by Rev. Joe Connolly
“We do not live for ourselves, nor do we die for ourselves. While we live, we live for Christ, Jesus, and when we die, we die for Christ, Jesus. So then, whether we live or whether we die, both in life and in death, we belong to Christ.” — Romans 14:7-8.
I don’t think there is any question about this. There are people we meet in life with whom we have an immediate connection. And so it was when I first met the Rev. Dr. Christopher Xenakis— the spelling of that last name is X-e-n-a-k-i-s— Xenakis.
Perhaps the connection happened because we are both veterans, perhaps because we are both pastors. Or maybe it’s because we both sit on our Susquehanna Association Committee on Authorized Ministry. But the reason matters not. We connect.
Chris has an interesting background. Born into an Eastern Orthodox family, in his late teens he shifted to a fundamentalist group and is now a United Church of Christ pastor, serving the Groton Community Church. The interesting background does not end there.
Ordained in 1979, Chris is a retired Navy Chaplain, has two doctorates— a Doctor of Ministry and a Ph.D. in World Politics. I suppose he should be addressed as the Rev. Dr. Dr. He is also certified in conflict mediation by Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.
Aside from numerous articles, his published books include What Happened to the Soviet Union? How and Why American Sovietologists Were Caught by Surprise and World Politics and the American Quest for Super-Villains, Demons and Bad Guys to Destroy.
Chris is currently working on a book about the Bretton Woods conference of 1944. This conference, effectively, created the economic system the world runs on today.
Chris recently published a web article which seems to have gone viral, at least in United Church of Christ circles— Is Autonomy Turning Ministers and Churchgoers into Turtles? What does he mean by turtles? Turtles are those who might withdraw from interactions with settings in our denomination beyond the local church— the Association, the Conference and the Church at the National setting.
In using this word turtles Chris is drawing on the work of sociologist Robert Putnam. Putnam, uses the word turtle in addressing a larger picture and says American life, itself, is based on social capital. The term social capital refers to networks, norms and trust that facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit.
In the past, we Americans were not as isolated from one another as we are now, says Putnam. When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was our propensity for civic association— our social capital— that impressed him as the key to making American democracy work. If a neighbor’s barn burned down, the entire community came together to help rebuild it.
Social capital encompasses the connections of friends, neighbors, community, institutions and, by its nature, the connections should keep expanding, become more broad. Indeed, life is much easier in a community blessed with substantial, expanding social capital. But, Putnam argues, social capital is in short supply in America today.
Chris is painfully aware of this pulling back trend and everyone is experiencing this pullback from those involved in scouting to those involved in Rotary. And, if this pulling back trend is happening outside the doors of our churches we are not immune from it inside the doors of our churches. To be clear, the result of this pull back tendency pushes us toward thinking our own autonomy, self centeredness, is at the core of our lives.
Hence, any ties with our Association, our Conference and the church in the National setting feel like they are distant, remote. But is autonomy a healthy response? (Slight pause.)
The Rev. Dr. Xenakis quotes Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in this article on this topic. She says if you insist there is no need for others this is not about independence, strength, not about wanting to make your own decisions, not about saying you are as strong as h-e-double hockey sticks (and I just cleaned up that quote from the Rev. Ms. Bolz-Weber).
Rather, saying there is no need for others is about… fear. To allow myself to need someone else, says Bolz-Weber, is about making yourself vulnerable— vulnerable to be betrayed or to look weak. Therefore, when insistence on autonomy is the overwhelming factor, it is really fear— fear of vulnerability, the fear of looking weak which overcomes us. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work we have come to know as the Letter to the Church— church meaning the people gathered in community— Letter to the Church in Rome, commonly called Romans. “We do not live for ourselves, nor do we die for ourselves. While we live, we live for Christ, Jesus, and when we die, we die for Christ, Jesus. So then, whether we live or whether we die, both in life and in death, we belong to Christ.” (Slight pause.)
In this reading from Romans Paul addresses some specific quarrels and articulates a theological framework for dealing with them. Many will recognize and identify with the dilemma Paul faces here.
How can quarrels be mediated without destroying the fabric of the community? But it is the theological framework for unity, not the fissures Paul really addresses.
Indeed, what is most striking about the response of Paul is there is no attempt to decide any of the specific issues being raised. The Apostle effectively says, “You mean meat and potatoes matter? Tell me, really— who cares?”
Yes, it is plainly stated no one need to chastise or limit another’s rights or beliefs. It is, however and also, clear that the health of the community takes precedence over any autonomous right or belief.
Paul asserts it this way: we belong to God. God created us and, especially in the Christ-event, God has claimed us. That relationship takes precedence over all other needs, wants, desires without exception. What matters is the integrity of the relationship with God, not specific practices.
This text places pluralism firmly within a community context. The entire section of this letter begins with “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” and that “welcome” is heard seven verses later.
What Paul seeks in this passage is not merely the tolerance of diversity, a grudging acceptance of the inevitability of differences. Instead, Paul articulates an active welcome for those with conflicting views and practices.
If Christ welcomed all people, then we must find a way to welcome one another and respect the integrity of one another. Further, it would be mistaken to take this passage as an endorsement of any and all behavior. Why? Paul insists on limits in other places in this Epistle. (Slight pause.)
Debates will always characterize the life of the church, as one or another emphasis comes to the fore. But the debates should not prevent a common understanding of Who God is, a common understanding of the reality of God. The debates should also not prevent a common understanding of who we are and the reality of the need for all people to together seek the will of God. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Christopher Xenakis. Chris says we live in a time of tremendous cultural and technological change and the church is changing, just as American society is changing. But, says Chris, something in human nature doesn’t like change. Congregations resist change; pastors resist change; but change is what we are all facing.
Quoting Putnam again Chris says modern American life brings out the turtle in all of us, which is where he got the title for this piece. People pull into their shells, and lock themselves in.
Chris then uses the motto of the United States. Chris says perhaps we need more E Pluribus Unum— out of many, one— in our time. Then, he says, diversity and community— diversity and community— might be exactly what we need to help us survive in the Twenty-First Century.  (Slight pause.)
In her recent book on polity— polity— how denominations govern themselves— in her recent book on the polity of the United Church of Christ, Mary Susan Gast says there is a mobility, a flexibility, in our treasured concept of covenant. Covenant yields a way of life which is always mobile, flexible, always on the move. God summons us to change and change can be sustained when we move beyond our comfort zones in faithful obedience.
And I think that is where Paul takes us in this passage. Paul takes us from being the turtles Chris addresses, the turtles autonomy makes us, and leads us toward a path where we can live into the freedom, mobility and flexibility of faithful obedience.
Why would I say that? Paul puts it this way: “whether we live or whether we die, both in life and in death, we belong to Christ.” It is not about us, not about autonomy. It is about community in Christ. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Today’s sermon title was Meat and Potatoes— meat and potatoes, something of an American icon. Another American icon is autonomy. In this passage Paul is letting us know it is not about meat and potatoes, it is not about autonomy. It is not about our icons. It is about the community of Christ. Life is about the community of Christ.”
BENEDICTION: We have observed this day to honor God, who promises to be with us as we go. We do not live or die to ourselves for Christ has claimed us. Hence, we are taught to value every person. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses our understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the love, knowledge and companionship of the Holy Spirit this day and forevermore. Amen.