Sunday, September 17, 2017

All means ALL

Scripture: Romans 14:1-12 Common English Bible (CEB)  

14 Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God.11 Because it is written,
As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me,
    and every tongue will give praise to God.

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.


I just love the way this passage begins.  Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion.  And I love the way it continues.  Some eat meat, some don’t.  Don’t judge!  Some holds certain days especially sacred, some considers every day equally sacred.   Don’t judge!  “Each person must have their own convictions.”

Just in case you are wondering, Paul has nothing against vegetarians.  Or even Vegans. Or pescatarians or carnivores.   Or people who think only certain activities are acceptable on Sunday, because the day is sacred and we should dedicate the whole entire day to worshipping the Lord (and not the NFL). Or who think every day is equally as sacred to God as every other day.  Paul is talking about the cultural clash that was inherent to the Roman church.  

Poor folks in Rome rarely got meat to eat.  They were poor.  Meat was expensive. They ate bread, onions, beans . . .  but hardly any meat.  On certain days the temples to the various gods worshipped in Rome held sacrifices, and then made that meat available to the poor.  Some folks said, “Oh, you can’t eat that because it was part of a pagan religious service!  Eating that would be like worshipping that false God.”  Other folks said, “Hey.  Meat is meat.”  And they fought in the church over that.  “Well, if you eat that pagan meat then you aren’t really a Christian.”  “But if there only is one God, then it’s just meat and anyone can eat it.”  Just to add to the problem, sometimes that meat was pork, and while some folks might not have a problem eating pork, others adhered to the Mosaic law in which the eating of pork was an abomination.  Imagine, fighting in church over whether or not to eat meat.  Silliness!  Am I right?   And yet, the church in Rome was coming to blows over it.   And Paul says, don’t judge. Both of you are doing what you do to honor God.  It is all good.   (Although I think Paul was maybe just a little judge-y when he called the people who don’t eat meat “weak.” Whatever.) 

In many cases, the arguments in those congregations were between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, those who believed one must adhere to the Laws of Moses in order to become Christian, and those who believed faith in God through Jesus Christ was enough.  And Paul kept saying, “All y’all, knock it off.  You are all Christians.  You all serve God.  You all do the best you know how to honor God. So stop judging each other.  That’s God’s job!” 

In our Wednesday evening study of the Book of Acts, we were asked to look at our congregation and see who is missing.  Well, maybe we weren’t asked that, exactly.  We were asked to see what was keeping us from welcoming everyone - who might not be welcome.  And, after some thought, one person said, “We’re not as white as we used to be.”  True.  This congregation was once all white.  The fact that this is no longer true is truly worthy of celebration.  It’s not as old as a lot of congregations.  I mean, yes.  This church is something like 130 years old. Even our building is over 100!.  But as regards the people worshipping here on Sunday mornings, we have this whole section over here of younger folks who show up voluntarily!  Not dragged here by parents or grandparents.   A lot of churches can’t say that.  The congregation is not as straight as it used to be, either.  Another very good thing.   And all these different people are not just pewsitters.  There are women in leadership, and gay and lesbian folks in leadership, and young people in leadership, and people of color in leadership. Not due to any deliberate or intentional “inclusiveness” program - it just happened that way.  Leaders are leaders no matter what wrapping they come in.  

That’s not to say we are perfect.  We aren’t.  We are human.  We judge.  But we are trying.  We seek to be inclusive of everyone who comes. Even if their theology differs from ours.  Even if their commitment to social justice doesn’t match ours.  Even if they voted differently.  Even if they want to do something new and different in worship - or (gasp) change the order of worship.    As we look around here, we can see there are some pretty big gaps  - some groups of people who are clearly absent.  Our building’s very structure keeps some folks away - people in wheelchairs, or and people can’t easily walk up and down steps.  We seem to be lacking young families with small children.  We don’t have a children’s Sunday school group or even a junior high group right now.  There are no homeless folks here, that I know of.   

I’m not saying we need to go out looking for homeless folks to invite to church.  Or start a children’s program with no children.  When the need arises, we’ll do it - whatever it may be.  That’s who we are.   We have a history of doing what we are called to do when the time is right.  We may not always agree on when that time is, but we do eventually do what we need do.  

