Monday, September 12, 2011

Romans 14:1-13

Romans 14:1-13
As fallen human beings we have many failings that are all too often common among us all. One of those failings is our constant need to live in comparison to others. We want to be able to look at others around us and say, “Hey, at least I am better than that!” I had a friend in college who told me that she enjoyed watching day time talk shows because when she watched those shows, she could look at the lives of those people and KNOW without a doubt that her life was better than theirs, qualitatively, morally, whatever, her life was never anywhere close to being as messed up and hopeless as the poor peoples’ lives on that show. I suspect that this is exactly the reason why these types of shows are so popular. They give the viewer as sense of superiority. Something to look at and say, at least my life is not as messed up as that.

As children we also had this innate need to feel as if we were somehow better than those around us. After all is it not the desire to show themselves to be better than a particular peer, at the heart of every tattle-tale? There is an overwhelming desire in the heart a small that wants the adult to know exactly how bad little Johnny has been, thus highlighting what a good boy or girl they have been, all though not realizing that they are putting themselves on par with little Johnny because most of the time tattle-taleing is just as naughty as whatever it was that Johnny had been doing. That of course does not seem to matter to them and they do not understand why they too are being reprimanded for bringing Johnny’s short falling to the adult’s attention, in their own mind they have the moral superiority, after all compared to little Johnny they are being a saint.

Paul is dealing with this common human problem among the Christians in the church in Rome. The Christians in Rome were comparing themselves to each other and different individuals had come up with different reasons as to why they were better Christians than those other Christians that were not doing as they were doing. You see the people of that church were split in their opinions on two issues that they thought were very important.

First of all there are those that eat meat and those who do not eat meat. Surprisingly the vegetarian/meat eater debate is still one that rages among Christians and non Christians alike. Although the vegetarians in Paul’s day did not abstain from eating cows because they are so cute, or because human beings should learn to live without killing other living things, or for environmental reasons or for any of the other half-dozen reasons that a modern person might be a vegetarian. They abstained from eating meat for religious reasons and depending on whether they were Jewish Christians or Gentiles they might have had entirely different reasons for abstaining from eating meat.
Some of the Gentiles would have chosen to not eat meat because they felt that it had been defiled. You see most of the meat that would have been available in the Roman market would have come from the slaughtering facilities in the local pagan temples.

The Gentiles who had come out of these pagan religions would know that before the meat was sold that it would very likely have been offered as a sacrifice to a pagan deity. They felt that they would be accepting and promoting the worship of these pagan deities by eating meat that had been previously used in this way. Since there was no way of knowing which meat had been offered to pagan idols and which had not, some of them choose to abstain from eating meat altogether.

The Jewish Christians on the other hand would abstain from eating meat on reasons of Jewish dietary laws. Rome was far away from Jerusalem and any large community of Jews, therefore making it hard for them to find meat that had been prepared in a “kosher” way, in other words the meat at the market was unclean. Finding themselves living in a city where it was nearly impossible to find meat that they would consider clean, some of the Jewish Christians chose to abstain from eating meat.

Note that I said that only some of the Jews and only some of the Gentiles chose to abstain from eating meat altogether, others did not feel that either of these issues had any bearing on their Christianity and chose to eat whatever meat was available to them there in Rome. The problem is not that some ate meat and other did not, but that each group thought that they were necessarily right and the other group was necessarily wrong.

As if this was not complicated enough, there were more issues in the church at Rome than meat. There were meat eaters and vegetarians, but there were also those Jewish Christians who strictly observed the Sabbath, as well as all the feast and fast days that God instructed the Jews to follow in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Gentile Christians had probably never read Deuteronomy or Leviticus and did not see why observing these days had anything to do with being a Christian. And of course those that observed the days thought that those that did not observe these days should and those that did not, did not see why those other Christians were so concerned about something that seemed so trivial to them.

Paul would not have had such a problem with people having different opinions if it was not that those that abstained from eating meat and those who abstained from observing the special days despised those that ate meat or observed the special days, while those that ate meat and those that observed the special days judged those that that did not eat meat and did not observe the special days. Paul did not really care if some people liked beef and others did not, what he cared about was all the despising and judging that was going on over what seemed to him to be unimportant issues.

Before I delve into what it is that Paul is saying in this passage let me begin by telling you what he is not saying. Paul is not making a blanket statement to all Christians everywhere not to judge, not to declare what sin is and expect all Christians everywhere to flee from it. He is not saying that all morality is relative, that sin does not matter. He is not telling us that we cannot call sin, sin and wrong doing, wrong doing. In the verses preceding this chapter he does just that, he declares to the people of the Church of Rome just a short list of what he considers sinful and should be avoided if we as Christians are to live honorably as Christ has called us to live.

