Sermon Archives

A Transcending Truth

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Sep 17

Text: Romans 14: 1-12

Good morning again, everyone! I need to begin with a confession. I’m somewhat relieved my kids aren’t here this morning. The reading Tony just offered would fit all too perfectly. You see, just last week, our almost 16-year-old daughter Nellie declared that she wanted to try out veganism. Most of you know that my moral and gastronomical compasses have not led me there (yet!), though I know there are many good arguments for it. Despite being momentarily overwhelmed by the complications this could bring to our family meal time, I tried my best to encourage her newfound sense of principles. “Good for you,” I said! “We’ll work it out!” Besides, Nellie assured us that she wasn’t going to be “all hardcore” about it. She’d still eat turkey at Thanksgiving and wouldn’t be a stickler when invited to friend’s houses for dinner. Meanwhile, her meat-loving big brother Julian greeted Nellie’s announcement with utter disdain and ridicule, albeit mostly in jest. “I will disown you as my sister,” I think is what he said. To it all, Paul’s words could not be more apt: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” “Those who eat meat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat, for God has welcomed them all!” Well…easier said than done!

There’s context here, of course, for Paul’s admonitions and instructions. It’s not just about menu choices, no matter how timely that conversation is becoming for all of us. It’s about something deeper and even more trenchant. The passage speaks about the need to engender respect across deeply held differences, about how we must resist our human tendency to judge each other— judgments that can lead to despising hatred. Ultimately, it’s about how we must be accountable to something beyond our own tastes, our own perspectives and convictions, lest our need to be right and strong unavoidably creates another who is weak and wrong.

It’s not just first century or 21st food preferences or Sabbath practices. Consider contemporary debates still raging in some circles around gay marriage, abortion, gun control, Israel and Palestine. Consider different ideas about the current occupant of the oval office. Where one stands on these matters quickly become litmus tests of whether one can feel welcome and respected as a member of a particular community or congregation. Paul’s counsel, here at least, is to respect that differences will always exist and to cultivate a spirit of unity across differences. As William Greenway has noted, “the radicality of Paul’s passion here is ultimately the radicality of grace, the radicality of life lived beyond judgment, beyond justice (even) – life that loves real and enduring enemies!” (1)

Paul has some compelling if imperfectly articulated ideas, imperfect if we consider the irony that he starts this passage about not judging others with a welcome to those who have weak faith! Nice. Though the text doesn’t specify, it’s a good bet that he’s dangerously demeaning Jews who choose to follow dietary law.

Still, Paul says, welcome those who think, act, eat, pray and live differently than you do!

Second, judge not! Go ahead and let others be fully convinced in their own minds. And don’t lord your perspectives or strength, real or perceived over others!

Third and relatedly, there is a higher judge, a Lord above us that is Lord of all peoples. In the midst of competing values and absolutizing claims to what is good, and right and true, we need a reference point that can at once humble us and transcend “us and them”! Here, the example of a brother and sister enjoying some friendly banter at meal time is one thing. Live and let live, seems to be Paul’s approach in this case. But the example of another white cop being exonerated for another blatant, on camera murder of another black person is something different. Live and let die (or kill!) is something else entirely. Yet even when our so called justice system can’t pass judgment on Officer Stockley, who clearly passed hateful and ultimately fatal judgment on Anthony Lamar Smith, then we clearly, desperately need a higher court and judge, as protesters in the streets of St Louis are crying out this very weekend.

Finally—and this is crucial—each of us must be accountable to something beyond ourselves! We must be accountable to God!

There is a key to understanding this passage, and to understanding how we can share in that life of radical grace, that radical life lived beyond judgment, or more to the point beyond our judgmental ways. Let’s face it, our sometimes super judgmental ways— we all know that we “Cantabrigians” have this reputation and most of us can recognize that we deserve it! And don’t even try to weasel out of this because you live in JP, Arlington or Belmont! Then you are just being judgmental of those who live in Cambridge. But I digress.

