Year A, Proper 19 September 17, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”
I promised Romans. Here we are… Today’s lesson, the point St. Paul is making is very, very important, foundational of how we need to understand ourselves in relation to other people, but as in much of Paul, it is very subtle. You might even wonder if it matters at all, but that is Paul, deep work, deep whys. It adds up.
So in today’s selection from Chapter 14, the issue is not whether Roman vegetarians are weak or not, but rather the issue is the inherent value of every human being, regardless of how deplorable their ideas might be, because we all begin and end in God. It is about, as one commentator write, “… the radicality of grace, the radicality of life lived beyond judgment, beyond justice – life that loves real and enduring enemies.” Now, does that not seem like a lesson ordered up for us, in this very moment in a nation so divided against itself?
One of the places we went in our travels in eastern Oregon was a ranch out near Steens Mountain in Harney County. Beautiful country, and vast. That’s where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is. Just the ranch we were on was over 25,000 acres. There is so much space, there could not be a better setting for a guest ranch.
The ranch was run by Tim and Susan. They were a devout Mormon family. They were active in their Ward, their sons all went on their missions, there was a clear division of labor according to gender. They were serious. I think they sized us up pretty quickly, too. We were coming from the Eugene area, and while we arrived in Windy’s pretty gnarly, dusty truck (that helped us blend), it did have a Bernie sticker on the bumper. But we farmed, had a horse and were Christian, me a pastor, not things that jived with their image of Eugene. But they were family first kind of folks and embraced us with genuine warmth and made us very welcome.
On the first morning there, we were going to go up the mountain on horseback, but that got delayed for some reason, so Tim and I saddled up and headed over to the indoor arena. As we trotted, warming the horses up, we talked religion first. I tensed a bit. The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints is similar to our church in some ways and it is quite different in others; the belief systems also. We’re all just people trying to find our way. After a while, galloping up and down the area, talking through the billowing dust, he said we should probably skip sex, and go right to politics. His wife told him not to talk about politics, but he didn’t see the fun in that, and besides, he didn’t see many Bernie stickers in those parts. Again, I tensed a bit. “I voted for Trump,” he said, “who else were you going to vote for? But I wasn’t happy about it. I was a Carson man, myself.” I tensed even more. But I put on my pastor Stetson, trying to not judge, trying to stay with “I” statements, and what I understand to be right and wrong. And we kept talking, maybe an hour riding around and around the arena. We moved on to talk about family, about ranching and farming, about living in that arid spaciousness of Harney County and the lush crowds of the Willamette Valley. My tension relaxed. It perked up here and there, in particular about some gender role stuff that he seemed to take for granted, but I quickly grew very fond of him. A good man. A good man with some very, very different ideas from mine, who lived in a world very, very different from mine.
Our world, here in Eugene, is very anthropocentric. It is very human centered. Most of what defines our lives is not of the natural world. Obviously the weather, the climate shapes us, but really, I live way out in Jasper and sometimes the only outside time I have is walking to and from my car; for some that is their only experience of outside. Almost everything that dictates the course of our everyday lives is human made: streets and buildings, a wide variety of social interactions from one-on-one to 54,000 of your closest friends at a Duck game, consuming (we spend a lot of time buying things, like 99.somthing% of what we eat), all the media inputs, all that information and ideas. Our world, here, is dominated by people and all the things people use and do. Our world here, like in all cities, is human-centric.
Tim’s world, like most of ours, starts and ends with family. But once you stepped out of his front door and went outside, it wasn’t people or human things that dominated anything. From their house, if you faced any direction but East, there were in fact no people. No roads. No power lines. Nothing. Not for dozens of miles. There were roads of course, but most were dirt and some he made himself. His world, his daily existence was, in many ways, not defined by human things. It was defined by the sun, the wind, the water (or lack there of); rattlesnakes and the Keiger mustangs on the next ridge; and, cattle, lots and lots of cattle. He spent more time on a horse than in a truck (and even the saddles they used he made himself). And most importantly, the dominant factor of life was the land itself. It just spread out before you, as far as you can see, islands of juniper in an ocean of sage. Distant mountains, broad valleys, rivers winding their way somewhere. There is awe in being in the midst of such vastness, it is humbling. You feel so small, so insignificant, but fully part of it.
I was getting a good feel for Tim so I decided to ask him, this Mormon cowboy from the northern end of the Great Basin about the Bundy brothers, those Mormon cowboys living on the southern end of the Great Basin whose last stand, as the crow flew, was thirty miles from the arena we were riding in. And I’ll tell you what, I got a very different story than the one I read in the New York Times. Not more true, but not less true, either. If your world was primarily defined by the natural world, the land upon which you and maybe generations of your family had lived on and worked, how easy would it be for you to accept that some lawyer in Washington, D.C., who’d never stepped foot in your county, could possibly know better what was better for you and that land? The US Government is seen, by some, as an absentee landlord, with local collaborators, folks not living off meat of the land but the fat skimmed off by that same government enforcing those laws written by people from Harvard or Yale on the other side of the continent. I’m not making that case, but if I spent most of my time smelling sage from the back of a pony 200 miles from the nearest interstate, I might have a different perspective about some of those things than I do standing behind an Episcopal pulpit in South Eugene.
