what people eat and don’t eat?
In the cases of the churches Paul is teaching, more than we might expect.  In these cases disagreements over what is proper or not proper to eat reflect a deeper division in the churches, one that shows up more than once in Paul’s career.  You may remember from the book of Acts that in some churches there were Christians who believed that a Gentile convert had to become a Jew first before becoming a Christian, or at least go through circumcision – a stand which Paul opposed strongly.  Others did not necessarily argue that Gentiles had to go through a two-part conversion, but nonetheless believed that they should observe certain Jewish practices that some early believers had carried over into Christianity.  You might also remember a substantial discourse in 1 Corinthians about whether it was proper or acceptable for believers to eat meat that had been offered to idols, which was often re-purposed at the nearby market.  If you couldn’t know if the meat for sale had been offered to an idol before its sale, well, if that was a rule you held, then you didn’t eat meat. 
These are the background incidents to Paul’s instruction to the Romans.  Scholars disagree on whether this was a problem in the Roman congregation itself or whether Paul was simply recapitulating the issues that the Romans might have heard about from some of their members who were familiar with Paul’s missionary career.  Either way, Paul is at pains to make sure the Romans understood two things: (1) Paul himself had no dietary qualms at all – he did not refrain from eating meat or observe any such dietary restrictions, and even referred to those with such qualms as “weak”; and (2) getting bent out of shape with each other over such choices was flat-out wrong.
It’s easy to make light of a passage like this one, with its grave concerns over issues we moderns put behind us a long time ago … or have we?  It’s still possible for church members to get bent out of shape over food, and not just whether the pastor tried Aunt Louise’s world-famous potato salad at the potluck dinner.  Vegetarianism is about as popular these days as it has been in my lifetime, and one can find strained relationships among Christians (among ministers, even) over the question of eating or not eating meat, or over not eating meat or not eating any food product derived from an animal in any way.  Though it doesn’t necessarily happen often, disputes over whether or not to eat meat still have the power to create friction in the church or in the world more generally.
Still, Paul has bigger fish to fry, so to speak.  There are two big takeaways in Paul’s instruction to the Romans that have larger application than to just food disputes.  These quarrels in the church, in Paul’s view, lead to two major infractions on the part of one party or the other: passing judgment on one another (and thus usurping a role given only to God alone), and causing one another to stumble.
This passage makes it clear that Paul has no tolerance for judgment against the non-eaters, even if he considers them “weak”.  As early as verse 3 in this passage Paul puts forth the bluntest argument against such judgment; God has welcomed them.  You’re going to say God is wrong?  Of course, that usually isn’t how the one party views the other, is it?  One party somehow manages to convince themselves that God really doesn’t welcome the others.  They’re impure.  They’re wrong.  They’re evil.  And we need to throw them out. It’s amazing how many people are willing to do God’s job on God’s behalf. 
Paul goes on to point out in verse ten that God ultimately will do the judging.  He can’t be much clearer: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother and sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.  He then goes on to quote the prophet Isaiah, and reiterate that “each of us will be accountable to God.
We also see the problem with this kind of judgment as Paul continues; it is not only the sin of sitting in judgment on one another’s observance (as if usurping God’s role wasn’t bad enough), but to Paul, the truly offensive part seems to be “to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”  Here the burden really seems to be put on the “strong,” not to put a stumbling block in the way of the “weak” by, say, loading up on idol-offered meat in their presence. 
Now it’s a little odd to read this from Paul.  This is, after all, the same Paul who had some utterly devastating things to say to and about those in the early church who insisted, based on some of the same Jewish practices that served as foundation for abstaining, that new converts to Christianity should be required to be circumcised.  The things he says about them in his letter to the Galatians (and about the Galatians who fell for their spiel) were anything but polite or gentle.  They were, in some cases, quite vicious.  So what’s the difference?
In this case it’s not too hard to see.  Requiring circumcision of new converts was a way of putting a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of those converts, in this case a rather painful one.  In the case of the meat/non-meat factions, the stumbling block works a little differently.  For the “strong” to flaunt their particular practices before the “weak,” perhaps with a bit of ridicule included, was to pressure the “weak” to violate their consciences.  As Paul puts it in verse fourteen, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”  In Paul’s mind, anything that causes a brother or sister to stumble is not loving.  Love, which has been the main theme of the two chapters before this one, does not do wrong to a neighbor, even if that wrong isn’t “wrong” in your own conscience.  If Paul hasn’t made it clear enough yet, verse fifteen is unequivocal; “Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.
To be sure, this works the other way round.  The non-meat eaters have no business putting stumbling blocks in front of the meat-eaters in Paul’s estimation.  The “weak” don’t get to torture the conscience of the “strong” either.  In this case, the conflict can often be in the form of imposing rules or burdens on fellow believers that have nothing at all to do with the grace of God or the love of Christ.  William Loader, an Australian theologian, puts it this way:
Paul shifts the focus from honouring or dishonouring scruples, including those enshrined in scripture. Instead he puts Christ at the centre. Christ "rules" - to use a popular modern term. Christ is the point of unity. Paul's Christ is not standing there with a rule book ticking boxes, but with the marks of the cross and the mind of compassion. Love for people, valuing them, transcends differences on things like food and observance of days.

You would expect, with this kind of instruction, to find the “weak” and the “strong” to fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other in accommodating the other.  Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see that the church too easily falls short of such a goal, rather each side holding on to its “scruples” to the point of open war.  And these scruples can be over things of extremely small importance; the size or shape of a communion table, whether the pastor wears a white or black robe to preach, and even smaller trivialities.
Maybe the most damaging thing about this kind of petty quarreling is that when we get caught up in it, we fail to be aware of or to bear witness against the big stuff.  Look around the world.  Our headlines show us people – leaders, even – who parade their racism openly, even shamelessly.  The poor are blamed for their poverty, labeled as lazy or devious or criminal without regard to how many jobs they work to try to support a family on a minimum wage.  Christian leaders fall into these very same behaviors.  And we can’t get over the cloth on the communion table.
To the degree that we are so caught up in our minute scruples that we let raging injustices pass without a word of witness against them, we have separated ourselves from any kind of witness that connects to Christ.  We usurp God’s role as judge, we cause our sisters and brothers to stumble, and we let the abominations of the world go unchallenged while we bicker over miniscule things, the things that no less a figure than John Calvin would call “inessentials.”
Let us not be those people, sisters and brothers.  We have each other not to be scolds and nags and judges, but fellow members of the body of Christ.  We need to be joined together in love and grace to be a witness in a world that does not welcome our witness.  As Paul finally says of the kingdom of God, it is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” It is on us to lay aside those scruples that are a hindrance to our fellow followers of Christ, lest that righteousness and peace and joy pass us by while we’re arguing over the dinner table.
For righteousness, peace, and joy that transcend our judging, Thanks be to God. 

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