The key is in verse 7 and 8 and then verse 12. Paul says in verse 7, “we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves!”— as in we can’t just be accountable to ourselves or to ‘our people.’ In Verse 8, “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”— as in we all belong to God, as in each and every one of us is a child of God: vegetarians and meat eaters, liberals and conservatives, Dems and Republicans, and no one can be cast out of that belonging! And the kicker, verse 12, is “each of us will be accountable to God,”— as in each of us will be accountable to God’s love and God’s judgment.

You see, when differences divide and even polarize us, as we see happening in politically catastrophic proportions in our country right now, we need to invoke a ‘transcending truth’ as Paul does: no matter who we are, we are the Lord’s, and no matter who “they” are, “they” are the Lord’s, and we all belong to God. We are all children of God, even our worst enemy, even that racist next door or that racist lurking within our inner cast of characters, even murderers. As one commentator has noted: “There is a positive triangulation here wherein our relation to every other is mediated through our relation to God. Beyond actions and opinions, one continually sees in every other a child of god, a soul never beyond the reach of transforming grace.” (2) That doesn’t mean anything goes! No, that doesn’t mean Officer Stockley is off the hook! For we also must all be accountable to that higher judge. For those 12 step groups, it’s that higher power, it’s that higher truth that transcends whatever smaller truths and lies to which we might cling

This is foundational for the kind of indivisible spiritual community Paul is trying to build amidst those first churches in Rome. Indeed, this is foundational for the kind of indivisible spiritual community that we are trying to build here at First Church, one where being right or voting right is less important than being a child of God. Most of the time, we fail miserably. We go about living for ourselves and dying for ourselves! But our faith invites us beyond personal responsibility to a sense of social responsibility and mutual accountability. Our faith invites us to think of and welcome strangers as guests and guests as friends and friends as family and to love each person accordingly, as brothers, sisters and siblings, each as children of God despite our differences. And yet how quickly are we overwhelmed by the demands of our lives, our family, our jobs.

In this light, what a beautiful gift Mark and Alyce have given us today. They’ve given a chance to practice our faith, to redefine who is our family and what is our job as we seek to build this indivisible spiritual community! We start by blessing and recognizing that Griffin is a child of God! And then we make public promises to God and one another to hold him in love—public so that we can hold ourselves accountable before God and one another! We promise to love him as God loves him, without judgment or condition and we promise to model for him what a moral and spiritual life looks like! Amazing, right? A beautiful opportunity for those of us who already know and love this family but a powerful invitation as well for those who have never met them before!

For how are we doing as a culture when it comes to holding ourselves accountable to a higher love, and to people who don’t think, act, eat, exercise, pray like us? How are we doing when it comes to not judging and so not despising one another but recognizing our need for each other to build a world in which all of God’s children feel equally welcomed and, ultimately, loved? Put another way, how do we break the patterns of polarizing us/them dynamics that keep us living in our like-minded echo chambers? Indeed, I’m grateful for transcending truths, and for spiritual practices and rituals that remind us of our commitments Today, our dedication of Griffin gives me great hope, assuming we can walk the talk and I’m confident that we can. If you need a reminder, here are the vows we just made, this time spelled out in more general terms:

Will you encourage this and every child of God to live a life of faith marked by courage, integrity, and truth-seeking?

Do you promise to attend to your own spiritual journeys, to resist oppression and evil, and to show love and justice as best you are able?

Do you promise your love, support, and care to this and every child of God as they grow into the fullness of their created potential?

You said it yourselves. We will and we do with the help of God. Whether we are less than a year old or 16 or 60, whether we are considered weak or strong, whether we are white or black or brown, whether we are democrat or republican, whether we are living or dying, we all still and always will need the room and space and grace to grow into our created potential, and we will need all the love and support and belonging we can get.

It’s by remembering and enacting commitments like these that we can and will stay connected across our differences, striving for that indivisible spiritual community, living for that which is beyond ourselves, belonging always to God, held ever accountable to that higher judge, that higher power, that higher truth, that higher love. Thanks be to God! Amen.

1) William Greenway, in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Volume 12 David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 64

2) Ibid., p 66.