Whether We Live, or Whether We Die

Sermon on Romans 14:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.” So begins The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss’s 1961 book about creatures who looked identical, apart from the presence of small green stars on their bellies. As Dr. Seuss explains, “those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small you might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all. But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.’” It’s a familiar story, one that really gets going when a fly-by-night huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with two machines: one that will affix stars to Sneetch bellies and another that will remove them, both for a small fee. As Dr. Seuss observes, “from then on, as you can probably guess, things really got into a horrible mess.” The Sneetches paid to have stars affixed and stars removed until they ran out of money and, more importantly, had no idea who was originally a Plain-Belly Sneetch or a Star-Belly Sneetch. Dr. Seuss’s point is clear: while the differences between us may seem significant, they are ultimately inconsequential.

This is a lesson that most of us tend to learn at a young age, which is not all that surprising, since Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books. At the same time, there are ways that this message can feel naive when we consider the complexity of our world. Certainly, the superficial differences between us are less important than we tend to think. Though I am a Red Sox fan, I don’t actually think that Yankee fans are bad people. But sometimes there are fundamental questions of identity that can be very difficult to disregard. Occasionally, the values espoused by various individuals are irreconcilably opposed to one another. For instance, is it really possible for us to say that the difference between a white supremacist and someone who believes in racial equality is inconsequential? While the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not is ultimately trivial, there do seem to be differences between us that are important to acknowledge.

At first glance, the disputes in the church in Rome that Paul addresses in this morning’s epistle reading do not seem to be of any consequence. When Paul describes the differences among members of the community, they seem as insignificant as the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not: “some believe in eating anything, while [some] eat only vegetables” and “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” The way that Paul frames these arguments makes them seem like a matter of mere personal preference. His advice seems to bear out this assumption. Paul essentially counsels that we should not judge how other people practice their faith. Whatever you decide to do, he says, do it in honor of the Lord. Otherwise, live and let live. After all, these differences aren’t all that important in the end.

While the questions of what we eat and which holidays we observe may not seem controversial to us, they were actually fundamental questions of identity in the first century. Those who ate only vegetables did so in order to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Idolatry, the human tendency to worship something in God’s place, is the chief sin in the Hebrew Bible, the one from which all other sins stem. So one can understand the desire of devout Jews to scrupulously avoid eating meat if there was even a small chance been used in the worship of something that was not God. In the meantime, those who ate anything weren’t entirely sure it was worth even considering the dangers of idolatry. What one eats, in other words, was far from a casual issue in a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, the church in Rome was full of people who were accustomed to defining themselves in terms of what they did as members of their community: the Jewish community, for instance, could be defined as those people who kept kosher and observed holidays like Passover. If there weren’t any standard community rituals, how could the community define itself? In other words, when Paul instructs the Roman church not to let their differences be a source of division, he is challenging some of their most deeply and dearly held beliefs.

Significantly, Paul does not challenge these beliefs in the name of mere tolerance. Though it may seem like his argument boils down to “can’t we all just get along,” his appeal to unity is rooted in something much deeper than any fortune cookie wisdom. “We do not live to ourselves,” he writes, “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.” Paul finds radical unity in our mortal nature: the fact that, no matter who we are or what group we belong to, we are all going to die someday. As consequential as our differences may be, all of them are overshadowed by our mortality. But Paul doesn’t leave us with this grim observation. Paul insists that this mortal nature we all share has been radically transformed through Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, Paul reasoned that it couldn’t have been significant for just one person or even one group people; it had to have been a defining event for the whole of humanity, and indeed, the whole of creation. And in light of the world-altering magnitude of the resurrection, questions of group identity, once so pivotal, now feel parochial and unimportant. The resurrection puts the differences between us into an entirely new perspective. It invites us to consider our identity not in terms of which group we belong to, but in terms of the fact that we belong to God. Indeed, there is nothing and no one that exists apart from the parameters of “whether we live or whether we die.” We are Lord’s no matter who we are or what happens to us.

It would be nice if we could pretend that the issues surrounding divisions in our society don’t really matter, that we could live in harmony with our neighbors if everyone just stopped being angry for a moment. Most of us would agree that this is naive: the issues that divide us are anything but superficial. Besides, as Arthur Brooks pointed out a few months ago,“the real problem in [our society] today is not anger, it’s contempt.” He went on to define contempt as “the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” I find this diagnosis compelling, mostly because contempt has been the root cause of most of human history’s intractable divisions. We cannot defeat contempt by shouting down our opponents or even by making a more persuasive argument. As Paul implies, the only way to overcome contempt, the only way to acknowledge the worthiness of our opponents, is to recognize that we share something fundamental with those whose positions infuriate us. We must recognize that the Lord has laid claim to everyone who lives and everyone who dies. This is ultimately what loving our enemies is about: it is acknowledging the Christ died for them as much as he died for us. We are the ones who have to make this recognition. We are the ones who have to step out courageously and announce that even the differences that are fundamental fade away when we remember that we all belong to God.

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Love and other unnecessary things

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas on the occasion of the dedication of their new fellowship space, Gerhart Hall.

