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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

Learn, Unlearn, Relearn

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

The Rev. Sara Warfield

Scripture: Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was likely written when Jews were having a tough time in that city. They’d been expelled from Rome for five years before a new emperor let them come back. Meanwhile, the Christian community was kind of a weird upstart that most other Romans were happy to ignore so long as they didn’t cause trouble. That early church was made up of a mix between Gentiles who converted from their pagan faith and Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah. And, if we’re being honest, everyone, including the Gentile Christians, was into persecuting the Jews, including those Jews within their own Christ-believing communities.

So we could read this as Paul getting in on the persecution, calling the faith of the Jewish Christ-followers weak. After all, Jews were those most likely to have dietary restrictions. And while a kosher diet doesn’t forbid all meat, the easiest way to be sure to keep kosher is to eat only vegetables. Yes, Paul says to welcome them, but not without what seems like a little dig at their supposed weakness.

That’s what can happen when we pull two verses out of the Bible, removing them from their larger context. We can persecute Jews. We can persecute those within our own community.

But we have to remember that Paul himself was a Jew, and practiced his Jewish faith zealously before the road to Damascus, where he had his powerful conversion experience and became an equally zealous Christ-follower. But, like Jesus, he never stopped being a Jew. He just became a Jew who preached God’s grace through Jesus above all else.

I don’t think Paul had any interest in tearing down his Jewish community. But I do wonder if by “weak,” he meant people who think they need to follow a strict and unchanging set of rules to be faithful. This is a tale as old as time. And it’s not just about food, and it’s not just about Jews.

For centuries, the Western Church believed that Latin was the “correct” language of worship, even as it eventually faded out of common usage. For the majority of our faith’s history, Western Christians attended worship celebrated in a language they couldn’t understand.

In the medieval Christian Church, women who were menstruating or who had just had a baby weren’t allowed to come to worship.

There are some Christians who still believe dancing and playing card games are sinful.

There are some Christians who still believe that men should go out and work to provide for the family while women should stay at home and take care of the family, and those who don’t conform to those roles are sinners.

There are some Christians who still believe that women shouldn’t preach.

I think I know our St. Luke’s community well enough to know that we wouldn’t be into any of those rules.

But I do wonder what might go through our minds—what might go through my mind—if someone came to worship wearing a Make America Great Again t-shirt. I know we would be kind, I’m sure of it, but what would be going through our minds?

What would we think if a polyamorous woman came to worship with her husband along with her two other romantic partners, a man and a woman, and joyfully introduced us to her different kind of family?

We also have our own rules about what “correct” belief means. We may not declare them as openly as others, but all of us do.

Set rules make things easier. More certain. Less ambiguous. It’s a lot easier to know who’s in and who’s out when there are set rules.

But then Paul goes on to write: “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.” In other words: God’s not really into your set rules. So what is God into then?

Well, because we’ve been talking about him, let’s start with what Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

And next, of course, we turn to Jesus. The Pharisees ask him in Matthew,

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We don’t need set rules, we need love. We need to love God and love our neighbor.

And love is no straightforward thing.

Jesus loved by healing people.

He loved by letting a woman wash his dirty feet.

He loved by asking some of his disciples to leave their families to follow him.

He loved by angrily turning over tables in the temple.

Love doesn’t look like justone thing.

But that ambiguity is so uncomfortable. If we don’t have set rules for what love is, how will we know if we’re doing it right?

I’m going to be bold and venture an answer, but it’s an ambiguous answer: Love is whatever makes more room for God. So in order to know how to love, we need to ask: What makes more room for God in this situation?

Jesus knew that healing brought God into a situation where sickness or death had been taking up all the space.

When he called the disciples away from their families, he knew they would create a vaster space for God in the world through their ministries than they could have if they stayed.

When he saw money-changers taking up the space in the temple that was meant for God, he flipped over their tables and chased them out so God would once again be the priority there.

Love doesn’t look like just one thing.

I read a quote recently by 20th century writer and futurist Alvin Toffler. He said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Love is about our willingness to learn and unlearn and relearn ways to make more room for God in each situation. It’s to know that one unchanging set of rules will never open us to the vastness of God’s love.

Even Jesus showed us this. A month ago, Kathy preached about the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus for healing for her daughter, and whom Jesus had called a dog. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he said. I’m not here to heal Canaanites. But she replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In that moment, Jesus softened. He saw in her an opportunity to make more room for God in this situation. He was willing to unlearn what he thought his purpose was and relearn so that he could spread God’s love even more widely.

This is the work of faith: to be adaptable for the sake of love, for the sake of making more room for God in this world. It’s not easy. Oh, how I know it’s not easy. I am the biggest fan of set rules. In fact, learning to be more adaptable is a major part of my personal spiritual practice.

And I keep saying “set rules” because I think there’s a difference between rules set in stone and what in our faith we call covenant, or ways we agree to keep one another safe and accountable to loving one another within a community. But we need to hold those agreements lightly, be willing like Jesus to learn and unlearn and relearn in order to make more room for God, for love.


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