One problem with Easter being late is how it bumps Pentecost into Bible School, leaving preachers like me in a bind about how to plan the service. The last two weeks of my online clergy groups have been all about how to incorporate the tongues of fire into our worship spaces. Now I get to post a picture that says, all you need are three sheets of styrofoam, ten cans of free paint and Susanne Parker.
Most of you will spend something like fifteen more hours here this week, so I want to be brief this morning. Brief, yet focused enough on Romans again to hear Paul echo the message of Pentecost, our oneness in Christ, our sameness. Not only that we are each just like the other, but that we are of the same one Spirit, a distinction that means more to me the more I contemplate it – and truthfully, the more I read the Eastern mystics, who have language for it that we don’t. More on that another time.
Let’s talk a minute about the church at Rome in the time of Paul. I doubt emperors are much different than kings and presidents, as it has to do with their own popularity. The further they fall out of favor with their people, the more prone they are to find a scapegoat to blame and deflect attention. According to some accounts, in the late 00’s - 40’s CE, Jewish riots in Rome were causing such disorder and turmoil, Emperor Claudius felt he had no choice but to expel the lot of them from the city.
They’d been expelled from Rome before, in 139 BCE and again in 19 CE. Why this time, you ask – food shortages? Pogroms? Supposedly they were in the streets about whether Jewish followers of the Christos should be allowed to worship in synagogues. Now does that sound right to you? Because that doesn’t sound right to me. Not that some might not have been upset about that? Arguing even. But rioting? Really? What do Christians get excited enough to protest about today? Abortion is the only one I can think of, that Christians don’t share with non-believers, that Christians are willing to go to jail for.
However many Jews there were in Rome – a few thousand maybe? – realistically, how many were believers in Jesus? One hundred? Two hundred? Claudius needed someone to blame, and Jews have been the doormat of history forever – so he chose them, and they were gone. Gone for five years, until Claudius died and the new emperor took the throne. His name was Nero. What do you know of him?
If those Jewish Christians had had any idea what Emperor Nero had planned for them, they’d have certainly stayed away. But they didn’t, so they didn’t. The Jews returned in 54 CE, and the Christian ones found a church that had moved out of the synagogue, was worshipping on Sundays and being led by Gentiles – Gentiles who didn’t agree that just because their Jewish brothers were back, church life had to rewind by five years. They struggled to figure out how to worship and work together. Gentiles believed they could lead as well as Jews. Jews felt pushed out by their church brothers/sisters, the same way they were pushed out by the Romans.
You’ve no doubt read about the adjustment it was between men and women after WWII, the assumptions people made about men going back to work and women going back to homemaking and mothering. Men came home from the military and took over the jobs women had been doing for four years. (I read a similar article about the Civil War. For all the horror of it, women got a reprieve from childbirth, four whole years of not being pregnant.) Three years of the struggle goes by when the church in Rome receives a letter from Paul. It is hand-delivered by a woman named Phoebe, Paul’s partner in ministry, his agent, the one who speaks for him in his absence.
Do you see how the delivery of the letter conveys the message of the letter? She arrives in his place. She reads the text. She explains the text. No doubt at the end they told her they really liked her dress. She is not simply a FedEx carrier. She is cantor, rabbi, preacher, and pastor. If they told her they liked her dress, it was only because they didn’t yet know how to address her as rabbi and preacher. It’s not clear if they recognized her as Paul’s administrator. And, we will learn, she is an administrator. The message she preaches in Rome is theologically true. It is also organizationally expedient. Both are Phoebe’s job.
Paul believes his work in the east is done. He wants to open a new work in Spain. The only established churches from which to launch such a mission are in Rome. Egypt is getting started, thanks to the Apostle Mark, but is much too far from Spain. Carthage, in Tunisia, is much closer but still 100 years from having established churches. Paul needs the Roman church strong, and while the church since then has not always taken his advice, he chose solid theology as the source of that strength. Only insofar as you work out the trouble between you, will the gospel of God be evident in you. If you are not one in spirit, you bear no light to the One Spirit who is God, Creator, Savior, Sustainer of all that lives and breathes.
Again, again, again, and yet again, Paul will speak of the righteousness of God: entrusted to Israel; for the benefit of the whole world. The way some parents take the money they earn and set up a trust for their children – the money belongs to the parents, but is not for their use only; it is for the benefit of those who come after. As Paul says in Romans 3:2-3 (slightly paraphrased): The Jews were entrusted with the scriptures. Because some were unfaithful with them does not nullify the faithfulness of God! Paul’s point being that the righteousness of God entrusted to Israel extended to the Gentiles from the beginning.