No Paul is not telling us to be soft on sin and to allow it to seep into our lives and corrupt who we are as Christians. Paul is instead telling us not to live our lives in comparison to those around us. We are not live act as if the rest of the world is a day time tv show and live trying to see that our life is better than theirs. We are not to be five year old tattle-tales that are constantly looking around the sanctuary and telling God exactly how sinful so and so is, so that God will see, and will know exactly what good, wonderful, moral upright Christians we are. We are not to live our Christian lives looking to our neighbor on the road, see their short comings and the areas in which they struggle with sin in their lives and see that we do not struggle or fall short in the same ways they do and therefore judge ourselves to be better than they.

On the other side of the coin neither are we to look at others who are doing their very best to be the people that God has called them to be and in an attempt to flee from anything that might even have the appearance of wrong doing go a little farther than we do, or think is necessary, we might think that they are taking their Christianity to far, or being to strict, surely those things that they are so worried about are not things that God is worried about. We are not to compare ourselves to these people and think how enlightened we are that we are encumbered by the same sensibilities that those people have. We are not to look down our noses and silently call them backwards or simple. In short we are not to despise them for being extra cautious when it comes to their relationship with God.

Paul wants us to know that when we look at other Christians who are striving their best to be the people that God has called them to be and they don’t do things exactly the same way that we do and we think that they are wrong, that if they are truly reaching for God and searching for his guidance in their lives, they are seeking to honor and serve the same God that we honor and serve, they are worshipping the same risen Christ that we are worshipping. Those of us that are seeking the face of God in all that we do, should not be split amongst ourselves. We should be striving together, building each other up and glorifying Jesus Christ as OUR Lord and Savior.
Paul is telling us that in the end we will all stand before the judgment seat of God, after all it is God’s right and not ours to judge our fellow Christians. We will not stand before God and get to have a giant three-year-old-esk tattle-tale session with God, telling him all the things that those other Christians were doing wrong and how we were such better Christians than they were, because we did this and did not do that. We do not get to sit back and watch everyone else’s lives and show God how much better we have been compared to them.

Paul reminds us that when we stand before God each of us will not be accountable for “their lives,” but we will be accountable for ours and ours alone. Remember that one of the most important lessons that we learned as three year old tattle-tales was that we were just as wrong for standing in the judgment seat of the capable adult that was there and declaring the wrongness of our peer, when we ourselves, in the very act of tattling were doing something just wrong. Think how much worse it will be when we stand shamefacedly before the judgment seat of God pointing at our fellow Christian, who Christ declared that we were suppose to encourage and build up, instead of despising and pushing them down with our judgmental attitude towards them and God stands before us and says that we were not called to live our lives as better than “theirs,” but we were to live our lives according to the loving instruction that God himself gave to us.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Romans 12:9-21 - Living Live of Living Sacrifice

Romans 12:9-21

In the first half of Romans 12 Paul instructed his readers to give themselves to God as living sacrifices. Last time we met together, we looked at this passage and explored what it meant to be living sacrifices and what it meant to live the holy, God pleasing lives of the living sacrifice to which God calls us. In the latter half of this chapter Paul gives us a pretty descriptive explanation of what a holy, God please life of living sacrifice looks like. In fact I think that many of us could spend the rest of our spiritual journeys reading, re-reading this passage, studying each of these 40 some odd exhortations, and working to live these simple instructions out in our daily lives. Living out these forty exhortations is being holy, being the person in this passage is being the person God created us to be, these 12 verses tell us what it looks like to be a living sacrifice.

This list of exhortations given to the church by Paul in this passage are pretty basic. Almost simplistic, reading through this reminds me of a poem that was on a poster when I was in High school. It was by Robert Falghum it went like this:
All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.
ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do
and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not
at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the
sandpile. These are the things I learned:
Share everything.
Play fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life - learn some and think some
and draw and paint and sing and dance and play
and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic,
hold hands, and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.
Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup:
The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody
really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even
the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die.
So do we.
And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books
and the first word you learned - the biggest
word of all - LOOK.
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.
The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation.
Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
Take any of those items and extrapolate it into
sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your
family life or your work or your government or
your world and it holds true and clear and firm.
Think what a better world it would be if
all - the whole world - had cookies and milk about
three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down with
our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments
had a basic policy to always put thing back where
they found them and to clean up their own mess.
And it is still true, no matter how old you
are - when you go out into the world, it is best
to hold hands and stick together.

