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The Weak and the Strong

Watch the sermon here.


Romans 14:1-12

What does the word strong mean? Give me some synonyms for strong or strength.  We tend to think first of the concept of physical power.  How else do we use the words strong or strength?

Here are a few from the dictionary; let’s see if we named them all.

Strength can mean emotional toughness: he showed great strength throughout his illness.

Strength can refer to persuasive power: as in, the strength of her argument.

Strength can mean an asset: one of the strengths of this system is its adaptability.

It can also mean its force or effectiveness: strength of purpose that gripped me.

Or it can refer to potency: a strong drink, or a strong smell.

What about weak?  Of course it is the opposite of all the things we just said, but what is the first thing that comes to mind when I say weak?

So keeping all this in mind, what does it mean to be a strong Christian? Looking back at our definitions, I assume being a strong Christian is not about physical power.  Is it about emotional toughness? persuasive power? effectiveness or potency?  I think how we would define strong Christian might vary greatly depending on our theological point of view.  In some circles, it would mean a strict adherence to a set of rules.  A strong Christian would abstain from drinking, smoking, swearing, or sex outside of marriage.  Others might define a strong Christian as someone who could witness, sharing his faith with others, in spite of opposition.  Some might say a strong Christian is one whose ideas of right and wrong are not influenced by the world around them, while others might say a strong Christian is one who never doubts.  If you have attended this church for more than a week or two, you can probably guess that those are not my definition of a strong Christian.  But I had trouble coming up with a good definition for myself, so I’m going to ask you: What does it mean to be a strong Christian?

Let’s take a look at how Paul uses the terms strong and weak in today’s scripture. The book of Romans is Paul’s letter of introduction to a church he does not know.  Most of his other letters are to churches that he started, or that he ministered within.  That’s not the case here, and because of that, it’s difficult to know for sure whether he is addressing a problem he knew existed in that church, whether he is addressing a problem that was common and so he assumed it applied, or whether he is responding to an earlier conflict he himself had with Peter and James. Regardless of his motivation, he addresses conflict within the community particularly around food issues.  Some people believed that it was wrong to eat meat, so following a strict vegetarian diet was their way of being faithful to God.  Others believed any food was acceptable because Jesus had freed people from strict adherence to dietary laws.  So both groups believed they were being faithful.  But consider how Paul refers to these groups.  Those who have stricter dietary laws he calls weak: the weak eat only vegetables, he says.  For many people of different faiths, those who follow stricter laws are stronger, more committed.  Who gets to say they’re weaker?  I think it is partly Paul’s own personal point of view that causes him to use this language.  He came from a strict Jewish background.  He was a Pharisee, a group known for their meticulous adherence to the laws of Torah.  But after becoming a follower of Jesus, he rejected his previous beliefs about the requirements of the holiness code, believing that grace eliminated those demands.  So naturally he viewed a strict adherence as a less evolved form of spirituality, the same way some of us might look at someone who takes the Bible literally: as less enlightened, or weaker.  In some ways, I could argue that fundamentalism is easier than progressive Christianity . . . not in terms of daily life, perhaps, as we have more freedoms and fewer conflicts with the world around us.  But in other ways, fundamentalism is easier because you don’t have to think quite as hard.  The Bible said it and I believe it and that settles it for me.  Done.  But when you view the Bible as a human document, you have to wrestle with each passage.  Is this an accurate representation of God, or is it what the people wanted to believe?  But the person who tries to take the Bible literally would see me as weak, and even heretical.

I think sometimes we forget that definitions are contextual.  How we define strong or weak depends on our context, our situation, our point of view.  Let me give you a more personal, less theological example.

But first, one caveat. Preachers are taught to preach from our scars, not our wounds.  This means that anything personal that I share with you from the pulpit is from my past—my healed past.  This was 30 years ago, and it causes me no pain now, so please doesn’t feel bad for me or feel the need to take care of me.  My first marriage, right out of college, was destructive—emotionally abusive from the beginning, and physically abusive at the end.  When I share that information with people, I often receive subtle, unintentional victim-blaming.  “Oh, I wouldn’t put up with that!” is a common response.  “Why did you stay?” is another.  People who live in abusive relationships are seen as weak.  But when I was living in the situation, I did not think I was weak; I thought I was strong.  I thought I was strong enough to be true to my marriage vows, which is what my religion taught me to do. I thought I was strong because I could prevent certain outcomes—outcomes that he promised would be the result if I left.  I thought I was strong by protecting him from himself.  All of this, in my mind, showed my strength.  When I left, there was a part of me that felt weak for leaving.  I thought I had failed.  It was only after I left that I realized what a courageous act leaving actually was.  And I did have to be very strong in the aftermath.  But when I was in the middle of it, I didn’t think I was weak.

Now, please, if you are in an abusive relationship, please do not hear me say you should stay. My decision to stay as long as I did was based on religion, not wisdom.  I am not saying that being abused is a good thing, in any way, shape, or form.  Please hear me say that I want you to be safe and valued and loved, and not at the whim of someone else’s emotions or dysfunctions.  My point is that unless you are in the situation, you cannot judge.  We don’t get to decide that someone else’s choices are weakness.  We don’t get to look at our guests for the next week and determine that bad choices led them to be homeless.  Their decisions may have been the very best they could possibly make in their situation.  Their lives take far more courage than many of ours’ on any given day.  We don’t get to judge.  We don’t get to decide who is weak and who is strong.  We are all strong and we are all weak and we are all fallible and we are all loved.  Strength comes in many forms.

So now I want you to think about your own life. When were you strong?  When did life demand of you a strength you didn’t know you had?  Or was there a time when others might have considered you weak, but you thought you were strong?  When have you been strong?

Now I want you to find one or two other people to talk to, to tell about how you were strong.

I know personal sharing is not comfortable for all of you, and I encourage you to find a way that is both open and safe. The most convenient way to do this would be to turn to your neighbor and share with them, but if your story is sensitive and you need to share with someone you already know well, feel free to walk around and move to someone with whom you feel safe.  Or if the story of when you had to be strongest is too personal, choose a safer one if you must.  I want you to share a story of your strength with another person, so that they hear your strength, and I want you to hear their strength in return.  I’m going to give you about five minutes so make sure you share the time with your companion.

I hope you were able to find a way to share something personal while feeling safe. Maybe the story you shared was clearly one of strength, or maybe it was one that others might have seen as weak.  Maybe sharing today was an act of strength.

In our passage from Romans, Paul comes across to me as a little judgy. That whole strong and weak thing seems a little insulting.  But his point is the opposite.  His point is to refrain from passing judgment, and its applications are many.  “The judgment forbidden in Romans 14 . . .  is the easy, contemptuous dismissal of those who do not believe like us, or vote like us, or live like us.”[1]

“An English proverb says ‘Faults are thick where love is thin’; But God demonstrates the opposite and to a greater extent: ‘faults are thin where love is thick.’”[2]  Let’s have thick love—love that overlooks, love that compensates, love that believes.  Let’s have thick love.  Maybe that is the definition of a strong Christian.

[1] Mary Hinkle Shore. workingpreacher.org. September 11, 2011.

[2] Elizabeth Shively. workingpreacher.org. September 17, 2017.

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