Worship 9/13/20

Call to Worship/Psalm 103

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.

He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins,

nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth,

so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion for his children,

so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

For he knows how we were made;

he remembers that we are dust.

As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field

for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting

on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,

to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.

Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding,

obedient to his spoken word.

Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.

Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Opening Prayer

O God, we gather this morning as your children.  We pray that through our worship and in our continued maturing into greater faithfulness, you keep alive within us the best of what is childlike.  When we find something new or gain a fresh insight into the everyday, help us retain our sense of wonder.  As we contemplate your majesty, the vastness of your creation, and the inclusiveness of your realm, preserve our capacity for awe.  Through situations that tempt us to be critical or judgmental of others, help us to learn the hard lessons of patience and reconciliation.  In the moments when animosity impedes our capacity to find common ground, remind us of our commitment to Christ who called us to pray for, and even love our enemies.  In this time of worship, renew our hope, strengthen our faith, and draw us closer to you and one another, through the One who lived and died and rose again, we pray.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Romans 14:1-12 (NRSV)

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.  2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.  3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.  4Who are you to pass judgment on servants 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.  5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.  Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.  6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.  Also, those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.  7We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves.  8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.  10Why 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.  11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”  12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Message/Beyond the First Seven Seconds

With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the wise and witty American author Margaret Halsey once declared: “Whenever I dwell for any length of time on my own shortcomings, they gradually begin to seem mild, harmless, rather engaging little things, not at all like the staring defects in other people’s characters.”  Now that’s both funny—and truer than I care to admit.  It must have been so with members of the U.S. Senate in the early twentieth century.  Many of the senators seemed less concerned with their own shortcomings and preferred to wail about what they considered to be a glaring defect in the senator from the State of Utah, Reed Smoot.  They were so outraged that Smoot almost wasn’t seated in the Senate.  The newly elected Reed Smoot was a leader in the Church of Latter-Day Saints.  In those days, his church was accused of secretly allowing the practice of plural marriages—polygamy.  Although Smoot had only one wife, some of the more sanctimonious members of the Senate argued that he should not be seated, given the beliefs of his church.  Fortunately, the issue was settled when Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania strode to the podium and looked directly at some of his colleagues who, although married, were widely known to have mistresses.  He stated emphatically, “As for me, I would prefer to have seated beside me in the Senate a polygamist who doesn’t ‘polyg’ than a monogamist who doesn’t ‘monog.’”  And the matter was quickly put to rest.

I am sure that most of us are familiar with the oft-used expression, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  There is an entire science that has evolved around the image we project when people first meet us.  Articles abound in trade magazines and on the Internet about offering the perfect handshake, one that evokes just the right amount of confidence, coaching us up on facial and non-verbal cues that exude a sense of trust, sharing about the right clothes to wear and the right words to use when introducing ourselves.  I get it.  First impressions are important.  First impression set a tone for almost all that is to follow.  And we all know just how hard it is to salvage a conversation or a relationship when we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot.  Social scientists propose that people make a solid impression of who we are within the first seven seconds of meeting us.  Some research suggests a tenth of a second is all it takes to start determining traits like trustworthiness.  Yikes…the pressure!  But it makes me wonder about the possibilities our relationships and thusly our communities when we can withhold our judgments on others until we really do get to know them, until we find the commonalities in our stories, until we can see them as unique individuals created in the divine image simply trying to get through the trials and tribulations of life just as we are?  Just imagine what might happen if we could get beyond those first seven seconds without callously labeling or compartmentalizing them, or just simply writing that person off?

We are always in the process of making judgments.  What books to read, what articles to peruse, what persons to call or write to, what to eat, what to wear, where to go, what to buy, what we do with our time.  Judgments are part of the warp and woof of daily life.  One of the greatest gifts that God has given us is the ability to make choices.  Yet how we make those choices, especially in our dealings with others—and especially because we profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ—comes with immense responsibility.

Writing to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul addresses several issues that have brought about division in the church: “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.”  The germ of judgmentalism has infected some of the relationships between different groups within the congregation.

