Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sermon: "Sinners and Saints"

 Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
August 5, 2012

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” – Ephesians 4:1-3

Sinners and Saints

Like many of you, I’ve been caught up in watching the Olympic Games on TV these past few weeks. I love watching athletes compete at the top level of their sport, and I love seeing the amazing things the human body is capable of, as the athletes push against the limits of their strength, speed, flexibility, and grace.

I do find it ironic that I’m willing to get up at 5:00 am to watch an Olympic bike race, but when I plan to go on an early morning bike ride of my own I tend to roll over and go back to sleep. But that’s a whole other story.

I like to watch the Olympics for the athleticism, but I also love to hear the stories behind the athletic fetes….and there’s always a story.
We may see an athlete compete for only 30 seconds on our TV screens, but for him or her that 30 seconds is the culmination of a lifetime of experiences, made up of disappointments and successes, and a literal shedding of blood, sweat, and tears.  

Like the story of the South African runner, who was born with a bone defect and had both of his legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. Not only is he the first paralympian to compete in the Olympic Games, but he finished second in his qualifying heat yesterday and he’s running today in the semi finals of the men’s 400 meter race.

Then there’s the 16 year-old gymnast, who two years ago took a huge risk and left her home and family, and all that she knew, and moved halfway across the country in search of better coaching, and the dream of becoming the first African-American woman to win Gold in the all-around gymnastics competition. This week she realized that dream and now she’s a role model for little girls everywhere who dare to dream as well.

How about the American swimmer, who at 10-years-old was relentlessly bullied because of his big ears and lanky build. He worked out his frustrations by swimming endless laps in the pool. That little boy grew into a 6’4” wunderkind, who has won more Olympic Gold medals than any other athlete in the history of the games.

And then there’s the 35-year-old rower from the landlocked, African nation of Niger, which sits on the edge of the Sahara desert. He arrived in London with only three months of rowing experience and trained for the Olympics in an old fishing boat. He finished in 33rd place, dead last, in the men’s single sculls competition. When asked if he plans on competing again in 4 years at the next Olympic Games, he responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” But first he was anxious to return to Niger. "There are lots of people who are waiting for me to get back," he said. "Lots of people who want to start rowing and they need me to teach them."

Many of us love the Olympics because the stories of the athletes who compete are a testament to our belief that we all have the potential to rise above expectations.  We love hearing stories of individuals who succeed despite having the odds stacked against them; those who at one time were told they were fooling themselves to believe that they could achieve what they had set their heart on, because their limitations and the obstacles they’d have to overcome were just too great.

When Paul was writing his letters to the early Christian churches he was probably used to hearing others tell him that he was doomed to fail. 
I imagine they said to him, “You’re crazy. You’re putting so much time and energy into a movement that in a few years time will be gone and forgotten.”
“You used to persecute these Christians, now you’re planting churches for an executed prophet who you never even met, and you’re getting thrown in jail yourself.”
“Why don’t you just give up and go home.”

When we look at the early church we too might wonder how it ever got off the ground.
Paul was a persuasive leader, and he planted many churches as he traveled throughout the first century Greco-Roman world, but his followers were a motley crew of doubters and believers, converts and curiosity seekers.
They were Jews and Gentiles who each brought with them their own list of expectations and visions for this new movement called “The Way”.

Some were raised in devout religious households and others had merely dabbled in the pagan cults of the day.
Some had a faith that was firmly rooted in the God of Abraham and the Law of the Torah, and others flitted from temple to temple, and from god to god, as the spirit moved them.
The Jews were from different sects and often held differing beliefs, and the Gentiles came in with little understanding of the culture and faith of the Jewish Messiah that they had chosen to follow. Arguments ensued over what parts of the Jewish law should and shouldn’t be adhered to, for Jew and Gentile alike, especially in regards to circumcision and dietary restrictions.

The argument over circumcision was pretty straightforward. The Jews saw it as a sign of their covenant with God, and Jesus was a part of that covenant, so all men should practice it. Paul disagreed and saw it as a stumbling block that would discourage Gentiles from joining the Jesus movement. Ultimately it was decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to join the church.

The argument over food, however, was much more complex and took much longer to resolve.
Today we may have discussions about the need to provide gluten free bread during Communion, but you can imagine what gatherings in the early church must have been like when communion involved a full meal.
The Jews in the congregation could not eat certain foods and required their food to be prepared and served in a certain way.
The Gentiles in the congregation didn’t follow these restrictions and often brought food that was leftover from sacrifices to Pagan gods.
Much of the infighting that occurred in the early church was caused by disagreements over the communion table, and the result was hurt feelings on both sides.

The Jews accused the Gentiles of not respecting their beliefs when they served and ate non-Kosher and blasphemous food in their presence.
And the Gentiles accused the Jews of being exclusionary, for not allowing them to sit at their tables unless they conformed to the Jewish interpretation of the law.

Now if we know anything about human behavior, we know that what people choose to fight over typically conceals a much deeper issue.
In reality, the early church was not arguing over food.
They were fighting because they each feared losing their unique identity.
One side was concerned that their freedom to put their religious beliefs into practice was being unfairly restricted, and the other side was concerned that granting that freedom would exclude them from the table, and the community.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
Can we imagine members of our Christian community getting into a similar argument today?

