Sunday, September 17, 2017 || Proper 19A || Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
My best friend from seminary is a man named Bret. Back in 2005, Bret and I bonded over our shared love of both Star Trek and Jesus, and our friendship has remained solid all these years. But there’s one thing Bret and I have never agreed on. He’s a high church Anglocatholic, who loves all the smells and bells, all the pomp and circumstance he can stuff into a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. You probably know by now that I am…well…not that. I prefer simpler, unadorned worship.
Now such a difference of opinion could have led us to part ways because Bret could claim I didn’t care about the sacrament of Holy Communion. And I could claim he put so many trappings around the sacrament that its true meaning was lost.* Churches have broken away from each other for far less than this particular difference of opinion. Indeed, a few hundred years ago, people were burned at the stake for espousing one or the other viewpoint.
Thankfully, Bret and I realized something. After many, many discussions about the finer points of liturgical practice, we realized that we both love and honor the sacrament of Holy Communion. Our devotion is the same; only our practice varied. Bret shows his honor of the sacrament by adorning it so there’s no way to miss that it is special. I show my honor of the sacrament by leaving it unadorned so the simple elements can speak for themselves in a juxtaposition of humility and mystery. Thus we have found common ground in our devotion to the sacrament. And our friendship remains strong.
The Apostle Paul attempts to blaze a trail toward common ground in this morning’s reading from his Letter to the Romans. The problem is clear: there’s a difference of opinion in the church about how, why, when, and what to eat. The new Christians were trying to decide which parts of their Jewish heritage to take with them into their new expression of faith. And this particular issue crops up a couple of times across Paul’s letters, so it was clearly important. The concern surrounding food was one of those problems that threatened to split the church, which was still precarious in its infancy.
But Paul sees things differently. He sees the common ground shared by each side of the conflict. “Those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God,” he says, “While those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”
Just like Bret and I finding the commonality in our shared devotion to the sacrament, Paul finds the common ground between the eaters and the abstainers. Both honor the Lord and give thanks to God, despite their opposite practices. This was the first step in reconciling these two groups and a necessary one to keep the church in Rome viable. We don’t know if the Roman Christians took Paul’s advice, but the church in Rome remained, so I’d venture to say they did.
Unfortunately, the track record throughout Christian history for finding common ground is not impressive. Churches have split apart over the manner of baptizing – do we dunk or sprinkle? Over whom to baptize – infants or adults? Over the ordination of women. Over the words in the prayer book. Over the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church. Over so many other things that it is clear the desire among Christians to seek common ground is fleeting at best. And yet we Christians are the inheritors of Paul’s example of the practice of reconciliation. Indeed, God’s mission is one of reconciliation and too often Christians fail to be a part of it. “How many times should I forgive, Lord?” asks Peter. “As many as seven times?” Seems like a lot, but no – multiple that by ten. Better yet, live a life of reconciliation. Be a reconciler. Be a healer of breaches. Be the one who always seeks common ground for common ground is holy ground.
Our world today is rent with divisions. This is not new. Nor is this news. The political landscape of competing ideologies is stuck in the mud of intransigent partisan rancor. The ugly specter of white supremacy has reared its shaven head, awakening so many of the privileged to the racial divide that continues to plague the historically oppressed. The economic chasm between the haves and the have-nots grows ever deeper and wider. I could go on, but you get the picture. As I said, this is not news. But by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul’s words soar through time and speak the truth to us today. And they remind us of God’s mission of reconciliation, a mission we can choose to be a part of. But how?
The transformation of the world begins with the transformation of the individual. We cannot seek reconciliation in the world if we do not practice reconciliation in our own lives. If we are to be reconcilers, if we are to blaze trails toward common ground, we can begin only with ourselves. I invite you to call to mind a relationship of yours that is broken, that is in need of reconciliation. Hold that relationship up to God in prayer. Where is the breach? What part of the relationship ruptured and what part remains? Begin with what remains. Begin with the common ground. Because too often in conflict we focus on the breach and disqualify all else. We marinate in the offense. We take a perverse joy in feeling wronged. However, except in extreme circumstances, the foreign land of conflict is so much smaller than the common ground between people.**
I see this all the time in marriage counseling. Many couples engage in conflict because they both care deeply about the relationship. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t fight. Their apathy would lead to passivity, which would lead to estrangement, and one day out of the blue one member of the couple would ask for a divorce and that would be that. But for couples who truly care about each other, conflict is inevitable because we’re all human, no matter how compatible we are. The dating website that paired Leah and me told us we were 91% compatible. A-minus, that’s pretty good. But we still fight sometimes. The opportunity in conflict is the reassertion of the commitment that forms the bedrock of the relationship; that is, the common ground. This is why part of marriage counseling is helping couples learn to fight well together, so conflict becomes constructive rather than destructive.
Conflict devolves into destruction when we focus solely on the breach. But Paul invites us back to common ground. And Jesus invites us to offer flagrant forgiveness. Accepting such invitations leads us to lives of reconciliation. And a life of reconciliation is a participation in God’s mission. Return to that strained relationship you conjured in your mind a few minutes ago. Pray with these questions: What common ground remains between us? What step toward reconciliation can I make, fully aware that such a step might be rebuffed? And finally, in what ways are you still connecting us, Lord, even as we are divided one from another?
Our God is a God of healing and reconciliation, a God of love, a God who claims everyone as a beloved child. That is the fundamental common ground, the holiest place where the estranged can find reconciliation. We bear this belovedness within ourselves. We bear witness to this belovedness in others, no matter what ways they are “other.” So, abide in love, the gritty love made stronger by the reconciling grace of God. And find yourselves on common, holy ground.
* This isn’t necessarily the case, but it can happen that the trappings become the thing that is worshiped.
** I’m thinking here about relationships that involve verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. Too often in those relationships, so-called “common ground” is used as a cudgel by the abuser to manipulate the victim. In these cases, the relationship must cease for the health of the victim.