Exodus 14:19-31 Romans 14:1-12
Let’s start with the Exodus story. How does it feel to be stuck in the middle between two extremes? We understand because spatially and emotionally that is exactly where we are. Israel has packed quickly because the word has come down that Moses has negotiated their freedom from Egypt. As the long line of ex-slaves make their way in the direction of the Red Sea, Pharaoh is not sleeping well. His chief financial advisors, the people who are paid to worry about the budget, have told him the bottom line news. Without the slaves, the country will drop into a recession. Here comes the army of Pharaoh. Israel is caught between the army and the water. September 18, 1862, General Lee and the Confederate Army are trapped with their back to the Potomac River. General McClellan dithers and Lee escapes. On May 27, 1940, the Allies were trapped at Dunkirk. The German army has them cut off, but a flotilla of 100’s of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats from England came to the rescue. The moral: caught between an army and the water, take the water every time.
(The stories above are used as rhetorical devices to provide us with a spatial image of a people caught in the middle. We are to think of ourselves now as a people in the middle). We are a people stuck in the middle.
There’s a ground that’s sinking sand in America – the middle ground. Maybe it has, like Peter Pan’s Never-Never Land, always been the illusion of a people who wish to remain forever young and our unwilling to face the harsh realities of making tough decisions. It’s as if we now live in two separate Americas. There’s an uncivil war right here in America. There has been a closing of the American mind beyond that suggested by University of Chicago’s Allan Bloom. Our minds are encased in concrete and not even the facts can change us. Fact checkers have the most depressing job in the world: they are ignored. But as Garrison Keillor, don’t you love that guy, reminds us: “Facts have that tendency to bring us down a notch. I’d been 6-foot-3 since I was in high school and now I’m a half-inch short of that. If people ask, I still say 6-3 but it’s not true and I know it. I’m shrinking.” Even if we enjoy a period of time where we avoid, deny, or ignore the facts, sooner or later, facts have to be faced. We may debate whether or not global warming is real or fake, but one thing seems clear: the temperature in American politics and religion is rising. For my part, I am going to keep working to make America the nation she can be by the grace of God. I don’t care about greatness because Jesus didn’t care about greatness. I care about grace. Jesus says the least are the greatest.
As a preacher of the gospel, I feel obligated to tell you that love, deep, gift love that goes out to build up others is more powerful than issues. If you are confused about an issue, that’s understandable, but don’t let issues turn your love into a mean, spiteful creepy, crawly little creature. “I love you but I disagree with you” is a perfectly good Christian response. Love of one another matters more than issues.
Now, let’s shift to the Epistle of Romans. Of all things, the church in Rome is stuck right in the middle of a food fight: People are choosing sides; accusations are flying. The veggies have squared off against the rare steaks, and the kitchen is a mess. The abstainers and the alcoholics are at one another’s throat. The Sabbatarians and the “Let the good times roll” everyday people are tied up in a headlock in a Sunday school class. Pick your own issue and you understand what’s happening here.
We want this text to tell us what we already believe, namely, that we are not judgmental, we are open and we don’t think it much matters what we believe as long as we give a little money to missions, care about the poor a little, and show up at church. THAT’S NOT WHAT PAUL SAYS! Paul says EACH OF US WILL BE ACCOUNTABLE TO GOD! It does matter. Getting to the point where we think that it doesn’t matter is not arriving at a Christian position. If the middle ground is where people go when they decide that it doesn’t really matter as long as you believe something, then we are more the children of secular philosophy than the children of God. We are accountable to God and that matters. Conservative Christians may be too judgmental but liberals may have caused people to feel there is no accountability – that we can do as we please as long as we don’t hurt anyone. Not so, says Paul and we should heed his words.
Paul bumped into this kind of behavior everywhere – Christians quarreling, picking sides, criticizing, putting each other down. They were picky, picky, picky all the time. Paul says, “If you want to eat meat, eat meat. If you want to eat vegetables, then chow down on the broccoli, asparagus, rutabagas, Brussel sprouts, and cucumbers, and for the extra spiritual, kale salad. But quit picking on one another. Stop forcing everyone to fit into your patterns.”
