September 14, 2008
Eagle River Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Dianne O’Connell
In My House There is Room
for the Whole Family
Good morning. It is a pleasure to be back as your guest preacher while Piper is attending her conference. Today I will be preaching on the lectionary passage from Romans because I believe that the message is timely, or maybe timeless.
In my experience, Christians have always tended to glorify their differences from their brothers and sisters in the faith, often to the point of excommunication, family shunning, and even war.
When I was growing up I distinctly remember the “shalt nots”. Thou shalt not do a number of things, depending upon which church you attended. My earliest study of “comparative religions” focused on what others could not, nor shalt not, do. I learned that some of my friends shalt not eat meat on Fridays, others shalt not dance or wear makeup. Some received wine during the Communion service, others only grape juice. I learned of those who shalt not seek medical treatment, and others who could seek medical treatment, but shalt not receive blood during that treatment.
One friend attended a church where they shalt not cut their hair nor play upon musical instruments. Another attended worship services on Friday evening, and yet another worshiped on Saturday. Later, through answering a knock on my door one Saturday, I learned that some Christians believed in baptizing their deceased relatives, and did a lot of genealogical work for that purpose. Each religious tradition had its own scriptural passage supporting its particular identifying difference. Very few, if I recall, spent time expounding on what made us all Children of One God. Even fewer talked of God being God for persons who did not consider themselves Christians at all.
Perhaps, suggests Paul, we had better decide what are the essentials and not “pass judgment on disputable matters.” In verse 19, he adds, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
Welcome to the Body of Christ, Paul says, but don’t judge those whose faith takes a somewhat different form from your own. He gives two examples. First he speaks of persons whose faith allows them to eat anything as opposed to a person who, for religious reasons, only eats vegetables. We may even have a “vegan” in our own family. The second example: those Christians who value one day of the week as more important than other days. I am thinking that he may have been speaking of those Jewish Christians who continued to worship on Fridays, as opposed to other Christians who had changed to worshipping on Sundays.
Paul says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Regardless of how our conscience leads us, the important thing is that we honor the Lord and give thanks to God. But we must also remember that we are no longer just rugged individualists; we are part of a community. We must be sensitive to others and their ways of expressing their faith, well aware that we will all stand before God one day.
Christians, it seems, have always been divided over non-essentials of faith and differences of biblical interpretation. Fundamentalists, evangelical conservatives, evangelical liberals, and flaming liberals (!) all distance themselves over differences of opinion. In a political season when argument and name-calling too often out-shouts charity and tolerance, Paul’s discussion is an important one.
About ten years ago, I
met via Internet a woman from
She was intrigued and asked, "Have you read Michael Ingham's book, Mansions of the Spirit?" Well, I hadn't, but I figured I could fake it until I had time to get over to Border's Books.
The next day, I went to Border's, no Mansions of the Spirit; I went to Barnes and Noble, no Mansions of the Spirit; I went to Metro Books, you got it, wasn't there; wasn't in the order catalogues either.
"I don't understand,”
Marie e-mailed me that evening, “It was
featured on the cover of the Canadian edition of Newsweek, and it's
terribly controversial here in
In a few days, the book arrived from
Canada is not very far away. We speak the same language, and we have similar cultures. We are relatively politically friendly. Our people practice the same religions. Yet a book which is making serious impact in one English-speaking country is totally unheard of and unavailable in the English-speaking country next door.
We're isolated, folks and
I sometimes worry about that. The author
of the book is an Anglican bishop who lived in
Before we dialogue with others, however, we need a firm understanding of our own roots; our own Scriptural and cultural foundations. We need to know and personally feel what it means to be Christian, and how we got that way. And we need to recognize whether or not we are an “exclusivist” or “inclusivist.”
Let me explain. Salvation, for the exclusivist, means that we must believe exactly what the exclusivist believes about God, and we must give up entirely whatever it was that we thought we believed before. The exclusivist says, “no one can be saved unless they do it my way.” But, we may be missing something in this dialogue. Some people don't really come at spirituality from the point of being "saved". Some folks look at spirituality from the point of attaining enlightenment. “Aha! I understand.” The two sets of religious vocabularies are not interchangeable, the bishop warns. But it is critical that we understand each other’s language.