The heart of what Fulghum has to say is simple basic life lessons but these basic early learned lessons are the hardest things to remember in the general goings on of our everyday life. The same is true with this passage here in Paul these are the basics of living the Christian life. These are the basics of what a lived submerged in the love of God. These are the basics of Holy living. A life lived this was is a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God. At the end of it all is holding hands and sticking together. Paul has told us this as well, as Christians, we are called to hold hands and stick together. Live, our holy, living sacrifice lives as a part of a holy community of faith, as a part of the Body of Christ, to work out holiness and holy living in, among and with the Church.

Being a holy person and being a holy community, the holding hands and sticking together part of being a child of God, begins with love. But not feigned love, not false love but genuine love. Truly loving people, as opposed to fake or put on love. That is not loving people because we are “suppose to” love them, but loving people because we want to love them, because we really do love them and care about them and care about what happens to them. This is about loving people because Jesus loves them. We love because we are loved. We love because as persons who are living Christ-like lives we will love all who Christ loves. This means that we do not love people with ulterior motives; we not only care about people because of what they can do for us. We don’t reach out and love people because we want to get anything out of them. We don’t only love people because the act of love, words of love, or sharing the love of Jesus with them is some kind of notch in our spiritual belts. As Christians we simply and genuinely love people.

The love that we have as Christians begins with one another, first and foremost, and last and finally we are, as the people of God, the body of Christ, to hold hands and stick together, i.e. love. For Paul being a Christian begins with being a part of the community of faith, a part of the body of Christ, a part of the Church. Being a Christian is not an “alone” kind of thing, being truly Christian, living a life of holiness and holy love can only truly exist within relationship with the body of Christ. In many ways, I am only as holy as WE are holy. I am only living a life of living sacrifice as much as WE are living sacrifices and MY love is only genuine as much as OUR love is genuine. The Christian life is not lived alone, it is lived within community. So Paul tells us that holy, genuine love is first exemplified within the Church community.

So how do we genuinely love one another within this community? We begin by doing our best to out do one another with mutual affection. It is like school yard contest. “I bet I can hop on one leg longer than you can!” “I bet I can jump farther than you can!” But instead of trying to out do one another with our mad grad school skills, we all are trying to be the best at showing love to one another. In this game of out loving one another, each of us is striving to exceed each other in showing more and more love, loving more and more. It is a Loving competition.

Paul tells us that as we are doing this will are not to lag in zeal for genuine love. If loving were a running race, this means we are not to be the straggler who is only half heartedly making her way down the track not caring what place she ends up in, but we are instead to strive to be first and win the loving race. We do not want to be out done or let ourselves “come in last.” The imagery used here makes me think of the girls in my gym class who would choose not to “run” the mile when we were all suppose run it, but they would instead walk it, lagging behind and just doing what needs to be done to finish the “requirement.” Paul does not want us to be like those girls but strive to out do one another in loving each other.

As a community we are also to rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. These are all ways that we can love one another. When you truly love another person, you care about them so much that when they are rejoicing you rejoice with them hoping for the best for them. But it is more than just that, we all know that together we can rejoice in the fact that through Jesus Christ we can hope for a world the way that it should be. We can rejoice together knowing that there is hope for life lived as it was meant to be lived, life lived as it was created to be lived, hope that one day all things will be set right, that one day we will no longer live in a broken, bent, sin twisted world. We can rejoice because by living holy lives we are bringing the holiness of God down to earth, allowing the kingdom of God break into this broken world in our words, actions and interactions.

We also love one another through patience in suffering. When those in this community are suffering, we patiently suffer along side of them, allowing our hearts to break, even as their heart is breaking. But also knowing that suffering is a consequence of the sin and evil which we brought into to this world and the world is not the way that it should be, or could be and knowing this we are patient in our hope.

Lastly as a community of Christians living lives of living sacrifice, we persevere in pray. Pray and keep on praying, even when it does seem to accomplish anything. In all things we pray. In rejoicing we pray and thank God. In suffering we pray. We pray at all times in all things for God’s will to be done on earth as it is done in heaven. We join our hearts with God’s and pray for what it is God desires most, that someday things will be as they should be, that all things will be as they were created to be, that all things will be set right, that in the end God’s love wins.
As people living lives of living sacrifice, living the holiness of God, Paul tells us that our love does not end at the church doors. We do not only love those who are a part of us, who have chosen to join themselves with God and join themselves to this community, Paul call for our love to extend beyond the borders of our churches into the world outside of our sanctuaries and church walls. Genuine love is begins with us but it reaches out to those in need. We are to give to the saints in need and extend hospitality to strangers. In Paul’s day and age, by definition strangers, that is people who are not from around here, were in need. When someone choose or was forced to travel far from home they were at the mercy of the hospitality of strangers. A person would not get far on the shelter and provision he could bring with him, so he was dependant upon the people he met along the way to extend kindness and hospitality to him along his journey. So in essence Paul is telling us that holy Christians love not only their community, those who are needy inside the body of Christ, and outside their community as well. The love, which we have for one another blossoms and grows and extends beyond us into the world around us.

