Living Beyond Ourselves

Romans 14:1-13
David A. Davis
September 13, 2020

Diary of a Pastor’s Soul is the title of Craig Barnes’ new book that was just published in the last few months. Before becoming president of Princeton Seminary, he spent a lifetime as a pastor in ministry in several congregations around the country. For weeks, maybe for months in this pandemic, I had trouble clearing my head in the evening and reading for pleasure. Diary of a Pastor’s Soul just sat on my desk for too. President Barnes had gracious sent me a copy of the book but I just wasn’t doing any reading. As it turned out, Dr. Barnes book is what helped get me beyond my reader’s block. Actually, it was the first sentence of the first chapter. When I read it, I knew the author was looking into the pastor’s soul, into my soul. Taking the form of a diary, the book is written in the first person of a pastor’s voice.

Here is the first sentence of Diary of a Pastor’s Soul;: “It looks like we’ve finally found a way to get Alice Matthews off the property committee.” That’s it. The first sentence. With that sentence the author/pastor/president had me in the palm of his hand. One sentence. First Sentence. Because every pastor knows Alice Matthews. I knew her in my first congregation. Instead of ruling the property committee of one for 23 years like Alice Matthew, the self-appointed building chief of a different gender held the keys for more like 50.  The fictional Alice Matthews is a prototype; maybe better said, a metaphor. A character that embodies all the things congregations find to disagree on and argue about that have nothing to do with theology, ministry, or mission: the color of the rug, a new coffee pot, who gets to decorate the parlor, the setting for timer on the outdoor lights. On and on and on.

I thought of Alice Matthews this week as I read Romans 14 and as I prepared to preach again from this pulpit, what some call this “holy desk.” I thought about Alice Matthews because I’m pretty we have all found ourselves thinking, dreaming, longing for this worship space over the last seven months. Thinking about this space even as by gift of God’s grace and through Holy Spirit, God led us to new way to worship together. At the end of that first chapter, the fictional pastor in Dr. Barnes does a bit of turnaround on Alice Matthews and her grip on the building. The pastor pauses for a deeper reflection on something like worship space. “The mission is the mission, and our faith has never survived by being a comfortable place of memories, I get that.” the pastor writes in the diary. Then the pastor leaves the reader with this; “But I wonder what it does to our souls to so easily forget things like place and the holy memories that are attached to them.” Place. Holy memories.

Here in Romans 14, I think in some way the Apostle Paul is addressing Alice Matthews; the metaphor of Alice Matthews and all that so easily rips at the ties that bind Christian community. To be clear, the disagreement between the earliest Jewish follows of Jesus and the Gentile followers of Jesus on dietary laws and sabbath keeping should not be compared to arguments about carpet color. What Paul labels in Romans as “quarreling over opinions” was honest, sincere debate about religious practices and how to live the faith. Paul’s exhortation to the Roman church is to welcome the weak in faith, make sure your practices and behaviors are intended to honor the Lord, and above all, do not pass judgement. “Must not pass judgement”, he writes. “Who are you to pass judgement….why do you pass judgement…let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another”.  Over and over again in just a few verses. Paul could not be any clearer. God alone sits in the judgment seat!

In Romans 12, 13, 14, and 15, Paul address the Christian life and life in Christian community in a pretty specific and detailed way. After the in-depth and profound theological argument of the first 11 chapters, Paul takes the time to dig into the nitty gritty of ordinary life. Here in chapter 14, it is the day to day of the life in Christ: dietary choices, sabbath keeping, religious practice, judgmentalism, and self-righteousness. Paul writing to the  routines of life and how even in the rhythms of the day, in the waking up and the going to sleep, in the goings and comings, in the eating and the drinking and warning the earliest followers of Jesus about judging others. The Apostle Paul writing about how amid life itself, folks in the gathered community are so easily prone to judging one another and basking in their own pious, self-righteousness.

Remarkably, right here in Romans 14, right in the middle of all that ordinary stuff, , Paul plays the resurrection card. Paul drops the resurrection mic. Paul stops to sing a resurrection song. “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. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”  It is Paul, writing to a fledging Christian community trying to get along and quarreling over opinions and too quickly judging one another, and then stopping pretty much  mid-paragraph and writing in capital letters, “Hey, Christ is Risen!”. A resurrection proclamation, a resurrection shout, a resurrection trumpet blast sort of out of nowhere. It’s like a Easter morning sermon dropped on a community of faith on a Thursday in February.

A great jazz saxophone player named Sonny Rollins celebrated his 90 birthday this week. I listened to a tribute podcast to him that included some great song clips and an interview from the mid 90’s. At one point seasoned musician was asked if he still practiced. Part of his answer was to describe how someone who plays a reed instrument has to maintain their embouchure. The embouchure is the position and relationship of the lips, tongue and teeth that results in the right sound coming out of the instrument. When I was in fifth grade, I wanted to play the trumpet. The junior high music teacher who came to meet with the fifth graders told me I had a better embouchure for a trombone. I took that to mean my lips were too fat. I figured out later that he just needed more trombones in the junior high band. Sonny Rollins explained that if you don’t practice, you will lose your embouchure. When you try to play again without that strong shaped foundation, the lips can bleed and crack.

For the Apostle Paul, resurrection hope is THEE strong foundation of Christian community. Our resurrection hope is the embouchure of life together for the followers of Jesus. “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”.  Every pastor, including Craig Barnes and me, have read these verses from Paul aloud almost exclusively at memorial services. I just read it two weeks ago at an outdoor service for a church member’s brother in their backyard. But for Paul, here in the context of Romans 14, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” is  not about dying. It is about living. It’s about a life together infused in absolutely everyway with resurrection hope, resurrection promise, resurrection power.

It’s not just shouting “Christ is Risen” on Easter morning. It’s clinging to resurrection promise when you’ve lost track of what day it is because every day feels the same. It’s clinging to resurrection promise when you are praying in the dark of night asking God  when all of this pandemic stuff is going to end. It’s not just craving some resurrection light in the valley of the shadow of death. Its living in that light every day, basking in the promise of eternal life and passing forward the life giving, life-sustaining power of God’s love to those around you moment by moment, in the phone call to someone who is lonely, in the kind word to a stranger, in a word of peace you breath into this world’s chaos.

It’s not just singing a resurrection song, Hallelujah Chorus, when you come back to this room, it is singing a resurrection song with the forgiveness you sow in your life. It is proclaiming the resurrection gospel with how your treat others in the virtual classroom or meeting. It is giving a resurrection witness with the unconditional love you show to family member who is frightened or anxious. It is the assurance of God’s resurrection presence that you draw upon way deep down as you drop your child off for the first time on campus wondering whether they will be home before the end of the semester. It is the resurrection courage that emboldens you to believe and then live like you can actually make a difference bearing the light and love of Jesus Christ into the dark shadows of hatred and racism and nationalism. It’s the resurrection strength you didn’t know you had that carries you in the days after a diagnosis. It is the resurrection perseverance that never lets that vision of God’s peaceable kingdom vanish from your prayer life when gun violence ravages the cities and fires rip through neighborhoods  It is grabbing hold of resurrection promise as tears run down your cheeks while you hold your newborn child and you remember anew way deep down that even in this crazy apocalyptic world we live in right now, your child’s future, is held tight as drum in the very heart of God. “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’s resurrection song for living. Resurrection hope for these most extraordinary of days in our extremely ordinary lives. Paul’s call for you and for me to live beyond ourselves; to live for the God who first loved us in Christ Jesus. For….“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. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”