Sunday, September 17, 2017

“My Way or the Highway” (Romans 14:1-12)


One of my favorite theologians is Theodor Geisel . . . better known by his literary moniker as Dr. Suess.  Dr. Suess, especially in his later years, wrote a lot of really cool theological books disguised as children’s books.  On of my favorite is  The Butter Battle Book . . . a cautionary Cold War tale that he wrote back in 1984.

The book is about the Zooks and the Yooks who live on opposite sides of a long curving wall.  They keep on their side of the walls because they do not like each other.  They are different.  The Yooks wear blue clothes, the Zooks wear orange. The primary dispute between the two cultures has to do with bread . . . and, how you butter the bread.  The Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down.  This difference, over the years, leads to an escalating arms race to keep each culture on their side of the wall.

The book begins with a Yook grandfather explaining the very serious differences to his grandchild: “It’s high time that you knew of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.  In every Zook house and every Zook town every Zook eats his bread with the butter side down!”  He then recalls the escalating weapons race between the two . . . up to the point where the Yooks stand on one side of the wall with their Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, and the Zooks stand on the other side with their Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo . . . facing each other in a nuclear game of chicken.  Each standing there . . . waiting to drop their Bitsy Big Boomeroo to completely wipe out the other’s whole race.  

And, that is how the book ends . . . there is no conclusion . . . only a stalemate.

Does the tale sound familiar?


In our reading this morning the Apostle Paul poses a question to those in Rome reading his letter: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? . . . You, then, why do you judge your brother?  Or why do you look down on your brother?”

The apostle is addressing a serious problem facing the young church . . . by “church” he is referring to the totality, not a particular congregation . . . that of the differences between the two cultures that are coming together to be one body . . . the Jews and the Gentiles. There were definite differences between the two cultures, including dietary restrictions.  Each side in the argument holds that their understanding and practice is better than the other . . . especially on moral grounds.  Those on the other side will rot in hell.  Needless to say, such conflict does not make for good community or chemistry as the body of Christ.  Thus the apostle attempts to deal with the issue head on.

As far as Paul is concerned, that in the end, it does not matter what one side or the other practices when it comes to faith, but rather the relationship that one has with God and other believers . . . whether or not there is love for God and others.  To this end, the apostle proclaims: “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”  In other words, Jesus welcomes all into the family . . . sinners and saints, or whatever a person might view him or herself as being.  

With that, the apostle declares that everybody needs to focus upon him or herself when it comes to faith to make sure that he or she is living up to what Jesus called them to do.  Take care of your own business and let others take care of theirs.  Why?  Because in the end, says Paul: “. . . each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

The Yooks did not like the way that the Zooks ate their buttered bread.  The Zooks did not like the way that the Yooks ate their buttered bread.  Sounds pretty silly doesn’t it?  Does it really matter how we eat buttered bread?  Isn’t the result in the end the same?  The bread gets eaten.

No two people are created identical.  God creates each and everyone of us as unique and special creations that are in God’s image.  Because we are all created differently, why in the world would we expect everyone to think and do things the same way?  The reality is, we all think and do things differently . . . in ways that make sense to us.  This includes how we view faith . . . our faith.  Whether we want to admit it or not, deep down . . . we want people to be like us . . . to think, act, and believe like us.  And, when they do not . . . well, don’t we get a little judgmental?

When we get judgmental things become a competition and conflict . . . gets a little nasty; and, if we are not careful, it can escalate until we are in a stalemate clutching our own version of the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo just waiting to annihilate the other.  In our minds it is our way or the highway.

In Paul’s mind, this is a waste of time . . . time that could be better spent in doing God’s will . . . of building stronger one’s relationship with God and with others.  It is time that could be spent on kingdom-building.  God will take care of God’s business . . . in the meantime, Paul urges his readers to work on being the body of Jesus.  Put aside the differences and focus on the example of Jesus in which all are welcomed just as they are as pieces of a holy puzzle needing to be pieced together as the Kingdom of God.

In Paul’s argument he says it does not matter what one eats or does not eat, but that the end result brings the same thing . . . that Christ is reflected in that person’s life so that the world can see it.  He states that it does not matter if one person thinks one day is better than the other as long as the result is towards the same goal . . . that Jesus is reflected in that person’s life so that the world can see it.  None of us are the same, so why then do we think that everyone will be like us?

There is one God, but there are many roads that lead to God.