Nearly everyone believes in dialogue, the bishop further suggests -- as long as the purpose of the dialogue is to convince the other party that they are wrong and we are right.
Maybe I can illustrate this with an example from when I used to train chaplain volunteers. I had one Protestant minister who delighted in telling my Unitarian student -- who did not believe in the exclusive divinity of Jesus -- that he loved her anyway and would pray for her.
Now can anyone tell me why this "loving", "tolerant" comment did not please the Unitarian? It made her livid. The minister was completely perplexed. He said he loved her and would pray for her -- what could possibly be wrong with that?
She said his comment was condescending and offensive. She didn't need or want his prayers. She would pray that he attained some form of enlightenment before his pathetic, narrow little life ended on this earth.
My effort at peacemaking between these two was totally futile. Each of them refused to consider the possibility that the other’s position might have any validity. Their distaste for one another lopped over into the rest of the group -- each volunteer determining who was more reasonable or more unreasonable, looking at it from his or her own religious or philosophical point of view. Dialogue was no help whatsoever. Every time we tried to talk about it, it got worse.
The bishop believes that my little volunteer group could represent what’s hindering peace-making in the world-at-large. We need more than a willingness to evangelize or even quietly coexist with people from religious and cultural groups different than our own. Are we merely coexisting, being polite, until we muster the arguments to convince them that they are wrong and we are right?
We have to begin to understand that, yes, we may be right for us; but they might be right for them. Two different opinions, two different experiences, both of which may be right. God formed these cultures, watched as each developed spiritually -- and possibly sent guides most suitable for each one.
The bishop uses the parable of the five blind men trying to describe an elephant. The first takes hold of the elephant’s leg and proclaims that the elephant is like a large, sturdy tree; the next grabs hold of the elephant’s ear and suggests that it is like a large jungle leaf; another grabs the trunk and suggests a large serpent; the next the tail, which reminds him of a rope; and the fifth puts put hands against the elephant’s side and proclaims the elephant is like a large bumpy wall. Which of them was right, and which was wrong?
God is the constant, he explains. The elephant is real -- so is each of the perceptions of the blind men trying to understand and describe the elephant from their own limited experience. God did not create the elephant to trick us, but to lead us into a deeper understanding of elephantness and of what the elephant can mean for us.
The bishop believes that as we become more deeply committed to Christ in our Christian faith we actually discover companionship and fellowship in faith with people who follow other religious traditions. It's the depth of commitment that counts. No one wants to dialogue with a wishy-washy, non-committed Christian. If one truly wants to learn what it means to be Christian, one wants to interact with a practicing Christian. One can't learn much about the spiritual foundation of the Jews from a person who states, "Well my parents were Jewish, but I never learned much about it." It is important to not only talk about our spiritual heritage, but grow from it, learn from it, become part of it -- before sharing it with others as a foundation for dialogue.
Ingham invites Christians to remain firmly rooted in their faith in Jesus Christ, but also to recognize the Grace of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the other great religious traditions. By so doing, we can begin to overcome our historic divisions and antipathies, and work together for world peace. This will not be easy. I have my deep, embedded prejudices, just like some of you.
But maybe we can start
with something easier. Let’s look at the
political scene in the
We may know that Sen. Barak Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ; that Sen. Joe Biden is a Roman Catholic, that Sen. John McCain is an Episcopalian, and that Gov. Sarah Palin is an evangelical Christian. Can we acknowledge that the social and political beliefs of all four candidates are informed by their understanding of the Christian message – even though not one of the four is a practicing Presbyterian!? Can we acknowledge this, get past the labels, and sit down to honestly and openly discuss the problems facing this nation – and then vote accordingly?
I hope so. May our Lord guide us and be with us as we try to live out his will for our lives together: as families, as community, as a nation, and as a world. Amen.