How we live with disagreement in community is never an easy thing to navigate. If you are like me there is that tension between wanting to feel a sense of integrity, that the community you belong to shares your values and on the other hand the worry that you an extra get a dose of “self-righteous purity” imagining that everyone must think just like you. I assume everyone in this church has experienced that moment when you realize you are not necessarily in lock step with a decision the community, any community you happen to belong to, has made. There is that side of you that wants to flee in a righteous rage, like Jesus you dust the sand off your sandals and stomp away. Then there is that other side of you that worries that difference of opinion is essential to every community, you need to accept that things are not always going to go your way.
The Epistle text we are given in the lectionary this morning deals with a community of faith sorting out what differences are essential to their identity and integrity and which ones are not, what differences can be lived with as the normal consequence of diversity.
Let me share with you two stories that drive home the choice of difference in community. In my first experience in church leadership I was to learn an important ecumenical lesson. When you are presiding at a funeral you should speak last. A man had died and I was his Minister but his widow belonged to another church. The widow asked if her pastor could participate in the funeral. I gladly consented. The pastor did not come to the church for the funeral but he did show up at the cemetery for the Committal. He wanted to speak last. After the sacred words of burial and a few prayers I turned to him to offer the Benediction. Instead the pastor looked everyone in the eye and said, “For this man it is too late but for each of you standing above ground it is not, so please accept Jesus into your hearts today so that you will inherit eternal life, go to Heaven and not be lost forever.” At that he stopped.
Needless to say I was not happy about any of this. So I was very surprised to hear from this same pastor the next week. Our church had retired a keyboard the choir used for practice. With the donation of new electric piano the old keyboard was placed in a closet. Somehow this pastor found out about the keyboard and on the phone he was asking if he could have it. Later I found out the pastor had left his church, taken half the congregation with him, all over the issue of female Deacons. They were now worshipping in an abandoned church just outside town.
On the other end of the spectrum I share the story of the descendent of Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederacy army in the US Civil War. Many of you will know that there is a movement afoot in the United States to remove all statues of Confederate politicians and military personnel. The 28 year old United Church of Christ pastor Robert Lee made an appearance on national television to disavow his racist ancestor. Lee’s remarks apparently upet some members of his church, so much so that he felt compelled to resign in principle. Lee felt that if his community did not more universally share his views on the removal of the confederate statues he needed to leave.
Now most of us in Christian community work through our disagreements in a more satisfying and less dramatic way. We feel a kinship with those who gather here each week and we understand that on some matters we will stand with the majority and on others we will be in the minority. And we know there are times when our collective mind on issues will change and suddenly our status in the majority now rests in the minority, and vice versa.
Recently I heard a sermon by a Lutheran pastor on this very text that highlighted what I believe are some very helpful insights from Paul in his letter to the Romans. Mary Hinkle Shore makes three central points about today’s Gospel.
Paul is speaking to Christians whom have been divided by important matters to the Jewish Christians who are following Jesus. These disagreements with gentiles, who now follow Jesus, focused on the observance of food and festivals. Paul suggests that in the midst of this disagreement the important focus is what we are doing "in honour of Jesus" (14:6). Even though their practice may seem silly or just plain wrong to others of the same faith, when people eat or abstain, when they observe a day or ignore it, they are nonetheless seeking by their actions to honour Jesus. In other words for the church Jesus is the focus of the community itself. It is Jesus and his ministry that attracts followers and followers can learn a lot from each other in how different disciples interpret Jesus and his impact on their lives.
Paul's second reason is related to the first. Christians bear with one another not only because all are trying by their actions to honour Jesus but also because Jesus has come with affection and love for all. Even if Romans 14:1-6 seems to be discussing trivial things, Romans 14:7-9 cannot be. "If 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. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living" (verses 8-9). There is a sense that the Trinity, God-Jesus-Spirit, has a universal affection for humanity and therefore each and every one of us needs to be respected and listened to as the person you are with is also a child of God. As you disagree in community it is imperative to be aware that within the community is the wisdom of God, and many parts will reveal different aspects of the Divine.
Paul's third reason for bearing with those whose practice differs from ours is that God is the ultimate arbiter of our lives and therefore the final evaluation of these conflicts rests with God, not us. That ought to take some of the sting out of our need to judge the other with despair. It is not that our conscience can’t speak to the injustice of another’s action in community. Rather, the sense that God is the one decides leaves us with some humility. We act with conviction but we act with humility. Too often in our culture there is a tendency for us to associate with those who share our opinions, dismissing those who do not believe like us, or vote like us, or live like us. They are fools, we think, and we see no contradiction between our being Christian and our despising of them.
My friends living in community is not easy but it is a gift. I learn so much from those who think differently, live differently and worship differently than me. I am delighted to sit with you and share our respective theologies, how we experience God differently. You will not find me like the pastor who disagrees with a vote here or there and moves half the church to an abandoned church building. But like Robert Lee I have certain convictions that are central to my life and faith.
I am grateful for the good news of this Epistle, that in disagreement we seek to honour Jesus, to listen to all of God’s children and the humility of knowing that in the end it is God who knows the truth and all I can do is discern the truth to the best of my ability, however imperfect that effort is.
Thanks be to God is diverse, faith-filled and generous community. Amen.