One of my favorite places to visit is Yellowstone National Park.  There are five entrances into the park.  I imagine, that if we took a poll right now, there would be five different opinions as to which is the best way to go into the park.  My favorite way is to go up Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, go through Cooke City and Silver Gate, and enter through the northeast entrance . . . and then to come home via the Beartooth Highway.  In my opinion, this is the best way.  But, do you know what . . . there are people who would not agree with me!  No, they rather go in through Cody and the southeast entrance . . . or zip up to Livingston and come in the north entrance through Gardiner.  Some will argue that the best entrance is the south entrance through Jackson.  Five different entrances with the same goal in mind . . . to get into the park!  Is one way better than the other?  Not really when one realizes that the whole goal is to get into the park.

In the end, it all depends on how one wants to experience it.

How each of us comes to understand God and our relationship with God and others depends on the choices we make in our individual lives . . . and, the odds are no two of us are going to make exactly the same choices.  Our goal is the same . . . one God, many roads.  Each of us is responsible for ourselves.  As Paul states: “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

It is not “my way or the highway” when it comes to faith.  Each of our ways is valid.  It may seems silly to most of you that I find understanding about God through children’s books by Dr. Suess . . . but, I do.  We all experience God in different ways.  I stand in awe of Marilyn who shares her experience of God through her battle of depression . . . in awe of Bob, who through mathematical calculations experiences the God and the holy in ways that I cannot even comprehend . . . or how Rick in climbing down in deep, dark, damp caves has a sense of God and the Holy in a hole in the ground . . . or Nellie who sees the holy in the world around her and paints it onto a canvas.

With each and every story you and others have shared about your journeys of faith . . . much different than mine . . . I stand in awe even though they are not like mine.  Each and every one of them is as true and valid as mine . . . none is better than the other.  So . . . why judge whether one is better than the other?  All are equal in the eyes and heart of God . . . Jesus showed us that time and time again in his life and ministry.

In the end, it is between us and God as individuals.

In the end, will we have lived up to the potential that God created us to be? Will we have loved God and others as Jesus has loved us?
    When it is all said and done, may each of us have been true to God in who we have been created to be . . . may we each have lived up to Jesus’ understanding of love in our lives . . . and, may we have found the Kingdom of God where we are.  In the end, that is all God wants to know.  May you eat your bread buttered however you want.  Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

“To Understand” (Matthew 18:15-20)


Conflict . . . nobody enjoys conflict.  Unfortunately the world is filled with conflict.

At one of the churches I previously served in my ministry, during the winter months, the women’s fellowship served a monthly soup supper for the whole community.  It was a big deal.  The women took it seriously and had developed a routine in how things were to be done.  Everything was to be done exactly by the letter of the law . . . including how the soup was made and what the ingredients were.  There was no room for deviation . . . none whatsoever.

For many years this was not a problem.  Then one year the church experienced the big “vegetable soup controversy”.  It was an innocent mistake.  One of the new ladies in the church volunteered to “soup sit”--you know, sit in the kitchen all day long and watch the soup cook.  As she sat there, watching all those pans of soup cook, she got an idea.  She decided she would add all the fresh frozen corn she had at home to the vegetable soup . . . and, that is what she did.  She didn’t ask anyone, she just did it.  She dumped all of her corn into the vegetable soup.

Things were fine until one gentleman from the community came up to a group of the women to compliment them on the wonderful vegetable soup . . . he especially liked the corn that made it so tasty.  The women were flabbergasted . . . there was no corn in the vegetable soup!  Jumping up from their seats they ran to the kitchen, looked in the vegetable soup pot and saw yellow kernels of corn intermingled all with all the other vegetables.  Blasphemy had been committed . . . a heresy discovered.

Needless to say, what followed was not pleasant.  The new lady--the corn offender--was called to the carpet and read the riot act.  Not knowing the rules and traditions of the soup supper, she was nearly in tears when she confessed adding the corn.  She didn’t think that she was hurting anything . . . besides corn is a vegetable and deserves its place in vegetable soup.  Which, of course, did not satisfy the women’s fellowship.  In the end it cost the women’s fellowship a member, and nearly cost the church a family.  It was several months before the offender showed her face at the church again.

I guess that is one way to handle conflict.

Though Jesus uses the word “sin” in our reading this morning, I think that he was actually attempting to deal with the issue of conflict and what one is to do when he or she comes into conflict with another.  And, then again, I might be making a broad assumption . . . but, I don’t think so.

