Text: Romans 14:1-12
Theme Verse: "Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (Romans 14:10)
We all know an arm-chair critic. We probably know him or her quite well actually. Dare I say it is me? Or you? I imagine we’ve all fallen into that trap. For all the time we spend criticizing others, what good comes from it? What beneficial fruit has it reaped in our lives? Has it strengthened our relationships? Matured us? Challenged us to grow? Improved the quality of our lives? Enhanced our skills? Brought those different from us into the Christian faith? Or is criticism merely the crutch we use to justify our personal passivity? What if we spent more time creating and less time criticizing others? That seems to be most intriguing to the next Christians.
reader : Barbara Crider
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
I saw a sign in a store window once that said, “Half-price sale on welcome mats.” “Interesting,” I thought. Apparently not a lot of folks in the market for items that encourage hospitality. Maybe it was just a sad irony and choice of words like the ads Walgreens post the week after Easter saying, “Easter – 50% off.” So there you have it – Easter slashed and a half-priced welcome. Others have taken another approach.
The campus ministry at Princeton University operates a coffee house during the weariest hours of the day – the graveyard shift so to speak. It’s known as the “kindest place on campus,” offering free cookies, tea, and coffee to any who grace the space looking for a little refuge from the hectic life as a student at Princeton. The motto of the Murry-Dodge coffee house, displayed on all its advertising, is: “Dedicated to the fine art of being open.” The slogan’s meaning, of course, functions on two levels. Besides the obvious meaning related to its business hours, it also witnessed to the desire of the campus ministry to be open to others in the deepest sense, and to encourage such openness among its patrons.1I asked my favorite HACC Princeton alum if he spent any time in this coffee house and he noted it wasn’t there when he was a student but that he spent tons of time in the Chapel – thus my favorite Princeton alum – unless we have more than one Princeton alum then I’m open to adding you to the running of favorite HACC Princeton alum. Kidding aside… what an art, yes? Being open to other people — staying open to them, despite the prejudices of society and our own experiences — is indeed a fine art.
Some of this is the question of who we choose to do life with, how open we are to others, and what we really hope to learn in our lifetimes. What is the place of judgment in our faith? What is the difference between tolerance and acceptance? Welcome versus invitation? Opinion versus faith belief? Some of those matters we consider today as we find ourselves in week four of this series we’re calling, “The Next Christians.” If you’ve missed any of the first three messages in this series because you’ve been on vacation or overslept one Sunday or have been in Nicaragua living the faith on the ground there (so glad you’re home!), let me tell you briefly how we got here. Phyllis Tickle, the Barna Research Group, and other interested theologians and historians have noted that every five hundred years or so since the life, death, and resurrection of Christ have witnessed a huge Church Rummage Sale where the nature of the movement of faith has been sold, repurposed, or recreated in some significant way. The last major shift was the Protestant Reformation that essentially launched the very reason we are sitting here today in a protestant church and not celebrating Catholic mass this morning. Martin Luther is the credited leader of this effort and 2017 will mark 500 years since he nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. This supposed looming shift on the horizon is fluid of course. I’m not proposing a specific date for which we need to canvas the neighborhood with fliers to warn of some drastic faith disaster. But – there is plenty to suggest that the nature of faith and church and culture is shifting and it is worth our consideration of who we are and who God may be calling us to be in light of such shifting.2
We’ve consider the kinds of labels Christians have held over the years from separatists who shield themselves from exposure to society to cultural blenders who are Christians but would prefer if you didn’t really notice. There are all other sorts of labels of course, including a new term, “Restorers,” and how it may fit the movement of faith ahead of us. Restorers are eager to engage the world and bring about beauty and healing where hatred and brokenness reside. They bear an authentic spirit of humility, compassion, and open-heartedness. They are not offended by difference but drawn to find commonalities to work with all people to create a world of peace and justice. I’m getting a number of emails from you with thoughts and articles to read and so on which is great. It means you’re giving thought to the things we’re considering together and a pastor can’t ask for more than your ongoing engagement in conversation during the week. All of this leads us to today’s particular distinction of the next Christians: they are creators, not critics.
