"Everything You Can Do ...”   Romans 14:1-12         Sept. 14, 2008

 Americans like to pride themselves on their "can-do" spirit. It was this conviction that helped a scruffy band of colonists defeat the great British army. It was this gritty determination that rode with countless covered wagons full of families moving out to settle the vast wild spaces of this sprawling continent.

Immigrants from a hundred different countries seemed to catch that spirit the moment they set foot on our shores. Indeed, it has often been first- or second-generation Americans that have embodied it the best.
America's songwriter for the 20th century, IrvingBerlin, caught and personified this “can-do-ness” in his Wild West musical Annie Get Your Gun. In it, sharpshooter Annie Oakley engaged in a one-upmanship boasting match with her rival Buffalo Bill Cody, boldly singing "Everything you can do, I can do better; I can do everything better than you!"

There is another competition; however, that demonstrates just how impossible some battles are to win. For some of us the "battle of the bulge" is an ongoing war, whose every victory or defeat is broadcast by that one pair of pants that just won’t fit right! But to every ten people grazing on salads with fat-free dressing and diet sodas, there is that one scoundrel munching on cheeseburgers, fries with a chocolate Sunday for dessert and looks as fit, and trim as an athlete.

For some people every calorie consumed seems to add weight, while others can inhale calories. Some people eat no red meat, no fatty foods and give up sugar and caffeine in hopes of bringing their cholesterol down below 200. Others can spend their free time cooking and consuming gourmet foods swimming in heavy cream followed by pecan pie alamode, while keeping their cholesterol at 120.

The
Apostle Paul was right. Some people can eat anything and it won't hurt them, while for others food presents a "clear and present danger" to their very existence. Everything you can do, I cannot do, much less do better. Flying in20the face of our American can-do spirit is the truth that we are not all created equal on every level of our being.

"Everything you can do I can do better" is not a Christian attitude. It not only fosters an irresolvable competitive spirit, but it also promotes a kind of unexamined uniformity. When everyone is busy trying to be just like his or her neighbor - only of course a little bit better – the diversity necessary for a vital community is lost. According to
Paul, there is room for a variety of interpretations within Christian life. Moreover, in order to remain true to one's own faith convictions, these differences must continue to exist.
 
The church has consistently sputtered on this one avenue of Christian living. Often out of well-meaning, good-intended zeal for Christ, the church has utterly rejected Paul's call for Christians to compassionately practice a commitment to diversity in their midst.
 
Ever since the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism, the church has found it easier to create new congregations and new denominations, rather than to tolerate genuine variety within its ranks.
Initially, early Reformation schisms were based on scholarly theological disputes over lofty points of interpretation, points often incomprehensible to the uneducated parishioners. Later, denominational divisions were based on cultural, political or behavioral differences.
 
Some reasons strike us as profound - such as the congregational commitments first to freedom in the 1860s, then to civil rights in the 1960s. However, consider some other disagreements that have wrenched congregations and denominations apart - card playing, jewelry wearing, dancing, drinking, movie going, and TV watching.

How easy it is to jump to conclusions when we see someone doing something we do not approve of. This story warns us about jumping to conclusions:
 
The two sons of a Fort Worth, Texas, woman of 90 were worried about her safety. "We are going to get you a pistol, mother, so you can take care of yourself. And we're going to teach you how to use it. There is too much violence out there."

So they bought their mother a pistol, which she dutifully packed in her purse. One day, when she left
RidgemartShopping Center to get into her car, she found two young men sitting in the car. She took out the pistol, pointed it at them, and said, "Get out of my car or I'll shoot." They jumped out and ran off.

She got into the car, put the key in the ignition - and it did not fit. Then she realized it was not her car. She went over and found her car. She said she would have apologized to the two young men, but she could not find them.[1]

 
Would Paul have felt that card playing or dancing would justify pulling apart the body of Christ? What about some of the hot button topics that stop or start conversations today? Moral issues like abortion or non-moral issues like environmental health vs. economic vitality, and arguments between "evolutionists" and "creationists"? Does Paul's advice call us to find a place for a variety of "Christian" convictions on these issues? On the other hand, are there some non-negotiable points of truth?

First off, today’s text deals with non-moral issues, whereas, other portions of Scripture address moral issues quite clearly.
Paul does have his bottom line on moral issues, but here, Paul refuses to take sides on these “non-issues.” What Paul does insist upon is conviction - for nothing irks Paul as much as a tepid faith, a lukewarm commitment. Just as Paul had made "honor" a primary component of Christian character in Romans 12:10, he insists here that the ultimate concern of all Christians remains honoring God.
 
Paul’s bottom line is that all believers are united by Christ's death and resurrection. Accepting Christ's Lordship is Paul's indisputable starting point. With the simple confession of a God-breathed, Christ-centered, Spirit-driven life, we all are welcomed into God's household, and we all share in the same humble rank as "slaves" or "servants" in that household. Slaves answer to the master - not to other slaves - for their actions. Each one of us is accountable to God.

Honest, convicted differences are bound to exist within any body of believers. However, accepting them, not necessarily eliminating them, is the spiritually healthy attitude
Paul encourages. The church has shown no measure of intolerance over its lifetime, of course. Yet, education and inquiry have always been a significant part of the church's tradition. During the misnamed "Dark Ages" of European culture, the church was often the only sanctuary for ideas and ideologies. The early church also seemed to have enough confidence in its convictions to banish fear of foreign ideas. GregoryThaumaturgus, a student of Origen's, recalled the training method of his master:

No subject was forbidden us, nothing hidden or inaccessible. We were allowed to become acquainted with every doctrine, barbarian or Greek, with=2 0things spiritual and secular, divine and human, traversing with all confidence and investigating the whole circuit of knowledge, and satisfying ourselves with full enjoyment of all pleasure of the soul.[2]

We have freedom within God’s moral law. All non-moral things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.
 
Who are the "weak" ones? Undoubtedly, the answer depends on who is doing the asking. As such, this puts the burden on all members of a Christian community who perceive themselves and their convictions as "strong" to consider with compassion the sensitivities of their brothers and sisters in faith. As long as we are sure that the temperature of another's commitment remains heated by a genuine zeal for Christ, Paul's words encourage us to strengthen our community through a sense of interdependence and acceptance.
 
While all this nit picking may seem trivial, the Christ-centeredness of Paul's faith is not. Emphasizing Christ's lordship continually and vigorously is what makes Paul so sure that a variety of perspectives, opinions and lifestyles are all acceptable within the Christian community. As long as believers have the redemptive work of the death and resurrection of Christ at the center of their faith, Paul allows for all manner of diversity to remain within the Christian fold.
 
A rabbi once asked, "Where is God?"
            He was answered, "Everywhere."
                        "No," said the rabbi. "God is everywhere we let God in."[3]        
 
Letting God in, is what Paul is writing to the early church and to us. As we honor God in all we do, or don't do, we live according to God's plan and grace. In addition, God helps us in our journey. Rather than, "everything you can do," or "everything I can do," let us consider and embrace "everything we can do" together. Amen. 


 


[1] ErvinGathings, via BarryBailey, Fort Worth, Texas, 4 October 1992.
[2] As quoted by RonaldT.Habermas, "Gray Matters," Christianity Today 31 [1987], 24
[3] As quoted in Trail Mix: A Newsletter for People on a Spiritual Journey 1 (October1995), 4.
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