Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sermon: "What Really Divides Us", Romans 14:1-6/Galatians 2:11-14 (September 13, 2020)


As some of you know, I performed my first wedding here as the pastor of Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church yesterday. It was a joyful occasion, of course, and I was reminded once again of the blessing that this calling to ministry can be, even in the midst of a pandemic. I’ve been meeting with the newlyweds over the past several months in order to plan the ceremony and talk about their future life together, plus my own third wedding anniversary is in less than a month, so I’ve spent a lot of time recently reflecting on about the experience of joining two lives to one another. I’ve also been puzzling over how on earth anyone makes it work.

No matter how alike a couple may be, marriage throws any and all dissimilarities into sharp relief. And boy, do I know it. Anyone who’s met both me and Nick knows that we’re two very different people. I’ve mentioned in previous sermons that our tastes in music diverge dramatically, but our differences go far deeper than just our hobbies and personal interests. Nick approaches the world objectively, focusing on what’s true and what’s not true, while I’m much more subjective, taking perspective and experience into account. He’s a “thinker”, while I’m a “feeler”. He’s more comfortable focusing on one task at a time; multi-tasking is more my thing. Needless to say, we’ve had our share of misunderstandings and conflicts over the seven years that we’ve been together. Yet somehow, we still decided to get married—go figure.

For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why, in spite of these significant differences, we still seem to work as a couple. On paper, we make no sense. But then, about a year ago, I was at a clergy gathering discussing what personal values drive our ministries, and it hit me: Nick and I may not share the same interests, the same hobbies, the same ways of tackling a problem, the same understanding of the world around us…but we share the same values. The things that matter to him on the deepest level, like treating others with empathy and kindness, being there for family, considering the good of the whole before the good of the individual—in other words, the basic principles that guide his life and his choices—they’re the same things that matter to me. (Also, we recently found out that we both like Scrabble, so that helps.)

I think that’s the point that Paul is trying to make in this part of his letter to the Romans (the part about values; not the part about Scrabble). According to Merriam-Webster, a value is “Something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable.” says it’s “[A person’s] judgment of what is important in life.” In other words, values aren’t the actions you take or the beliefs you hold; they’re the principles that motivate them. They’re the foundation that undergirds the life that you build for yourself. They’re the seed from which all of your decisions grow. They’re the guidelines that direct your choices. And they’re what Paul is trying to explain to the church in Rome.

Because they’re largely unspoken and implicit, sometimes values can be difficult to pinpoint, even our own. As the early Christians struggled to figure out their collective identity, they tended to fight over the differences that they could see on the surface, rather than the principles that drove them. Questions of orthopraxy (or “correct practice”) caused conflict after conflict within the early Church. Surely this new community made up of a bizarre hodge-podge of individuals couldn’t endure if they didn’t all conform to the same way of following Christ. Even though he’d never visited the church in Rome, Paul was concerned enough about their obsession with orthopraxy that he felt compelled to write to them.

A cursory reading of this passage may lead you to believe that his takeaway is, “Don’t judge others because all opinions are equally valid.” It makes sense that we would interpret this passage through the modern lens of everyone being entitled to their own opinion, but from my perspective, this isn’t really a faithful reading of the text. Paul doesn’t believe that opinions are innately immune to judgment. I mean, Peter held the opinion that Gentiles should be excluded from the Christian community, and Paul certainly didn’t let THAT fly. No, what Paul is trying to say is that a person’s opinion is not as important as the values underlying it.

Rather than fighting over these superficial practices, the church in Rome needed to recognize that “Those who eat [everything], eat [in honor of] the Lord, because they thank God. And those who [eat only vegetables, also do so] for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too.” Although they reach very different conclusions about how to act, their choices are based on the same shared value—a desire to honor God. All of us are at different points along our walk of faith, so it makes sense that we all would express it differently, and Paul says that that’s fine. The important part is WHY each of us does these things: our underlying values.

