June 25, 2017

Church of Peace, UCC

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Romans 2:17-29


The Doors and The Boiler (Spiritually Speaking)

(second in the series Church and State)


I’ll let you in on something you might already know: For many United Church of Christ congregations, the Sunday nearest the Fourth of July is charged with tension. It can be a tender and complicated Sunday.


If this year is like every other, this is the week when my Facebook feed will fill up with questions from pastors. Somebody’s going to ask the clergy group: “What kind of hymns are you choosing that are patriotic but don’t imply God loves America more than the rest of the world?” Somebody else is going to say: “Our fellowship hall runs right into our sanctuary so the red, white and blue decorations from coffee hour are going to spill into the chancel.” Now maybe that’s no big deal. Or maybe it is.


Probably all of us might find it perfectly sensible to have patriotic cups and napkins for coffee hour next Sunday. It is one thing to have a stars and stripes tablecloth downstairs in fellowship hall. It would be another thing to replace the paraments on the altar with stars and stripes, wouldn’t it? But what exactly is the difference between these tablecloths…


The tension that gets stirred up next Sunday is about the decorations. It is also about much more than the decorations.


For some of us, the Fourth of July is festive, family holiday. It is made for fireworks, and picnics, and summer. And celebrating the Fourth of July at church is no different from inviting children to wear their Halloween costumes for the UNICEF collection or having a Children’s Time all about Mother’s Day. The church is part of the world, and can’t we make room to lighten up and enjoy some summer fun. What is the harm.


For some of us, the Fourth of July is more than summer fun; it is a day that resonates in the core of who we are. Our allegiance to this nation is not a decoration; it is central to our identity. In this way, the Fourth of July is a sacred holiday; so how could it go unacknowledged at church? If our faith in God and our love for America get fused together, how can we honor one and not the other?


For some of us, this fusion between faith in God and love for country is exactly what is threatening. Jesus is not an American superhero; he was, in part, a revolutionary killed by the state. Our Christian identity and our American identity can conflict. The values of our nation stand in opposition to the values of the Gospel when it comes to money, and defense, and the prosecution of crime.


So some say: let’s just enjoy the holiday. While some say: the Fourth of July is a sacred observance directly connected to my identity as a Christian. And some say: the Fourth of July is a holiday I celebrate because I’m American but not because I’m Christian. You see why it’s tender and complicated.


Next Sunday we will come here to worship God. There may be flags and flowers; there will be prayer, and bread, and wine, and this question: how can a person struggle to come to terms with her deepest truth while at the same time making room for everybody else who’s struggling to come to terms with their deepest truth?


This is the work of growing deep and wide at the same time. It’s Lord, I want to be a Christian ina my heart, and Blessed be the tie that binds. It’s searching out my own soul, longing for sanctuary in my own conscience, except I can’t do that without your help. And it’s showing up together, then making room for the people we don’t even know, then realizing the purpose in coming together is to follow Christ, and this keeps leading us back to searching out our own souls.


Today we’re continuing the series on Church and State by hearing a passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In year forty-nine, the emperor Claudius issued a decree expelling the Jews (including the Jewish Christians) from Rome. When Claudius was killed, many of the people who had been expelled came back. So scholars believe Paul is writing this letter to a church which included Jewish Christians returning to the city along with Gentile Christians. This was a church trying to coming to terms with its Christian identity.[1]  And this was a dangerous time to be Christian! In year sixty-four, there are reports of Christians being crucified and used as human torches to light the course for the emperor’s races.[2]


In this climate in which a person could get killed for being Christian, I would think that Paul would write to this church with a message of comfort and assurance. Instead, he writes to them with a certain deal-with-it challenge.


In these days when the church was fighting over what it means to be Christian, I would think Paul would write to his fellow Jewish Christians with a message of hold fast to who you are; secure the borders around your community. Yeah, not so much. Instead he tells them to examine who you are; relax the borders —put some doors in those walls…


And so our scripture today begins with Paul cautioning the believers against hypocrisy. “If you are so sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you who teach others, will you not teach yourselves? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?” Then we see, this isn’t just Paul calling out the Jews on their integrity. He is talking to us.


You who will stand up in front of people and say you are following God, are you really? See Paul is talking to me.


In the second half of the scripture, Paul gets right to the heart of what’s at stake. He brings up circumcision, a central symbol of identity, and the sign of the covenant that every Jewish man bore with his body to remember the covenant between Abraham and God. If you are circumcised, that’s fine, says Paul, but it is only of value if you keep the law. What’s more, an uncircumcised Gentile could have a faith as valid as yours…  In Paul’s words: “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart; it is spiritual, not literal” (2:29).


Imagine how this sounds to the Jewish Christians hearing this letter.

“So we’re just going to let anybody in the church now? Even if they haven’t gone through what we’ve been through?”

Yes. That’s exactly right.

“Look. If we do this, if we break down the boundaries that define who we are, then where will we find our identity?”

“In Christ,” is what Paul would tell them.


What I hear in Paul’s letter to the Romans is the provocation to delve into these deep questions of identity. Now if I’m going to call myself a Christian, and I do, where does my authenticity as Mariah match up with my commitment to follow Christ? Is being Christian an activity I’m trying keep up with most of the time, or is it really who I am at my core?


Now maybe these questions seem painfully introspective, but here’s the beautiful promise: When you wade all the way into this deep place of reflection, what happens there is we find each other. We become more able to welcome those who are different (and those who aren’t so different). And it absolutely goes the other way too! The more welcoming we are to those “others”, the more room we make to disagree, the more room we create in our own hearts for encountering Christ.


It’s like, if we mean to grow our church —to reach out to those who haven’t heard of us, and get a new website, maybe some new doors that will open reliably for visitors —all of this growing outward will provoke us to grow inward and struggle with our deepest personal beliefs. See churches need to have good doors.

And of course, if we grow closer to Christ in our own faith, the church will grow too. New people will come because of the welcome we offer, but they will stay because they find the heart of Jesus right here in a community of people who don’t always see eye-to-eye about decorations.


See churches need to have a good boiler down in the guts of the place where the water gets turned into steam. We need to be able to sit down in the lounge together and talk about our patriotism and our Christianity, and love the people who say these must go together, and love the people who say these commitments can’t go together, and let all of us run the real risk that these people whom we love might change our minds.


When it comes to being the church together, you and I know, it can be about the decorations. And it is always more than decorations. It’s like when Paul tells the early believers, yes, faith is about circumcision and the covenant that represents, and it is more than circumcision too.


The church is about having doors that work (not just for members who know the trick with the key) but that will also open for strangers. It’s about having a boiler that makes this a safe and warm haven for the families who walk here in the winter. And of course, this growing church is more than doors and boilers, and bylaws, thank God.


Will you join your hearts with mine in prayer…

Christ our Savior,

You speak to each one of us and invite us to come into the stillness of your peace.

You make it okay for us to struggle with what we truly believe, even at this point.

You find us in the silence, in long sleepless nights, in empty, unending afternoons.

O Christ, again and again you prove

the way to know you is to for us to get to know each other

even in conflict and disagreement, even in celebration.

You find us in the conversation and you help us become more open

Your grace comes in; you keep making us new.  In your name we pray, Amen.

[1] Keck, Leander E. “Romans: Introduction.” Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV. pages 2115-2116.
[2] Horsley, Richard A. Paul and the Roman Imperial Order. Trinity Press International: Harrisburg, PA, 2004. page 11.

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