Whenever two people do not agree on something, they enter into conflict with one another.  Each thinks that he or she is right, and that the other is wrong.  They let each other know it . . . arguments ensue . . . it is life or death.  The other is committing a “sin” in not believing the correct way.  For example: Was it a “sin” to put corn in the vegetable soup?  Of course not, but you would have thought that someone had spit on Jesus the way the other women reacted.  The offender had committed a sin!  They were more than willing to point that out.

When it comes to what we believe and think is right, we are ready to fight for it . . . especially with those who do not believe or think as we do.  This creates conflict.  In encountering conflict we typically do one of three things . . . we fight, we flight or run away, or we freeze.  To freeze is to be caught off guard and not know how to respond.  None are really helpful when it comes to conflict resolution because nothing gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.  In these means the relationship is broken . . . shattered . . . ruined.  Where there is no mutual agreement or understanding, there is no relationship.  Which is wrong, especially for those of us who proclaim to be the followers of Jesus.  With Jesus relationship is everything.

It is all about relationships . . . about creating unity . . . about being one in God’s love.  Jesus affirms the power of relationships when he states: “. . . I tell you that if two of you on earth agree on anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name,there I am with them.”

Relationships begin with understanding.  To resolve conflict there must be understanding.  Understanding is the foundation from which intimacy and growth take place . . . from which new possibilities abound . . . and, from which community--common unity is discovered.  To this we are called as the followers of Jesus.

In our reading this morning, in each of the situations Jesus shares, he suggests that conversation take place . . . where ideas, thoughts, beliefs are shared . . . where listening is vital.  If you are in conflict with another, go and have a conversation with that person.  Conversation is a back and forth sort of thing where one person speaks while the other listens.  Questions are asked.  Clarification is sought.  And, there is also silence . . . silence to consider what is heard, to discern, to clarify, and to discuss some more until there is understanding on the part of both.  This is where you begin when it comes to conflict . . . you begin with conversation.

You begin with conversation and you continue in conversation until there is understanding and agreement.  This is reconciling . . . there are no winners or losers, there is a common agreement and understanding that is acceptable to all involved.  This is what Jesus is referring to in our reading this morning.  This is why he states that if two can agree on anything, it can be . . . God will grant it.  Why?  Because this is the way God wants it . . . it is God’s way.  This is what Jesus would do.

As the followers of Jesus we are called to be the presence of Jesus in the world . . . to walk in his footsteps . . . and, to love and minister as he did.  We are to have conversation . . . we are to seek understanding . . . and, we are to arrive at reconciliation.  We are to do all of that with those who we are in conflict with.

Putting corn in vegetable soup seems logical to me . . . and, like the gentleman who started the whole fracas, I agree that the corn did make the soup even better.  There were a lot of angry women in that kitchen, and one poor lady who was scared to death.  Her reasoning for the corn in the soup was well intentioned, but skirted the tradition and rules of the women’s fellowship soup supper protocol.  Kind of got nasty there for a few tense moments.  Both sides had their reasons, but the women were not going to hear the reasoning behind it.  Was the conflict resolved to everyone’s satisfaction?  

Not hardly.  The women chose to fight and in fighting nothing was resolved.  The fellowship lost their newest member . . . the church nearly lost the woman and her family . . . she ran.  So what would have happened if they had been willing to sit down and talk . . . to have conversation . . . to seek an understanding of what could be done?  I believe that resolution would have come about . . . reconciliation would have occurred . . . that the women’s fellowship would have grown stronger.

But, we don’t know because it never happened that way.  For my last couple of years there, there was no corn in the soup.  Rumor has it that the matriarchs of that church hung on tight to their traditions and rules concerning the soup fellowship . . . and, that they still don’t allow corn in the vegetable soup.  If only they understood . . . if they understood Jesus and his call to come to relationship . . . to be one through him and his example.  Then maybe they would have discovered God’s unity and oneness as the children of God . . . they would have been in the presence of Christ.  But, no . . . they rather have their vegetable soup without the corn.

If we all only understand one another, imagine what a wonderful world this would be.  Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Duplicity . . . the Emptiness of Faith” (Romans 12:9-21)


In order to keep things simple . . . Jesus commanded his followers to do two things: to love God and neighbor.  In the Gospel of Mark, he stated it this way: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.”

