Who are we to judge?

Good morning and thank you for the invitation to lead worship this morning at Sugar Grove. One of the reasons I accepted Asel Kennedy’s invitation even though I’ve had to turn down many other requests, is because when I think of Sugar Grove, I’m reminded of Ephesians 1:15: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”

Several of my friends, George Lilley and the Rev. Dr. Shelly Barrick Parsons for example, have often led you in worship, and of course Leonard Graham is now moderator at First Church in Morgantown, where I attend and my wife is clerk of session. All have nothing but affection for you and speak highly of this congregation.

But I first became aware of Sugar Grove Presbyterian Church several years ago when I was briefly the Presbytery of West Virginia’s Theological Education Fund representative. I would get these reports from the Office of Theological Education in Louisville of all the contributions from West Virginia to the TEF, and much to my chagrin it wasn’t really a whole lot from our presbytery. But then, overall, it’s not really as much as it should be anywhere, but that’s – mostly – another story.

The one place that did stand out was Sugar Grove church. The amount that Sugar Grove contributed to the TEF was far beyond what most churches, except the very largest, gave and, on a per member basis, outstripped them all. Why, I wondered.

Of course you know the reason. It was because of the integrity and generosity and foresight of Leonard Graham, and the willingness of this congregation to support his request that any compensation you would provide him instead be channeled to the TEF.

So every year for the past 24 years, Sugar Grove has donated about $2,500 to the TEF, totaling – and I confirmed this with the Office of Theological Education this week – $62,160 to support our Presbyterian seminaries. That is absolutely remarkable for a church of this size. I would venture to say it may be the highest, per-member rate in the denomination – certainly one of them.

The TEF is the only dedicated source of denomination-wide funding for theological seminaries related to PC(USA). These moneys directly subsidize the seminaries’ operating budgets and enhance each school’s ability to offer financial aid to students. It is unfortunate, I think, that this fund only is able to provide a little over a million dollars a year to our 10 Presbyterian seminaries, and two affiliated seminaries.

So your impact is even more significant, and on behalf of the church at large and of students at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas; Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia; University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa; Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky; McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois; Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey; San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo and Pasadena, California; Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia; Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and Charlotte, North Carolina; as well as Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, New York; and Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico, let me say, “Thank you!” (And, in the interest of full disclosure, both my son and daughter-in-law are products Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond.)

It’s also only fair that you should know a little bit about me. I’m one of those so-called “cradle Presbyterians.” I have been a Presbyterian my whole life and cannot imagine being anything else. My entire way of thinking – about faith, life and everything else – was molded by the Reformed theology that I have learned since those long ago days at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. (Between us, I may acknowledge that there are other valid ways of “doing church,” but I don’t really believe it deep in my bones.)

I’ve been blessed to serve on sessions at churches in three different cities – Lithonia, Georgia; Dallas, Texas; and Charleston, West Virginia; and to be involved at the presbytery and national level in all of those places as well, including service on what was then called the General Assembly Council and is now the Presbyterian Mission Agency. I have also served as stated clerk of the Presbytery of West Virginia and currently am one of the presbytery’s commissioners to the Synod of the Trinity.

I tell you all that so you can know that I am deeply committed to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Reformed theology we hold so dear. That’s where I come from.

One of the key tenants of that Reformed theology is that God is sovereign, that is that God is in charge of everything. At the same time, another foundational understanding is wrapped up in the Latin phrase “semper reformanda.” It’s often translated “always reforming,” but can more accurately be understood as “always BEING reformed.”

Keep that in mind as we listen to today’s scripture lesson from Romans 14:1-12. Listen for God’s word to us this day:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

The Word of the Lord for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Please join me in prayer: O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditatons of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

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Not that it was ever really easy, but it seems especially hard to be a Christian these days. Hard and often confusing.

Everywhere we turn, we’re confronted with challenges, skepticism, ridicule and anger. And that’s just from other Christians. From non-Christians? We’re dismissed, ignored, ridiculed further, called ignorant, mindless, mean and judgmental. And, in the very worst cases around the world, killed.

Just recently, I read an article on AlterNet.com entitled “5 Reasons to suspect that Jesus Never Existed.” In it a number of scholars outlined why they doubted there was ever a person named Jesus. In their search for the so-called historical Jesus, they found nothing.

The story listed five basic reasons:

  1. No First Century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef. (That’s a First Century rabbi some people believe to be the closest historical figure to Jesus.)
  2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.
  3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
  4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
  5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.

Now some of those are not new ideas for many of us – there are many contradictions or other factual issues in the Bible, and it’s one of the reasons holding to biblical inerrancy, as some do, is so problematic. For example, there is no record – outside the Bible – that “in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:1-2.)

These scholarly challenges – and I’ll give them that these are the legitimate results of a true, scholarly search – these scholarly challenges to our faith can be disquieting.

And we have our own issues. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been arguing for more than 30 years what to do about sexuality – everything from same-gender relationships, to sex outside of marriage, to abortion. The debate over this, and other issues – in the 60s (both 18 and 19) it was about race, it’s been about women in leadership, it’s been about biblical inerrancy – gets the blame for the continued slide in membership.

All sides claim biblical authority. One says, “This is what the Bible says.” Another says, “This is what Jesus taught.”