At its core, the problem related over the extent to which certain traditional religious practices laid down in the Jewish scriptures were binding to the larger community of faith.  It is probably over-simplistic to see these as disputes over whether being Christian meant following Jewish laws and traditions.  That was certainly the issue addressed in some of Paul’s other letters, like Galatians for example, but in the church at Rome it appeared that there were Jews and Gentiles on both sides, even though the particular practices at stake arose from obedience to Jewish observances.

There is also a bit of history that probably exacerbated this dispute.  From what we know, about five or six years before Paul wrote this letter, the Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jewish population from the city of Rome.  That would have meant that many of the Christians, being of Jewish background, would have had to leave, and that most likely included many of the founding figures of the church there.  Then, when Claudius was replaced by Nero, these Jewish converts to the Christian faith came back.  Therefore, the church in Rome had five or so years without any traditional Jewish influences.  To those brought up in the strict moral and ritual purity codes of Judaism, the church they returned to in Rome seemed to have sold out.  To those returning, it felt as if the church had compromised with the pagan society around it.

When Paul talked about whether people eat meat or not, it had nothing to do with today’s issues over whether vegetarianism is healthier, or more respectful of all living creatures, or more ecologically sustainable.  It was purely a religious issue.  Virtually all the meat available in the markets in Rome came from the pagan temple system.  In those temples, an animal was slaughtered on the altar as an offering to the gods, and then it was carted out the back, butchered and sold in the markets.  Whether or not to eat it then became a religious question.  Can someone, as a professing Christian, eat meat that has been dedicated to a pagan god or goddess?

In cities where the Jewish community was large enough, there were networks of slaughterhouses and butchers so meat could be acquired that had not been through the pagan temple system.  But in this case, there had been no Jewish community in Rome for a while.  The only way to avoid meat that has been dedicated to pagan gods was to avoid it completely.  So, when Paul characterizes the two factions as those who think it is okay to eat anything, and those who eat only vegetables, it is a thoroughly religious dispute.  One group basically says, “What’s the big deal?  The pagan gods are meaningless to us, so there shouldn’t really be any problem eating the meat.” The other group says, “We need to be strong on this issue.  We can’t compromise our principles or have anything to do with pagan worship.  We have to draw the line somewhere to keep ourselves separate from anything associated with pagan practices.  And besides, the Jewish scriptures are very clear on this.”

Undoubtedly, the latter group saw themselves as the ‘strong’.  They were taking a strong, hardline stance in defending religious and traditional practices and norms.  They perceived that it was the “meat eaters” who were being ‘soft,’ compromising their principles and needing to get right with God.  So, the traditionalists would have received quite a shock when they read up to this point in the letter and found Paul calling them ‘weak’!

But that’s exactly what Paul is saying.  In his day Paul was an outrageously controversial advocate of Christian freedom.  His argument in a nutshell is this.  Salvation comes through the grace of God.  One’s hard work is the by-product of one’s faith, not a prerequisite for faith.  God always takes the initiative.  All we can do is respond.  Rule-following is not salvific in and of itself, rather it is placing one’s trust in Jesus that is the key that leads to appropriate action.  We are called to do as Jesus did and not allow judgmentalism, legalism, and traditionalism impede our relationships within the Christian community.  Gratitude is the only appropriate response—and that gratitude should lead us toward loving actions on behalf of others, regardless of their opinions.  As Christ did, so do we.

Therefore, if we follow Paul’s logic here, the minute we start judging others, for no other reason than the scripture says it or that it is a long-standing traditional value, then, to some degree, we are actually failing in our confidence in Jesus Christ’s ability to sort everything out.  Paul sees this as weak, as trying to cover our bases, just in case trusting Jesus isn’t enough.  Now, it would be just as easy for those whom Paul calls strong to pat themselves on the back for their trust in Jesus, but they aren’t let off the hook either.  To paraphrase it, Paul effectively says: “Don’t put anyone down for being timid in their faith.  Welcome them into the congregation, and don’t give them a hard time for being hung up about things that cause you no concern.  You who are strong must not make fun of those who play it safe; for the fact is that God has extended a welcome to them too, and the Lord is quite capable of getting them to stand where they should without your help.”

