September 14, 2014 Romans 14: 1-12
Rev. Catherine Purves
I’m in the middle of reading a very unusual novel by Doris Lessing entitled Alfred and Emily. This is the story of her two parents, but it is told with an unexpected twist. As she explains in the forward to the book, both of her parents’ lives were devastated by World War I. Her father, Alfred, never recovered from the trenches. A piece of shrapnel shattered his leg and it had to be amputated. He died at 62, already an old man. Her mother, Emily, lost her first love, a doctor, who was drowned in the English Channel. Thereafter, she worked as a nurse in London trying to patch up young men who were sent back from the front. She never really got over that experience. After the war, Alfred and Emily move to Africa and lived in Rhodesia where they led very hard and largely unhappy lives. That is where Doris Lessing grew up. But in this novel, she tries to imagine what her parents’ lives would have been like if the Great War had never happened. If they’d lived in England during those same years at the beginning of the 20th century, but if World War I hadn’t changed everything, what would their lives have looked like?
That intriguing question prompted Doris Lessing to imagine different lives for her parents, Alfred and Emily. In those imagined lives, Alfred became the English farmer he always wanted to be, but could not be, successfully, with one leg. He lived to a ripe old age. Emily married her doctor, who died quite young of a heart attack. She never had children, but used the wealth inherited from her husband to set up schools for needy children throughout England. She died at 73, of a heart attack, having never re-married. These were not the lives they actually lived, and they weren’t the deaths they actually died. Neither their real lives, nor their imagined lives were ideal. In both they experienced unrealized hopes, suffering, broken relationships, and, of course, the one predictable constant was that both their real lives and their imagined lives ended in death.
This was such an intriguing premise for a novel that I was tempted to try to do some imagining myself. If, for example, my father hadn’t died when I was 12, how might my life have been different? I haven’t written this novel, but even on cursory reflection, it seems evident that changing that one event – if he had lived – that would have changed just about everything. Suffice it to say that I don’t think I would have ended up married to a Scotsman and the minister of a church. You should maybe try this yourself. Think of something that happened to you that had wide-ranging ramifications for your life, and then change that one thing. How would your life have changed? It’s kind of odd to think about that, isn’t it? Imagining different lives for yourself.
Stepping back and taking the long view like this certainly gives you a different perspective on a lot of the smaller things that seem to command most of our attention most of the time. When you’re imagining, ‘if I had lived this way…’ or ‘if this major thing had never happened…’ or ‘if I might die that way…’ then petty squabbles and differences of opinion or perspective seem just that, petty. Well-nursed grudges, unforgotten disappointments, and even issues of principle that seemed so important, are suddenly not what makes the world go round, or rather, the world will continue to go around regardless of how they are resolved. It’s probably a healthy thing to realize that. I expect that we would all lower our stress levels considerably if we could stop passing judgment on others and learn how to tolerate perspectives that are different from our own, while remaining true to our own convictions.
This long view broadens even more when you see that your life, however it works itself out, is part of something bigger which encompasses not only your life and eventual death, but everything else as well. That bigger thing that fashions your life and the lives of everyone you know is even bigger than the cataclysm that was World War I or any of our more modern milestones, such as 9/11 which was remembered this week. There is a dependable constant that relativizes everything else, both great and small. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans is able to envision this longer view which places the whole of our lives, no matter what happens in our lives, and our ultimate death, whenever and however that comes, in God’s hands.
“We do not live to ourselves,” Paul 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.” This is the long view. This is the whole picture. I can imagine different lives for myself. I can even envision different deaths for myself. I can pinpoint key events in my life, big things that appear to have changed everything that followed. And, some of you know that I can be somewhat pigheaded and even judgmental about relatively small things. I don’t get along with everyone. These same things, big and small, could be said about the Christians Paul was writing to in Rome. Perhaps you could say this about all of us.
But Paul’s point is this: No matter what has shaped your life, and no matter when you will have to face death, you belong to Christ. This is also true of the person sitting next to you, or behind you, or in front of you. And it is true of people who are worshiping today at Assumption, Greenstone Methodist, and New Life Community Presbyterian. At the church in Rome, it was true for those who ate meat and for those who abstained; it was true for those who set apart certain holy days and religious practices and for those who did not. But they were not to judge one another, and neither are we. The big picture, the long view is that we will all live, and we will all die, both the weak and the strong, and we will all stand before Christ our Judge and our Savior. He will enable us to stand.
This has been a really hard week for everyone connected to Pittsburgh Seminary, for Andrew and me, for Rebecca, for all of our former interns, faculty, staff, and students. A professor, Jannie Swart, who was almost universally loved, died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive heart attack on Monday night. He was only 51. Anyone envisioning the trajectory of Jannie’s life last week would have anticipated a rich and fruitful ministry that would have had a profound impact on the whole church in years to come. Even people who may have disagreed with him on some things, would have had no doubt about that. So, this week, we have all been experiencing shock and sadness and loss. How could this life have ended in this way? But at the memorial service that was held at the Seminary Chapel on Friday morning, the president read the same words from the 14th chapter of Romans that we read this morning: “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.”
This is true for all of us. We each have a life that is uniquely our own. We could moan or groan about opportunities missed or limitations imposed, but to what end? We have one life, and we are called to live it faithfully, trusting in Jesus Christ who is Lord of the living and the dead. We are asked to honor him at all times and in all circumstances. And part of that involves honoring others who are also his servants, whether we agree with them or not. Who can make sense of the mysteries of life and death, why a life full of promise would be prematurely ended, or why our own lives unfold as they do? What we do know, as members of his church, is that we belong to Christ, all of us. Perhaps what Paul was saying is that, when it comes to those profound questions about life and death, that’s all we need to know. In life and in death we belong to Christ.