09.17.2017 Preaching Text: “So tend to your knitting. You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God.” (Romans 14:12 MSG)
In our reading this morning from Romans, the Apostle Paul makes an important point, one we’d all do well to keep in mind. In short, he’s reminding us to focus our attention on the important things.
In discussing the final chapter of Tony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture this past week, the adult book study group heard him emphasize how essential it is for churches to stay focused on their mission, their vision, their goals.
Churches, that is, easily lose sight of these things and end up practicing what he calls “work-avoidance.” We distract ourselves with all kinds of busy work and even indulge in petty squabbles precisely to avoid doing what really needs to be done.
As such, as I’ve said elsewhere, churches can end up “majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors.”
Paul offers a similar complaint. He lifts up two issues that were causing dissension within the early church – the Mosaic dietary restrictions as well as the observance of Jewish holidays.
To us these appear to be minor issues. Nonetheless they once were considered paramount to many and in some instances were in danger of tearing the church apart.
As we know, the church in Corinth famously struggled with the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Those who saw themselves as intellectually superior scoffed at the “weaker” members of the church who thought it was a sin.
Paul, for his part, agrees that there’s nothing wrong with this meat because, for one, God made all creatures, and two, the idols they were sacrificed to don’t actually exist.
But he goes a step further, and roundly criticizes those with the “superior” knowledge because their self-congratulatory conceit was separating Christ’s Body, the church.
Paul argues that if certain church members think eating this meat is a sin but see others eating it, their faith will be weakened. Thus out of selfless love, the “stronger” ought to show deference toward their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and not eat the meat in question.
Failure to do this led some of these elite “spiritualists” to actually celebrate the Lord’s Supper apart from the “weaker” members. Never mind that Christ had invited every single member of the church to the table.
The observance of Israel’s holy days was yet another cause of friction. Paul agrees with the theologically “strong” that such observation is not central or even necessary for Christians. But again, lording one’s “tolerant” and “open-minded” understanding over others only serves to weaken the Body, causing un-Christ-like division and disharmony.
Eugene Peterson, in The Message, sums up Paul’s thinking beginning in verse 5: “What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli.”
“None of us,” he continues, “are permitted to insist on our own way on these matters. It’s God we are answerable to – all the way from life to death and everything in between – not each other.
“That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again, so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.” [Italics mine]
“So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother?” he asks. “And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I’d say it leaves you look pretty silly – or worse. Eventually, we’re all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren’t going to improve your position there one bit.”
“So tend to your knitting,” he concludes. “You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God.”
Of course neither Jewish dietary laws nor the observance of Israel’s holidays is a burning issue today. So what might be a modern-day equivalent?
Well, how about politics? Of course, you might assume eating meat or observing holidays is not of the same order of magnitude as politics. Politics, after all, is IMPORTANT.
But this underestimates just how important the observance of Mosaic Law was for many newly-minted Christians. For them it was just as important as politics may seem to be for us. Which is why the analogy is apt. Politics is important, which is why it becomes an issue. Then again, as Paul points out, it’s just not as important as we assume it to be.
Last year, the Harwich Clergy Association held two ecumenical services, one following the terrorist attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the other after the deadly assault on members of the Dallas Police Department.
I found myself somewhat uncomfortable with both services, not because I was unmoved by these events but because, rather than grieving the senseless loss of innocent life, I sensed my colleagues were more eager to put a political spin on things. As such, I wrote an open letter to the clergy group explaining why I would not participate in any further services.
“My hesitation,” I began, “is due to a long-standing approach to ordained ministry. I was ordained as a ‘pastor and teacher,’ not a politician or social worker. As I see it, my task is to help the congregation to think theologically. It is then up to each individual to define how his or her faith relates to political and social policy. I don’t see it as my job, in other words, to tell people what they should think regarding issues about which reasonable and faithful people can and do disagree. Given the often complicated and nuanced nature of much policy, it is not always obvious as to how faithful people are to best live out Christ’s mandate to do good.
“Beyond that, we today live in a contentious society where everything is politicized…EVERYTHING. It is therefore inevitable that any position the church takes automatically defines a person along narrow partisan lines. This leads to unnecessary conflict and inevitable mistrust.
“As I see it, people are not necessarily looking for the ‘correct’ political views in church but relief from the ways these same views separate and alienate. People are looking for sanctuary from the culture wars raging in our already over-politicized society, seeking things more akin to the healing Spirit of Christ.
“It’s not that social and political issues are unimportant – far from it. As we know, some early Christians lived or died depending on whom they worshipped, Christ or Caesar. You can’t get more political than that. It’s just that, for me, political and social issues are secondary or tertiary to the foundational unity and oneness we have in Christ. We are brothers and sisters in Christ – first and foremost. Whether we’re Democrats or Republicans is, for me, far down the list.”
True to form, following the second ecumenical service, a retired clergyperson wrote a letter of complaint to the clergy group arguing that one of the services had not taken a tough enough stance to suit his political tastes.
I commented: “For me this letter is the inevitable response to any such service. In our polarized political environment, you’re required to pick sides…or else. Someone always feels cheated or betrayed.”
And, alas, the Body of Christ is divided in the process.
With apologies to Peterson’s Paul, I therefore would suggest that if you lean to the left politically, do so to the glory of God and thank God for the Democratic Party; if you lean to the right politically, do so to the glory of God and thank the Republican Party. But try not to criticize your brother or condescend to your sister.
For eventually eternity will sort it all out. As Paul says, “We’re all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren’t going to improve you position there one bit.”
Mind your own knitting, in other words. After all, “you’ve got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God.” Amen.