And that righteousness, remember, is reflected everywhere in creation – most of all in relationships. Our relationship with each other, our relationship with creation, is right, is justified, when that relationship lines up with or is inside the margins of (justified margins, same idea) the righteous-ness or the right-ness or the justice of God. Our right relationships reflect, reveal, repeat, reproduce the righteousness of God. Thus, Paul’s prescription for the church: we are to love each other the way God loved us in Christ Jesus. As it has to do with this text, love them even if they don’t deserve it – since none of us deserved to be loved by God, and God loved us anyway.
Hopefully our first two weeks in Romans have you reflecting on your prejudices, maybe discovering some new ones you weren’t previously aware of. I’ve realized how really prejudiced I am toward people I consider prejudiced. When I get going I’m amazed at how judgy my thoughts can be. Also, toward people who carry guns in ordinary places. The smugness in my heart and mind probably makes Jesus want to drink gin from a cat dish. (I’m borrowing this expression from Anne Lamott – from Traveling Mercies, I think.)
Yet, Paul’s message can’t get through the doors – of our hearts or the church – until we’ve embraced our own depravity. Critical to these prejudices of ours is our confidence in our sense of difference. We’re too polite a people to say out loud that we believe we are better than others. When church folks say, there but for the grace of God go I, what are we saying? That could be me. But in my secret heart, I for one am also saying, thank God that isn’t me! We are grateful to be different! The difference is what matters to us!
When I was in seminary around 1990, my teacher, Molly Marshall, was the first woman theology professor to be granted tenure at a Baptist school. A reporter from a Baptist publication asked her if she believed in the depravity of men. She answered, “Oh yes. And the depravity of some women.” She was joking to call out his sexist language – but inside is the reminder, We are a depraved species through and through. We act out that depravity every time we rebel against the righteousness of God, the rightness, the justice, of God.
The whole system operates, is driven, by divine love. Love is the energy, the very air and light and water, of all that is. All we have to do to rebel against it is be unloving – in thought or word or deed, anecdotally or systematically. Creation’s not undone, of course. We are. We have thrown ourselves on the floor like a screaming toddler, maybe even broken things, or hurt something living, for the hope of being where no one of us can ever be: beyond the love, beyond the righteousness of God. God is always in place. Grace, salvation, gospel, goodness, love – all are always in place.
Depraved means corrupted. Depravity is love corrupted. It’s a sorry choice in a situation so filled with possibility. But until we get clear on where we stand, each of us and all of us together, we will never appreciate what God has done for us. Which is what Paul talks about next. I hope to, with you, when we look at it.
In preaching Romans, the idea is to bring you and me into awareness of our sameness to the church to whom Paul wrote. To us, “normal” means white, Christian, unquestioning our assumptions about everything. Part of childhood for me was the assumption that kids were a special class in that, even in really scary places like Vietnam, kids were safe. No one ever said this, it was just one of those things I figured out. I was always figuring things out when I was little. I am struggling to find the language for this, found only in socio-political-economic – not theological – writing. Yet it is here – in Romans. Wrapped in some ancient culture bindings. I beg your patience and your feedback as we proceed together.
Literally no one in Bedford, Indiana in 1969 would have called my mother a race activist. You remember the song “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world, Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in his sight….” I knew that we were white people. I knew what black people were, because I'd seen them on TV. But I couldn't figure out red and yellow. So I asked my mother. But she would not say red people are the Indians and yellow people are Chinese. (“Chinese” meant Asian. Oriental actually.)
I don't remember what she said, exactly, only that afterward I still didn't know who the red and yellow ones were. It was probably something like, “Oh Annie, it’s just a Sunday School song about how Jesus loves all kids the same. Now go play.” From which I gathered in my child brain that kids were all safe. Nothing bad happened to kids.
Colors aren’t people, except in our language. And yet, the colors we assign to people have everything to do with what happens to them. May was a bad month to be a brown kid in U.S. custody. Another brown kid died in a detention camp at the border. A brown kid died in a motel on Walnut Street this past week, of starvation. He weighed 50 pounds. Nobody in this town had eyes on that little boy until he was dead. His siblings are now with strangers and his parents are in jail.
It is truly offensive to hear kids referred to by color. And yet, color is the religious language chosen by our culture to speak of the universal love of God. The revision of the song goes how? “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world. Every color, Every race, all are covered by His grace.” I hope you are not sick of coming to church and hearing about race. Friends, we haven't even gotten started. Race is going to be nipping our heels every step we take through the book of Romans.
