treat them gently

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If I were to catalog all my sermons, I imagine I would find I mostly preach from the Gospels. I am fascinated by the words and actions of Jesus. I also love the stories. The letters grew out of specific situations in churches across the Mediterranean world, but most of those stories sit in the background. This week, however, the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans read like it came in Saturday’s mail.

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One of the things we often overlook is that Jesus didn’t leave a master plan for how the Church should grow and expand. He sent his disciples out into the surrounding villages a few times, but they didn’t have to follow best practices, or submit monthly progress reports, or meet yearly quotas.

After Jesus was no longer with them, his followers began to scatter, and they took their faith with them. The better part of the New Testament is made up of letters to churches all over the Mediterranean world, and as a result newcomers began to ask questions or to do things that had not been dealt with before. When the churches were still in Palestine, the members were people who had been born and raised as Jews. Jesus was Jewish, as were all of the disciples. Christianity, as we know it, didn’t exist. The churches in places like Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus began with Jewish followers of Christ and then began to attract people who had never heard of Judaism, much less followed its teachings, yet they wanted to follow Christ.

No one had planned for that, but they had to figure out how to deal with it—and food was a big part of the problem. The Jewish folks kept kosher, which meant they avoided much of the meat that those who were not Jewish enjoyed regularly. Because the general society outside of Palestine was polytheistic, much of the meat that was available had been blessed before gods of other religions, so many devout folks thought they shouldn’t eat it. The church in Rome divided into two camps over what was on the menu. Before too long, every potluck dinner was a standoff.

It makes me think of an old Bill Murray movie, What About Bob?, where Murray plays the role of Bob Wiley, a mentally unstable person, who goes to see a new psychiatrist who asks him about his divorce. Bob says, “Well, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

The doctor says, “So let me get this straight—your marriage ended because she didn’t like Neil Diamond?”

Paul wrote to the church in Rome with the same kind of tone: “So let me get this straight—your church is struggling because some of you eat meat?” Then he said,

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.

Treat them gently.

One aspect of gentleness is something we talk about a lot, and that is compassion. “Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” is a saying that goes back hundreds of years and still holds up. Even Paul echoes it: Remember, they have their own history to deal with.

Another aspect of gentleness that Paul speaks to is humility—the reality that we are not always right, and, even if we are, we are not in a position to judge others by our standards. As Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” I feel like I’m pretty smart and have a thoughtful way of looking at life and faith, and I am quite sure it never crosses God’s mind to think, “What would Milton do?”

Both sides of the food fight were convinced they were right, and they were dug in. When Paul responded, he didn’t even discuss who was right and who was wrong. He didn’t weigh the merits of both sides or compel them to agree to disagree. He told them to stop judging and despising each other, and to risk seeing each other as more than the opposition; we are siblings in Christ. In life and in death, both individually and together, we belong to God. All of us. God welcomes even those with whom we disagree.

Our life together in Christ is more profound than an affinity group where like-minded people gather to shore one another up. We are called to be here to do the crucial and challenging work of learning how to live together, learning to love one another as Christ loves us, which means, yes, that everyone is welcome, and it also means that we are willing to do more than step around the issues so that life goes smoothly. Creating a space where everyone feels like they belong means creating a space that is both comforting and confrontive.

Theologian Craig Kocher writes,

The world will not know us by our perfect harmony; it will know us by our love. By mimicking God’s choosing to be with us in Christ in the way that we choose to remain with others in the body, we become church and model the unity of the gospel.

Paul says that all of us will one day stand before the throne of grace, and on that day the questions will not be: Was your theology perfect? Did you point out the sins of others? Did you win the debate? Did you get the practices exactly right? Instead God will ask us: Did you love? Did you forgive? Did you encourage? Did you build up the Body of Christ? Did you help others become holy? Did you help others serve God?

I haven’t been able to think about this passage without also thinking about the reality that we are a little over a year away from another presidential election and we are about to be inundated—no, lambasted—with all kinds of media that only know how to divide us into red and blue, and that work hard to make our differences feel intractable. The din of division is deafening. Intentionally.

Through it all, we are going to gather here, week after week, as people who have committed to life together, and, also, as people whose opinions fall across the continuum of political thought. We are going to cancel out each other’s votes. Some of us will be elated when others are devasted by the results. In between now and then, we will face a variety of instances when we have the choice to risk and deepen our relationships or to keep each other at arm’s length.

When I say risk, I don’t mean argue. I’m not trying to turn coffee hour into a reflection of the news of the week. The point of asking each other’s opinion is not so we can correct it, or so we can answer in a way that lets us feel like we won something. The point is to share what is at stake beyond the headlines—why something matters on a personal level—and to listen for ways to better understand each other.

I will risk an example of what I am talking about. I have two godchildren who are gay. Our former foster daughter is as well, as are several loved ones I consider chosen family. When our goddaughter got married, none of her fiancée’s immediate family even acknowledged the wedding, much less attended. I danced the father-daughter dance with her, and I felt both honored and heartbroken. To talk about being “open and affirming” is not a theoretical or even theological exercise for me. It’s not a political issue. I want the people I love to know they would belong here. I want anyone who walks through that door to feel like they belong.

I also know you have stories to tell about what that phrase means to you. Whatever signs we hang outside, we have to learn to talk to one another, to trust one another. To treat each other gently.

Listen again to Paul’s words, and this time as though he was writing not to the church in Rome, but to us here in Hamden.

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.

Treat them gently. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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