PRAYER: Holy God, Three-in-one, united, we come before you full of strife and all too often, filled with anger. Teach us to put our anger, our rivalries, our differences behind us and unite in the joy that comes from you.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
I have six brothers and sisters. If you ask any one of us, we could each make an argument of why we were Mom’s favorite. Remember how in the old Smothers Brothers routines, they always had the punchline about “Mom always liked you best”? In my family, we were more self-centered in our claim: it was always about Mom always liked me best. My oldest brother would claim that our parents got it right the first time, and they kept trying to duplicate what they did, but never got it quite right after that. The second brother could make the claim that after their first child was born, they realized their mistake and had the second child to make it right.
We all have our own tailor-made argument of why we were the favorite. My brother Jeff always washed the dishes without being asked… the suck up! My two sisters could each throw down the “girl” card to lay claim to the title. I, of course, am the last child and my claim is that my parents finally got it right with me, so they could stop trying! But then, there’s my brother Paul. My brother Paul could just sit back and listen to every one of us make the claim that we were Mom’s favorite, and he would just shake his head. And the truth is that we all know it. There’s no denying it. And there’s no sense arguing over it. He was Mom’s favorite, plain and simple. Why? Because he was, and that’s just it.
It’s a funny joke to think about who Mom’s favorite was. And I’m sure that every family has some version of that. But the truth is – or at least it should be that it’s just a time-honored cliché. My three kids have all had the same argument about who’s the favorite between Anna and me. (It was the dog!) But the important thing is that when push came to shove, we all came together. When my sister Mary Lou was almost killed in a car accident, we came together and cared for one another. We didn’t care who was the favorite… Mary Lou was the favorite at that moment. When my brother’s 1 month old son died of crib death, you couldn’t pull us apart. Our little sibling rivalry didn’t matter. We love one another, no matter who the favorite was. And isn’t that the way it should be?
I say that because Paul (the apostle, not my brother) was writing to the Romans at a time in which there was a lot of rivalry about – among other things – who God’s favorite was. The Christian church in Rome was comprised of Gentiles, Jews, Greeks and more, and they all came into the faith with their own cultural biases and ideas. As an example, Paul makes a reference in our passage to those who are vegetarians and those who are not. In our culture, we have plenty of people who may choose to be vegetarian, but in the context of the Roman church, there were Jews who, even though they had committed their souls to Jesus, they still believed that they had to follow the strict Jewish kosher food laws, while there were Gentiles who had no problem having a pork chop or two. And that was the sort of thing that created tension. Some believed that they had to observe certain holy days while others adhered to other ones. The issues themselves could have been a reality anywhere; and they probably were. But Paul is driving home the fact that these issues are not what’s important; God is.
Paul’s focus is on the community of God. There can be disagreement, but disagreement should not destroy the beloved community because we are called to live in communities that are diverse. We have no choice but to live in communities that are diverse. We are most-decidedly not called to declare that we’re right and we’re the only ones that can be right. That only leads to judgment and forcing our ways, our ideas on others. That only leads to isolation and loneliness, either for us or for someone else – or maybe both. We have to ask ourselves if we are willing to extend a seat at the table to those with whom we may have a fundamental disagreement.
In verse 4, Paul asks, “Who are you to pass judgment on slaves of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Judgment is wrapped in a blanket of self-righteousness. All too often, we judge others by the sins we perceive them to have made, and that is just a short stop away from defining people only by that perceived sin. Instead of seeing people defined by the image of God, all we see is sin. Instead of viewing others as God’s beloved, instead we project judgment onto them which, in turn, reflects it back to us, which becomes this vicious circle in which no one sees the image of God in anyone.
It is a progression of hatred because once we’ve projected that judgment, it becomes so much easier to justify actions that may be harmful to them because we’ve determined that they belong to a class of people called “other”. They’re no longer seen as part of God’s beloved community, no longer part of us, because they’ve become “them”.
Paul is reminding his readers, as he said in earlier chapters of the book of Romans, that only God has the right to judge human beings. Since we all are accountable to God, there is no reason for us to lay claim to God’s role as judge. When we allow ourselves to get hung up on the details of how other people express their faith, or live their lives, that’s when we put love to the test within the Christian community.
Don’t get me wrong: for the people to whom Paul was writing, whether or not they should keep kosher laws or what holy days they should observe mattered greatly to them. This was important to them and we shouldn’t just dismiss their issues as petty. This is where Grace enters. The key for us is found in verses 5-9. We are all different; we worship in different ways; we respond to Christ differently; and we follow different lifestyles. And in the midst of that, we become convinced that what we do, how we worship, how we love, how we live fits our relationship with Christ. We have an opportunity to be a blessing to others by acknowledging that we see the value of the humanity of others. Others are not violating their relationship with Christ simply because their practice is different than ours. We all belong to Christ.
We don’t have to work too hard to imagine that when there are rivalries like what was going on in the early church, there can be some really hard feelings. We so easily get our identities wrapped up in our ideologies. Our identities should not be based on any political, economic, or moral issue. Our identity should not be wrapped up in whether we say The Lord’s Prayer with the word ‘Trespasses’ or ‘Debts’. Our identity must be grounded in a posture of grace that is only found in Jesus Christ. If we lose sight of that or deny that love and grace to others – whether they deny it toward us or not – then we have truly lost our way. If we define ourselves by what we’re against and what we hate most, then we are not projecting the image of God to our neighbors.
It is incumbent upon us all to take a posture of grace toward our neighbors, our community, our world. A posture of grace is one that sees others through a lens of God’s love rather than our own judgment. This does not mean that we should simply sit back and allow others’ activities or ideologies to be used in ways that harm others. There are plenty of examples of the church or people claiming to represent the church using the name of God as a weapon against those people that don’t fit their ideologies. Within our posture of grace, we must still call out any examples of hatred that would do harm to others. But it is possible to do that while still maintaining a posture of grace toward those who would be so un-Christ like.
In Matthew 9:13, Jesus is eating with tax collectors and other sinners when the Pharisees challenge him for doing so. In their ideology, they considered it to be nothing short of heresy for Jesus to be doing this. But Jesus tells everyone gathered, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” By sitting with those who most needed mercy, Jesus assumes a posture of grace.
I was reading a daily devotional recently written by Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes that said this: There are two religions in the world: the religion of being right and the religion of being loving. They are incompatible. Get it right and you may hurt someone. Love, and you may break a rule. We are always practicing one or the other every moment, always choosing. This is Jesus’ faith in a nutshell: not religious orthodoxy but loving behavior. Not being right but being loving.“
I want to invite you into a posture of grace in which we are enabled to love unconditionally even those who may be our most bitter rivals. How can we demonstrate that grace, the love that Jesus himself demonstrated for us? How can we assume that posture that breaks down petty (or even not-so-petty) rivalries and instead builds community.
What if we saw grace not as something that we have and others don’t, but as something that we share with all of God’s beloved… and with that in mind, expanding our view, our understanding of who fits the category of God’s beloved?
We are about to begin an eight-week journey exploring contemplative prayer. The first element toward practicing contemplative prayer is taking the posture of grace, allowing ourselves to be in silence with God as we listen. We will practice contemplative prayer and we will listen for the voice of God, and I hope that when you have given yourself to the practice, you will have no doubt in your heart that you are God’s favorite.
To God be the glory.