Saturday, September 10, 2011

13th Sunday after Pentecost: Putting on Compassion

Scripture readings:  Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103: 8-13, Romans 14:1-12 (sermon text); Matthew 18:21-35

We started learning to “put on Jesus” last week, learning that the main garment in our Jesus wardrobe is love.  This week Paul teaches us that well-dressed Christians also wear compassion and tolerance for each other.

I remember the first time I discovered that not all Christians believe that the same things are acceptable.

I was in 8th grade and had attended worship and Sunday school at a friend’s church.  Her dad taught our Sunday school, so I of course knew he was a really good Christian, because only strong Christians taught Sunday school. 

After church, my friend and I were talking to other friends about later plans.  Her dad found us and told us to hurry; he’d be waiting out by the car.  We finished and walked out the front door and I stopped in shock. 

He was SMOKING!!!

At my church, smoking was a big sin.  It was right up there with the 10 commandments.  I was pretty sure that the only reason that there wasn’t an 11th commandment that said, “Thou shalt not smoke” was because tobacco hadn’t been discovered when Moses was on Mt Sinai.  Still, smoking was a huge sin and REAL Christians, especially Sunday school teachers, would never smoke.

Later on that day, I asked my friend about her dad.  She didn’t think it was odd at all that her dad smoked.  Lots of people from her church smoked.   But she found it strange that my good German grandmother kept beer in her fridge and would occasionally have a drink.  She was positive that you couldn’t be a Christian and drink alcohol. 

I realized then that there were some things that Christians just did not agree on. 

As shocked as I was about my Sunday school teacher smoking, I was even more shocked to discover that Christians would condemn each other for not agreeing on things like smoking and drinking.    

We can be like little children pointing fingers at each other.  “She did this!”  “He did that!”  “My way is better!”  “No, my way is the right way!”  But children don’t always see the big picture and they don’t always understand the nuances of a situation.  Sometimes they find out that neither one of them is right. 

Sometimes it takes a loving Parent to step in and settle the argument. 

It might seem silly to us now that Paul has to teach the Romans not to condemn each other on whether they ate meat or what days they worshipped on – just as silly as me condemning my friend’s dad for smoking.

But this was a big issue in the early church.

You probably heard about the issue with eating meat, especially for people who lived in the cities.  Most of the meat had been offered to the local gods.  Some Christians had no problem with that.  They understood that there was only one God and those local gods were false gods.  So they felt free to eat meat that had been offered to idols.

Other Christians were not so sure.  They thought that by purchasing the meat offered to the idols, you were somehow honoring those false gods and participating in their worship. 

In addition, there were the Jewish dietary laws.  The Hebrew Scriptures have all sorts of teaching on what to eat – not eating certain animals, not eating dairy and meat together.  For the Jewish people, what they ate was important.  So Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians argued about the need to keep kosher.

And then there were those who wanted even stricter, purer rules about eating:

Did you know that in the beginning, some people believe that God wanted us to all be vegetarians?

Well, at first God told Adam and Even they could eat from any tree in the garden except for that 1 special tree (Genesis 2:16-17), so technically we were fruitarians.  But after that incident with the apple, God included plants of the field in our diets.  (Genesis 3:17-19)  So based on that, they figured God must have wanted us to be vegetarians.

It wasn’t until after the flood that God allowed people to eat meat (Genesis 9:3-4).  So some people, upon reading or hearing the scriptures decided that the thing that would be most in keeping with God’s original intent for creation was to eat no meat at all.

With all the different opinions about what a REAL Christian should eat or not, groups began to judge each other.  They would get together and argue over the fine points of behavior and try to prove their position was the right one.  In the meantime, they would get so distracted, that they forgot all the things they agreed on.  They forgot that they served the Lord of Love.  They forgot to put on Jesus’ compassion.

Paul tells the firmly, “STOP IT!”  Paul tell the Romans that the ‘strong’ must not despise the ‘weak’ for their belief and the “weak’ must not pass judgment on the ‘strong’ for their stance.

Instead, Paul tells them to ‘put on compassion’ for one another.  In the next few verses, he writes:

Romans 14:13-19   Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.  14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.  15 If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.  16 So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.  17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  18 The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval.  19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

‘Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”  How do we do that?  By treating each other the way we would want to be treated.  By acting with love and mercy and forgiveness.

Last weeks’ gospel talked about holding a fellow believer accountable in love.  And we do need to do that.  There are times when it is clear that someone is making choices that are not life-giving and that break relationship instead of building it up.  At those times we need to speak the truth, no matter how painful, in love.

But accountability is surrounded by forgiveness and reconciliation.  Today, we heard Jesus’ parable about the servant who didn’t pay it forward.  He was forgiven an enormous amount, yet couldn’t respond to that forgiveness by extending the same generous compassion to a fellow servant.

It’s easy to see that we are the servants who have been forgiven abundantly, extravagantly by the King of the Universe.  Jesus paid our great debt once and for all on the cross.  The King wants us to respond to this mercy and grace by showing compassion and grace to those around us. 

We are a forgiven people who live that grace by offering forgiveness and reconciliation to others.  We live grace by putting on the compassion of Christ.  Jesus’ compassion and mercy changes us.  It gives us the ability to be compassionate and forgiving instead of judging– even to those who would judge us!

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