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.

Saving our Lives

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1954, producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster had an enviable problem. Put simply, their movies were too successful. Hecht-Lancaster Productions made so much money 1954 that the studio was concerned about the size of its tax bill come April 15th. They came up with an admittedly creative solution to this predicament. They decided toproduce a movie that was guaranteed to flop, so that the production costs could be written off as a capital loss. In theory, the plan was airtight: Hecht hired a relatively unknown writer to adapt his failed TV script into a full length feature, and Lancaster cast what he described as “two ugly people” in the lead roles. The producers were so confident that the movie would fail that the studio had an accountant on the set specifically charged with ensuring that the production lost enough money. When Marty was released, Hecht and Lancaster were sure that they had accurately understood the moviegoing public, that no one would be interested in watching two ordinary people fall in love.

marty-posterAs you probably know (or have at least guessed), the studio could not have been more wrong. Indeed, Marty was adored by both critics and the public. Not only was it a smash hit, it earned an Academy Award for Best Picture and became only the second American film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Marty established Paddy Chayevsky, that unknown screenwriter, as one of the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood and made Ernest Borgnine, one of those two ugly actors, a household name. As it turns out, audiences found Borgnine and his co-star Betsy Blair far more relatable than typical Hollywood stars. Moreover, they were compelled by the film’s ultimate message: true love really is for anyone. Even though the producers thought they understood the public, their expectations were confounded. Even though their plan was, to their minds, foolproof, things turned out precisely the opposite way they anticipated.

Our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning reminds us that ours is a God who confounds expectations. While Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is an important moment in all the gospels, it is of particular significance in Mark. This is the pivot point of Mark’s gospel: not only is this the moment that the disciples finally recognize Jesus for who he is, it is also the moment that the narrative begins its inexorable progression toward Jesus’ passion and death in Jerusalem. It’s clear that this is not at all what Peter or any of the other disciples expect. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter sounds supremely confident: “You are the Messiah.” There’s no hesitancy, there’s no equivocation. Peter is sure that Jesus is the anointed successor of David. So it’s no surprise that Peter bristles when Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” Mark tells us that Peter rebukes Jesus, presumably saying something to the effect of, “No no no Jesus; you have it all wrong. The Messiah isn’t supposed to die! What’s the matter with you?” Peter cannot imagine that the redemption of God’s people could come through rejection and death. Peter cannot conceive of a God who would reveal himself on a Roman cross. Peter, in other words, cannot fathom the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: that an instrument of shameful death has become for us the means of life.

Needless to say, Peter is not the only one who has had difficulty understanding this paradox. Indeed, Christians have wondered for centuries how Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is related to his passion and death. Jesus begins to illuminate this relationship when he says to the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now traditionally, this text is read as a call to martyrdom, a proclamation that Christians must be willing to lay down their lives for the gospel. Those who embrace this reading are continually on the lookout for a cross to bear, a burden that they can ascribe to their discipleship. But this interpretation ignores the fact that Jesus Christ is the one who bears the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world, that he has accomplished something that no one else can. Jesus explains what this is in the very next sentence: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” More than calling his disciples to die for their faith, Jesus is affirming that the more we try to control our lives, the more out of control they will feel. The more we try to maintain our conception of what our life ought to be, the more unable we are to live the life that we have. This statement of Jesus recognizes that when we strive to preserve the life we have at all costs, things will turn out precisely the opposite way we anticipate. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have liberated us to appreciate that life is not a commodity to be hoarded, but a gift to be fully experienced.

imgresThis is more than a metaphor. Last year, Atul Gawande, a surgeon and bestselling author, published a book called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande’s simple, yet powerful thesis is that over the last century, medicine, for all its advances, has failed to prepare people for the reality of death. Too many have ended their lives in agony, undergoing treatments that offer only a sliver’s chance of benefit. In many cases, focusing on survival leads people to forfeit the life they have remaining. To illustrate his point, he cites one study of patients with terminal cancer in which those who went on hospice tended to live longer than those who continued to receive treatment. As he puts it, “the lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.” We might put it another way: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This gospel is profoundly countercultural. We live in an age and in a culture in which acquisition is of paramount importance. Our culture demands that we accumulate in the name of security, that we always think about what to acquire next, that we see everything in our life as a commodity to be collected. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ call us to recognize that when we live our lives this way, things will turn out precisely the opposite way we anticipate. Rather than preserving our life, our preoccupation with acquisition leads us to squander what is truly important. We are called to let go of those attachments that draw us away from the love of God and live gospel-centered lives. One of the best ways to do this is to be disciplined about focusing on what matters most by making a rule of life that allows us to experience life as a gift. Rules of life can be simple or complex, but they all have the same purpose: to help us stop the endless and ultimately fruitless cycle of striving for whatever comes next. Intentionally making room for God and for what matters most allows us to live our lives more fully than we ever thought possible.


Note: During the season of Lent, I will be publishing a devotional on this blog titled “Surprised by Grace,” in which I will write about my efforts to look for grace in unexpected places.

ASH WEDNESDAYToday, I told a bunch of people that they were going to die.  I wasn’t nasty about it; in fact, most of them we eager to hear the reminder.  I told older people who have been struggling with cancer, younger people who have recently lost their parents, and little children who barely understand what death is.  This is, of course, the Church’s custom on Ash Wednesday, a day when we are reminded of our mortality and our complete dependence on God’s grace.

There is unexpected grace in this reminder of our mortal nature, because just after we are told that we are going to die, we are invited to go out and live.  More importantly, we are invited to go out and live with the understanding that we will someday die.  There is no way of getting around it.  While this may seem depressing, it is actually intended to be empowering.  If we live our lives with an awareness of our mortality, all of our ultimately futile efforts to preserve our lives become silly. This is the genesis of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew’s gospel: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Our cultural preoccupation with wealth and security, our willingness to do anything to protect what we own crumbles in the face of the undeniable reality that our lives will someday end.

When we embrace this fundamental truth, it becomes clear that there is nothing of which we have to be afraid.  If we go through life with an awareness of our mortal nature, we are liberated to try new things, to care for people who cannot provide us with anything, to risk being embarrassed or hurt.  In other words, when we embrace our mortal nature,  we no longer have to fear failure.  In so many ways, this is what characterized the ministry of Jesus.  He refused to worry about what people thought about the fact that he ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He refused to be intimidated by touching someone with leprosy.  He refused to run away when it became clear that his ministry would end in death.  Jesus refused to fear failure.  During this season of Lent, I invite you to try new things, take risks, and embrace the fundamental truth that, by God’s grace, we have nothing to fear.