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Statue of Limitations

70x7Romans 14: 1-12
Introduction to the reading
Christianity arrived in Rome just 50 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Paul himself did not found the church there, but he writes to them - to introduce himself, to establish his authority as an apostle and to provide a strong argument for the Gospel and its implications for faithful living. The book of Romans is deeply theological. But also practical…

The congregations of the Roman church were made up of both Jewish Christians - Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as the anticipated Messiah - and Gentiles, for whom Jesus was a whole new idea. In today’s passage, Paul seems to be trying to reconcile differences among the two groups with respect to eating habits.

For Paul, what makes a strong believer is a trust in God’s grace that does not depend on particular religious practices. Therefore, one strain of Christian has no right to lord it over another since there is only one Lord of us all. Remember this idea.

You’ve probably been hearing about it or reading about it – the removal from public grounds of statues, monuments and plaques that honor Confederate Civil War leaders. There are hundreds of these across the country, mostly in the South - New Orleans, Austin, Jackonsonville – but then on north through Tennessee and on up to Annapolis, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Boston. And of course, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where violence erupted when the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee was proposed.

Why are these statues being removed? To try to right the deep historical wrong of racism, from slavery to discrimination in schools to racial profiling? To declare that social justice should prevail over injustice, even if it still doesn’t? For these statues are symbols of human limitations, our failings - to treat one another as God would have us do, to care with compassion for our neighbor in need, to welcome the stranger into our midst, to love one another. Remember that idea - one strain of Christian has no right to lord it over another? Well, no one human has that right either.

Perhaps we could say that it comes down to global social forgiveness toward our world history and then, global social repentance as we continue to make history. Sometimes we need to be forgiven, to recognize that our present privilege is a result of transgressions in the past; how can we address this old debt? Or, sometimes we are called to offer forgiveness to those who are seeking to redress wrongs committed long ago so that we can work together toward social justice.

“The social animosity,” I read this week, “that comes from the legacy of unresolved transgression and from debts that are continuously amassed without the ability to ever repay them hinder our ability to live [in] the kind of community God desires for us. (Dorsey 18) Clearly, forgiveness is called for if we are to walk humbly, love mercy, do justice and love our neighbor as ourselves.

But is this systemic readjustment even possible? Maybe not, in the great cosmic scheme of things. But on the other hand, maybe so. One person, one action at a time which grows and then becomes a movement in a better direction. Slowly, with setbacks and diversions, but possible. And just working toward living as God wants and as Jesus teaches, that in itself gives hope and meaning.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans serves as illustration.

Conflict and divisiveness in the early churches was par for the course. There was always something. In his letters, Paul tries to set them straight, always coming back to the unity of the faith that transcends social and economic status or race or gender. As he said to the Galatians, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

Paul has heard of a division in the Roman church between strong and weak members. The strong are the free Gentiles who have high status and property. The weak are Jewish Christians who are accustomed to stricter religious observance; they were less well off. Why the designation of weak and strong is unclear, at least to me. But it was, apparently, a kind of civil war.

The two groups disagree over which days and which foods should be considered holy and even which foods should be eaten at all. Both sides feel hurt and angry. Paul tells them to accept that they are different from one another.
In effect, forgive each other and try to live together in peace, according to God’s higher and larger purposes.

And forgive without keeping track. In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus the question we have heard many times: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Scholars have argued over the number: 77 times or 70 times 7? The point is that the number is not the point. We should forgive without keeping track and we have to keep on forgiving, time after time after time.

I started the sermon today describing the movement around the country to take down statues of Civil War leaders from public spaces. New Jersey senator Cory Booker has introduced legislation to remove them from the Capitol building in Washington as well and perhaps ensconce them in the Smithsonian.

What other such symbols of disunity and discord among God’s children might there be that need to be dismantled and taken away and relegated to history? Monuments in our minds and hearts - to prejudice instead of welcome, to rejection instead of acceptance, to hate instead of love.

The story is told that when the Civil War ended a group gathered outside the White House and President Lincoln came out to say a few words to the crowd. It was a time of great celebration, and there was a band. The President talked briefly about the horrors of war and then he joked a little because he had a keen sense of humor. The people were delighted and exuberant that they had won the war that had been going on for four years. Lincoln talked about how important it was to get back together and heal the nation’s wounds and let brothers and sisters join each other again. Then he said, “In a few moments, I want the band to play and I am going to tell them what I want them to play.”

The crowd thought he would get them to play “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that had become their theme song. But Mr. Lincoln said, “I wonder if we, in winning the war, have the right, now, to play the music again … if maybe that’s not appropriate.” That should have been a clue to what he was going to say. Because he turned to the band and said, “Now this is what I want you to play – I want you to play ‘Dixie’”. The band almost dropped their instruments. For a minute they just stood there with the crowd, openmouthed. They looked at one another. They didn’t have the music to “Dixie”; they hadn’t played that song for a long time. Then, after a long pause the band finally got themselves together and they played “Dixie.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. (Lovette 48)

When we move toward forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation, we play music we never thought we could play and sing songs we thought we could never sing.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Dorsey, Chris. “Living the Word.” Christian Century 30 Aug. 2017: 18.
Lovette, Roger. “Meditation on a Scottish Church.” Pulpit Resource 36.3 (2008) 45-8.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
September 17, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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