text: Romans 14: 1-12

A few years ago there was a leadership development course offered to ministers and Board members of the United Church across BC in the area of conflict resolution in church life. The title of the course: Never Call Them Jerks. (It’s not often you get your money’s worth before you even show up for the event!)
Never call them jerks … that could have been the sub-title introducing this passage we have today from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.

As is often the case, knowing something about the context is important for understanding what we‘re reading in scripture. In all likelihood Paul is addressing a conflict that has arisen in the community. It’s not clear in this case whether this is a congregation of Jewish-Christians, Jews who have become part of the Jesus movement; or a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, all of whom are followers of Jesus. What is clear is that some of the people feel, as followers of Jesus, that they are not compelled to eat kosher or keep certain feast days or the Sabbath on the day that has been part of the tradition. And others feel that they need to keep the Sabbath and eat kosher as part of what it is to be faithful. The conflict has arisen where each is judging the other … believing the other to be in the wrong.

Where does Paul come down? He refuses to side with one or other position, and urges all of them to respect one another’s decision. Not only that. He encourages each person to take up their practice wholeheartedly, whether it is observing certain days or choosing what they eat, and to do it in relation to God … to be mindful of it as a spiritual practice … so that the food that is eaten, whether it is kosher or not, is eaten with thanksgiving to God; or the day or days, however they are recognized, that they are embraced as gift from God.

So in fact for Paul, it’s not just a case of “never call them jerks.” It’s a call to a place and a way of loving regard. And how do we get there? It’s not about strengthening your resolve to not notice, to not have an opinion. But rather Paul’s encouragement is to shift the focus of your concern from ‘what those other people are doing’ to ‘what are you up to in your own life?’ … what are you doing to open yourself more and more to the endless flow of God’s love … what are you doing to become more attuned to God’s desire?
Can you hear it? It’s this encouragement to step away from insisting on the rightness of our way and into the generosity, the wideness of God.

Last May, I was part of the meeting of BC Conference that gathers representatives from every UCC congregation in the province. It’s a 3 day meeting that, in recent years, comes ‘round every 2 or 3 years. This year’s meeting was really quite incredible. We gathered around the theme of “How Big is Our Tent?” … in other words, how much room is there in this United Church of ours for people to find a place, to be at home. How Big is Our Tent?

In the course of those 3 days we were invited to experience our diversity … in particular our theological diversity … to surface and appreciate the range of our deeply held convictions about God and the range of what faithfulness looks like. We were helped to identify 5 or 6 different streams … each one with it’s particular emphasis.
We could name an Evangelical stream with its passion for bringing people into a relationship with Christ. An Ecclesial stream, with it’s emphasis on the gathered community as the means for transmitting the story and forming people in Christian faith. A Missional stream with its emphasis on moving out into the community, following Jesus into places of hurt, fostering compassion and hope. And an Ecumenical stream, with its emphasis on interfaith and intercultural connections to be about the work of justice and healing in the world. And a Spiritual stream with its emphasis on meditation and contemplation and reverence for all life and its interconnectedness. 
Throughout the course of those 3 days we heard testimony from out of each of these streams … we sang the hymns that resonate most deeply with each of these streams … we explored the strengths and the shadow sides of each of these streams. We noticed how each stream offers a corrective to another stream when that stream is pursued exclusively.
For some of us it was very clear in which of these streams we are most at home … and for others of us, there was a deep resonance with several of these streams. For all of us there was this growing sense of the richness that we are part of by virtue the diversity that exists and thrives among us. Our worlds became bigger and our awareness of others deeper.

In 1925 when the United Church was being formed through the amalgamation of 3 distinct denominations, our diversity was seen as a liability to our unity … and so our distinctions were down-played and even went underground. But these many years later, what we are coming to appreciate is that there is a strength that is borne through multiplicity. As with any eco-system, diversity is essential for the flourishing and sturdiness of life. So we are coming into this place of being able to dare say and affirm that we are not all the same … and that we are the better for it.

But we recognized too that difference doesn’t automatically end up being a source of strength. Without humility, and curiosity, without loving regard and taking time to listen, difference can destroy. And yet finally, more truthfully, it is not our differences that divide us, but our judgements.

And so we come back to Paul’s encouragement … to deepen our life with God, in God … that God’s grace and generosity might be poured into us … shaping us into evermore gracious and generous, open-hearted people.

How big is our tent?
You can see it, can’t you? It has so very much to do with our commitment to growing. I hope you’ll feel the invitation to our Soulful Wednesday gatherings as a beautiful avenue for living into that expansive, life-giving Love.
There’s way more to it than “never call them jerks”!
THANKS be to God!