- September 21, 2014
Sermon for September 21, 2014 (Proper 20, Year A)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Romans 14:13-23; Matthew 20:1-16
Know what: Paul was driven by one idea of redemptive community
So what: we are called to continue his vision, his mission
Now what: see your life as part of God’s plan to create one new humanity
Title: In All Things, Charity
It was the height of summer and we were at the beach. The shore, to be more exact! It was August a number of years back, and Erin and I brought the kids to Cape May, New Jersey for a big family reunion.
We rented one of the large Victorian Cape May houses with lots of bedrooms.
My sister was there from Colorado. My aunt and uncle and cousins were there from California. My parents were there, of course, with my grandmother, and other family members stopped in throughout the week.
These kinds of gathering are rare for us, so we all wanted to treasure and appreciate the time together.
One night we had all gathered for dinner around a big table outside on the patio.
During a break in the conversation, I shared something that I had read recently which I was continuing to mull over and contemplate.
Since the last American forces were removed from Vietnam 41 years ago, as many as 40,000 Vietnamese civilians have been killed or maimed by landmines which we left behind – and many of those have been young children born long after the war ended.
I did not intend for this to be a controversial statement. Nor did I intend anything political by it. For me it aroused compassion for so many innocent children killed and disabled for no good purpose at all.
Well, guess what? Our lovely family reunion dinner instantly fell apart! I was shocked.
My grandmother, the staunchest Republican I have ever met, was appalled that I would dare to question the integrity of the war and so dishonor all of our American young people who lost their lives in Vietnam.
I had no idea that I was actually doing those things, and I tried to save the situation.
But it was too late. Different people at the table from different ends of the political spectrum began to voice their opinions, and within 5 minutes, everyone had left in a huff and the table was empty!
Have any of you ever been in a similar situation?
Why is it so difficult for people with different strongly-held opinions to maintain community together in any way that is meaningful and real and authentic?
Welcome to the ministry of the apostle Paul!
My friends, I absolutely love Paul, and this is why.
He was convinced that it was God’s intention to create one new human community comprised of both Jews AND Gentiles from every tribe on earth.
This is the community envisioned by Matthew’s parable which we just heard read in our midst.
The Jews are the first laborers in God’s vineyard who, in the church’s early days, felt that they have a certain privileged claim on the things of God, due to their primary position in time.
The Gentiles are the ones brought into the vineyard at the very end, and God generously chooses to give them – to give us – the same covenant blessings which are given to the children of Abraham.
The apostle Paul had one all-absorbing passionate idea which drove him, compelled him, throughout his preaching years until his death.
It was that this new community of Jews AND Gentiles is the very fulfillment of all of God’s covenants AND it is the means by which God is once again making the world right and true and just.
This kind of community had never, ever been created before- not anywhere, ever on this planet earth! It was a radically new idea and it was Paul’s task to figure out how to make that happen in all of the practical details of real, everyday life.
So what was the issue that was causing so much trouble in the community of disciples in Rome which Paul sought to address in Romans chapter 14?
Did you notice it in the text?
It was the eating of meat which had been sacrificed in pagan temples.
The city of Rome was the seat of power for the largest and most prosperous empire that humankind had ever seen until that point. The worship of the gods was a vital communal force in Roman society. The large temples throughout the city typically included large dining areas where the meat of animals which had been offered in honor of Jupiter or Artemis or Apollo or Neptune was eaten in a festive meal by the worshipers. This was a basic cornerstone of Roman culture.
What were the disciples, the followers of the Way of Jesus, supposed to do when invited by their friends, neighbors and relatives to such a temple gathering?
What it right for them to eat this food along with the pagans?
Should they abstain and refuse all of these invitations?
Even the ones in honor of the birthdays of their loved ones? Feasts to celebrate the birth of a niece or a nephew or a grandchild? Did the disciples have to stay away from those as well?
These were serious questions with very real practical consequences.
Of course, the Jewish believers had been trained their entire life to stay far away from any of these pagan temples. But it seems that some disciples – both Jews and Gentiles – came to understand, like Paul himself, that pagan gods do not actually exist, and all food is a gift from God which can be eaten with thanksgiving.
Others had not come to that conclusion. Perhaps they felt that joining in such feasts gave the appearance of supporting the Roman gods
Whatever they believed, this was a real debate which was fracturing that new, young community.
Paul writes to suggest a different approach, one designed to make sure that no one walks away from the table in a huff, that everyone stays together at the family meal.
His practical approach is simple and direct. It goes like this:
- God is the Judge and you are not. Do not judge one another.
- Follow your conscience in non-essential matters such as eating food sacrificed to idols, but do not try to force your view on one another.
- Focus on the essentials that unify your community of disciples.
- In all things, walk together in love and support one another.
Paul’s wisdom has become known as the principle of adiaphora. This principle is most easily understand by the following maxim:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
After all, what is it that Paul said? “The kingdom of God is not food and drink (those things are adiaphora, non-essentials), but [it is] righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
The issue that was threatening the fabric of the beloved community in Rome was the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
What are the issues in our day which threaten the unity of the Church?
Debates over politics? Different understandings of gender and sexual orientation? Different styles of music in worship?
Are any of these things essential to the faith of the Church? Are they outlined and professed in the Creeds?
My friends, for nearly 500 years, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion – at it’s best – has been a movement intentionally designed to continue the practical, unifying mission of the apostle Paul.
We in The Episcopal Church are heirs of this movement to create local communities within the people of God which include – by design – people of all different kinds and persuasions, of different political views and different biblical interpretations.
Saint Mary’s stands here today as a local outpost of that movement – envisioned by the apostle Paul – to create one community of disciples, gathered around Jesus as the Messiah and the Lord of all, a community who believes that the unifying purposes of God are more important than any of our personal opinions.
For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, nor is it gender and orientation, or politics and social policy.
But the household of God IS righteousness (dikaiosyne = true inner goodness) and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit!
Serve and follow the Lord Jesus in this way, pursuing true inner goodness, peace and joy within the fellowship of the Church, and your service will be acceptable to God and helpful in the world.
So here’s the question for each of you, my friends:
Can you see yourself, your real everyday life, as one part of this amazing, history-changing movement of the Holy Spirit that seeks to create one community of diverse people, united by the love of God, serving with God for the renewal of the earth?
And can you see our life together as the family of Saint Mary’s as part of that movement which God intends to transform all of humanity?
That’s why we are here. Nothing could be more important.
So then, as Paul urged so strongly, “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification.” May it be so. Amen.