Here at First Christian Church we proclaim that, “All means ALL!”   It was hard to get to that point, but we have and we are proud of that claim.  We do our best to live up to it.   However, in our denomination there are those who say that “All means ALL!” is simply a step on the way to becoming Open and Affirming, a designation for congregations who have decided through a time of discernment and prayer that all of our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers are welcome to participate fully in the life of our congregation.  Those people believe that we don’t have the courage to take that step, and become truly welcoming.

I beg to differ.  I believe that “All means ALL” is much bigger and more inclusive than that.  And I wore my very best rainbow accessories to make a point this morning.

The rainbow happens when the white light from the sun passes through water (clouds or rain) and is divided, each color from the one next to it in the spectrum. Each wavelength has its own spot.  The rainbow is cool, because when there is a rainbow we can see all the different colors light comes in.  But when all of those light colors, and all of those differences in wavelength come together, what we get is white light -  because, white light consists of all wavelengths of visible light.  So although out there we might be young and old, white and persons of color, men and women and all the genders in between, gay and straight and all the orientations in between, citizens and aliens - documented or not - left and right and center, even vegan and carnivore . . . in here we are one congregation.  Not divided into all those different wave lengths, or groups.  We are one.  One, holy, universal, apostolic church.   In this place, the rainbow comes together.   

(And for those who are reading and not watching - at this point I take off the rainbow belt and the rainbow stole and put on white.)  

In this place, All does mean ALL.  It is not a step toward anything.  It is a way of living that we understand to be God’s will for us.  Welcoming all who come, no matter who they are or where they come from.  If you come here to worship, you are welcome.   All are welcome here.

Paul said, “Each person must have their own convictions.”  Whatever your convictions, if you love the Lord, you are welcome here.  If you are seeking a church home, you are welcome here.  If you are just here for the weekend, you are welcome here.  All are welcome in this place.  And All means ALL.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Your loans are forgiven

Romans 13:8-14 (CEB)

Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.
11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith.12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.
Does anyone besides me get snail mail, emails, and phone calls offering to help you get into one of the many Student Loan forgiveness programs?  The first thing I thought when I read this passage is how much I would love to tell the people I write that large Student Loan check to every month that the Bible says I can’t be in debt to anyone, so I don’t have to pay them.   

Sadly for my checkbook, I am not one who interprets the Bible quite that literally.  I did borrow the money in order to get two degrees.  And I don’t regret a penny of it, because those two degrees brought me here, to this place, to this time in my life.  That debt will eventually be paid off, at a rate of so much a month, because paying our debts is important as an adult and as a Christian.  To do anything other than to pay those financial obligations is to steal, and as Paul notes, the commandments like the one that says, “Do not steal” are prescriptions for how to love one another.   

There is another, deeper, interpretation for “Do not be in debt to anyone,” and that is the matter of forgiveness and atonement.   Paul says, “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.”  If you have done something wrong to another, that debt must be erased.  If you owe another person an amends - that is to say, if you need to apologize for something you have done, or if you need to do something to make up for some damage you have caused another - that must be done.   Obvious examples, of course, come from childhood.  Like - the stereotypical baseball through a neighbor’s window.  Either the parents of the child who hit the ball can pay for the window to be replaced, or the child can do chores for the neighbor until the debt is paid.  Or both.  So long as the child learns about responsibility and managing their own debts, whatever works to satisfy the debt to the neighbor is good.  Teaching a child to be responsible for their own actions is teaching that child to love the neighbor, and that is what it means to be a Christian. 

Hear the words of Jesus, as reported in the Gospel according to Matthew 25:23-24:  “…when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”   

This, along with Jesus’ command to forgive, is one of the  most difficult things to do.  Paying student loans is difficult financially, but it is so much more difficult to go to someone we have wronged and apologize, or make amends.  There was a TV commercial a while back about a group of kids playing ball.  One hit a home run through the window of the old grumpy guy on the block and all the other kids bailed on him.  No one wanted to face the old grumpy guy who lived there and own up to what had been done.  One of the kids did come back and told the batter, “That’s what friends do”.  In a perfect world - or the world of artist Norman Rockwell - the old grumpy guy would have invited those two kids in for lemonade and cookies, and told them amazing stories of when he was young and playing major league baseball.  In a perfectly Christian world, all those other kids would have come along to take responsibility for what was, in fact, a team effort.   Now, it would be totally understandable if the batter was seriously angry with his teammates and friends and wanted to hold a grudge.  But that wouldn’t be loving his neighbor.  He must forgive them for abandoning him, forgive himself for being angry at them (even though being angry was totally justifiable), and make amends for that - possibly by never abandoning a friend to take the blame for some misdeed alone.  