The white American church got away with 400 years of not talking about it. But not on my watch, tiny as my watch is. What's amazing is that the white American church has gotten away with ignoring race while preaching and reading a text positively soaked in it. To say we don't see race is to say we have not read our Bibles. That does not have to be.
I have a clergy friend who was horsing around at church youth group when she was a young teenager. Some boys were chasing her and she ran through a plate glass window. Her legs and arms and face got the worst of it. She had hours and hours of surgery. Hundreds of stitches. She's older than me, and still sometimes a splinter of glass will work its way through the surface of her skin. Race is likewise embedded in us, in our life together. It might work its own way out; but we must do the surgery, in our lives together as a church and as a country.
We will, as Paul says in Romans 2 verse 12, perish; cease to be a church; cease to be a nation. We may still breathe, of course, but breathe some other kind of air – the air tinged with the wrath of God poured down on the people of whom God has finally had enough. By the way, I didn't have a bad week. I'm not in a bad mood. It is just that my assignment is this “Wrath of God” text in Romans and I have declined skipping it, while not knowing how to preach it.
God loves us, and we don't need a book of laws to know so, Paul says in Romans 1:20 (CEV):
God’s eternal power and character cannot be seen. But from the beginning of
creation, God has shown what these are like by all he has made. That’s why
those people don’t have any excuse. They know about God, but they don’t
honor him or even thank him. Their thoughts are useless, and their stupid minds
are in the dark. They claim to be wise, but they are fools.
The other side of divine love is wrath – divine hatred. It's hard to hear. Not fun to say either. But what does it mean to say “God loves us,” if God doesn't care what happens to us? I have to believe God hates children being murdered – by fathers and by prison guards. If God doesn't hate the evil that happens to children, what trust do I have in God's love for me and mine?
Maybe God is only disappointed. Whatever. I want a little more than that. I want the power of God exercised in love AGAINST child suffering to be as huge and overwhelming as God's love displayed in a rainbow or a waterfall. I want God to sigh with the same satisfaction when kids are well and happy as God sighed at the end of each day of creation. Creation as it was meant to be: rainbows, waterfalls and safe kids. Creation right and just, except for where we've wrecked it, sinned against creation, sinned against the creator, invoked the wrath of God.
Beginning in Romans 1:18, Paul goes on a two-chapter explanation of why we all deserve to perish. Early on he mentions homosexual acts by men and women. Paul was not a fan of what he saw in his day. Nor would I have been. Sex for sex's sake, no matter who you're with, is not what it's meant for. Sex nourishes a relationship the way food nourishes the body. Both are gifts of God easily abused. He called it unnatural, though. He did. You know what else was unnatural then? Bathing regularly. Shaving your legs and armpits. Living past age 45.
I don't want to skip this or get hung up here either. Just to point out, again, that the two verses that mention sex are in no bigger font than the five in which he lists all sorts of indecent things people do. Romans 1:29-32:
They are evil, wicked, and greedy, as well as mean in every possible way. They
want what others have, and they murder, argue, cheat, and are hard to get
along with. They gossip, say cruel things about others, and hate God. They
are proud, conceited, and boastful, always thinking up new ways to do evil.
These people don’t respect their parents. They are stupid, unreliable, and don’t
have any love or pity for others. They know God has said that anyone who acts
this way deserves to die. But they keep on doing evil things, and they even
encourage others to do them.
That's page one of Paul's case for the wrath of God, all of which his audience probably appreciated, assuming Paul was talking about the same sorry folks they knew in their town too. They weren't wrong – just thinking too small. They assumed Paul was ONLY talking about their neighbors.
Verse 12, where Greg began reading, continues the same thread begun in verse 1 of chapter 2: the hypocrisy of religious people. (Paul calls them Jews, which for us is both religious, nationalist, and ethnic. In application to ourselves and our own prejudices, this is why I keep calling us white, American Christians.) All these first eleven verses are so good, especially in the Contemporary English Translation – I really want you to hear them:
Some of you accuse others of doing wrong. But there is no excuse for what you
do. When you judge others, you condemn yourselves, because you are guilty
of doing the very same things. We know that God is right to judge everyone who
behaves in this way. Do you really think God won’t punish you, when you behave
exactly like the people you accuse? You surely don’t think much of God’s wonderful
goodness or of his patience and willingness to put up with you. Don’t you know
that the reason God is good to you is because he wants you to turn to him? But
you are stubborn and refuse to turn to God. So you are making things even worse
for yourselves on that day when he will show how angry he is and will judge the
world with fairness. God will reward each of us for what we have done. He will
give eternal life to everyone who has patiently done what is good in the hope of
receiving glory, honor, and life that lasts forever.