The late Fred Craddock, known as one of the top ten preachers of our time, used to wander through cemeteries when afforded the opportunity. It was generally a quiet place to meander and he held curiosity for the lives of those remembered in the markings of the stones. As he was reading names and dates one day, his eye was caught by the clean and orderly lines of the all of the headstones in the cemetery. Perfect lines and rows… except for one curious head stone. It was crosswise to the all of the others… cattywampus as we used to say. How curious. Another man was walking around and Fred asked the man, “Are you from around here?” The man says, “Yep. You’re looking at that grave, aren’t you?” “Yes,” Fred replied. The man says, “I knew the guy my whole life. We were in the same church. Knew him well.” “Why put the stone on the angle?” Fred asked. “Family wanted it that way and the church agreed.” “Why?” “Because that’s the kind of guy he was. He was crossways with everybody and everything. We never knew him to be pleased about anything at home or at church. ‘Well, why’s she doing that?’ he’d say, or ‘Whatcha need to do is…’ or ‘Well, he’s the wrong one to be doing this,’ or ‘Well, I wonder who decided to do that?’ He said that kind of stuff all the time and the family decided they wouldn’t try to change him just because he was dead. So they buried him crosswise.” “That’s awful,” Fred says. “Well, they wanted it to be a witness. The family said if God wants to straighten him out then God can straighten him out. But he left here just like he lived.”3
Paul writes to the church at Rome in our focal text today. He probably had some cattywampus folks in his church there. Always picking on things, picking on decisions, picking on people, picking on ideas – not your favorite folks to serve on a committee with you might say. The Roman Christians were an interesting bunch just like we all are. They had their quirks and differences and unique circumstances that shaped the way they expressed their faith. We’re talking house churches here – maybe five or six. Languages could have varied – some Latin or Greek or Hebrew. Some may have held more formal services and others may have been more thematic like: “Rome Church – at the Movies! – a special series looking at all of the Jason Bourne movies.” Who knows. What we read over Paul’s shoulder as he writes this letter, however, is that they were quarreling over stuff. Some of them followed Jewish dietary restrictions and others decided they were free of those restrictions. Some were worshipping on Sundays but maintained sabbath on Saturday as had been the practice of their heritage. Others said, “Why? Jesus vanquished the need for that.” “Yeah, well you’ve got no grace! No confidence in Jesus who freed us from those things.” All the while, Paul is trying to grow the church and invite others into relationship with Christ and getting jailed for it and threatened and beaten down. If he would have had them at his disposal, I’m sure Paul would have used some choice emojis in his letter to this church.
“Pull it together people. Some believe the Sabbath is holy,” said Paul. “Some believe every day is holy. Some eat and drink all foods and others only partake in the Daniel diet. Jesus didn’t die for this battle. If you’re convicted about what food and drink to partake in, then make your choices so as to honor God. If you need to respect your heritage and choose to recognize one day more holy than another, offer that to God in all humility.” It is possible, I think, to observe some really beautiful and wonderful Christian habits but turn around and sour the whole thing by picking on others who don’t do it the same way as you. I know this is a struggle. For the most part, we do the things we do because we think they are the right things to do. What’s right is right, right? But when you first get perturbed about something like this, just remember that Christ is really able to save people who are different than you are… and I am. We’re not called on to be the doctrine police in this regard.
This seems to be a hiccup for today’s church as well. Nearly nine out of ten young outsiders said that the term judgmental accurately describes present-day Christianity. This was one of the big three characteristics most associated with Christians. David Kinnamon said, “In practical terms, when you introduce yourself to a twentysomething neighbor, and you mention your faith, chances are he or she will think of you as judgmental.”4That stings a little. But you may be thinking, “Well – I don’t care. People need to know what I stand for and if it’s truth it’s truth.” I get this line from a lot of folks on all sides of any possible issue you can imagine. “What does your church think about this? What does it say about that? Who gets to lead that? Who doesn’t? How long do you hold sinners under the baptismal waters?” You can guess the questions. And I get it. We’re on top of this stuff as a culture. Red state, blue state, Guns, no guns, liberals, conservatives. There are tea parties and coffee parties and democrats and republicans and wiki leaks and red cheeks. There’s Fox News and MSNBC, Cowboys and Sooners, Coke and Pepsi. Paul writes, “Welcome those who are weak in faith but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” And who’s weak in faith? Presumably those that think differently than you do. Put your energy into connecting instead of quarreling. But why? Why is doing that worth the effort? Verse three gives the best reason: “For God has welcomed them…”
This doesn’t mean we are to have no opinions or convictions. I stand here week after week with the daunting task of preaching convictions – of representing the Gospel as best I understand it. Paul got this as well as anyone. You hear the gospel and come to embrace it and it begins to heighten your awareness of things – you feel more deeply about matters and issues than you once did. And because you care so much, sometimes this caring gets expressed by getting ruffled by people who don’t measure up to the gospel you have come to claim. We might hold the opinion that another is wrong – that’s fair but it is not fair to hold the opinion that they are faithless or spineless or somehow less advanced in their faith journey than we are. We can easily get hijacked by this – “If they were as advanced as me in their studies” we think, “or if they read scripture as much as me or if they would have listened to Michael W. Smith more than Michael Jackson then they’d get it that they are wrong.” But… could we wonder, if but a moment, about the experience of another – they haven’t walked our path, they haven’t encountered the same things as I have, their unique God-design is not the same as mine. Think about the twelve disciples Jesus entrusted to carry the movement forward – how often did they not see things the same way? How often did they misunderstand or accept different matters as more critical than others? Check the book of Acts for examples. And yet, there they were trying to figure out how to exist and lead together. It seems that Jesus longed for there to be a certain amount of diversity within the community of faith. If the church has consistently sputtered on one avenue of the Christian life, this is it. Often out of well-meaning, good-intended zeal for Christ, the church has utterly rejected Paul’s call for Christians to compassionately practice a commitment to diversity in their midst.
