There is nothing quite as annoying as a young zealot. So I must have driven people crazy! I knew the answers! I didn’t have a lot of questions about God or the nature of the Church or who Jesus was. And that made me a golden child in a church where certainty was prized above all else.
Eventually life knocked all of that out of me. The complexities of being alive, the contradictions between dogma and experience, hard knocks and more hard knocks left me unsure of most things. I continue that journey today.
But on this journey from fundamentalism to a more expansive faith, I have seen a rather disturbing continuity between these two worlds. They are different in so many ways, but alike in this way: both sides are sometimes quite sure of who is in and who is out; who really understands the nature of God and humanity and who doesn’t. And on both sides, there is little room for deviation from what the group has decided is best.
And we don’t just see that in the church. Black and white thinking has infected our whole society. Compromise has become a dirty word to purists on both sides of our culture divide. and sometimes, if I’m honest, that’s the way I want it to be. I want there to be purity of political opinion because, of course, my opinion is correct and why should anyone object to the ABSOLUTE TRUTH? And isn’t that what folks on either side of any argument believe they have: some measure of the truth that the other side doesn’t have.
But we know that life is far more complicated than that. And we need people to push the boundaries for us so that we stay open and malleable. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum writes about Jenji Kohan, the brilliant creator of Weeds and Orange is the New Black and other shows. In this article, Nussbaum writes about how Kohan loves to explore those uncomfortable places between the light and the darkness. Kohan creates characters that are strange mixes of good and ill because that’s how she sees life. Kohan says: “I want to meet all sorts of people, not to live in my bubble. And, right now, the world is just “Everyone back to their corners.” In (this hyper partisan) era, Kohan sees an urge to hunker down with one’s own, “to just put your loudspeaker up and say, “This is me, and this is my world view, and I don’t want to know from yours.”
The UCC tagline so often proclaimed rather glibly, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,” is so much more of a challenge than we imagine. I sometimes fear that what most UCC churches mean by that is that you are welcome here as long as you can agree with our progressive agenda. But if you hold another point of view, if you are uncomfortable with anything we proclaim, then perhaps you should keep moving.
But the Gospel’s call for community in the midst of diversity is far more radical and challenging than the blessing of our opinions. The Gospel calls for us to make room in our pews and our lives for the person who may think we’re full of it. And that is a challenge of the first order in 2017. But… it was a challenge of the first order for early Roman Christians.
In Romans 14, Paul dives right into the middle of a culture war and a religious argument. At first glance it seems that Paul is simply calling on the vegetarians and the meat eaters in the Roman church to get along. But what he was really confronting were two completely separate religious and cultural identities; two ways of looking at the world.
In the first century, the Gospel was spreading to the Gentile world. And people who had formerly followed pagan religions were being converted to faith in Jesus Christ. A big part of the pagan religions they had left behind, was animal sacrifice. Whole businesses were built around making the animals available and slaughtering them in a certain way and dedicating them to pagan gods. And pagan temple personnel sometimes acted as butchers for the general public. So when you went to the butcher, you had no idea where or what that meat had been. And some of these new Christians wanted nothing to do with their old pagan lives. And so, they abstained from all meat in order to avoid any meat that might have been dedicated to idols. It was their sincerely held religious belief.
But not every Christian agreed with that. Some saw in Jesus a freedom from worrying about such things. What difference did the meat make in this bold new world built on love and justice? So these more “liberated” Christians looked down on the vegetarians as being weak in their faith. And a fight broke out in the church between the conservatives and the liberals.
Now you might expect bossy old St. Paul to have a strong opinion about who was right and who was wrong. And maybe he did. But, astonishingly, Paul doesn’t take a side. Instead he calls for thoughtful and thorough co-existence in the midst of diversity. “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat for God has welcomed them.” (14:3) “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” (14:5)
Now that sounds an awful lot like Congregationalism to me! We like that freedom of individual conscious bit, but we only go so far with it. We still tend to be communities of the like-minded. And sometimes we make idols of our opinions and pass judgments that dismiss whole groups of believers.
Now that is not to imply that judgment is always wrong or that all opinions are equally valid. Our society is in the midst of a great upheaval as we confront systemic racism and white privilege and heteronormativity and ingrained systems that keep the poor, poor. But even as we stand for justice, we do not have permission to ignore or hate those who hold ignorant or hateful views.
In the Gospel lesson of the day, Jesus says we have to forgive those who offend us 77 times a day – a purposeful exaggeration meaning that we always have to forgive. Forgiveness is not approval, but forgiveness forces us to separate an odious idea from our sisters and brothers who hold it.
Over the summer I saw a historic Congregational church in Connecticut that had this large banner across the front of their building: “You are our neighbors. No matter who you vote for, your skin color, your faith, or who you love, we will try to be here for you. That’s what community means. Let’s be neighbors.”
And that, it seems to me, is a challenge of the Gospel for this congregation as we enter our 178th year of ministry. One of the questions that haunts us is, “What makes us any different from any other mainline church in this city?” And for a congregation so dedicated to inclusion – maybe a deeper kind of inclusion is what the Spirit is calling us to.
What if we could more fully model true diversity? What if we could see the humanity underneath the opinion? What if we could leave judgment to God and love our neighbors as ourselves. What if we stopped just blessing our opinions and instead decided to bless the world – warts and all?
 “Riot Girl” by Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker, September 4, 2017, p.40