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Newaygo United Methodist Church
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

Quarreling Over Opinions

Quarreling Over Opinions
Romans 14:1-12
In the last few weeks we have been looking at Paul’s letter to the Roman church. It is possible the early church in Rome had been experiencing difficulties in their understanding of what it means to live a life as a Christian. The arguments may have centered around what foods were acceptable to eat and which holy days were to be celebrated. Those who had been Jews were used to eating only certain foods and celebrating certain days as holy to God. Those who had not been Jews believed that Jesus made a new covenant and the old laws were no longer applicable. Paul now argues that the judgments that Christians were making of each other were not appropriate, those judgments belonged to God alone. What is important is that Christians do what they do to honor God. Here is what he says: (Read Romans 14:1-12)
When I worked with children with difficult emotional problems I encountered a 10 year old, developmentally delayed, very aggressive boy. He frequently struck out at the other children and adults who came in contact with him. The reasons for his aggression were difficult to determine. His language skills were limited, but he did give some warning that he was about to hit someone. He would point his finger at his intended victim and say, “You go die!” And then he would clock the victim if they did not move swiftly out of the way. Since he was tall and well muscled, he was a danger to the other children and most adults were afraid to work with him. A few of the psychologists who worked with him toyed with the idea of resocializing him and asked me to be a part of the team to do just that. He was placed in a room with just a mattress and was only allowed out to use the bathroom or shower with two escorts. Anything else he could possibly want had to come directly from the hands of an adult. Even the food he ate was spoon fed by one of the team members. It was hoped that he would begin to view people positively and not engage in his destructive aggressive behavior. Any time he began to point, his aggression signal, the adult in the room would quickly gather anything in the room and exit. After 5 minutes the adult would re-enter the room with food or favored toys and stay with him until he became aggressive again. He quickly caught on and began to have longer periods of non-aggressive behavior. He eventually was able to be escorted out of the room and be around other people and children, but at the first sign of aggression he was quickly put back in the room without food or toys. Again he caught on to the expectations and the aggressive behavior diminished. A point came where a speech therapist was able to work with him so he could ask for the things he wanted. When he developed more advanced language skills, what we found amazed us. Hidden underneath that aggressive exterior was a boy capable of showing much affection. He learned to hug. Attitudes toward the boy changed and he became one of the most lovable boys on the unit. 
Most of us do not go around clocking people we don’t want in our space. We are a little more civilized in our ways of reacting to people whose views are different than ours. Aren’t we? What happens when we hear a different opinion on what it means to follow Jesus? Our first reaction is to become defensive, to put on our boxing gloves of mental argument to try to show for ourselves that the other is wrong. Those who are better at verbal argument may even voice the error of the other’s way of thinking. But most of us become hostile in more subtle ways. We engage in behaviors that distance us from the disagreeable person. We might produce a frown, walk away when the offending person approaches, find a negative tone in our voice, ignore the other: all ways of demonstrating that the other is not welcome in our presence. 
In his letter to the Romans, Paul is seeing such behavior between those who practice their faith one way and those who practice it another. He sees those arguments as being irrelevant, unimportant to the true purpose of what we do as Christians. He sees the church getting wrapped up in and expending great energy in defending ways of expressing and living our faith. What needs to be seen by both groups is that each is doing what they do to honor God. Whether they do it right or wrong is not ours to judge, all will be held accountable before God. Paul sees that we get sidetracked by issues to the detriment of our relationship with each other. And we have all seen how issues can lead to conflict and aggressive behavior in the heat of our convictions. The trouble with quarreling over issues and opinions is that it gets people locked into sides, stubbornly unwilling to bend. Our faith gets sidelined.
That’s not what God had in mind. God’s expectation of us is that we share our faith, that we give our opinions on what faith is all about, but that we let God work with what we have shared or heard. We are not the authors of another’s faith. God is! We cannot force anyone else to think like us. We can spend enormous energy and time trying to shape someone else’s opinion, but the frustration and anxiety that can arise when we do will distract us from what is really important, our honoring and giving praise to God. When we get it fixed in our minds that we have to change another’s way of thinking we run the risk of beginning the subtle process of becoming exclusionary and unwelcoming. Who God has already welcomed we begin to unwelcome. 
There are basic beliefs we as Christians adhere to: Jesus is the incarnate word of God, Jesus died and was raised from the dead, and Jesus is Lord of our lives. Our task as Christians is to live our lives the best we know how in those basic beliefs. And many different ways of doing that have been generated over 2000 years. And we are to feed each other, not clobber each other, so we all may grow in love and understanding of God’s love for us. 
There is a story from Hasidic Judaism about heaven and hell. A Hasidic Jew asked the rabbi the difference between heaven and hell.   “I will show you,” the rabbi answered, and he showed him a room with a big table and on the table was a big pot of delicious smelling, mouth watering stew. There were people sitting around the table with long spoons to eat the stew. But the spoons were longer than their arms. They could reach the stew and fill their spoons but were unable to get them back to their mouths. The people around the table were starving. “This is Hell!” the rabbi said. “Now I will show you heaven.” Once again they entered a room exactly like the first, the same round table with the delicious stew in the center, only here the people were well fed. “What’s the difference?” the man said. “You see,” the rabbi replied, “Here they have learned to feed each other.”
We have been given a great pot of stew in the person of Jesus Christ and we are meant to feed each other. But when we engage in the unwelcoming behavior of exclusion because of our differences, then we will starve a a community of faith. It is when we share our faith, when we sit down at a table together and help each other eat, when we share what we think and believe and then let God work with it, when we welcome one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in spite of our differences that we begin to be well fed. God sees the treasure that lie in each of us and desires that we find the treasures that lie in those around us. I wonder if the ability to forgive is centered in the ability to discover the treasure in those we most often like to hate. 
I am discovering some of the treasures that lie in members of this congregation. I believe that God is working in this community of faith in the many ways we do church. May we continue to be open and sharing and welcoming in non-judgmental ways to all who walk through these doors and all who we meet out there in our community, knowing that God welcomes us and them with the same great love.

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