God has blessed each of us in many and differing ways and as Christians we share that blessing with one another and with anyone who God might put in our path who needs what we can spare. God bless us and then God blesses others through us. Christians are by virtue of the generosity of God extended to them are therefore likewise generous. No matter how hard up we may feel or may actually be, there is always someone who has less than us. No matter how much or how little we have we should be generous with what we have and even more generous with anything that we have in surplus.

Being living sacrifices means reaching out with the love of God not only with this idea and feeling of love but with action of love and generosity, giving to those in need within and without our community. Loving people in these physical generous ways is speaking a language of love, which those who do not know the love of Jesus, can understand.
There are many ways to be generous. You can help out at the local homeless shelter, you can always carry something to hand to the man on the corner who asks, you can give to Hope’s cradle (or even volunteer to help out), you can give to the Haiti Hot water project or any other number of organizations who are wiling to help you be generous to people all around the world who have less than you do.

But we are not only to love those who “deserve it.” We are not only called to love those closest to us and those within our surrounding community, but we are called to love everybody in all things. That is a pretty tall order. It is easy to love our family, it is not all that hard to love others our church, especially when our church is filled with loving members of the body of Christ, it takes little effort to turn our pity for those who have less than us into actions of love, compassion and generosity. But Paul calls for us to love everybody in all things. No matter who they are, no matter what they have done, no matter what they are doing or have done to us, no matter what is going in their lives. We are to love everybody. Even when we don’t want to.

So rejoice with those around you, weep with them, mourn when they mourn. Live in harmony, seek to live peaceably with those around you. Don’t think yourself better than them for any reason, associate with the lowly, the outcast, the disenfranchised, and those who society has deemed unworthy or less than worthy. Be kind and generous to everybody.

And least you are at all confused about what “everybody” means, that includes those you don’t like, and those who don’t like you. Loving everybody in all things, extends to our enemies, and to those who wish to do us harm. This means loving those who are not kind to you, those who disappoint you, those who would do things maliciously against you. But we are actually to go one more step than simply loving them but we are to bless them. Show them the love of God, extend the same amount of grace, forgiveness and blessings which God has extended to us to anyone who would work to do us harm. That is hard. That is sincerely difficult. They have done nothing to deserve your kindness, they have done nothing to earn your favor, but Paul spent enough of the book of Romans showing us exactly why we don’t deserve God’s grace, but receive it none-the-less. Of Course they don’t deserve it, but neither do you.

Do not repay evil with evil instead do your best to out do your enemies’ evil with goodness and kindness. Paul than uses an image that does not really make sense and when taken at face value, seems contrary to what Paul has been saying about the place of genuine love in all our relationships with everyone. But Paul is drawing from a common practice, which was when it was cold it was common to send a person who was leaving your house away with a coal from your fire to keep them warm. Paul is saying that if you are dealing with your enemy with kindness and generosity that the extent of your generosity should be as such that instead of just giving them one coal to keep warm heaping coals upon them when they leave. It not simply about being barely hospitable to your enemy, it not about simply being cordial, this is about going above and beyond showing them extreme kindness, over abounding generosity, leave whatever judgment they do or do not deserve up to God, you love them, treat them with overflowing kindness and give to them more than they would ever even think to require of you. Out do their evil with goodness.

Whew, now that is a lot! That is a lot of loving. Can you remember all that? I have gone over it once and there is going to be a test. (pause) No I am serious. There will now be a test. After I finish my sermon, we will depart from here. Some of us will fellowship for a while down stairs and our love for one another will be tested in our actions and interactions with one another, can we be genuinely loving with the body of believers in which God has called us to live in community? Then eventually we will all disperse from here, each to our daily lives and every morning we will wake up to another test, will we live lives of love today? That is the question asked of us each and everyday. Will we love our fellow Christians? Will we give to the needy? Will we reach out to the lowly? Will we live peaceably? Will we treat even those who wish us harm with over abounding kindness and generosity in all things? Will we be living sacrifices to God today? Tomorrow? In this moment? With this person who is before me right now?