On Wednesday of this week, people all across the nation turned out in droves to buy chicken sandwiches at the fast food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A.
The national “Eat at Chick-fil-A Day” was organized to show support for the chain’s president and COO, Dan Cathy, who has made public statements against same-sex marriage.  The event was intended to counteract those groups and individuals who called for a boycott of Chick-fil-A restaurants in response to Cathy’s statements, and the revelation that his company has given millions of dollars to anti-gay organizations, the most extreme of which advocates for making homosexuality illegal and punishable by death.

Many people participated in the event to show support for Cathy’s right to free speech because as a citizen of this country he has a right to express his personal and religious views publicly and to use his company’s money to support causes that he believes in, no matter how reprehensible they may be to those of us who disagree with him.
There were also those who participated in the event because they agreed with Cathy’s position on gay marriage and they felt called to stand up for their Christian values in a very public way.

Now some of you may be tired of hearing about this controversy and don’t think it’s worthy of being addressed in the pulpit or in any forum, especially when there are much more serious issues for us to deal with in the church and our country as a whole.

I’m sure there are those of us in this congregation who come down on different sides of the Chik-fil-A controversy but I don't think any of us would disagree that if half the people who poured energy into this debate (on both sides) showed up to volunteer at their local soup kitchen or donated the $10 they spent on fast food to their local food bank, we'd all be a lot better off.

Ideally, as Christians we should strive to do both – to help feed the hungry AND speak out against oppression in any form when we see it, because Jesus focused on issues of justice just as much as he did poverty.
But it's much harder for us to agree on what constitutes oppression, and who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed - so we end up arguing and shouting at each other rather than dialoguing about what it is that is causing us pain.     
Because that's what it really comes down to.

It's not about religious freedom, or free speech, or gay marriage, or corporations giving money to organizations that seek to deny rights to one particular group.
It’s about all those things on the surface, but below the surface it’s about the pain we feel when we don't feel heard or supported by another.
It's about not feeling loved and affirmed by our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Paul wrote these words to the Christian community in his letter to the Ephesians:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (4:1-3)

First and foremost God calls us to love another and to act and speak only from a place of love.  To do no harm, and to do unto others as we would have done unto us.

Paul’s response to the squabbles that arose in the early church over food and religious practice was this:

If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy by your food someone for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:15)

His message was intended for the Jews and the Gentiles alike.
If your Jewish brother is upset because you’re eating food that was sacrificed to a pagan god, then don’t eat it. Your love for him should be greater than your need to assert your freedom of choice.
In the same way, if your Gentile brother is poor and he can only afford to eat the scraps left over from another temple’s sacrifice, then do not exclude him from the table. Your love for him should be greater than your need to honor a religious law.

As Paul acknowledges in his letter to the Ephesians we are a diverse group of people in the church. We bring with us many different and unique gifts and perspectives that add to the flavor of the church.
But we can still work together as one body, in Christ, as we are called to do, if we make our love for each other our highest priority.
Unity and peace can only arise from love, and as long as loving one another is our focus, we can’t help but act and treat one another with gentleness, patience, and humility.

But too often we turn a blind eye to each other’s pain and elevate our desire to be “right” above God’s commandment to love and do no harm.

If you think the outpouring of support for Chick-fil-A this week was much to do about nothing, or a righteous demonstration for free speech, I urge you, if you have gay friends, family members or colleagues, ask them how they felt on Wednesday after seeing so many celebrating in the face of their pain.
Ask them if they felt embraced by the love of the body of Christ. 

In the same way, if you have Christian friends, family members, or colleagues who felt moved to show up at their local CFA on Wednesday as an expression of their Christian faith, ask them how it felt afterward, when fellow Christians labeled them as bigoted, narrow minded, and ignorant.
Ask them if they felt embraced by the love of the body of Christ.

Henri Nouwen writes:

The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour—unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.

We are all sinners and saints.
When Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians that God has equipped the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, he was talking about all of us, the ministry of all believers.  We’re all saints.
We’re all called to lead lives worthy of our calling.
To practice humility, patience, and gentleness in all our dealings with each other.  
And we’re all sinners.
And we need to recognize that we often love each other in a very flawed way.

Paul had this dream of a church that would act as one body even though it was made up of many different and often competing parts.
He had this vision of Jews and Gentiles building a loving community of Christ together.
He proved his critics wrong by helping to build and sustain something that outlived him and all who gathered with him in those early churches.

We may think that conflict and disagreements amongst the many different kinds of Christians is something unique to our age but its not.
Christians have had disagreements over beliefs, practices, and who gets a spot at the table since the day Jesus opened his mouth and said, “Follow Me”

We’re never going to get everybody on the same page when it comes to defining what it means to be a Christian.
What we can do is to strive to do a better job of listening to each other.
To put just as much energy into understanding as we put into making ourselves understood.

We all have fears that cause us to take stances on issues that some of our brothers and sisters in Christ find hurtful and harmful.  

For some of us it’s about the world around us changing much faster than we’re ready for and in ways that make us feel less comfortable and more fearful.
For others of us it’s about the world not changing fast enough and not changing in ways that make us feel more comfortable and less fearful.

We may be tempted to throw up our hands and hunker down in our separate camps and pray that those on the other side see the error of their ways.
But Paul knew that we are capable of so much more.
Jesus knew that we are capable of so much more.
God KNOWS that we are capable of so much more.

I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,
making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.


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