There is a revealing photograph of Heavenly Rest that comes from just after the church building was completed. Since it was taken before the pews had been installed, this picture shows the nave filled with neat rows of metal folding chairs. It is my favorite picture of this church; it actually hangs on the wall of our house in Pennsylvania. There are several reasons I like it. For one, it makes me laugh: the contrast between the gothic beauty of Heavenly Rest’s nave and the stark utility of the folding chairs makes for an amusing visual. There is a deeper reason this photograph resonates with me, and that is the fact that it makes the church feel so empty. Part of what makes this church so wonderful is the people who inhabit it. Those rows of empty folding chairs are reminders that, as important as buildings can be, a church is only a church when its people are gathered there.

Our gospel reading this morning understands that the church can only be the church when God’s people are present. It also understands that when people get together, there is going to be conflict. As such, the gospel offers some practical instructions about managing conflict in the Christian community. Before we assume that we know how nasty conflict in the church can be, remember that Matthew was writing to a group of people who, until very recently, wouldn’t even be in the same room together. His was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted. With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable. As a leader of the church community, Matthew seems to assume that those who disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community. The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, he spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it. If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him. If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, Jesus seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful. This cannot be a rash decision. It’s not like someone can just get rid of someone they don’t get along with. The whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community. Not only that, the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right. Matthew describes a rigorous due process, one designed to be as fair and equitable as possible. In Matthew’s community, excommunication is a last resort. Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

While this verdict seems harsh, there’s a level at which I think we can understand the need for a process like this. We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community. There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships, the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him. These people will often continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg. Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues. In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can move on with our lives and live in harmony. But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This feels like a fairly definitive condemnation. After all, labeling someone a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel. But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles. Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exhorts the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.” Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there are always seats available for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors. Matthew reminds us that the church exists for those outside its walls.

When Willis Gerhart stepped off the train in Abilene in 1920, he had an unusual dream. He believed that what this West Texas town really needed was a gothic cathedral. For someone as eminently practical as Parson Gerhart, this was unexpected. This, after all, was the same man who couldn’t pass a beggar without giving him money, who gave away his coat more times than anyone could count, and who wrote his sermons in the cold during the Depression because he gave the stove in his office to a family with 12 children. Surely, he could have imagined raising money to combat poverty or alleviate homelessness, instead of building a church, of all things. Parson Gerhart understood something that most of us fail to recognize throughout our lives. Most of us evaluate the world in terms of what is necessary or useful: will this event be worth my time? will this class prepare me for a career? Parson Gerhart, however, understood the things that truly matter in this world are not strictly necessary.

If you think about it, it is not necessary to reach out the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. In fact, it would be easy and expedient to exclude those who have repeatedly failed to meet our expectations. As Christians, we are called to be guided not by necessity, but by love. In fact, classical Christian theology suggests that it was not necessary for God to create the universe, that creation is not intrinsically useful to God. The scholastic theologians argued instead that God created the universe out of love. There is something astonishing about this claim. Love has no intrinsic utility. It is not goal oriented. It cannot be quantified. It serves no useful purpose. But for this reason, because it is not strictly necessary, love is more powerful than any of those forces the world considers indispensable. Love is the only thing the world truly needs.

This is something the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have understood since the beginning. This beautiful church building, the bell tower, the parish house, Gerhart Hall; none of these are strictly necessary. There is nothing that would have prevented this parish from worshiping in the Quonset Hut for the last 70 years. But this parish recognizes the architectural marvels of which you are the stewards are not merely buildings: they are expressions of God’s love for the whole world. These structures point us away from our selfish preoccupations and toward the eternal. As one parishioner is fond of observing, you can’t help but look up when you enter this space. Moreover, these buildings remind us that this church was not built for the sake of those who built it, but for those outside its walls. They encourage us to consider those who are missing from our fellowship, those who ache to know the grace and love of God, and those who have rejected it. These buildings help us recognize that the world is bigger than anyone of us, and that the only way we can truly celebrate what we have been given is when all of us are at the table.

This is a momentous weekend at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. It is the culmination of many years of vision, dedication, and hard work. The sheer number of you who were directly involved in building Gerhart Hall is a testament to the amazing quality of the people at this parish. Many of you are justifiably proud of what you have accomplished. You are the next in a long line of faithful people who have served and built this parish. But even as we celebrate, we must not forget our call to reach out beyond these walls, to recognize that these buildings were built not for the sake of those who built them, but for the people of this community. Gerhart Hall is more than a building; it is an icon of who you are and who you hope to be. It is a sign of God’s reconciling love, a love that, in the end, is the only thing the world really needs.

Heritage

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.

The Federal gunline at Malvern Hill, the battle where my ancestor was killed.

