By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 3:1-6; Romans 15:4-13
None of us like to feel excluded. We want to belong.
When I was about ten years old, I almost drowned in the ocean because I wanted to belong. My family had gone to the beach with my aunts and uncles and cousins. I was the only one among my cousins who didn’t know how to swim. My mom had just eaten a sandwich and told me I needed to give her some time to digest her food before we went back in the water. But as my cousins headed to the water and my mom was absorbed in conversation, I followed them into the ocean. Long story short, had it not been for a tall teenage boy I did not know who grabbed my arm I very well might have drowned. But really I just wanted to belong.
Around that same time in my life, we lived in a house on a busy road. I had few kids my age around to play with. There were two girls my age not far from me. They liked to play horse. They would identify themselves as particular breeds, set up a horse ring with obstacles around the garage, and “gallop” about on all fours. I was terrible at it and I thought it was about the dumbest thing ever. But I did it because I wanted to belong.
Not really all that long ago I attended a retreat. One morning I over-slept and arrived late for breakfast. The tables where the other retreatants were sitting were all full. I sat down at an empty table but, frankly, expected that either someone would join me or someone would encourage me to pull a chair over and they’d make room for me at their table. It didn’t happen. My mind began to swirl with negative self-talk… “I don’t belong here. No one really wants to sit with me. I’m not a part of them.” Good grief, I was a ten-year old again who just wanted to belong.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent and we lit the candle of hope. I wonder; how do you define hope? And what do you most hope for?
One dictionary definition of hope is: “a feeling of trust.” That is a very biblical definition.
As Christians, we trust in God. In fact, the Greek word for faith is really better translated as trust because trust is a relational word. Scripture, as this morning’s passages from Romans and Luke make clear, is the long and amazing story of how God has dealt with us in faithful and trustworthy ways. Scripture, God’s Word, proclaims the faithfulness of God. And Jesus, as God’s Word made flesh, is the quintessential expression of God’s faithfulness to us. Hope is a feeling of trust and, because we have trust in God’s faithfulness, we can be people of hope.
I think that – today – perhaps one of our greatest hopes is the longing for true community. Recently a guest worshiped with us. On the back of their Connection Card under prayer requests they wrote, “World peace.” We now live in a world so deeply divided and disrespectful. It is impossible to cultivate trust in contexts where people are judged and condemned, criticized and excluded. Even if we are on the inside of a group, seeing someone else pushed to the outside leaves us wary and anxious. What about us? Could we be next?
In my last two sermons (which you can find on Trinity’s website) I’ve spoken a great deal about the kingdom of God. Within the kingdom of God, God consistently has God’s own way and God’s way is always one of grace and inclusion as revealed in both of this morning’s scriptures.
The context of Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome reflects a frequent problem in the early church; one we know was front and center in the Corinthian congregation: the question of eating what would have been considered “unclean” food. When you go into Panera to eat, you see their signs that say, “We believe that good food can bring out the best in all of us. Clean food, served in a warm and welcoming environment by people who care.” Panera further defines their “clean food” as food with no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, or flavors and no colors from artificial sources. But, that is not how “clean food” would have been defined in the ancient world.
Jews – and remember the earliest Christians were Jews – defined “clean food” according to the food purity laws that God gave to them, through Moses, on Mount Sinai. There were specific instructions, e.g. about how to drain the blood from an animal after it was killed and before it was cooked and eaten. In addition, in many first century Greco-Roman cities, there were public feasts connected to the worship of pagan gods. I mean, we have a holy meal. We call it communion. We understand it as representative of the body and blood of Jesus and we believe it draws into fellowship with Jesus. So in these first century cities, animals would be sacrificed to pagan gods in the context of pagan worship and then those animals would either be cooked and served in public feasts or they would be passed on to public meat markets. But Christians, like Jews, believed in only one God and were not to worship pagan gods. However, if you were a poor first-century Christian living in a city like Corinth or Rome – and remember, most of the population was very poor – that meat from those pagan feasts or sold at the market at a discount rate, would have been your only opportunity to partake of such an important protein source. And so this debate raged among early Christians over whether followers of Jesus should or should not be forbidden to eat this meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. And they began to judge one another’s holiness or faithfulness around this particular issue. So Paul spent quite a lot of time addressing it. Now, Paul’s bottom line was this: if you don’t believe in the god the meat was sacrificed to, then it’s just meat. Eat it. That was the short, dietary answer. But there’s more to it. Paul was more concerned that people were using this issue as a way to divide and separate themselves from one another. They used this issue to pass judgment on one another. And that was the real problem.
So, what’s the fix for us when we find ourselves getting caught up and distracted by religious rules and regulations? Well, it’s the reminder that even from the beginning, going all the way back to Abraham, God’s goal has always, consistently been to bring all people into relationship with God. And that goal was realized in the coming of Jesus through whom all people have access to the grace and faithfulness of God. Hope is now a universal possibility. Because of what Jesus did, the tangible expression he was of God’s grace, “all flesh” – as John the Baptist puts it – will see the salvation of God.
What is hope? It is recognition that a world of division and judgment, discrimination and exclusion is not the will of God. What is hope? It is the recognition that the coming of Jesus into a world in darkness was not a one-time historic event. It is still happening today. Jesus comes within us and among us in order to create that peaceable kingdom the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. What is hope? It is the recognition that we all need to repent of attitudes of judgment and condemnation, disregard and disrespect. We need to change our minds, the real meaning of repentance, we need to change the way we think about others.
Right now, even our United Methodist Church has become a place of division and judgment. But division and judgment are never God’s will. Here is more of what the apostle Paul said. As he addressed this divisive issue of unclean food with the churches in Rome and Corinth, he advised them that they shouldn’t judge one another. If people felt sinful by eating that pagan meat, then they shouldn’t eat it and others shouldn’t make fun of them or look down on them because they wouldn’t eat it. But, for others, if eating that meat felt like nothing more than a good source of protein, then they should eat it and no one should judge them. When we are in fellowship with Christ and are prayerful, the Spirit of God guides us and we don’t need to be judging one another. Certainly, there are things people do that clearly harm others. Those things are sins and need to be addressed because of the hurt they cause others. But there are other things that do not cause harm; but about which our consciences differ. And that’s okay. If it feels wrong for you, don’t do it. But don’t place that same judgment on others. Paul in chapter 14 of Romans asked those early Christians, “Who are you to pass judgment[i]… Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?”[ii]
Friends, over the past several years we’ve seen a sharp decline in the number of people attending church. But perhaps that is because some who visited churches found places of division and judgment and condemnation. If we ever hope for them to join us, we need to cultivate a context of trust, of welcome and compassion.
We all hope for peace, for a community that cultivates trust. We all hope for a place to belong. None of us want to be judged or excluded. John the Baptist proclaimed the good news that “all flesh” would see the salvation of God in Jesus. Today our world desperately needs hope that there can be a place where grace and mercy override judgment and division. That place is God’s kingdom. That place is the Church. We can be that place.
[i] Romans 14:4
[ii] Romans 14:10
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