In 12 Step Programs two of the most difficult Steps to take are Step 8, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all” and Step 9, “Made direct amends whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”   Admitting when we have harmed another is difficult enough.  Going to someone we have injured in some way and admitting that, then doing whatever we can to make amends for that debt can be paralyzing.  It’s easy to try to convince ourselves that what we did wasn’t that bad, they probably didn’t even know about it, and anyway, they did worse to us so we don’t really owe them anything.  However, I’m pretty sure Jesus (and Paul) would say it doesn’t matter at all what the other guy did to me.  It’s about my behavior, my relationship with the neighbor, and my relationship with God.  If I would be right with God, I must also be right with my neighbor.   That means if I hold a grudge, I must forgive.  If I feel as if I have been wronged, I need to look at my own behavior, and be certain that I am totally innocent of wrongdoing in the matter.   Don’t be in debt to anyone.”  Ifyour brother or sister has something against you . . . go … be reconciled.”   Nothing about “unless they have hurt you, in which case you don’t need to do anything”.  Last week was “love your enemy” - even the Romans, even the people who mistreat you.  And love includes forgiveness and the making of amends - owing no debt to anyone.  

Another easy thing is to say to myself, “Well, I have plenty of time.  I can do that next year, or the one after, or when I have become reconciled to the idea of forgiving.”  But Paul says, “you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near.”  Paul believed, all of the disciples believed, that Jesus was going to return any minute, in their lifetimes, next week or the one after.  We know that didn’t happen.  We know that Jesus told the disciples, “No one knows when that day will come, only the Father.  We know that eventually Paul stopped saying, “He’s coming next week” and started saying, “Maybe we need to live as if we’ll be here a while.”  

And yet  . . . 

I attended the Selma Ministerial Alliance meeting this week, and the feeling among my colleagues seems to be that the end is near.  That the signs and portents are all clearly in place, and the end of the world is coming any minute.  The storms, the fires and floods and earthquakes, the wars and threats of wars… all of those things are happening, and so we must prepare ourselves and our flocks for the end of days.  I’m not so sure about that, because of that whole “No one knows when that day will come, only the Father” thing.  What I do know, however, is that we weren’t promised tomorrow.  None of us.  In his 1st letter to the Thessalonians, Paul says, “We don’t need to write to you about the timing and dates, brothers and sisters. You know very well that the day of the Lord is going to come like a thief in the night.”  We could have that 8.2 magnitude quake any minute, or an airplane could crash onto the sanctuary during worship, or we could be in a horrific accident on the way to work, or we could be shot and killed at age 15 while hanging out with friends.  We have no idea how long we have.  We have today.  Probably.  

Which means we need to do all this loving and forgiving stuff today.  Right now.  As soon as possible.

Easier said than done, I know.  Loving your neighbor is really so much harder than it looks!  Loving yourself is harder than it looks.   Behave appropriately as people who live in the day.”  Paul names some pretty specific behaviors to avoid - getting drunk, sleeping around, fighting, and obsessions.  These things can cause harm to others, but mostly, these kinds of behaviors cause damage to our own bodies and souls.  Doing anything to excess, even ostensibly good things like exercise, can be damaging.   I have several acquaintances who are body builders.  Some work at being healthy, being careful about diet and not overdoing, living well balanced lives between family, work and exercise.  Others are so focused on how they look that they pay little attention to their families or relationships outside of the gym, take steroids to increase their bulk and have become so over developed they can’t wash their own hair or tie their shoes.  They are obsessed, and obsession of any kind is unhealthy for body and soul.  

Clothe yourself in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Be like him.  At the end, he said to the Lord our God, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  At the very end, when his enemies had put him to death, he called upon God to forgive even them.  

The Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that your loan is forgiven.  All of the sins and debts that you might owe, are forgiven through God’s grace, and God’s faithful and steadfast love for each and every one of us.  Now, you must go out and do the same.   Go out and love one another, clearing away any debts you might owe to the other, for the only real debt you owe, the only real debt any one of us owes, is the debt of love. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

People we hate to love

Romans 12:9-21 (CEB)
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good.10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.