Over in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and all your mind.’  And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In answering a question about which is the greatest commandment in the Law, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus answers: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In the words of Jesus, himself, we have our task set before us . . . to love God and others.  That’s it.  I doubt if there is anyone who follows Jesus who would disagree that this is what the followers of Jesus have been tasked to do.  It is written in black and white . . . or maybe red if you have a Bible that puts the words of Jesus in red . . . for all of us to see.  There is no denying it as Jesus said it.

Also, Jesus never promised following in his footsteps and doing this task would be easy.  Again, I doubt if there is anyone who follows Jesus who would argue with that statement.  Faith is hard . . . or at least parts of it is hard.

The task of loving God and others is an inward and outward sort of thing.  In the first step we enter into an intimate relationship with God . . . we love God and God loves us.  And, that it great, but that is not enough for either Jesus nor God.  No, there has to be an outward expression of that intimacy and love; which brings us to the second part of that expression of faith.  We are to take that love and enter into relationship with others . . . we are to seek that intimacy with others.  Inwardly we love God, outwardly we love others.  To have one and not the other is not to fully realize faith in its fullness.

Again, I do not think there is much argument in this idea . . . love God, love others.  Having observed the “church” and “faithful” as a pastor for well over thirty years now, it is my estimation that for most it is easier to love God than to love others.  I think that for the most part we are good at loving God, but we have a more difficult time loving others.  We are good at the inward part, but not so good at the outward part.  Therein lies the problem.

Duplicity.

Duplicity is in the dictionary as  “deceitfulness in speech or conduct, as by speaking or acting in two different ways to different people concerning the same matter.”  To help understand its meaning a little better, the dictionary also shares these synonyms: deceit, deception, dissimulation, fraud, guile, hypocrisy, and trickery.  I think that we all have run into situations in which we have experienced duplicity . . . especially if any of us even have an inkling of politics in the last five to ten years.  Politics seems to be an area where duplicity is widely practiced and accepted with no consequences.  

Whether or not duplicity is an acceptable practice . . . of which I say it is not, as the followers of Jesus duplicity is wrong.  For the followers caught up in the act of duplicity . . . knowingly or unknowingly, I contend that it is nothing more than an expression of the emptiness of faith for those individuals.

I think that the Apostle Paul was attempting to address this issue in the reading we heard this morning.  I think Paul was admonishing the followers of Jesus to be consistent in their faith . . . that what was a part of them on the inside was expressed in the same manner on the outside.  He wanted a congruence between word and action.
In the first five verses we hear Paul speak about love, and that that “love must be sincere.”  Love is the key . . . love God and love others as you love God and yourself.  In this understanding of love there is no room for “ifs, ands, or buts” . . . no reservations, restrictions, or excuses.  Everyone is to be loved . . . everyone . . . including those who treat us poorly.  Instead of reacting in the same manner as those who treat us poorly, says the apostle, we are to treat them with love.  In doing this, says the apostle, “. . . you will heap burning coals on his head.”

The Apostle Paul does not believe in solving differences with attitudes and actions that go against the goodness of love.  He states at the end of our reading this morning: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

As the followers of Jesus we should heed the words of the apostle . . . we should live a life of consistency when it comes to our faith . . . our words and actions had better mean the same thing to whomever we speak.  We should not be saying one thing to one person, while saying something else to another.  We should not be qualifying our statements about loving God and others with “ifs, ands, or buts.”  If we are going to proclaim that all are welcome into the fellowship and family of God . . . into the sanctuary of this church . . . to a place at this table; then we are going to have to do it with no reservations, restrictions, or excuses.  

We cannot allow the practice of duplicity to infect our faith as it is practiced, because it is not faith . . . it is an expression of the emptiness of our faith.  And, I realize that this is easier said than done, after all, we are human.  As humans we want to loved, received, and accepted by others . . . and, sometimes that means we place ourselves into situations in which we are not alway congruent in our faith.  Situations in which our words and actions do not always jive.  We are trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt.

To which the Apostle Paul tells us to love . . . just love, love, love . . . even those who would hate you, hurt you, even kill you . . . love.  If you are going to say it as your belief, then live it as your belief.

In this day and age of duplicity we must make our faith consistent with the call to love God and others . . . all.  Anything less would be to join the ranks of the duplicitous.  In an adaption of the words of the psalmist in Psalm 19:14: “May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts and the actions of our lives be pleasing in your sight, Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.”  Amen.