The other day, I was driving down Union Street on my way to Walgreens Pharmacy and my eye caught a rather alarming sight. On my side of the road, a little girl no older than 3 or so was walking on the edge of the raised tar street curb. I reined in my car a bit and slowed down and pulled left just in case she decided to walk off the curb into my path. Then I looked for the little girl’s mom or dad. Well, Mom was there alright but she was walking in front of the child not paying the least bit of attention to her. Why? Because Mom was talking on a cellphone. I grumbled rather self-righteously…”pay attention to your kid” and then, as often happens, too often I’m afraid, my thoughts wandered to an occasion many, many years ago when one of my friends and I had taken my youngest son to Acadia National Park. Kevin was young and active and he wasn’t interested in walking at a grown up adult pace, so he begged me to let him go ahead.
My friend, a native of Maine who should have known the area and the dangers better than me said, “Let him go. He’ll be fine.” Well, he wasn’t. Ten minutes later, a very annoyed man came up from the bank of cliffs holding my son Kevin, by the collar of his shirt. He marched him over to me and said, “Is this your kid?” I nodded while my eyes took in the scene. Kevin was dripping wet and very unhappy. “Well, lady,” he said “You are darn lucky. Your kid was playing next to the edge of the sea bank and started to slip into the water. I grabbed him just in time and hauled him away before a wave could pull him in. Next time, watch your kid.” And, with my heart beating superfast, I muttered an embarrassed “thank you”, took possession of my son and half-heartedly scolded him while my own guilt and fear brought tears into my eyes. I was so angry with myself, my neglectful mothering and angry too that I’d listened to my friend with her cavalier suggestion to “just let him go” off alone. He would be fine. He wasn’t and now, neither was I. A short while later, we all left for home.
That’s what I was thinking as I drove down Union Street past the little girl and her inattentive mother. How quickly we, anyone of us, can have our contempt for the behaviors of another person remind us of the contemptible behavior or attitudes we live out in our own lives. Who am I to point a finger? Who am I to make judgments?
Well, Paul trips over his own words in the very first sentence of this part of the letter he sends to the Roman church. “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” William Greenway, an associate professor at Presbyterian Seminary in Austin Texas makes the comment: “One must smile, because here is Paul, of all people, apparently urging us to avoid passing judgment , while, at the same time, he seems unable to resist characterizing those with whom he disagrees as weak in faith!” [i]
Certainly, Paul had his work cut out for him. First, he wasn’t considered by the original apostles as one of them…he was not a super-apostle. He hadn’t walked with Jesus; hadn’t paid his dues so to speak; hadn’t even stood at the cross though none but John had. Paul hadn’t entered the Upper Room or shared the last supper. His understanding of the gospel was suspect.
hBut true to form and true to human behavior, the church in Roman was embroiled in controversy between the main contenders James the brother of Jesus and his followers and Peter the heir apparent and those who followed him. They were both battling for the loyalties of those searching for an answer as to what it meant to be a true Christian believer. Paul’s aim was to set aside the details of diet restrictions favored by James and his following and to minimize the prestige of following the one Jesus had named “the rock”. He wanted all the church leaders and members to work and play nicely with one another for the sole purpose of sharing the true message of Christ Jesus…a gospel based in love, compassion and forgiveness.
Hundreds of years later and we are still drawing lines in the sand between the various understandings of what it means to be a follower of Christ. We throw up terms of division: evangelical, conservative, liberal, Catholic, and Protestant, and purpose to advance our cause at the polling places in our political lives rather than act on the gospel in the manner Jesus chose…by prayer, presence, acts of love and compassion and tolerance for differences. We close the doors to our churches to those who have a different lifestyle or act in a different manner of engagement with others. We make “our gospel” all about the issues that perplex and threaten our security like abortion, homosexuality, right to bear arms and who can take communion in our churches. Across the centuries these and other issues have obscured rather than revealed Christ’s message of love, compassion and justice, serving our neighbor and finding the blessing of forgiveness, received or given all of which are intended to build up the body of Christ – Christ’s church but all of which are veiled by our prejudices, attitudes, judgments and slights toward those Christ recognized and embraced as the children of God too.
Maybe Paul couldn’t help himself. Maybe we can’t either. Even when we think we are in the right, we put ourselves immediately in the precarious position of judging another wrong. We don’t mean to draw those “dare me” lines in the sand but our humanity overshadows our divine image within and hides a true understanding of what Christ asked of us and what God hopes for us. So where do we go for help. Paul wrote: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” Ultimately, as Paul states, “each of us will be accountable to God.” With all the other uncertainties of living life on this earth, this statement is undeniable and, in a strange way, keeps us all humble. We really are all judged by the only one who has that right…the One who created us. Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Greenway, 62.