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Sunday, May 23, 2021
Scripture: 1 Samuel 21:1-6 & Romans 14:1-8, 13-19
“Better Together” Sermon Series
Let me begin with a story by N. T. Wright. “After a heavy snowfall a father offered his son the chance to earn some extra pocket money by shoveling a path to the front gate. The son, eager for his pay, put on his boots and coat, grabbed the shovel and began work. Shovelfuls of snow flew this way and that. He kept his head down, concentrating on [doing a good job]. Eventually he stood up, drew breath, and looked with satisfaction down the length of the path. His father came out. ‘Well done,’ he said. ‘Come and have a cup of cocoa and get your pay.’
“But as they were going inside, they heard a voice. ‘Then will you come and clear away all the extra snow you’ve put on my path?’ It was the next-door neighbor, standing at his door, looking not only at his snowy front garden, but all the snow that had been shoveled so energetically off their path and onto his. Father and son looked at each other. The neighbor wasn’t upset. Indeed he was amused, but clearly something had to be done. ‘I think this looks like a two-man job,’ said his father.
“Paul’s Supreme concern in chapter 14 is the danger of so clearing your own path that you end up making it impossible for your neighbors to walk down theirs. It is all too easy, in sorting out our own lives and finding our own way forward as Christians, to make things harder, not easier, for those around us.”
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been thinking about what it means to be “Better Together,” particularly in an environment where the inclination is to divide into camps of the like-minded. We began with the idea that the church should be a “Big Tent,” where there is space for individual convictions under the lordship of Jesus. Last week Pastor Kristine preached about learning new ways of listening and speaking. This week the theme is mutual forbearance. As with all of these weekly themes, we’re focusing on wisdom that comes straight from Scripture, which means that the issues we face today are as old as time. We are not the first people to deal with a disagreeable world, nor will we be the last. Yet, with the gifts God has given us in Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is my hope that we become a people who do better than others have in the past and that we might become an example of a better way.
Not only does Scripture give us plenty of insight into mutual forbearance, but also our Presbyterian heritage helps. I know it’s unlikely that many of you have read The Book of Order, which is part of our Constitution as a church and denomination, but the first section of that book outlines some beautiful biblical principles that have been the bedrock on which we have built the church. It is in there that we encounter this statement, “We also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” This statement has been in this book basically as along as America has been a nation. It has seen Presbyterians through turmoil and schism, as well as reunion. From the launch of our church, the idea of mutual forbearance has been essential to who we are. We’re far from perfecting what that means, but it is an ideal we should strive for.
This got me wondering why mutual forbearance is so difficult, and at least one of the conclusions I came to this week is this: Our convictions define how we live our lives. When the way others live challenges our lifestyle, we grow defensive because it is easy to see difference as a threat. Our convictions make our lives make sense, and so we hold tightly to them. I would submit to you, however, that beyond the essential conviction of Jesus as Lord, it would benefit us, the church, and the world, to hold on a little more loosely to our convictions. I know that sounds odd coming from a pastor, but I see that very idea in our readings for today.
First, our passage in 1 Samuel is an odd one. David and his soldiers are hungry, and the only food they can find is set aside for a holy purpose. It’s a bit like if someone was thirsty and the only water I had available was sitting in the baptismal font. Is it right for a thirsty person to drink this water? Jesus actually refers to this story in the gospels. His disciples are breaking the Sabbath rules by plucking the heads of grain to eat. When the Pharisees challenge this rule-breaking, Jesus has this to say, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions” (Mark 2:25-26). The Pharisees had a conviction about a rule – this bread is off-limits – and Jesus challenges that rule by creating space for grace and by drawing their perspective wider to see that it’s not about the conviction; it’s about how God wants people to flourish.
In Paul’s writing to the churches in Rome, we encounter a similar space for learning mutual forbearance. These churches were mixed spaces, and this created tension and, sometimes, outright conflict. There were Jews who became Christians and still carried with them convictions about how to please God. For example, they wouldn’t eat food sacrificed to idols, which was just about all the meat for sale, so many just didn’t eat meat. Yet, in these same churches were pagans who became Christians, and they enjoyed meat. How do these two groups share a table with each other? Paul says to them – and to us! – practice mutual forbearance.
In Romans 14, Paul actually offers a pattern that I think is quite useful in practicing this. He begins by naming the disputed area. If you look in your Bible right at the beginning of chapter 14, you see this. “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables,” he writes. Naming what is causing tension sheds light on things and begins the process of dealing with it. Next, he tells people on both sides of the issue to back off from passing judgment. It’s not that one party may be right and other wrong; rather, Paul points to how God has welcomed both into this body, which means both should be a posture of hospitality to the other. Next, he warns against condemning the other. How can you welcome the other if you’ve already kicked them out? Finally, Paul points to the bigger picture. Jesus is Lord of all things, including this dispute. In the end, we are not the judge. God is, and God will vindicate either or both parties in due course.  It reminds me of something Billy Graham would say, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”
Going back to the story we heard at the beginning, I wonder how we got so good at clearing our own paths that we failed to notice all the stuff we’ve piled onto others’ paths, making faith harder for them because we’re trying to squeeze them into what suits us. Now, in our church today, we’ve gotten over many of things that challenged Christians previously. We’re generally not upset about card-playing or women’s leadership or going grocery shopping on Sunday. Yet, we’ve replaced those things with other things and often have eliminated the lordship of Jesus from those convictions. In today’s climate, I’d bet that a lot these things are our social and political convictions, where it’s just as easy to take sides and where it is so counter-cultural to practice mutual forbearance. Paul tells us there’s a better way!
Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day when the Holy Spirit started the church with people from all corners of the globe. They had different languages, different practices, and different convictions. Yet, in God’s wisdom, that’s what the Body of Christ looks like. Surely, it took mutual forbearance to get things going. Surely, it continues to require mutual forbearance today. So, let us make space for grace with each other. Let us submit our convictions to the chief conviction – that Jesus is Lord of all – so that we can be the kind of church God calls us to be – a place of love and grace for you, for the person in the pew next to you, for me, and for all.
 N. T. Wright, Romans: 18 Studies for Individuals and Groups, 80-81.
 NIB Commentary on Romans, 735.