This same idea applies to marriage, too. When a couple first combines their finances, they may find that their shopping habits are seemingly contradictory: one partner only buys brand-name items, while the other always purchases the least expensive option available (this example may or may not be based on a true story, by the way). This might seem like grounds for a divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences”…unless the couple takes the time to figure out WHY they each act the way they do. They may find that the first partner buys brand-name items because they tend to be better made and last longer, while the second partner purchases generic brands in order to put more money into a savings account. They share the value of fiscal responsibility; they just express it differently. A healthy marriage—or any healthy relationship, really—approaches disagreement with an eye to what really matters. The goal isn’t to prove that your way is better, but to trust that the other person shares your values and is acting in good faith. This depth of understanding is the only way to move forward together in spite of differences.

Now, when the couple holds opposing values—that’s an entirely different story. If it actually turns out that partner #1 buys brand-name items because they value status and trendiness above all else, it’s gonna be a lot more difficult for partner #2 to come to terms with it. Values are a person’s judgement of what’s MOST important in life, so while you can alter your habits in order to keep the peace, it’s nearly impossible to set your values aside in the name of “getting along”. This kind of dissonance in a relationship is unsustainable. Both individuals must reassess their values, or the marriage may be in trouble.

This is what happened between Peter and Paul, as recounted in Galatians 2. One of Paul’s core values was the radical inclusion of all people in Christ’s love, because he understood it as a central part of following Jesus. He couldn’t reconcile Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles with his own understanding of the Gospel, and he couldn’t just let it go. So Paul publicly stood up to Peter (who, remember, had actually known Jesus personally) and called him out. Although both men continued to do great work for the Church, they were never able to make peace over this issue.

See, Paul’s plea for understanding, harmony, and love in Romans 14 comes with an implied caveat: that we actually live according to the values that we claim. As internet trolls frequently remind us, everyone is indeed entitled to their own opinions, and each of us gets to choose how our values inform our choices. But if we want to live in relationship with one another, whether in the context of marriage, of a religious community, or of a nation, we’re obligated to be honest about our values and to consistently apply them to our personal choices.

Peter and Paul both supposedly shared the value of wanting to honor the Lord, but Peter apparently wasn’t willing to commit to everything that entailed. Paul knew that as followers of Christ, we adopt the values of our Lord and Savior as our own. It’s not enough just to say, “I love Jesus and honor God.” We’re called to value the lives of the outcast and the oppressed, to value human life over profit, to value extravagant welcome and radical inclusion for all. So, when Paul saw Peter limiting the welcome and inclusion of his ministry, he had no choice but to call him out. We don’t necessarily have to live out these values in the same way, but choices that are antithetical to them have no place in the life of a Christian for any reason.

All personal relationships are based on three things: shared values, honesty, and accountability. A married couple can’t grow and flourish without all three. Neither can a faith community. Neither can a nation. When we encounter conflict (which we inevitably do), our first question shouldn’t be, “Are our actions the same?” because different, equally valid choices can grow out of the same values. Rather, we should be asking “Are we being honest with one another about our shared values? And are our own actions really reflecting them?”

As Christ-followers, we should also be asking ourselves an additional question: “Do the values we hold truly reflect God’s?” If not, we’ve gotta decide what to do next…because doing nothing isn’t an option. Do we need to take an honest look inside of ourselves and reevaluate the principles that are important to us, but not to God? How do we stand against the values that we know cannot exist alongside the Gospel message—not just in others, but in ourselves? After all, if shared values are a prerequisite for a personal relationship, then those of us who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus already know what our values should be. The challenge is to live them out. What values are most important to you? What would Jesus have to say about them? How do your actions reflect your values? There’s never been a better time to figure it out than right now. May God guide us as we continue to discover the shared values in our personal relationships—both the human and the divine. Amen.

P.S. I’m hoping to do a sermon series in the near future about God’s values, so I’m compiling a list. Please share your ideas of what God’s values are in the comments. I want to hear your thoughts as I continue thinking through it.

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