What goes through your mind when you see a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker on a vehicle? Or say it’s a great big American flag mounted in the bed of pick up truck. We see more of that in Jasper than here in town. Or a Confederate flag? What goes through your mind? Does it first go to the person behind the wheel? Mine does. What goes through your mind? Are you judging in some way, or do you start by remembering that they are a child of God just like you?
This is what Paul is teaching us in this part of Romans. The short hand is that you can’t actually hate the sin and love the sinner, because in our own broken, sinful selves, we can’t keep the hate straight, and in the end we will end up hating the sinner, too, no matter how good and right our intentions are. And that, we cannot do.
When we face evil, the wrong, the hateful, the oppressive, when we oppose it, our opposition can become righteous. That could be okay. Righteous opposition, though, can morph into a species akin to hate, but more subtle, more pervasive, and most dangerously, more acceptable. People who critiqued those observant of Jewish dietary laws in Paul’s day were not on some spectrum of anti-Semitism. A modern analogy might be abortion rights, or the host of LGBTQ issues, or the gun control or immigration, or who you voted for in the primaries or the general election, and if they are on the wrong side they must be x, y and/or z: naïve, ignorant, hateful, bigoted, all of the above. I have had all of those feelings. Righteous opposition can be so intoxicating. It invigorates us in the worst possible way, and the energy feeds us, and amplifies itself. Look at our entire public discourse right now. Righteous indignation leads to righteous opposition and that feeling, it is intoxicating, the disdain we feel can grab us, losing ourselves in what we perceive as opposition to sin. “You can’t criticize me for opposing sin! I love the sinner, it’s the sin I hate.” But far, far too often, we are so engulfed in the shining goodness of one side and the foul stench of the other that the fact that someone doesn’t despise everything the opposition does means that they are an enemy to be cast into that special place in hell reserved for people just like them.
Paul’s point here is subtle. The subtlety is in the deep faith that Paul calls us to. It is existential, it is about the very nature of our humanity. Now this is challenging. He is telling us that we cannot, we must not lose ourselves in opposition, in conflict, because it can be a slippery slope of judgement, condemnation and dehumanization. He is asking us to surrender, to empty ourselves of ourselves, to let go and let God and let that, God be our starting point, not the rightness of our cause. No matter how right, how righteous and holy our cause is, no matter how wrong, how evil the other side is, we must not lose ourselves to opposition, to the conflict. That means that we must not forget, truly, madly, deeply, we must not forget that we are all children of God. Everyone of us, even…. Them. “Turn the other cheek.” “Pray for those who persecute you.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” Our base motivation, our starting point, Paul is saying, cannot be the common good, cannot be righteousness, cannot even be justice, but must be God. Why? Because we can never separate ourselves from our own motivations, our own opinions, no matter how right they might be. Goodness and Justice are not relative, but our ability to perceive Goodness and Justice and then judge ourselves and others is relative, or is at least flawed, and can lead us down dangerous, dehumanizing paths. We must start at the source of all humanity, we must start with Jesus Christ.
Paul is hard. I’m learning how to read this stuff, so let me quote an expert. “This is devastatingly subtle, because it can look, even to oneself, as if one is losing oneself to the just or the good, when really one is losing one’s self to one’s moral or doctrinal identity. From this ‘spiritual’ posture, right actions are not righteous, defense of Christian ideals is not Christian, and attempts to build up the koinonia (communion, fellowship) are not labors of love. The genius of the deception here lies in its perversion of even right action.”
“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.” Truly, your being, your self is not defined by anything but God. Not what you think, feel, do, hope, pray for. No, existentially, we all exist only God. Our ideas, our identities, race, gender, class, politics… we are not what we think or feel or do, we are not our identity, identity is a social construction, what we are is children of God and so is everyone else that was, and is and ever shall be. And that is where everything starts, in the arms of God that are ever-loving and open to everyone, including Mormon cowboys who voted for Trump and Episcopal priests who maybe did not and every other possible manifestation of human being that has been or ever will be.
That does not mean that we tolerate injustice. That does not mean that we tolerate the evils of violence and oppression, of racism, sexism and classism. Absolutely not. Jesus commands us to do those things, everyone, you need to find your own way to do it, but no one can do nothing and be a follower of Jesus Christ. When we do strive for justice, and that includes the subtler day-to-day things like being kind to the cranky guy at the store, or trying to love the most unlovable member of your family or of this church, or just listening to the news without falling to pieces, we need to do these things not because we believe we should, not because those we follow say to, not even because we know in our heart that it is right and just so to do, but, again to quote someone more adept than me, “…but because we are moved by love and concern for every particular other, which is to say, because in life and death we belong to God.” That’s how Dorothy Day made it through each poverty stricken day in the Bowery. That’s how Gandhi broke the back of the British Empire. That’s how Dr. King didn’t hit back and kept marching on. That’s how Jesus forgave those who crucified Him and in that, saved us all. We are all star stuff, which was Carl Sagan’s way of saying that we are all Children of God. AMEN