Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Before You Unfriend”
Rev. Art Ritter
September 6, 2020
Romans 14: 1-4, 10-12
14Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those 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. 4Who 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.
10Why 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. 11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
As we wearily draw closer to the November election, I think we’ve already had enough of the endless advertisements, the personal attacks, the bitter social media posts, and the difficult conversations with friends and neighbors and family. Perhaps this really isn’t anything new. Presidential politics has always been rough and tumble. Andrew Jackson’s opponents accused his wife of being a convicted adulteress and bigamist because it wasn’t clear whether her divorce was final from a previous marriage. Grover Cleveland, then a bachelor, was accused of hiding a son and his opponents offered the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!” I recall just four short years ago, Chuck Lorre, in his Vanity Card #539 at the end of The Big Bang Theory said what we were all feeling, “A Nonpartisan, Nondenominational prayer for America. God, make this election be over soon. Amen.”
I also read with interest an article from the September 2004 edition of The New Yorker. There was an interview with Emily Hertzer, at that time a recent Yale grad and delegate to the Republican National Convention in New York. Hertzer was so embarrassed by the comments she heard and the protest signs she read that she started a movement to bring back civil and proper manners to society. Hertzer, who summered and sailed in Newport, Rhode Island founded the Newportant Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing civility, manners, and traditional values back to our society. Part of her plan included holding a British style afternoon tea each day. I googled Hertzer and Newportant and didn’t find anything up to date. Perhaps after 16 years she is still serving afternoon tea but evidently her civility movement did not catch on.
There is a great cry for civility in our society today. Civility is a way of relating to others which promotes discourse, letting all voices be heard, and allowing us to seek solutions to problems together. I know that I read with great trepidation and only some interest the political comments of many of my friends on Facebook. Most of the time I get so angry or frustrated at the sources quoted or the conspiracies supported that I want to respond back with forceful words. I want to argue with them until they see my side of the issue. I read this week that arguing with a friend about politics on social media is like sticking your hand into the blades of a fan. Usually my calmer self will simply click the “snooze for 30 days” button.
I heard an interview with Diana Butler Bass this week in which she talked about her blog and her social media posts. She said that she wasn’t surprised by the comments she received that disagreed with her thoughts and opinion. What surprised her were the vile and personal attacks by commenters which used degrading language and even insulted her physical appearance. Sadly, these comments are typical of words left at the bottom of any article from the on-line versions of any newspaper or magazine. People, even our leaders, seem to prefer to humiliate and embarrass as a sign of personal victory instead of engaging in constructive dialogue that benefits us all.
In his book Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, Stephen Carter points out that America is having a problem with our freedom of speech. It is guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights and we have the right to speak whenever we want. The problem is that an unbridled expression of speech can hurt other people. Self-control needs to go with self-expression. Carter writes that too often we jump into conversation with words of cynicism and selfishness when what is needed is a combination of generosity and trust that comprises civility. Carter defines civility as “the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our fellow passengers.” That’s a wonderful definition whether it describes an airline flight, pandemic behavior, or the experience of all of us in the community of faith. The sacrifices we make, we make for our fellow passengers. In our desire to be right, we often forget to be nice. In our desire to win, we judge others much too harshly.
I chose a couple of thought provoking Scripture passages this morning. In the first reading from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is giving advice to the members of the Christian community about how to get along. Most scholars believe these words were actually used to address conflict in the early church long after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Matthew writes about how hard it is to keep a community in community. Jesus teaches that the work involved is actually the kind of labor that builds the Kingdom of God. His prescription seems to run counter to our earthly thinking. Jesus talks about going and talking with one who has wronged you, in the spirit of love. If that doesn’t work, take other people with you next time. Secondly, Matthew writes that it isn’t important who is right and who is wrong. What is important is reconciliation and listening. Jesus’ words remind us that when we are in community, we aren’t working for ourselves, we are working for relationships. Being right and winning are far less important that maintaining a relationship with another in Christ.
The second Scripture lesson is actually one from next week’s lectionary calendar, taken from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It seems that there was a difference of opinion within that church. Some former Jews believed that the kosher food laws still applied and did other laws concerning rituals and high holy days. Other new Christians thought such ritual and food law practices had nothing to do with being a follower of Christ. The church, much like our society, was split. Whole segments refused to have anything to do with each other. Paul seems to skirt the facts of the issues and speak more about acceptance. Accept one another he says. The Greek word he uses here does not mean merely tolerating those with whom we disagree but to actually welcome them, to engage in fellowship with them. He says that if Jesus is able to forgive us and bear with us, then we should be able to do the same for one another.
Now I will admit that Paul’s advice is easier to follow within the structure of the Christian community. We all are here because we share in the love of God and the hope of the resurrected Christ. Acceptance gets much harder in the context of society and public forums, where we share space with those with whom we may not share such a common bond. Perhaps social media will never be a place where such behavior can be modeled because it lacks the community identity and obligations that are needed to embrace acceptance and forgiveness.
However we can wrap our arms around Paul’s thought that our Christian belief must be linked to our Christian behavior. We need to always keep the work of God before us. The Risen Christ is not just a belief or purely a product of intellect. Jesus is alive and moving and working through current events making all things new. We need to welcome and accept and love others just as the Lord has welcomed and accepted and loved us. Differences will occur. Disagreements will happen. But our conversations and our discourse need to be at a level which reflect that we are people called by grace and by God to worship and serve, not to judge and condemn.
I’ve shared with you before the story of a ministry team on which I served within the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Our team was charged with exploring staff changes within our Association and we were recommending a reduction of staff and a realignment of responsibilities. There were many at that meeting who disagreed with our conclusion. The night before the scheduled vote on the issue, a question and answer session was held. I was one of five people who stood before an angry crowd who threw some emotionally charged questions and comments toward us. It was most uncomfortable. Suddenly a voice in the crowd called for prayer. A prayer was given reminding us all of God’s grace and goodness, of our intention to serve God in what we were doing, and of the need to accept one another and to speak in ways that reflected Christ. The one who prayed called for God’s presence to seep into our conversation and for God’s wisdom to enter our deliberation. The mood of the room changed. There was still a lot of disagreement. But there was much more civility. There was less tension and an understanding that all the participants would listen and value one another.
The bottom line of Jesus’ teaching and of Paul’s letter is the same. Understand that words of love are not real until they are put into action. It certainly isn’t an easy thing to face rude behavior, hear mean words, and witness unkindness. It is a hard thing to respond in a civil way. But those who understand that they are loved by God, understand that there is a spirit filled link from God and through them, and that they can act in love and charity because they have found that same love and charity in Christ.
The first epistle of John perhaps says it best. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him.” AMEN.