September 13, 2020
We’ve finally come to the end of our summer lectionary readings from Romans today. And it is an important word on being a community of faith. So important that I’m going to add an extra verse to what the lectionary recommends. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from Romans 14.
READ Romans 14:1-13
I know I’ve talked before about the importance of play when it comes to children. The reason I play so many games with the kids in youth or any time we get together is that play reveals so much about who this group is going to be in community together. Play helps to build community. Helps to build trust in relationships. Helps people learn about others who are not like themselves… develop the skills or strategies to get along with people who are so different from themselves. Play helps to create empathy among children… and really helps to build that necessary self-awareness so that each child can be part of that immediate community. Play not only reveals a person’s character, but it also challenges and helps to build that character.
For some of you… it has been a long time since you were kids… and maybe in all those decades you’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child… but I’ll let you in on a little secret. Are you ready? What comes out in children’s play is the same thing that comes out when adults come together on their own playgrounds.
So… one game I like to play with the kids is the game of four square. It’s a simple game really, so it is easy to pick up. And really, anyone can play the game. The rules are easy to follow… and there is opportunity to add new rules to make the game more challenging. The game is continuous… in that, there isn’t a definite beginning or end like a baseball game or something. The game is more circular in nature so you win and you lose… you advance or you get knocked out of the game so you have to get back in line and wait for your turn to reenter the game. Sometimes you are at the top of the game trying not to get knocked off your perch and sometimes you are at the bottom trying to advance.
Are you picking up on all the metaphors?
So in the game… like I said there is a basic set of rules, but there is no umpire or judge.
The players and those who are waiting to play are the ones who have to help make the calls. Since the game involves a fast moving, bouncing ball and lines marking whether something is in or out… there are going to be disagreements and conflicts. And the players are going to argue things out over which player has to leave the game and go to the end of the line. Just like in life, how each child handles those disagreements and conflicts reveals much. Some might argue a bit, but when they see that the group agrees they are out… they will leave and the game will go on. Some will argue and start to look for a compromise… let’s do a do over. And if the group isn’t for it… will still leave the game and the game will go on. Then there are those children who get emotional and things become personal… and they make a scene with a bit of a tantrum and will quit the game altogether and go off in a dramatic pout. Those kids like to delay the game from continuing usually by kicking the ball away so someone has to go get it before the game can resume.
Trust me when I tell you… not all those children grow out of that… even after some decades have past.
So play foursquare for a little while and you will learn who these children are really quickly. You will learn the ones who have a hard time with conflict… who can’t easily function in the group without some dramatic blow up. You learn which child will try to dominate the game through the rules… shifting and adding new rules… but also hate getting called out when they break one of their own shifting rules. Cause kids learn fast what is fair and just… and what is being manipulated to someone else’s advantage. You discover who are your peacemakers… which child wants to keep the game going and consistently suggests ways to work through conflicts. And you also see which kids are happy to just play the game and play it without any problems… going in and out of the game with ease… having fun and being a big part of why the game keeps going and doesn’t break down completely because of your higher drama kids.
Where it really gets interesting is when you get to play the game with the same group of kids over a period of time. You begin to see the community that takes shape and how the kids begin to relate to one another as they learn each other’s behavior patterns. You see how trash talking in the game… how trash talking on the one hand can be mean and can hurt… how it can reveal inner group feelings about one another. But… you can also see how trash talking can bond a group together. You can see how… what from the outside might look like merciless teasing… inside the group are actual statements of affection. Trash talking one another can tear a group apart… and trash talking can really make a group tight and bonded together. Remember the child who has a meltdown all the time? Trash talking can push that child out of the group. But… trash talking can also call out that child on their behavior… call them out, but still provide the way back into community. In other words, a community that has been together and knows one another well… we can call out each other when we need to… we can also forgive one another when we need to because we know each other… we know our weaknesses… we can make accommodations when Jane has her meltdown, because Jane isn’t her meltdown… Jane is that person that we love… that we care about… Jane is that member of our community and we have her back. Just as Jane has our back when we do our thing and need that bit of grace and understanding.
And that’s what Paul is teaching us here in Romans. It is that same lesson of grace. In his theology, each person in the faith community… each person was there because each person was called by God. And who they were… how they responded to that calling… what they understood as very important in living their faith… or what wasn’t very important… all that stuff came with each person. The only way the community was going to hold together was to have God at the center. God through Christ had to be at the heart of each and every community of faith. Because Paul knew from experience… as we know from experience… that if God was not there at the center, people would take some other issue and make it the center. So in Paul’s time the eating of certain foods became the life or death issue for some. Is that the issue for us today? No. But then… it was for some faith communities so important that it would destroy their relationships with one another… it would cause some to turn on others in that fellowship… to hatefully judge… to have dramatic blowups and quit. How people would relate to one another would either bring the game to a screeching halt… or they would have to work together in their differences to find a way to continue playing the game.
In our church world shorthand language… we always talk about the color of the carpet… and how the change of the color of the carpet can destroy a church. Fred and Steve had been friends for years in the church. Worked side by side on this mission project and that mission project… cooked fellowship dinners together… and did all kinds of building projects together. But then came the time to change the carpet. Fred wanted it to stay red. Steve liked blue better. The carpet stayed red and Steve left the church after a bitter and angry property meeting… never wanting to have anything to do with Fred ever again. If we live, we live to the color of the carpet, and if we die, we die to the color of the carpet; so then, whether we live or whether we die, it’s really all about the color of the carpet.
In the footnotes of the Bible I have at home, it says this… “More important than our right to eat and drink as we please is our obligation not to destroy the work of God by making our brother or sister stumble.”
Our Youth group here at Parkway is small, but the best thing I have seen over our years together is how they have come together as a group. They are so different a people but they know each other well enough now that they can predict what one another is going to do. They have learned how to make room for each person’s uniqueness, while at the same time holding each other accountable to the community that has come together. I think deep down… despite all the teasing and ragging we do on each other… deep down I think that every one of those teenagers knows that the others have their back.
I can say the same thing about those congregations I’ve been a part of… congregations that I would call healthy. The ones that are working are those where you can easily see grace and forgiveness at work. Where there is the understanding that Betty Lou is a bit crazy and has some weird ideas… but she’s one of us and we’re going to give her the room to be her special kind of crazy. At the same time though, there is accountability to the work of God being done in the congregation… and sometimes Betty Lou’s crazy needs to be held in check… it has to stay on this side of the line of her passing judgment on other’s crazy in the congregation or turning into a quarrel that will burn the whole thing down.
Have some awareness about yourself… and about the community that God has placed you in. That seems to be what Paul is driving towards. We heard it earlier in the letter… “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” And for Paul that means discerning what is essential for all versus what may be important to one. It may also mean using our liberty… our freedom in Christ to help another in their own journey of faith… rather than putting myself first. Being in a community of Christ… it’s a simple game really, so it is easy to pick up. And really, anyone can play the game. The rules are easy to follow. The game is continuous… in that, there isn’t a definite beginning or end… the game is more circular in nature so you win and you lose. But what matters most… what matters most is that God is glorified through the game being played… and that love is increased in the playing. Amen.