In using his language about the strong and the weak, Paul is not afraid to nail his proverbial colors to the mast over which side he thinks has better understood the implications of the knowledge that we are put right with God solely through putting our trust in Jesus.  He clearly thinks that to cling to the Bible as merely a book of rules that must be carefully followed to avoid moral error is a sign of weakness, a sign of insecurity, of a timid faith.  The Bible is so much more than that!  Paul would rather have us read it as a love letter from God that inspires us to live boldly, freely, generously, compassionately.

But he is adamant that our acceptance of one another and our willingness to acknowledge one another’s sincerity are of far more importance than sorting out who is right and wrong on questions of Scripture and morality.  He thunders “Who do you think you are?” just as vehemently to those who are inclined to look down their noses at traditionalists and moralists and make fun of their stance, as he does to those who would judge more compromising types as sliding down the slippery slope to hell.

You see, when we gather as God’s people, we remember that Jesus offers himself for all of us.  When we gather here to give thanks to God and offer our prayers for the church and our world, we do so in union with all God’s people and in order that we may be drawn more deeply into relationship with all God’s people, even with those with whom we don’t agree and who may even be hostile to our understanding of the Christian life.  But if we allow the attitudes of others to become an excuse for making them feel unwelcome, then we are failing to discern and honor the unity of the body of Christ and we are making a mockery of our own prayers.  In extravagant generosity, Christ gives himself to us and releases us from sin and death and self-destruction, and in this moment of worship we not only offer our gratitude for that freedom, but we commit ourselves to treating all others with the same reckless generosity and mercy.

In other words, regardless of which side a person is on, providing they do what they do as an offering to God and in a spirit of thanksgiving for Jesus Christ, then there is no basis for anyone else to condemn them and question the reality of their Christian faith.  Each side will have to agree to differ and allow the other side to hold their view and live as they believe is right.  However wrong you might think those on the other side of an issue are, if they make their choice in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving to God, then they are accountable to God for it and not to you.  Your responsibility is only to be faithful to what you believe and to honor the choices of others.

As Paul declared, “For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’  So then, each of us will be accountable to God.”  May we remember this the next time we are tempted to tell someone that they aren’t much of a Christian.  Thanks be to God for freeing us from such a burden.  May God give us the patience and courage to see beyond those first seven seconds.

Pastoral Prayer

O God of redemption and reconciliation, in the midst of the clamor and commotion of our conflicted hearts and our chaotic world, we pray for peace.

Help us to renew our commitment to pray for our enemies and to seek healing in our relationships with those against whom we hold grudges and resentments.

Remove the obstacles that impede our relationships—our tendencies to make rash judgments, our inclinations to bear false witness, our hastiness to cut ourselves off from others.  Remind us that just listening is an act of love.

Enable conversations that offer respect and appreciation for the humanity and the gifts of others, even those with whom we disagree.

We pray this day for our world torn by violence and war, where refugees flee for their lives and the wounded cry out for mercy.

For our nation that continues to struggle with all of the insidious “isms” that divide and dehumanize.

We pray for all who need your healing presence in their lives—those who suffer in mind, body, spirit, and relationship.

We pray for those who do not have a place to live, for the unemployed and the underemployed, for those who seem to have no hope.

We bring our prayers to you this day, O Lord, because we trust you.  You never fail to listen.  You know what is on our hearts and in our minds, even before we can express them.  We pray to you because you have a vision of what our world ought to be.  Help us to live into your vision. 

Let the prayers we bring to you transform us into representatives of reconciliation, purveyors of peace, and harbingers of hope.  Hear our prayers, God of grace, and through the ministry of your Son free us from the grip of despair and death, that we may desire you as the fullness of life and proclaim your saving deeds to all the world.

In the name of Jesus the Christ, who taught his disciples to pray:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Closing Thought

Jesus calls us to bear a cross, not a grudge.

Commission & Benediction

Go now into the world and live for Christ.
Whatever you do, do it in honor of the Lord giving thanks to God.
Show forgiveness to one another as in Christ you have received forgiveness.
And may God protect you from all that threatens you;
May Christ Jesus shower mercy on you and through you;
And may the Holy Spirit uphold you as you stand in Christ.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.