What if it is our calling to spar, argue, thrust, parry, extrapolate, analyze, explain, refine, dissent, and rebut what comes down the pike of religious truth claims? I want to argue that arguing with one another, a time-honored Baptist strength is something we should embrace and celebrate. I am not referring to the mean, hurtful arguing that divides churches and feelings get hurt, but to arguments over the kind of people we are going to be, the sort of disciplines we will embrace, and what it means to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in our time. I’m not talking about arguing over the color of the carpet but over the heart of the church.
Let me ask you where churches got the idea that we are supposed to all agree and get along with one another. I think that we have insisted on believing in some ecclesial golden age which we can look back on in pride. Nothing is more demoralizing to a young pastor than to be bombarded with a well-meaning lecture about the glory years of the church.
Look, I have searched the New Testament looking for the perfect church. To my way of thinking, the only church that stood a ghost of a chance was the church born on the Day of Pentecost – the one that saw fire and felt wind and everyone understood the gospel in their native tongue. Luke teases us with the possibility right out of the gate. “44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Well, the water hadn’t dried off the backs of those 3,000 new converts before the church had a fight over who was getting the larger share of the bread. This same church, before celebrating her first birthday, had a fight over whether or not to let those new folks, the Gentiles, into the membership.
Our goal is not to always agree but to discern and prayerfully work out our disagreements even when there can’t be agreement. The goal is to push the boundaries of debate about Christian faith in important new directions.
One of my favorite scripture verses is Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” 19What if arguing and division is our natural state? When did we get so all-fired committed to the idea that we must be in agreement? Is our faith so weak that we can’t tolerate dissent? I think agreement is highly overrated. If we insist on having our own way, isn’t that a power play? Is the church supposed to be the place where we exert control over others and dictate to others? Didn’t Jesus take a towel and wash the feet of his disciples? My grandmother’s Hard Shell Baptists were so moved by this scene that they made foot washing the third ordinance of the church and if you read the text carefully you will hear the cadences of sacramental language. Maybe my grandma was right.
Look, maybe some of you like it better the old way. That’s fine. Maybe some of you think none of this makes any sense at all. Maybe debates over abortion and homosexuality leave you cold and maybe those folks rocking and swaying to the music at the mega-churches make us feel too frigging old. Maybe some nights we dream of what we thought were the good old days and right and wrong seemed easier to figure out and how the music made us cry and the pastor lifted our spirits on a cold winter Sunday. Maybe some really do just want everyone to get along and “you are not trying to change nobody”. Maybe you are trying real hard to adjust. You remember how certain everything seemed back in the 50’s and everyone seemed to be in church. Then came Vietnam and Civil Rights and a host of unbelievable moments and behind each new wave of tragedy you can no longer catch your breath or know which way to turn. All around us the world is changing at warp speed and as the world goes faster we go slower and we want to stop because we feel we just can’t change any more. It just seems like there’s no place left to go for any peace of mind or understanding or truth.
“He’s an old hippie And he don’t know what to do Should he hang on to the old Should he grab on to the new.”
If you have any of those feelings, you are exactly where you need to be – here in church with folks struggling just like you. This is what church has always been like. It takes extraordinary courage to hang in there with this faith that is so full of holes, but you are right where you need to be.
Our vocation is to go back and forth about our purpose, our vision, our goal and what it means to be a faithful church. The early church had to struggle with the old and the new just like we do. And do you know what they did? They threw out some old stuff and they brought in some new stuff. They kept the Old Testament and added the New Testament. They threw out circumcision and put in baptism. They threw out Saturday worship and moved to Sunday worship. The church always struggles with what to do with the old and the new. First Baptist Peoria is struggling with it this morning.
This is our old, old story. Sometimes we to cling to what is old – as in tried and true. Other times we need to grab onto the new. What is certain is that this kind of openness to all conversations will never make the church a dull place. I am excited about the small role I get to play in attempting to move the conversation along and keep the arguments hot and thrilling. What a great time, it turns out, what a great time to be part of the church. The church is not dead because God always holds the keys to life and death in resurrection. As we say in Louisiana, “laissez le bon temps rouler: let the good times roll.”