Today we’re continuing our sermon series about the walls we build between us.
Not the physical walls, but the psychological ones that prevent us from living together as God created us to live. We were never meant to live as a divided people. God created us differently on purpose, to contribute to that rich tapestry of life that celebrates the diversity of God’s creation. In Revelation 7:9-10, John describes a vision he receives of a great multitude gathered to worship the Lord and he describes it this way. He said, “there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language. That is the incredible diversity that God has created, and yet we do our best to separate ourselves, to look down on those who don’t agree with us, and to treat as less than human those who are on the margins of “normal” society. The thing is Jesus spent his entire life breaking down those walls, challenging people’s preconceptions, and reaching out to those who were on the margins of society. He spent time with women and children, the poor and the sick, and people of different cultures. In fact, the only people Jesus seemed to hold in low regard were those who showed intolerance to others. He chastised those who made a mockery out of the Word of God. So we’ve been looking at ways that we can be more Christ-like in our love of others. A couple of weeks ago we talked about the danger of stereotypes and how holding on to those can build walls between us. Last week we talked about how our failure to remember the lessons of the past leads us to build the same walls over and over again, and how important it is for us to read the Bible as a reminder of those lessons so that we don’t make those mistakes in the future. And this week, we’re going to talk about the difficulty we have in accepting the diversity in God’s creation.
One of my favorite stories is about the time I first served communion as a pastor.
I’d served communion before, but this was the first time I would have the chance to serve communion as the pastor of a church. I was excited. It was my first appointment to my first church and my first worship service ever. Now, let me be clear that generally no one offers you a class on how to lead worship before you have to do it. You simply lead by memory and by experience, so I was woefully unprepared for the nuances I might encounter. And sure enough, I would encounter one of those nuances my first day. Worship had gone along just fine and I was so excited for communion. I read the liturgy as I had seen done by other pastors. I held aloft the bread and the cup like I was supposed to. And then I invited everyone forward to receive the elements. The first two rows came forward and filled the spots at the altar rail, and one by one, we served each person. When we were done, I was surprised that they were all still praying. Not one of them had moved. I stood there, wondering how long they typically prayed and thought to myself, “This is the most pious group of people I have ever encountered!” Normally, you’d get people who would come to the altar to pray, but to stay for this long? Wow. That’s when the lay leader leaned over and said, “They’re waiting for you to pray for them.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know I was supposed to do that.” I was so embarrassed, not that I would have known to ask about it. But over the years I realized that the way we do communion can sometimes be a sacred cow. A sacred cow is any church tradition that is cherished by the congregation. A sacred cow is any church tradition that is cherished by the congregation. It could be communion, it could be baptism, it could be how we collect the offering, it could be anything and woe to the pastor who would try to change THAT! Either intentionally or unintentionally, touching a sacred cow could set off a landmine in the church. And it could be anything. Whether they serve wafers or loaves or pre-cut chunks of bread for the elements. Whether or not they stand or sit for the hymns. Whether the pastor preaches from the front or to the side. People can be deeply offended when their sacred cows are touched. Whole denominations are created because of these differences.
But that isn’t what God teaches us.
If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phones, please go to Paul’s letter to the Romans 14:1. Romans 14:1. We talked about this passage briefly last week, about how Paul is offering his thoughts to the church in Rome on what it means to act as a Christian. He talks about obeying authorities, humbly serving others, and in this passage, he is talking about supporting one another in faith. Some of the ways in which they are criticizing one another probably sounds familiar to us even today – arguing about which way honors God the most, debating about what day to consider sacred. And this is what Paul writes to the church.
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
This passage could easily have been written today as it was nearly 2,000 years ago.
It’s sad to think we still fight over these issues, that we haven’t found a way to accept the differences we have with one another and remember the centrality of the lesson that Paul taught – that over matters of little consequence we need to let it go. But as we shared about a year ago, there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations. We need to accept that we have differences of opinion, but that we can still be united in our love of God. John Wesley wrote about this in his essay, “The Character of a Methodist” where he proclaimed, “But as to all matters that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” But as to all matters that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. That was the essence of what Paul was writing to the church in Rome, that as long as at the heart of it, you have in mind the goal to honor God, then it doesn’t matter whether you eat meat or don’t eat meat, that you believe that Sunday is a sacred day or whether you don’t. As long as you truly believe whatever you believe and you do it in the name of God, then those issues that are not at the heart of Christianity should be let go so that together we can concentrate on the mission of God. There are of course some fundamental aspects of what we believe that are written in stone. But like John Wesley said, if they don’t strike at the root of Christianity, we need to think and let think.
This is one of those artificial walls that we end up constructing.
It’s one of the ways in which we struggle to get along with one another. And it’s because we too often allow petty details to get in the way of the bigger picture. And it’s not just among Christians either. The problem we have as Christians explains why we are so disjointed and why we have over 30,000 denominations. It explains why Christianity hasn’t captured the hearts of the entire world, because when they see how petty we can be with one another, it discourages people from wanting to be a part of what we believe. But it happens among all people. We allow petty arguments and disagreements to get in the way of what’s really important. We forget that at the heart of every human being is a person who is loved by God. And while we can disagree with each other, we too often end up demonizing the people we disagree with. We don’t even have to look any further than our political system to see how true that is. Every day for what seems like ages, you just have to turn on the news to see politicians resorting to name calling, dirt throwing and every other low-class tactic to discredit and smear one another. After President Obama won re-election, there were congressmen who vowed to vote against every single proposal that the President brought before them, regardless of what it was. That’s how much they demonized him. He wasn’t a person any longer. He wasn’t a person who loved his country. He wasn’t a human being who was doing his best to make the world a better place. He was an enemy to be defeated, and that was it. And we’ve seen that play out – health care, the federal budget, sequestration. The list seems to go on and on. A friend of mine posted a photo essay on Facebook from a site called PolicyMic and it was titled “8 Photos You Didn’t See From Obama’s Trip to South Africa.” And what the writer pointed out was that while the press was criticizing the President for taking a “selfie” or while they were getting on former President Bush for posing with Bono at the funeral, they didn’t show you a great many other things that happened. They didn’t show you pictures of the two presidents traveling together. They didn’t show you the two of the having dinner together with their wives. They didn’t show you all of them laughing and smiling and enjoying each other’s company, because that wouldn’t stir the pot. Those pictures would give you the impression that these were two men who something in common, like their respect for Nelson Mandela. Those pictures would show you two human beings who could get along and join together in common cause instead of being mortal enemies. Instead they showed you moments in time designed to stir your emotions and get you to hate the other one just a little bit more. We’re good at seeing what we want to see. What we need to do is spend more time seeing the truth. And the truth is that most people are more alike than they are different. Most people share common values and ideals even if they don’t agree on how to get there. And most people have families who love them and who love them in return. They have friends and colleagues who don’t always agree with them, but who they respect nonetheless. And while not perfect, few people are really out to get one another.
Our challenge is to find the common threads that bind us together.
To look beyond the differences and find the things in common. Because when we can treat one another as human beings, when we remember that we all have mothers and fathers, people who care about us. When we remember we are all children of God, we can overcome our differences and act in love to one another. Exactly as God intended. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.