Do you know how hard it is to go to through life without holding a grudge of some kind? My guess is, that even for the most kindhearted of us, down deep in the recesses of our souls – maybe even in a subconscious way – there’s a grievance somewhere, a score to settle against somebody, for some reason.
For some of us, we milk it for all we’re worth.
In one of my previous churches we had monthly business meetings, and Bill came to every meeting. And in every meeting he had an axe to grind. He complained about this, he complained about that. Most of the time, it was personal… toward me. I tried to talk with him about it, but to no avail. Many was the time I saw his fellow church members, as they were leaving the building, say to him, “Bill, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, the way you behave.” “Bill, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, the way you treat the pastor.” It was that bad. It really was. But he would not be budged. This went on for more than two years.
Now you know why I prefer quarterly business meetings.
My last Wednesday night with them, after I had resigned and was about to move, was, appropriately enough, a business meeting. After it was over, I went up to him and said, “Bill, now that I’m leaving, are you going to tell me why you were so hard on me?”
“You remember that time you saw me at the airport?” he asked.
“No, Bill, I honestly don’t remember ever seeing you at the airport.”
“Well, you saw me. Looked right through me as if I weren’t there.”
“Bill, I never saw you at the airport.”
“Yes, you did, and you didn’t speak. That’s why I’ve been so mad at you.”
“Now, let me get this straight, Bill. That’s why you’ve given me so much trouble for all this time? Because you thought I saw you at the airport and didn’t speak?!”
I never saw Bill at the airport. I’m not saying he wasn’t there, and I’m not saying he didn’t see me. But I didn’t see him. And for all that…
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Fred Craddock tells of the time he was ambling through a church cemetery in South Carolina, down in the low country near Charleston. He found one section with a huge stone bearing the family name and a lot of burial plots on either side that stretched out for some distance. All the graves were lined up evenly, he says, covered by concrete slabs. There were small graves for infants and children, and there were quite a few adult graves. But there was one grave set at a right angle from all the rest. All the other graves were lined up in a row, but this one was crosswise. Cattywampus is the way Craddock describes it. Why would they do that? he wondered.
He didn’t have to wonder very long. A man came walking by. “You from here?” Craddock asked.
“Yeah. You’re looking at that grave, aren’t you?”
“I knew that fellow. We were in the same church. I knew him well. Knew him all my life.”
“Why this burial at an angle?”
“Well, the family wanted that, and the church agreed.”
“But why?” Craddock asked.
“Because that’s the kind of guy he was. He was crossways with everybody and everything. We never knew him to be pleased about anything at home or at church. ‘Well, why’s she doing that?’ he’d say, or ‘Why’d they ask him to do that?’ or ‘Well, he’s the wrong one to be doing this,’ or ‘Well, I wonder who decided to do that?’ He said that kind of stuff all the time, all the time, and the family decided they wouldn’t try to change him just because he was dead. So they buried him crosswise.”
Craddock said, “That was an awful thing to do.”
“They wanted it to be a witness. The family said if God wants to straighten him out then God can straighten him out. But he left here just like he lived.”1
Did you know they were doing the same kind of stuff in Rome, back in Paul’s day? Not burying people crosswise necessarily, but being crossways with one another.
The church didn’t meet in a central place like we do here in this sanctuary. They met in different houses, and after awhile each of the house churches developed a personality all its own. The Christians of Jewish background tended to gravitate toward one another. It was natural, I suppose. They thought that not only did the Lord’s Day need to be observed, but so did the Sabbath. Those who spoke Latin met together. The same was true for those who preferred to worship in Greek.
“Birds of a feather flock together.” But that didn’t mean all the birds got along.
Some were vegetarians, not necessarily for reasons of nutrition but because they were afraid that if they purchased meat in the local market it might have once been offered to idols as a sacrifice at one of the pagan temples. That was an abomination to them, so instead of taking the chance, they felt it better to abstain completely… which was all right, except they looked unkindly toward those who did eat meat. And, as you might imagine, there were those who weren’t as careful about that sort of thing. They thought it was all pretty silly and superstitious. They didn’t care where their meat had been, as long as it was sold to them before the expiration date.
Are you getting the picture? There were all these independent Christians running around acting… well, independent. It’s okay to be different, to have varying ideas about some things. But here’s where the problems start… when you’re convinced that you’re right and anybody else who disagrees with you or does things differently from you is wrong, trouble is the name of the game. It is when you elevate your opinions to the level of such importance that whether you have fellowship with others is dependent on that, things start to fall apart. That’s what was happening in Rome.
Pretty soon, in the church at Rome, they’re squabbling with one another, getting crossways with one another, cattywampus in their relationships… not because of anything really important, but simply because they looked at things differently from one another. Grudges started taking hold, feelings got hurt, and instead of being a place where people worshiped and fellowshiped together in their common devotion to Christ, church became the place where grievances were aired and scores were settled.
There was a grudge in just about every pew.
