Rm 14:1-12

Romans 14:1-12

The Rev. Marc Vance

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

September 14, 2014

Would you think ill of me if I told you that I have incorporated some eastern spiritual practices into my own faith discipline?  What do you mean: A person ordained to lead in the Church in the Christian tradition messing around with anything other than expressly expressed in the Bible?!  It’s true, I have!  Now, don’t judge me!  Let me explain.  One practice is breathing.  I won’t go into all the nuances of what that entails, but it not just about the function of the autonomic nervous system.  It is closely allied with the practice of what is commonly called “mindfulness,” both of which are overtly out of the Buddhist tradition, but associated with things such as tai chi or yoga.  (Yoga works well for a lot of people, but personally I’m not much of a fan.  It just isn’t much fun!  Although I’m tiptoeing around the fringes of it because of the benefits as I age, which a recent MRI made abundantly clear is unrelenting!  I’m much more a fan and something of a practitioner of tai chi.)

Now, how can I do that?  How could someone who does what I do for a living possibly be inclined to try to mix religious traditions like that?  Well, honestly it is kind of hard for me to think of Buddhism as a religion.  To my mind, it is more a philosophy than a religion, but regardless there actually is nothing contrary to the Christian faith in the practices I employ.  In fact, while not taught as overtly and by name in the Christian faith, those particular practices that I mentioned are thoroughly infused, cover-to-cover, throughout the Bible and in other contemplative Christian traditions, such as monasticism.  Look at Genesis: everything began with the ruach of God, the Spirit or breath of God that moved over the deep and breathed creation into existence; God breathing life into the dry bones that we hear in Ezekiel; Jesus, in a postresurrection appearance, breathing on the disciples at Pentecost and giving them the Holy Spirit, God’s creative force that brought all things into existence and which is what empowers any of us to be able to do any ministry in the first place.  A focus on breath or breathing is not relegated to one particular religion or philosophical system, but it is that vital force that underlies everything, including what defines the difference between life and death.  Likewise with mindfulness: I do not know how a practice that cultivates being acutely aware of the blessing of each moment, of the holiness of each day, of each person, could be construed as contrary to honoring God.  Indeed, that is why we make a solemn vow through our Baptismal Covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself (BCP p. 305).  These may be overtly eastern practices, but they are also thoroughly Christian practices that I observe on a daily basis which I am convinced honor my Lord.

So how do you judge my spiritual practice?  (This part of it, anyway; that is not all I do!)  My guess is that there are some who still are a little dubious, not quite sure what to make of it, some saying, “Well, yeah, me too!” and maybe others going, “I hadn’t thought about it that way before.”  Well, as history and the lectionary would have it, we have been wrestling in the church with just such issues as these since the Church was breathed into creation.  This is what Paul was in such a tizzy about when he wrote to the Church in Rome.  There were all kinds of arguments then about everything under the sun because this was an era of competing religious traditions, from days honoring the various gods of the pagan religions to the observance of Jewish festival days to the burgeoning emperor-worship movement.  That is why there was so much fussing about whether to eat meat that was likely to have been sacrificed to idols versus the choice to be only vegetarian, what day to observe as holy and which to shun, what spiritual practice to engage in and which to avoid.  As a cultural milieu, everyone brought their own ideas, their own traditions, their own beliefs and preferences to the proverbial table, each convinced of the rightness of their position and by implication the wrongness of everyone else’s.

Thus says Paul, “So here is a way to think about it that you might not have considered before.”  Welcome one who is “weak” in the faith, that is, one who maybe has different convictions than you do, welcome and do not judge.  Why?  Because God has welcomed you - Roman, pagan, Gentile, or Jew, sinner and righteous alike.  Since you are different people with different experiences and perspectives and customs, your understanding and theirs may be different.  So why would you judge yourself to be superior or another inferior?  There is one who is Lord of all creation, from our first breath to the last, from the dawning of time until time is no more, so if you are to judge, judge with a welcoming heart, as you have been.  Whatever practice you choose to engage, observe that day in honor of the one God who in all things directs and rules our hearts.  Choose to eat meat or not, but be sure of your conviction and offer that to the glory of the one Lord of all creation.  Choose to practice breathing and mindfulness or not, but be sure of your conviction and offer its observance to the one God of both the living and dead…and welcome others to do the same, just as God has welcomed you to do.

Paul says a lot in a paragraph, doesn’t he?  But it is visionary thinking because look at it in our context.  “Reimagining” is the current buzzword in our own tradition.  That is, when it comes to our mission of proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, we - ourselves and the Church, in general - are not particularly effective in that mission, especially in this era of dramatic demographic shifts, changing social expectations, and technological advances.  There are arguments about everything under the sun - politics, diet and exercise, even sports, and certainly religion.  But even looking just at us, how many here are cradle Episcopalians?  (If you are not sure what that means, you are not one!)  The rest obviously come from different traditions, Christian or otherwise.  And will we judge one another?  No, of course not, because we are all here, under one roof, each welcomed by the one God of all creation.  We observe special days in this tradition - Holy Women, Holy Men, red letter days on the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday and foot washing on Maundy Thursday, Christmas and Easter.  Some observe all of these days and others only a few.  And do we judge one more righteous than another?  No, of course not, because the observances of these days are done in honor of the Lord.  Watch closely as people come into the church, who dips their finger in the holy water font on the column by the table where I leave copies of sermons and who does not.  See who shows up at 12:05 tomorrow to observe Holy Cross Day when we walk the Stations of the Cross.  These practices are important to some, have no meaning to others, but none judged one more important than another; only that the day of their observance is done in honor of the one God of all creation.

But then, what about those folks who do not use, understand, or even have any idea about the existence of a Book of Common Prayer.  Don’t we have at least some little inkling that we know we have the best thing going?  Or those traditions that do not share a sacramental or creedal understanding of the faith.  Oh, what they are missing!  We observed another special day on Thursday, the thirteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on our nation.  And how do we judge the events of that day?  Evil, to be sure, but oh how that day heightened tensions that remain with other faith traditions and one in particular.  I posted my American flag in its place outside my front door, but I did not go to the ceremony at City Hall, so how is my observance to be judged?  One onion in the paper derided people for not flying their flags at half-mast.  For this person, just flying the flag was not enough.  They judged that practice to be less than American, inferior to their own practice.  Sorry, I do not have the capability of adjusting my flag.  It either flies or it doesn’t.  We all make judgments, we all must, but I distinguish between making a judgment and being judgmental.  We judge every day and often between good and bad, right and wrong, safe and unsafe and that is necessary just to function.  But then there is the judgmentalism of deciding the fate of anther’s soul.  Do we judge the state of all Muslims everywhere for the evil actions of the few who abused that faith tradition or do we welcome the immeasurable forgiveness that we hear in Matthew’s gospel today?  No simple answers if I am convinced that my practice honors God and so yours cannot.

I am convinced that we are called to welcome those with different experiences and perspectives and customs, welcome and not engage the practice of judgmentalism.  Why?  Because God has welcomed each one of us - Episcopalian, Roman, or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, sinner and righteous alike.  We are all different people, each one offering something unique to the other, but there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God of all creation, so why would we judge ourselves to be superior or another inferior?  Rather, if we are to judge, let us offer to God a daily practice of judging with a welcoming heart, sure in the conviction that we observe it honor of the Lord.