Welcome Sunday, September 17, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 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. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Once upon a time, I was a teenage zealot. I knew ALL the answers to the big questions about God and Jesus and the Church. Furthermore, I knew which ones of you were in and which ones were out. And… I must have been insufferable! Except, of course, to the people in my church, where certainty was THE sign of true faith.
Well, God, in his abundant mercy, knocked all that certainty right out of me. Beginning in my mid 20s, I experienced a series of events that shook me to my core. And when it was all over… I wasn’t sure about almost anything. Except, I somehow still believed that God loved me – which was perhaps the only thing I needed. - Mostly, that is where I still am. I still have more questions than I do answers. And I still believe that God loves me.
So, I’ve had the interesting experience of having my feet firmly planted in both worlds – the world of religious certainty and the world of a more expansive idea of faith. And while there are many differences between those worlds, there is also one pronounced similarity. Both of them can be quite tribal and insular. Both of them can be intolerant to people who don’t see things exactly like they do.
And that’s not just true in religion. Black and white thinking, about most things, has infected our entire society. Compromise has become a dirty word and a sign of weakness – somehow un-American. Whole industries make sure that we are always at one another’s throats; always angry, always afraid – simply because we do not agree.
But deep down, we know that life is far more complicated than a 60 second TicTok video. And we know that the truth is more often found in the cracks, in the in-between places of our lives. And, we know that we need people who are different from us just to keep us from the idolatry of our own opinions.
We know these things, but living into them, well, that’s not easy. Even though every week we say: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here” - putting those words into practice, well, that’s another story. And I sometimes fear that what many UCC churches mean by those words is that you’re welcome here as long as you can agree with our agenda. But if you hold another point of view, if you are uncomfortable with anything we proclaim, then perhaps you should just keep on moving. Otherwise, we might have to sit in the same pew with people we don’t agree with… or even like.
But that heady mix of different kinds of people together has always been the challenge of true Christian community. It’s true now in 2023 America. And it was true in the earliest churches. That’s exactly what we see in Romans, chapter 14.
At first glance, it just seems like Paul is calling on the vegetarians and the meat eaters to get along. Not a big deal, right? We have vegetarians and vegans and carnivores in our own congregation. And to the best of my knowledge, no one’s going to be thoroughly scandalized today when I eat a tuna salad sandwich out on the Green.
But my tuna salad sandwich would have scandalized the church at Rome because my tuna salad would be symbolic of a culture war and an intense religious argument. It would be symbolic of two very different ways of looking at the world.
In the first century, as the Gospel spread to the Gentile world, people who had formerly followed pagan religions were being converted to Christianity. And a big part of the pagan religions they had left behind, was animal sacrifice. Whole businesses were built around making the animals available and slaughtering them in a certain way and then dedicating them to the pagan gods. But here’s the twist: pagan temple personnel sometimes also acted as butchers for the general public. So, when you, a Christian, went to the butcher, you had no idea where or what that meat had been. And some of these new Christians wanted nothing to do with their old pagan lives. And so, they abstained from all meat in order to avoid any meat that might have been dedicated to idols.
But not every Roman Christian agreed with them. They thought the vegetarians had gone overboard. What difference could meat make in this bold new world called the Kingdom of God? So, these more “liberated” Christians looked down on the more cautious ones as being weak in their faith. And a fight broke out in the church between the conservatives and the liberals that threatened the very fabric of their community.
Now you might expect that bossy old St. Paul would have a strong opinion about who was right and who was wrong. And maybe he did. But, astonishingly, Paul doesn’t take a side. Instead, he called for thoughtful and thorough co-existence in the midst of diversity and some very “firmly held religious beliefs.” Listen again to what he wrote: “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat - for God has welcomed them (all).” (14:3)
Well, that’s nice, you might be thinking. But it’s very unsatisfying! Does that mean that there was no right or wrong answer to the argument? Well, if there was, apparently it was not more important than the unity of the church. And here we should pause to let that sink in. Unity in Christ is the most important witness to the Gospel that Christians have ever had. Everything else is commentary.
Six years ago, this month, I came to this church to candidate to be your Senior Minister. And at that time, there was a banner, on the front of the building that read: “You are our neighbors. No matter who you vote for, your skin color, your faith, or who you love, we will try to be here for you. That’s what community means. Let’s be neighbors.”
That banner was facing outward toward the town. It was your invitation TO Cheshire at a time of division and rancor.
But that’s the thing about the Gospel. The message we preach is very often the message we need to hear. That happens to me all the time when I get into this pulpit. Just when I think I finally get it, the Spirit calls me to go deeper.
So, what do you think? Can we go deeper? I bet we can!
So, as we begin this 299th year of ministry for Jesus Christ, here’s my best advice for going deeper: scoot over in your pew to make room for those on the right and those on the left. Open your hearts to the faithful and the forgetful. Pass the peace with the evangelical and the agnostic; sit down at table with the carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans; dance and sing with your LGBTQ neighbors; welcome the black and white, rich and the poor, immigrant and native-born. Welcome to all those whom God has welcomed – not just today, but every day of this congregation’s bright and hopeful future.