Now, let me ask you: do you think Paul is going to stand for that? Not for a New York minute. “We do not live to ourselves,” he says, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
What does he mean by that? I think he’s talking about family. Because we are family – the family of God – my opinion counts only when it is voiced out of consideration that your feelings are as important as mine. When I make a decision, it is to be based not just on how it will impact on me. I need to be thinking of you as well. When I speak, how will you hear it? When I act, how will you respond to what I do? We do not live to ourselves. We’re in this thing together. It is called family.
That’s what I think Paul is saying. But I also thinks it goes against our nature to do such a thing because we are such rugged individualists when it comes to having religious opinions. That is especially true, I think, for us Baptists.
Baptists have always been Lone Rangers when it comes to faith. We can’t be carried into the kingdom on the shoulders of someone else’s religious experience. It has to be our own. It’s a personal choice we all have to make for ourselves. To find Jesus, you’ve got to walk the aisle on your own initiative. The priesthood of the believer. That sort of thing.
These three young ladies who were baptized earlier all come from good families who are committed to Christ and to the church. But Mom and Dad were not able to make for them the decision that led to the baptismal waters. They had to make that determination in their own hearts. That’s Baptist. We’d also like to think it’s biblical, wouldn’t we?
Maybe Paul wasn’t a very good Baptist. One biblical commentator has gone so far as to say that in Paul’s view “an individual Christian is an oxymoron. No one is an island. We are creatures of the whole, not of the part,” he says.2
I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that for awhile. I’ve got a lot of Baptist blood running through my veins.
But do you remember four years ago? Of course you do. There was no rugged individualism on 9/11. Suddenly, we were all together in our public and common grief. We looked into each other’s faces and found a mutual sorrow. Kindness and thoughtfulness reached a level unseen in a long, long time. Do you remember?
Why, people on the streets of New York were actually speaking to one another. We were more patient with one another. There was virtually no road rage, at least for awhile. Even the local police backed off on giving traffic tickets. Up to that point, everywhere you drove in Little Rock there was a speed trap. After 9/11, I didn’t see one for weeks. We had enough on our minds without having to worry about that, for goodness’ sake.
We experienced a collective sorrow that caused us to think beyond ourselves and our own selfish needs. People in Arkansas – in Arkansas, of all places – wore caps with NYFD emblazoned on the front. We were touched deeply when national leaders from across the world expressed the opinion that on that day all people, regardless of nationality – at least those who were of the same mind and heart and who loved democracy – were Americans. Our national anthem was played in the British parliament.
We were together. We were one in spirit. Do you remember? Perhaps a better question is, could you ever forget?
But our common grief did not, and cannot, sustain us.
Neither can a common enemy.
There’s been a lot of controversy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina… a lot of finger-pointing at those who are thought not to have done their jobs when disaster struck. I have a theory about that. You want to hear it?
The difference between 9/11, when we pulled together, and Hurricane Katrina, when we have not so much, is that four years ago we had a common enemy. These last two weeks we have not, and some people just naturally have to have an enemy. So, when natural disasters come along, they blame God for allowing such a thing to happen. During these last few days, some things have been said that show a Grinch-like spirit, revealing that some folks’ hearts are two sizes too small, not to mention their theology. But if you’re not inclined to get mad at God, it’s even harder to get rough with Mother Nature, isn’t it?
We didn’t have a common enemy this time, and if God can’t be blamed – and Mother Nature is out of reach – some people have to find fault with somebody. So to a degree we have turned on each other. There are always those who are just looking for somebody else to blame, somebody else to hate.
That’s my theory.
But this isn’t a theory… Our common grief, our common anger, will not bind us together. There has to be something else, something more, something eternal. And I can’t think of anything better to remind us of that than what Paul has said to the church in Rome. . “We do not live to ourselves,” he says, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
But how do we get there? How do we come to that point in our journey of faith that we hear what Paul is saying, that we really and truly consider the thoughts and needs and cares and opinions of others as much as or more than we do our own? When is it that we start to swim against the flow of human nature and become more like Christ? How do we get there?
If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that in all circumstances God is there. Whether those circumstances are good or bad, God is present. And wherever the hand of God is, there is hope. Wherever the hand of God is, there is love. God does not leave us. Whether it’s an enemy attack or a devastating storm, God’s job is to keep on being God. It takes the eyes and ears of faith to find God, it seems, but if we are open to God’s presence, we will find it. We will find the guiding and benevolent hand of God.
Sometimes God’s presence is obvious. At other times, you have to look really, really hard. Or, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, you have to dust for God’s fingerprints.3 But when the dust is settled and the flood waters have found their way back to the sea, always – always – there is the loving hand of God.
And “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Whether it’s an enemy attack or the devastation of nature, we are the Lord’s. And that means, that for some people, to see the face of God they have to see your face and mine. When they do, how are we then the presence of Christ?
“Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Do you believe that? If so, go and tell someone. Better yet, go and live it by extending to others your hand of grace. You might just find it to be the hand of God.
Lord, in all circumstances of life – in good, in bad, and in between – we belong to you. May your hand, that guides the world, be our guide as well, and may you find us faithful to you in all things. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001 ) p. 71f.
2Carl R. Hollday, Preaching Through The Christian Year: Year A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992) p. 440.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995) p. 120.