And what are we to do with the actions of other people who profess to be Christians? Leading that list in my mind is the Westboro Baptist Church. If you don’t recognize the name, that’s the group whose website is called “God Hates Fags” and that goes around the country picketing any funeral where it can create shock and get attention, often those of veterans or of law enforcement officers.

But to a lesser degree, there are other quote-unquote Christians who don’t seem to be helping our reputation.

We say, “Love your neighbor,” then try to shut our borders to the children of our neighbors who are looking for a better life. We say, “Turn the other cheek,” but then look for ways to get revenge. We say, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” then spend incalculably more money on guns than on butter.

It’s no wonder that some people have ditched the name Christian in favor of “Christ followers.”

But this kind of behavior isn’t new, is it?

It’s the kind of internecine squabbling that Paul was writing about in Romans. There were arguments about what food you could/should eat, arguments about what festivals were appropriate, arguments about what day to recognize as the Sabbath. And whichever side you were on, you were convinced those on the other side weren’t real, legitimate follows of Jesus.

But it wasn’t new even then, was it?

One of the accompanying scripture readings for today comes from Exodus 14:19-31.

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

And the Gospel reading caps it all off. This one from Matthew 18:21-35:

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. ’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe. ’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. ’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? ’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

There’s a common thread in all three of these familiar scriptures, although it might not be obvious at first glance.

In Exodus, the people of Israel are caught between the advancing Egyptians and the sea. And, in the verses ahead of this section, they immediately blame Moses.

But what this text tells us is that God is in charge and takes care of the Israelites not because of anything they have done – after all, they’re a whining bunch of folks longing for the days of slavery rather than the challenge of freedom. Heck, they don’t even ask for help, they just wring their hands and complain.

God saves them because God choses to, and then uses a human – Moses – to make it happen.

The Matthew story takes it a step further. First, Peter wants to know a bit more about this forgiveness stuff. Do I really have to forgive that much, he asks. Jesus’ response, seventy-seven, is not a real number, but is his way of saying in the idiom of the time, yes, that much.

Then we get the story that’s come be to be known as The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. At first it appears to be a story of what happens if you don’t forgive, or as we say in the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

And yet, at the core of the story is the action of the king, who forgives a debt that could never be repaid, even though the servant promises to do so. The fact is, those 10,000 talents amounted to “more than the wages of a day laborer for 150,000 years.”[1]

The servant asks for justice – “I’ll pay you back, just give me a chance.” What he gets is mercy. The king would have been perfectly in his rights to say, “Nope, off to the dungeon with you.”

But instead, he showed mercy.[2]

Because he chose to respond with mercy instead of justice.

And Paul pulls all this together for us.

Does someone see God differently? Does someone assert that God would rather us to this than do that? How can anyone suggest that things we’ve believed or understood for thousands of years are not as we thought?

In the NRSV translation I read earlier, here is how that is answered in Romans 14:4: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

It is often helpful to see how other translations render the same verses, and that’s true here.

Listen to the same verse in The Revised English Bible, which if you don’t have in your library, you should: “Who are you to pass judgement on someone else’s servant? Whether he stands or falls is his own Master’s business; and stand he will, because his Master has power to enable him to stand.”

Or in The New Jerusalem Bible: “And who are you, to sit in judgement over somebody’s else’s servant? Whether he deserves to be upheld or to fall is for his own master to decide; and he shall be upheld, for the Lord has power to uphold him.”

Don’t misunderstand. This is not a “anything goes” freedom. Paul makes it clear that he’s talking about differing understandings that are nevertheless based on a faithful and serious consideration. But it is a call for us to be faithful to Christ, who welcomed all.

As theologian Beverly Gaventa says, “These debates will always characterize the life of the church as one or another emphasis comes to the foreground, but the debates should not prevent a common understanding of the Lordship of God and the servanthood of believers.”[3]

Indeed, do I believe that same-sex relationships should be recognized? Yes. Do others think they are against God’s wish? Yes.

Can we both feed the hungry together? Yes.

Am I angry and hurt by the actions of some Muslims who seem determined to kill any who disagree with their vision? Yes.

Can I forgive them, and understand that – no more than Westboro Baptist Church represents Christianity – they do not represent Islam? Yes, with God’s help.

Am I challenged, daily, by honest, intelligent people who look at the world and dismiss this belief in Jesus and God as misguided and ignorant. Yes.

One of my favorite hymns is “We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight,” written more than a century and a half ago by Henry Alford.

We walk by faith and not by sight; with gracious words draw near, O Christ, who spoke as none e’er spoke: “My peace be with you here.”

We may not touch your hands and side, nor follow where you trod; but in your promise we rejoice and cry, “My Lord and God!”

Help then, O Lord, our unbelief; and may our faith abound to call on you when you are near and seek where your are found.

And when our life of faith is done, in realms of clearer light may we behold you as you are, with full and endless sight.

Indeed, with the father in Mark 9 who asks Jesus to heal his demon-possessed son, I say, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

It is, after all, why it’s called faith.

To God alone be the glory.

Please join me in prayer:

Good and gracious God, our belief and faith is challenged every day. By the world, By our neighbors near and far. And even by ourselves. Help us to remember that you remain sovereign and to help us in our unbelief – and not to judge the others who see you differently. And that when all is said and done, we receive mercy, not justice. We ask in the name of your Son, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann et al., Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV, Year A (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 485.

[2] Ibid, 486.

[3] Ibid, 484.

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