But he will show how angry and furious he can be with every selfish person who
rejects the truth and wants to do evil. All who are wicked will be punished with
trouble and suffering. It doesn’t matter if they are white- American-Christians –
or not. But all who do right will be rewarded with glory, honor, and peace, whether
they are white-American-Christians – or not. God doesn’t have any favorites!
Don't you love that? I love that! But I also know it got those folks' backs up, the same way our backs go up when we feel put on the spot for what is true about us but doesn't seem like it should be our fault. Was it those religious peoples' fault their religion had taught them to be so prejudiced? If we decide No, what does that matter? If we decide Yes, what does THAT matter?
What matters NOW is will we do right, now that we know what IS right? Which is the heart of today's text: Gentiles who don't have the law (by “law” Paul is talking about Torah, five books of the 1st Testament) and yet are able to keep the law – the heart of it, the justice of it – while Jews who have the law (the books themselves, read and taught) do not keep it. Having – or sometimes Paul will say knowing the law – is neither here nor there; does not please God; does not make one right with God. There's that word “righteousness,” which is also justice. Knowing the law does not put us right with creation which, by design, is just.
Brand new thoughts are hard, friends. Believing all your life that the world is one way and then discovering it is another – whew, that's really hard. It will get up inside every part of reality and probably never stop infiltrating.
That's me when I realized how steeped in racist thinking, feeling, seeing, talking, believing I am. How the privilege that was once invisible to me is absolutely everywhere – in every word I speak from this pulpit, and the way we've read the Bible, just as Paul's Jewish contemporaries had read their Bible – even the ones who'd come to know Jesus – in such a way that reinforces our own worldview, in which we are not extremely privileged but, rather, extremely blessed. And the rub of the entire letter to the Romans is, y’all are gonna have to get over that.
In verses 17-24, Paul expounds upon his brothers' and sisters' hypocrisy. The very things they preach ought not to be done are the very things they themselves do. Some things never change apparently. And in verse 25 he opens the topic of circumcision – a continuing argument in Paul's ministry, a particular point of the Law which some of his Jewish believers get especially wound up about. No more than half, of course.
You get the joke, right? The circumcision argument is a joke in the way it's supposed to be about inclusion and yet excludes half the people concerned. Must Gentile men become Jewish in order to become Christian? Must gay people become straight to be Christian? Must non-western Christians dress like Westerners for church in their own countries? These have been real questions since the time when Paul wrote to the Romans.
Two modern cases: The Claxons, Southern Baptist missionaries who were members here some years ago, told me about the conversations they had in the 1950's in Nigeria, when African families joined their churches and women wore skirts and necklaces and headscarves. Of course, ALL the American male ministers wished the women would also wear blouses.
Some insisted that it was the Christian thing to do. Others, Neville included, were reluctant to insist – feeling like insisting on a blouse was the same as insisting on circumcision. However, some of the people they served circumcised little girls – also a cultural tradition. The missionaries also thought this through and decided they would interfere, as respectfully as they could, but with the mission of ending the practice. Emma told me it was very slow and difficult work.
Do you see how followers of Jesus might come to the two conclusions that welcoming topless women to church AND interfering in a child-rearing practice are both exercises in equality among believers? Where the Bible says nothing about either, specifically? Each generation and location of the church will have its own set of conditions in which to work out Paul's teaching. Our ancestors in the faith can be helpful. Some of them in what NOT to do, others in what TO do. Always, always, always – we are squeezing and tweezing at the privilege and prejudice embedded within us and among us, resisting the gravitational pull to pretend we are fine.
The end of verse 16 slays me. Here's 15 and 16 (NRSV):
They who have no religion show that what the law requires is written on their
hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting
thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my
gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
We can pretend as much as we need. We may fool others. We may fool ourselves. But the Lord knows exactly what's going on in here (heart) and here (head). God knows that we know what God requires of us. And if we could only see that doing what the Lord requires of us is THE answer to absolutely everything that is wrong in the world….
The law, as Jesus said it in Luke 10:27: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind – and love your neighbor as yourself.” And my favorite, Micah 6:8. “The Lord has shown you, you humans, what is expected of you: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.”
No doubt it is a lot. No doubt the world won't care. But I still believe it is everything, friends. Positively everything.
Would you pray with me?