The Temptation of the Particular
The 14th Sunday after Pentecost
September 14, 2014
St. Stephen's, North Myrtle Beach
I don’t get to work on my golf game as much as I had planned when we moved to South Carolina three years ago. During the year that I was actually retired, though, I did spend some time on improving my game. At one point, I concentrated hard on my full swing, thinking that if I could just hit those drives better, my scores would improve. However, a strange thing happened. When I focused on driving, then practice on chipping and putting was neglected. At the end of the day, then, the strokes I made up in one area of the game, I lost in the others. Thus, my overall score did not change very much, if at all.
It seems to me that a particular focus on one area of golf – like life or faith – confronts us with a powerful temptation. That is, we may think, “If I just do this one thing better, then golf – or life or faith as a whole – will certainly improve.” That’s a temptation which I believe does not necessarily hold true. And our readings this morning suggest the fallacy of that message to us, it seems to me.
As I hope you realize, we are reading a series of Old Testament lessons involving the Exodus journey of the people of God. And, I also hope you know, that journey is formative for all people who claim to be God’s children. Indeed, the importance of the Exodus event in the life of our faith can hardly be overstated. Today’s selection tells the story of crossing the Red Sea. Its meaning points to God’s care and protection of the people along the way of their journey – the care and protection, that is, of God Almighty.
If you study the story, though, in seminary or in some other setting, you may come across speculation about particular facts in the story. For instance, the body of water actually may have been the Sea of Reeds, and depending on wind direction, that body of water may have been only ankle-deep … easy to cross. In such scholarly pursuits, then, arguments occur about the likelihood of particular facts.
Now, please do not misunderstand me here. There is nothing wrong with good scholarship. It is an appropriate matter of inquiry to want to know the facts. But the result might be to get stuck in the argument and, thereby, to lose faith out of a sense of disillusionment or frustration. It’s like getting stuck on particular laws and forgetting about mercy. Remember that the point of this story involves the care and protection of God Almighty for the people who wander in the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land. That is the message conveyed by the Exodus story – God’s care and protection – and that is the message we need to remember, most of all.
Now, the temptation of the particular becomes even more graphic as we consider the other two readings this morning. In the passage from Romans, St. Paul addresses two particular controversies that have emerged in the church there. Apparently a dispute arose within the church in Rome about the relationship between diet and faith. Some believed that eating certain foods – and abstaining from others – expressed religious faithfulness. In addition, various practices involving the relative value of certain days likewise was causing a dispute.
St. Paul addresses those particular disagreements this way. “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike … Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God” (Rom 14:5-6).
Then, though, St. Paul takes these issues out of their particular context, as he makes the far more important, main point. “We do not live to ourselves, 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” (Rom 14:7-8).
Thus, you see, the temptation of the particular is to focus so intently on a certain issue or dispute that we neglect the larger truth. In the great scheme of things, as St. Paul reminds the Romans, it does not matter what we choose to eat or how we choose to recognize certain days. What most definitely does matter, though, is “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Finally, in our Gospel reading, Peter seeks an answer to a particular question. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21). In his focus on getting things just right, Peter is trying to follow every single aspect of the law. And, in attempting to do so, he becomes distracted from the larger matters – the main thing.
In fact, this encounter reminds me of another similar interchange that Jesus had with his friend Martha, who – as you remember – was the patron saint of church workers. As she fussed about, doing various jobs, Jesus said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; (but) there is need of only one thing” (Lk 10:41-42).
Back to today’s example, Jesus does not really answer Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive another member of the church, in a direct way. Rather, Jesus points out that God’s example of forgiveness has no limit at all. In that response, Jesus reminds us of words from his prayer, our Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (BCP, p364). That is, we only have the right to ask God to forgive us to the extent that we have forgiven others. That message conveys a perspective meant to challenge us … and it is precisely the message of our reading and of the Lord’s Prayer. In the big picture, we are called to forgive other people in the same way that God forgives us – which is without limit.
Thus, I suggest to you this morning that our lessons today remind us of an important biblical direction. “Keep the main thing the main thing.” My friends, if we are honest, a great deal of what we argue about is really not very important. Many of our disputes are simply distractions from what truly matters. We spend a great deal of time and energy on differences which are inconsequential in almost every way. Therefore, following the lesson of today, may we commit ourselves in the future to keep the main thing the main thing! Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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