This is such an inspiring passage.  Love everyone.   Help others.  Welcome strangers.  Be happy with those who are happy and cry with those who are crying.  *happy sigh*  Be on fire with the Spirit when you serve the Lord!  Consider everyone as equal!  Live at peace with all people!   Yes!  

Wouldn’t it be lovely if Paul could have left it at that?   Just a list of sweet, inspiring statements to embroider on a pillow, or make into a Facebook meme.  
But no.  Paul has to go and add the hard parts.   Bless the people who harass you - and don’t curse them.   

Really Paul?   But what about that guy who just cut me off on the freeway? Surely it’s ok to respond with just a little sign language?  What about that person who called me names on Facebook?  I don’t have to stand for that, do I?  I can call them names back, right?  I can post something mean about the people who are mean to me and call them names anonymously, can’t I?  *smh*

Even his direction to try to outdo each other in showing honor to each other can get a bit weird.  Like the cartoon characters Chip and Dale.  “After you.” “No, after you.”  “No, no.  After you.”   That can get downright testy if someone doesn’t decide to accept the honor of going first.  Not to mention blocking a doorway for ever so no one else can walk through.   I was planning a wedding some years back, and as I was leaving the bride - who was from Japan - bowed to me.  I bowed a bit lower, as I was a guest in her home.  She bowed again.  I bowed again.  She bowed so deeply she literally touched her knees with her head.  I gave up. I later figured out that she was honoring me as the pastor, according to her traditions.  

Paul says, “Hate evil.”  Easy!  But then he says, “Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions.”  

But Paul.  What about these guys, the ones in the pictures?  What about people who spew hatred and evil?  What about people who attack the innocent, just because they are different in one way or another?   I imagine you all know that when Westboro Baptist Church is expected to show up, one of two things usually happens.  If if it a funeral, a group of people - either people wearing giant angel wings or a group of veterans - will act as a barricade so the family doesn’t have to deal with the ugliness.  If it is another sort of event, people show up to peacefully counter-protest with silly signs like, “God hates signs.”  They have practically become poster children for misplaced rage.   In fact, there is a meme running around on the internet that says, “Live your life in such a way that Westboro Baptist wants to picket your funeral.”  

And the ones in the white robes, burning the cross?  Well . . .  They can’t be made fun of.  But like the members of Westboro Baptist Church, they firmly believe they are right in believing and speaking and acting the way they do.   Many consider their actions to be evil, but Paul says,”Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.“ and “Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

Note, please, that Paul doesn’t say “Don’t get angry.” Nor does he say, “Don’t protect yourself from those who harass you, or do evil actions.”  He says, “Don’t try to get even. Leave revenge to the Lord.”  He says, “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.”    

And then he says what I think is the coolest thing ever.  If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head.  That’s genius. That makes it feel like you are getting revenge without doing anything wrong!   I’ve heard people say that when someone did them wrong in one way or another, they would just smile.  And every time they saw that person, they would smile.  The other guy would then spend his time watching his back, waiting for the revenge to happen. And of course, that  was the revenge.  Which may or may not be what Paul had in mind… But it is what the Samaritan did, stopping to help a Jew, an enemy, and even putting him up in an inn, spending his own money to help him recover from his injuries.

What Paul does here is take Jesus’ teachings about loving your enemies and give us concrete examples of how to do that.  And to answer the person in that cartoon asking whether Jesus meant the Romans….Yes.  Yes, he did.  He meant the Romans and the guy who cheated you on that car he sold you, and the Klan, and the people who talk bad about you, and anyone you might consider “enemy.”  

Repaying evil with good is fighting fire not with fire, but with water.  Sometimes a fire break, removing all the possible fuel in the path of a fire is necessary to keep the fire from spreading further.  That way the fire burns itself out due to lack of fuel.   Likewise, it’s really hard to keep fighting with someone when they won’t fight back.  Turning the other cheek, refusing to respond with anger to anger, finding ways to do good in response to the evil being done by others, that is what Paul says we need to do.  That is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.”   Even the Romans.  Even the Klan.  Even religious people whose understanding of God causes them to hate you.  

Love is wanting the best for others regardless of how they behave or how they treat you.  Love is caring for others when they need care, no matter who they are.  Love is refusing to allow someone else’s anger and hatred spark yours.  When you hear evil, respond with good.  When you hear hateful speech, respond with love.   Love one another, even your enemy.  Especially your enemy, cause it’s easy to love your friends, and being a Christian isn’t supposed to be easy.