The overarching narrative of the Bible is a story of ever-increasing inclusiveness beginning with the marriage of Boaz of Bethlehem to a Moabite woman named Ruth – a foreigner who ends up being great-grandma to King David. Isaiah 56 reminds us of God’s call for cultural barriers to fall and for people of all nationalities to be a part of “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus accelerates this movement by loving tax collectors like Zacchaeus and Paul by making space for the Gentiles.5And all of this is awkward and difficult I know. It would be easier to say, “Here’s the top-twenty list – buy into them or check out of here.” I think Paul recognized such as a needless tension. “We’re going to need each other too much to squabble over details,” he essentially writes here. Such is an interest of Restorer Christians. There is a realization that I can’t grow and learn if everyone is exactly like me… if their gifts are just like my gifts… if their thoughts are exactly like my thoughts… if their passions are just like my passions. A football team with twenty running backs might be a team of fast, quick, agile runners but if nobody understands how to block the opponent, the ball isn’t going to matriculate forward all that well. Our church staff team at HACC is diverse in skill, life experience, and understanding of God and church. That diversity strengthens us as a team and our congregation as a whole. It would be an unfortunate disservice if everyone looked like me, talked like me, thought like me, led like me. Oh, we’d be a sorry place. But there’s space to see the Gospel of Christ flourish in different ways because of the diversity we represent and the diversity you represent as a congregation as well. If we compete for right thought or right practice on every single matter and on every single front, we not only foster an irresolvable competitive spirit but we also promote a kind of unexamined uniformity. If we’re busy trying to be just like each other (only a little better, right?) we lose the diversity that is necessary for the development of a vital community.
Paul seems to get to the bottom line of Christ’s death and resurrection as the thing to unify our efforts. Jesus did what was his to do and so we are left to do what is ours to do. According to Paul, this does not include judgment or quarreling over opinions. And this comes from nearly every angle of every issue that divides us today – self-righteousness knows no label of liberal, conservative or moderate. Paul says, “Whether we live or whether we die, we do so unto the Lord.” So let us cut each other some slack – a time of self-account and face-to-face encounter with our Maker will come for each of us. Paul says it well when he asks, “Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.” We grow within this tension. Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, reminds us that “Cultures aren’t changed by being condemned, critiqued, or copied. The only way to change culture is to create more of it.” Restorers are all about this push to create, not critique. They don’t want to be known for what they’re against – they want to be known for who they are for. They create ways to invite others into conversation, to create gatherings of beauty and joy. Tim Keller notes that Restorers are “called not just to live in the city, but also to love it and work for its shalom – its economic, social, and spiritual flourishing.”6This is done through creative engagement – not by only expecting the community to come to us, but for us to go to the community as well. It comes in finding commonalities before pointing out differences. It comes in our pondering of the question, “Is the Holy Spirit trying to teach me something?” It comes in learning from each other and not assuming that we’re the only ones who have something to teach. It comes in remembering what Christ has done to accept us, not what we might require for others to belong. It comes in understanding (and therefore standing under) cultures that are foreign to us. And it starts with the refreshing reality that we don’t have to have it all figured out, we don’t have to be the smartest, we don’t have to be inauthentic to be accepted and loved for who we are. We aren’t the Messiah and we don’t have to be. We simply have to be willing to strive for the things Jesus strove for so faithfully.
A pastor in the Dallas area was preaching at a camp gathering a few summers back. On one night there were some 600 people there for worship and the pastor said, “The Spirit was moving and at the close of the night I invited any who wanted to come forward for prayer. 300 people came forward and so the praying commenced. After a number of prayers with all kinds of different people, the pastor knelt before a little boy and she asked him, “My friend, what brings you to the altar tonight?” The boy said, “My sins, ma’am, my sins.” Moved by the boy’s conviction, she realized they weren’t all that different – so, she asked him to move over and make room for her.
Amid our beautiful differences, my friends, we are in need of the same things – welcome, forgiveness, purpose, and shalom. We might do better to kneel side by side than anything else. In so doing, perhaps we embrace what it means to be dedicated to the fine art of being open.
2 Info concerning the synopsis of series all based in the book which is supplying the greatest resource for this series. The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith. Gabe Lyons. Doubleday. New York. 2010. Pg. 71-73
3 From Fred Craddock’s “The Cherry Log Sermons.” Westminster John Knox Press. 2001. Pg. 72.
4 UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, MI. 2007. Pg. 183.
5 The biblical strand here was offered similarly by Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer of homileticsonline, in his work, “Anywhere Goes” and “Don’t Vex the Vegans.” Closing story about Dallas pastor was adapted from this source as well.
6 Crouch and Keller quotes from The Next Christians.