Milton Hyman Boullemet served as a private in the 3rd Alabama Volunteer Regiment and was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill during the Civil War. He also happened to be an ancestor of mine (my great, great, great, great uncle to be precise). When I was a child, one of my relatives compiled the letters he wrote home to his parents during the war and distributed the collection to members of the family. As a student of history, I was pleased to have this volume on my shelf, but I never took the time to read it until a few weeks ago. For the most part, Milton’s letters are fairly standard wartime correspondence: he reports on the weather, complains about “muddy coffee and stale bread,” and asks after his family. At the same time, there are elements of these letters that are downright shocking. For instance, Milton uses racial epithets casually, as if he doesn’t realize what he is saying, which may very well be the case. Moreover, I was dismayed to read that when it came to the Confederacy, Milton was a true believer. Though he was from the merchant class and had little personal investment in the institution of slavery, he regarded the South’s war effort as holy cause. One could rationalize that he believed he was defending his home or that he simply got caught up in the spirit of the times, but the fact remains that an ancestor of mine fought and died to preserve the right to own other people.

Our lectionary this morning appears to provide two distinct, even competing visions of the Christian life. In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus articulates the profound cost of discipleship: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is dramatic, sacrificial language; the implication is that a truly meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ requires us to abandon everything we hold dear and give up our lives for the sake of the gospel. There’s a nobility in this vision of the Christian life. In fact, it is consistent with some of humanity’s oldest stories: we have always admired those who leave everything behind and devote themselves to a glorious cause. Certainly, this is one of the reasons my Uncle Milton volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. Now, this story has a shadow side: single-minded devotion to anything can lead to division, where we reject those who either aren’t committed to our cause or aren’t committed enough. But it’s easy to rationalize that this is just part of the sacrifice that we are called to make as Christians. In the end, the most important thing is how we have committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus.

The passage we heard from Romans seems to describe the Christian life in ways that are diametrically opposed to this sweeping, sacrificial vision. Instead of a call to martyrdom, Paul offers a series of straightforward and, frankly bland exhortations: “serve the Lord,” “persevere in prayer,” “contribute to the needs of the saints,” and so on. Paul seems less interested in the cost of discipleship than he is in the cost of maintaining the church. It appears that this passage bolsters the familiar narrative that Paul essentially co-opted the message of Jesus for his own purposes. Even if we don’t take it that far, this passage from Romans feels conventional, while the section from Matthew’s gospel feels revolutionary. Paul’s advice seems more focused on behaving correctly than on being who God has called us to be.

This is only a reasonable interpretation if we ignore Paul’s final exhortation: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This concluding remark places the entire passage within a larger context. Paul is not offering practical instructions about life in the church; he is articulating how to overcome the evil powers of this world. It’s noteworthy that Paul argues the way to overcome evil is by nurturing community: rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep, and outdoing one another in showing honor. Paul does not mention taking sides, digging in our heels, or shouting down the opposition. Paradoxically, he implies that overcoming evil is about transcending our divisions and striving to remain in relationship no matter what. In many ways, this vision of the Christian life is just as radical as the one outlined in Matthew’s gospel. While not a call to die for a glorious cause, Paul’s vision is more comprehensive: we are called to live out the gospel every day of our lives. Instead of a momentary, passionate decision, this vision invites a patient commitment to transformation. Moreover, it requires us to trust not in what we can do to advance our cause, but in the grace of God. This is precisely the same point that Jesus makes when he describes what it means to take up one’s cross. When Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he is suggesting that our lives find their meaning, not in anything we accomplish, not in our sacrifice, but in what God has done through Jesus Christ.

In 1862, the year my Uncle Milton was killed in battle, the Episcopal Church held its General Convention in New York City. Though the Civil War was raging, the Convention kept to its usual business as much as possible. In its account of the proceedings, the New York Times reported “it was resolved…that all vacant seats of Dioceses not represented should be assigned to the delegates present.” While this seems like an insignificant piece of parliamentary minutia, it actually speaks volumes. Those “dioceses not present” were the ones in states actively rebelling against the union over the issue of slavery. Remarkably, General Convention made the decision that these rebels would simply be marked absent; it was assumed they would return. Indeed, two bishops from dioceses in the Confederacy were warmly welcomed when they arrived at General Convention in 1865. This is a distinct contrast with many other denominations, which split into northern and southern branches during the Civil War era. We can certainly criticize General Convention for not taking a more righteous stand against the injustice of slavery. And yet, we must also acknowledge that this was an earnest attempt by these representatives “to overcome evil with good,” to stay in relationship no matter what.

More than anything else, this kind of response requires the humility to recognize that sin is never somebody else’s problem. This brings me back to my Uncle Milton. As much as I would like to disavow him completely, he is part of my heritage. I had an ancestor who fought for the right to own people. This is part of who I am, and it is important I acknowledge that it is shameful, as much as I would like to deny it. And yet, if the gospel teaches us anything, it is that we are defined not by what we or our ancestors have done, but by what God has done for us, for all of us. For this reason, the Christian response to hate and bigotry cannot be to destroy those who would advocate such things; it must be to preach repentance even as we acknowledge our own sinfulness, all while putting our trust in the boundless grace of God. This is the “true religion” our Collect refers to: the ability to trust the power of God’s grace to transcend our divisions and transform our lives.