When in Romans
This sermon is the final sermon in our series: Chosen. It has been formatted for presentation and not for the prevention of errors. Enjoy!
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In our Confirmation 201 class for adults on Monday, I was trying to talk about the problems John Wesley saw with the Church and I asked those seated around the table at Pizzeria Luigi, “What are the biggest criticisms we hear about the Church today?” I think it was Timothy Fritts who said that people criticize us for being ‘too exclusive.’ And he is absolutely right.
The top reasons that young people give for leaving the Church are: 1) They “see churches as overprotective and legalistic;” 2) “boring or shallow;” 3) “overconfident about matters of faith and science;” 4) they have too “simplistic… teaching about sexuality;” 5)they are “unfriendly to doubters and people with mental or emotional issues;” and 6) they are “too exclusive.”
So Timothy was spot on. This is a criticism that we hear over and over again, and we have to listen to because we have now lost almost two generations in the Church and we’re not going to turn it around unless we’re willing to listen and make some drastic changes in the way we do things.
I met with Father David Montzingo and a friend of mine the other day. He is a former priest from Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, down the street from here and as we were getting to know one another, I asked him where he was from.
He responded that he was originally from Oneida, New York. He then went on to explain that the only reason that most people know about Oneida is because of the silverware factory. I’m sure that many of us have at least one mismatched Oneida spoon in our silverware drawers, enough to know what the company is.
But he continued, saying, “What most people don’t know is that Oneida silverware was started as a Christian hippy commune in the 1800s before there was such a thing as hippies.” They believed that the Church was broken and that their commune was the answer to the problem of sin.
They made silverware and other things to pay the bills and make the commune work, but, eventually, the whole thing began to unravel in ways that I shouldn’t describe from the pulpit, but Wikipedia has a very good article on it if you’re curious. As time went on, it became just a silverware company.
Though it started as a church, it’s now a factory. It stopped functioning as a church, or whatever its original cause was; it stopped being what it was meant to be and, though the name didn’t change, its function and purpose were now completely different.
This is what Paul was afraid of for the Church.
He was afraid that the Church would become something that it was not meant to be. He was afraid that it would regress back to a time before Jesus’ life and sacrifice, before we knew the gospel of Jesus Christ, and would be changed in such a way as to become Pharisaic again. The Pharisees tended to want to make everyone the same as they were. They wanted to make people look and act the same. They were exclusive and judgemental. Paul was afraid that the Church would just get wrapped up in the old way of doing things and become a new Law, a new order of Pharisees, instead of a new covenant with God that broke down the walls between people and their creator. He was afraid that the Church would become exclusive.
We are at the end of our ten weeks in Romans, and though there two more chapters, we’re ending here. But I think we can all agree that Paul has spent his time and words wisely, reminding his churches and us that everyone is chosen by God. God is seeking to have a deep relationship with every person in the world, every person walking by our front door right now, every person at work we’ll see tomorrow. God wants to bless all of them.
Now, if we believe that, and we don’t reach out and respond to the people in our lives, inviting them into the Story of God that we find in the Church… that is if we don’t tell them the story of what God has done for us, full of the struggle and doubt and pain – even the letdowns – if we don’t tell them that story and invite them into a new life in Christ, then we are not fully living our faith. Because our faith says, “You are chosen.”
Accordingly, in this manner of thinking, Paul says to the Roman churches, “If the way you live isn’t consistent with what you believe, then it’s wrong” (14:23, MSG).
If you believe that Jesus accepts you just like you are, but you can’t do the same thing, then you’re wrong. If you believe that it is Christ who redeems, but then you get in the middle of everything, meddling in everyone else’s business, then you’re wrong. If you believe in grace but you don’t offer it, you’re wrong. But, sometimes I wonder if we really believe that God loves us like we are, offers grace to us as we are, redeems us as we are. If we don’t believe it deep down, then, of course, we can’t offer it to others.
Paul believed in that grace, though. He believed in an uncompromising grace that is free, but that changes us. But, if we receive that grace and we do nothing about it, that’s not God best plan for our lives. Grace should open us. It should change our hearts and actions. It should draw us nearer to God and nearer to each other. But what Paul saw, in his churches in Rome, were people who had received peace and joy and love from Christ and still responded to it by treating others badly.
Last week we heard him respond to this problem by saying, “Judge not.” This week he says it again, saying, “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (14:13, NRSV).
Judge not – so that you do not get in between a person and God. That’s what Paul is saying. He looked at his churches and he saw that because they were being so judgmental about the way their neighbors and fellow churchgoers lived – they were standing in the way of introducing them to Jesus, getting in the way of their experiencing the living Christ. He says it: ‘Do not place a stumbling block before your sister or brother.’ Each judgmental moment is a stumbling block. And enough stumbling blocks add up to a wall. We cannot build a wall around God’s grace. Judge not.
Last weekend I met with our Wesley Foundation San Diego board and our interns in the backyard of the parsonage. We were doing introductions, and I asked everyone to stand and introduce themselves and to explain why they are passionate about local church ministry. One young woman, one of our interns, stood up, and, as part of her introduction to the group said, “I believe that God can make anything holy and, by knowing that, I want to help make everything holy.”
“I want to help make everything holy.” It was so inspiring that I was almost speechless at how committed this young person was to the ways of our God. She sounds like Paul. He writes, “I’m convinced—Jesus convinced me!—that everything as it is in itself is holy. We, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it” (14:14, MSG).
We make our neighbors secular when we draw those lines. We make our fellow members of the church profane when we shame them. Their lives are between them and God. Our hope must be that we are walking around with spiritual sledgehammers, smashing the walls that others build around God’s grace. Is there a better call than being asked to go around and reintroduce people to Christ in such a way that it feels like they’re meeting Christ for the first time? Is there a better call than to find the one who is lost, the one who has walked away and to show that person the love of Christ, as it is, right now? Is there a better call than to help our God comfort and heal the ones who have been bullied by the Pharisees? I think that’s my call. Paul thought it was all of our unified call to be comforters in a desperate world.
As I prepared this sermon series back in June, and I was reading a book by noted scholar Beverly Gaventa (whose book title I stole for this sermon title: When in Romans), I changed the name of the book in my notes to say “When in North Park” as a sign of the way that I thought God was speaking to me in Romans. I began to get really inspired by this neighborhood as I began to see it through the eyes of an evangelist like Paul. He would have looked around and seen artists and musicians and healthy happy families and considered how God might be waiting for someone just like me to show them how much God loves them just like they are.
Paul says, “If your life doesn’t look like your faith, then you’ve got it all wrong” (14:23). And I have faith that the streets are alive and awash with salvation. But God never forces it upon us. God never makes us share. God never makes us love.
Living in Christ is a choice. It’s a relationship. It’s a covenant with God that says, “I don’t know what you’re doing, Lord, but I want to be a part of it because my deepest yearnings, my deepest feelings, tell me that you are love.” Living Christ is also a covenant with each other that says, “I don’t always agree with you, I may not even like the way you live your life, but I’m going to love you and care for you because we are family.”
This faith thing is so simple and so hard: It really is saying to one another, “I love Jesus and I love you, and though we might not always agree, we will always be family because everyone is chosen.”
May we go in the grace and peace of Lord that calls us to one another and to those who are not here yet.
When in Romans – Beverly Gaventa