A sermon preached on June 24, 2014 in response to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Text: Romans 15:1-13
What is hope? Unless we know what it is, it’s hard to “abound” in it — even harder to share it. So let’s see…
the thing with feathers… (Emily Dickinson)
A waking dream (Aristotle)
the worst of all evils because it prolongs our torments (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Like the sun (Samuel Smiles)
Hope is a gift only we can give one another. (Elie Wiesel)
If poets and philosophers tell us anything, it’s that Hope is complicated. Nowhere was that more obvious than at our Presbyterian General Assembly. Defining hope is tough, especially when two or more are gathered to discuss “complicated issues” in the church. As many expressed in the news and through social media, what gave many of us hope, also caused some to feel significant grief.
Hope is… complicated.
If nothing else, Paul was a purveyor of this complicated gift. Throughout his ministry among the various churches, he tried to make sure they could grow in hope. Though what he said sometimes sounded like nagging, sometimes like haranguing, sometimes like condemning, his purpose was always to build up the community of faith so that they could, in turn, build up their neighbors.
The church in Rome was no exception. It was a complicated ministry setting, too. There were some particularly thorny issues plaguing the Christian communities there. These mostly revolved around differences in practices and ethical beliefs regarding food, drink, and keeping special days. These were the issues which pertained to whether or not the Christian community was committed to observance of the traditional Jewish laws or not. In short: the Roman church’s struggle was an internal one. And the work they had to do was to determine whether those struggles were central to the gospel or not.
This was to be expected in a diverse community with both Jews and Gentiles coming together to worship Jesus Christ and to live as his followers. Though this young church was working hard to sort out whether they were to be wholly Jewish followers of Christ or something else, the unfortunate victims in this in-house struggle were the newly baptized Gentiles. These “weak” ones, as Paul described them, are the ones who bore the weight of having to change so that they fit in with the community’s requirement that they become Jewish first and that they maintain Jewish law as an essential of their shared faith.
We know something about thorny issues In PCUSA. From our differences in understanding and applying biblical interpretation related human sexuality to our disagreements about what our historical connection to ancient Israel means today to our understanding of how the church should enact it’s prophetic calling in society, we struggle together to determine what if any of these emerge from the essentials of our faith. And we don’t always agree on which of these can help the church abound in hope. This past week, these differences played out once again in Assembly committee and plenary sessions where elders and pastors were called on to share their thoughts and then vote to provide denominational positions on a variety of concerns, including:
gun violence; fossil fuel investment; our relationships with ecumenical and interfaith partners; our concern for immigrants; the Belhar Confession; the military use of drones; the way we live out our commitment to peace in Israel-Palestine; the use of criminal background checks before calling a pastor; and the definition of marriage.
Paul’s encouragement to ground ourselves in the hope that is within us comes at another important juncture in the life of our denomination. And it’s important that as Presbyterians we hear that loud and clear. But I think Paul is speaking to us here in Oakland, too. What if Paul had written this letter to us? With all that faces our congregation, hope seems to be an important source of energy for us. Imagine if Paul had written this letter:
To all the Saints at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, I thank God for all of you because your faithfulness is well known. I know that like me, you are not ashamed of the gospel. You know it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. I’m writing today to remind you of the hope you have within you. You are God’s people. God’s beloved children and I want to encourage you to deepen your faith in this way: Make sure you’re pleasing others instead of yourselves. Keep your focus on building up your neighbors who don’t know how strong God’s love makes them. Welcome each other in spite of your differences. Remember that Christ welcomes you just as you are and that the important thing is making sure in everything you do, you are giving glory to God, remembering that you are already filled with God’s goodness, and called show that as you live as Christ’s hopeful people.
Grace and Peace to you, Paul
Now for us, these exhortations play out in interesting ways. First of all, Paul wants to be sure we know that instead of pleasing ourselves, we (who are the strong ones) are supposed to be there for the weak ones who are struggling. It’s easy to lose that emphasis when we read the English translation of this text. The words in v.1 the phrase “put up with” makes it sound like we are merely to tolerate the failings of the weak. This makes it sound like some kind of bare minimum – like something you’d do with a bothersome mosquito at a campsite. But in reality, the Greek here is more powerful. Paul isn’t just telling us to put up with each other. He is calling us to bear each other’s burdens – to accept the struggles of the other person as our own – as something we should sacrificially carry so that their faith might also be strengthened.
While that may seem like a big hurdle to jump, the bar is set even higher when we recognize that in order to shift our focus to our neighbors, we have to acknowledge that we are the ones who have power – power to hurt and power to heal; power to crush hope and power to strengthen hope; power to discourage and power to inspire. We have power because we already know Christ. We have power because we have already been gifted by the Holy Spirit. We have power and that means we have to choose every day to give it away for the sake of others who are struggling.
Second, Paul provides us with clear direction for our behavior when we disagree. This is probably the most important exhortation for Presbyterians. We like to bicker. Not only do we like to bicker, we’ve set it up so that in meetings, both local and national, we use an adversarial process of debating pros and cons. We’ve institutionalized this in our Book of Order and through the use of Robert’s Rules. Though this falls in the category of “it is what it is,” Paul’s words are instructive here. Even though we’re set up to be in conflict, instead of focusing on the things about which we disagree, we are called to work hard to seek a harmonious way to glorify God with one voice. Make no mistake – the call to praise in one voice is clear. But Paul never asks his community to agree on everything. That would have been as impossible then as it is now. For Paul, unity means that the church would use it’s common voice to glorify God, even when they couldn’t agree on whether circumcision and keeping kosher were essentials of the faith. Paul believed that if everyone kept focused on caring for their neighbor, then the differences in opinion about what he considered minor matters of faith wouldn’t get in the way of the fundamental proclamation of Christ as healer and Savior of all.
Paul is no fool. He knows that for as many individuals as there are in the church, there will be that many opinions. We experience that here too. It’s likely that each one of us has been in a conversation (or a minor conflict) about something that seemed vital to the life of the church. Paul asks us to look closely at these disagreements, to do some perspective-taking. We shouldn’t be asking ourselves: Is this something I need? Rather we need to ask: are the choices we make helping lead people to an experience of God’s love in Christ Jesus? If we were constantly striving to support our neighbor (including those in the pew next to us), then when we differ on minor details, we it should be next to impossible to break the fundamental unity we affirm whenever we repeat our baptismal vows together.
Instead of trying work for what makes us feel good, Paul calls us to be more like Christ, to pour our energy into the building up of those around us. Instead of merely offering our friendship to people who think like us, believe like us, who like the same things we do, we are called to become a servant so that those who have no idea what the love of God looks like can experience it firsthand.
This may sound like really hard work, and to be honest, it is. But we have been powerfully gifted already. The Spirit has been here – filling us with hope, strengthening us to share that hope from the moment of our baptism. To be sure – there will be difficulties and we will fight from time to time. But our call is to live into the hope that is within us – and to be pay attention for opportunities to provide what our neighbors need. In 2001 an interviewer asked Desmond Tutu – “How do you remain optimistic in the light of all the problems in South Africa?”. He replied – “I am not an optimist, I have hope, I think that is far better.”
We have hope. And we have the promise of God’s never-failing love. May we be encouraged to share that love with the hurting and hopeless wherever we encounter them.