There’s a wonderful scene in the original “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” move where Toula is introducing her non-Greek boyfriend, Ian Miller, to her family for the first time. All of them are there, the aunts and uncles and cousins and what appears to be twenty-five different people named Nick or Nicki. As they are standing there, Toula’s Aunt Voula says excitedly that she will have to have the couple over for dinner. Toula quietly tells her aunt that it won’t work out because Ian is a vegetarian. There’s a blank stare of incomprehension from Aunt Voula. So Toula says it more clearly, “Ian doesn’t eat meat.” “He don’t eat no meat?!” Voula says incredulously. “What do you mean, he don’t eat no meat!” And then she smiles, and says, “Oh that’s okay. I make lamb.”
A sermon based on Romans 14.
Vegetarianism comes front and center this morning in our text from Romans. There’s conflict in the Early Church—who knew there could ever be conflict in a church? This time around it’s an ongoing issue about what you can or cannot eat. You see some of the people in that church were probably Jewish and so they had a long history of keeping kosher. It’s likely they avoided the meat in general to make it easier to keep the dietary laws of Judaism. Other believers probably came from more pagan homes and knew that nearly all the meat you could buy at the local market had previously been offered to one deity or another along the way—animal sacrifices were made and then the meat was butchered and sent to a local store. So for them, the fact that this meat had pssobly been an offering to some false god made them want to forgo meat entirely.
And then there were the hamburger lovers who claimed that it didn’t matter where it came from, meat was a gift from God and tasted fantastic and so they intended to eat it. This was all fine and good until they got to a church potluck and someone brought in a scrumptious lamb dish with vegetables and rice and another person asked a little too loudly why anyone in their right mind would ruin a dish of rice and vegetables with the flesh of an animal. Someone else responded that the only thing being ruined was the broccoli salad which clearly did not have the requisite bacon crumbled on top. And conflict arose. All too soon that congregation and their conflicts made others not feel so welcome there, wondering if there was going to be an argument over every dish they shared at the community meal. And so Paul intervened.
“Welcome those who are weak in faith,” Paul writes to this gathering of believers, “not in order to quarrel with them and prove you’re right and their wrong, but because God welcomes them just as they are.” Show hospitality, simply because God is hospitable. And remember God isn’t just mildly hospitable; God is extravagantly welcoming.
While it’s slightly amusing to note that it’s the uptight ones—the ones who eschewed meat—who Paul claims are weak, if we focus only on that then we’re missing the boat too. It’s not about being weak or strong in terms of perceived notions of doctrine (and let’s be clear, no one perceives themselves as being weak here), but rather that we all belong to Christ. The vegetarians can continue as they have been, as well as the omnivores and the carnivores. Everyone is to be welcomed into the community of faith with open arms simply because they are Christ’s and children of God.
I get asked sometimes about the make-up of our congregation. Is St. Mark’s conservative or liberal? Is the congregation of one mind on issues of politics or theology? Would I consider parishioners as more Republican or more Democrat? I often reply in the good Anglican middle way; “Yes,” I say. Usually the person cocks their head a little and then chuckles and says, “No, really. What are the people like?” And I say, “Really. Yes. We’re both. We are not of one mind on issues at our congregation. I have folks who vote across the political spectrum and they have understandings of theology that run the gamut too. But those things aren’t really that important.”
We live in a world that all too often and much too efficiently divides us into groups. Red or Blue? Legal or illegal? White or person of color? Straight or LGBTQ? But Paul wants nothing of that, and frankly, neither do I. We are all Christ’s. My response to those who want to pin us down and categorize us is this: “We are disciples of Jesus Christ. If people come to St. Mark’s, we want welcome them warmly and invite them to join with us on the spiritual journey as we draw closer to Jesus. We don’t have a litmus test or ask to see membership cards at the door. If you want to follow Jesus as authentically and faithfully as you can, then you’re welcome here. Full stop.”
The Message Bible puts Paul’s opening this way, “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.” (Romans 14:1)
Which is exactly what Jesus is after in his conversation with Peter this morning. You’ve got to wonder who Peter felt did him wrong to make him sidle up to Jesus and ask him that question. “How many times do I have to forgive the one who did me wrong, Jesus? 7 times?” Meaning that on the 8th time, Peter was hoping to have permission to tell the person off.
Not so, says Jesus. 77 times. Or 70 times 7 in some other versions, meaning 490 times. In either case the number is meant to be too big to keep track of. Just forgive, Jesus says.
And before Peter can follow up, Jesus tells this remarkable story. A man owes the king 10,000 talents, which might not sound like a lot to us. But if you know that a single talent is worth the wages a worker would make over 16 years—roughly 6,000 days—then you could guess it’d be a lot. More than the guy could make in his lifetime. Or in 250 lifetimes. We’re talk a ton of dough. But rather than treating him badly, the king forgives the whole thing. Debt cancelled, 100%.
But then this guy walks out and sees a friend who owes him a hundred denarii. The denarii was a single day’s wage, so we’re talking about the wages this guy could make in about 4 months. But rather than showing mercy when this one asks for it, he has him tossed into jail until he could pay it all back. (Never mind that he wouldn’t be able to earn any money if he were in the slammer.)
Word gets back to the king, and he’s furious. “I forgave you that huge debt, but you couldn’t even see it in yourself to show mercy to this other guy?” So he has the first one tossed in jail himself.
And that, Jesus says, is what his kingdom is like. A place full of mercy and grace so that even when we do the worst things imaginable, we are forgiven. And, he says, we are to live in that kingdom ourselves. To be generous and merciful to everyone. To recognize that each of us has received the mercy of God and that we are to be open to all those we encounter, seeing that they to are children of God. Even if they do not believe the way we do, or even if they don’t eat the same things as us. Jesus doesn’t make any distinctions, he just invites us all to come to his table.
And that table is set before us this morning. We are called to see in the bread and the wine the expansiveness of Christ’s love in the world. We come to this table as liberal and conservative, as male and female and non-binary and other expressions of who we are. We make our way here as young and old, as wealthy and not so well off, and yes, as vegetarians and meat eaters simply because we are Christ’s and want to be fed by him and to be in communion with him. May we not view others—and especially those we see as “the other”—as opponents but as those beloved by God, warmly welcomed into the fellowship of the Almighty. And let us always welcome others as we ourselves have been welcomed by Christ, so that his steadfast love may transform us all.