Is it a sin to be white? Of course not. It is a sin to believe and behave as though being white makes no difference in the world today. As if we don’t have advantage, access and opportunity that others don’t, simply by virtue of our race. If we are to be true to the gospel Jesus gave us, we can no more go around our white privilege than Jesus could go ‘round Samaria on his way to the cross.
Samaria was part of Israel, a region between Galilee to the south and Judea to the north. And Jewish travelers generally went around not through Samaria, for one simple reason: they were not welcome there. Judeans and Galileans believed themselves better people, and better Jews, than the Samaritans. As you might expect, as you can hear in the voice of the woman with whom Jesus speaks, the Samaritans resented it. The resentment was about 900 years old, starting with Assyria. One group after another invaded and occupied Israel, Jews from Israel and Judah both carted off into exile in Egypt and Babylon, while most Samaritans stayed put and were occupied by the foreigners – Assyrians especially, who took them as slaves . . . and wives. The Samaritans maintained Jewish faith and practice as best they could, for generations.
In the fifth century BCE – when King Cyrus of Persia started repatriating whoever wanted to go home – the Jews who went back to Israel would have nothing to do with the Samaritans who’d been there the whole time. Jerusalem was a wasteland. Samaritans wanted to help it and the Temple. The returning Jews said, “Y’all are nasty and we don’t want anything to do with you,” and were still treating them that way 400 years later, into the time of Jesus. They were a nasty, half-breed people, association with whom would violate one’s religious purity. You could do business with them, but you couldn’t eat with them, drink with them or socialize with them.
When I take Scout to the vet, she doesn’t know where she is until we get to the door; and then she puts her butt on the ground, and I have to drag her and promise lots of treats. This is how I imagine Jesus got the disciples into Samaria. As soon as we get to the first little village, you can go buy as many treats as you want. And they all say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s also how he was able to go see the person he had gone to talk to in the first place. She might have been a rabbi, if she’d been born in another place and time. Woman rabbis are a dime a dozen now. Jesus affirmed the rabbi in her, debated with her like an equal. Hers is his longest conversation in the gospels, the first to whom he voluntarily confessed himself as Messiah, “I AM.”
Some traditions name her. Do you know it? I’ve told you before, but it’s been awhile: Photine. Pick the word apart and you’ll figure out what it means. Bright as the sun, enlightened one. Christendom has generally been more interested in her sex life than her intellect, her scholarship and her faith, while for Jesus it is the least interesting thing about her. I think he brings it up to get it out of the way, to say she needn’t lie about what doesn’t matter anyway – at least not to him. He brings it up to get it out of the way, so they can talk about what they both want to talk about – that is, the gospel of Samaria.
Would you pray with me? In every place on this earth or in our own memory we are reluctant to revisit, places and memories that bear no resemblance to the people we desire to be, you have already been there, O God. Been there, looked around and restored it with your grace. May we know the same is true about our neighbors – all our neighbors, however different from us they appear. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
He asks for a simple drink of water. Her answer seethes with 400 years of oppression. Like that scene in Little Women when Laurie complains about having to leave for college. Jo says she’d commit murder to go to college. Like when the friend in our Global Women group refused to answer the conversation question in what other time and place you might like to have been born. “None,” she said; “no time has been good enough to women to want to go back to it.” His answer to her answer is everything she’s waited for – someone to talk to about the things she longs to talk about. They are two rabbis, discussing biblical history and the nature of God in metaphor and symbol like a script she has rehearsed over and over again.
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus then ruins the moment:
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Then her quip of comedy gold – “Sir, I see you are prophet!” – which she uses to turn the conversation back to the religious and political! Jesus follows her willingly. She speaks of their segregated worship – his people in Jerusalem, hers on the mountain at Gerizim. He speaks of their reunion – when they shall worship God not on the basis of negotiated territory, but in spirit and in truth. I know the Messiah will explain it when he comes, she says – what oppressed people always say when liberty seems too much to hope for. To which Jesus replies, I AM the Messiah.
A HUUUGE thing to say, but we aren’t given to see or hear her response – because the disciples are back. Astonished, John says. Mouths hanging open but no sound coming out. What could he possibly want. He’s talking to a woman. Friends, can you just try – just for a minute, try – to get your brain around the kind of either ignorance or arrogance it takes to be utterly shell-shocked at the possibility that the Lord of the universe might have reason to talk to a woman. I think we’ve mostly gotten over that. But the church still gets astonished that Jesus might talk to a transgender person. To someone we would call a white supremacist.
The disciples are astonished but, meanwhile, she’s put down her water jar to run to town, announcing, Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done. He may well be the Messiah! As they are on the way, Jesus deals with his disciples. They want him to eat. He tells them, I have food that you know nothing about. Again with the spiritual metaphors. They scratch their heads and stare like a tree full of owls. The Samaritans return and listen like he’s feeding them mother’s milk. He stays two days with them and they all end up believers.
Three things I want to unpack: First – can we please assume that when she says Jesus told her everything she’d ever done, she wasn’t talking about sex? But rather, about faith; about prayer; about the scriptures; about the things of God that had occupied her heart and mind for longer than she could remember. His disciples have been with him for months and all they know is that he talks to women and eats air, apparently. To her he offers up the essential truth of his existence: I AM. You are speaking to I AM. All we know of her response is that she drops her water jar and runs to fetch back her whole community. John doesn’t describe her heart and mind and soul blown open – since there are no words for that anyway. All we can see of it is the loss of bitterness and hate. The Jew for whom she’d not draw a drink of water is now the hero of her life, and she brings her village to him too.
Secondly – like her, enlightened by the presence of Jesus in our lives, we will find ourselves doing things we would not imagine otherwise. Being braver, louder maybe; leading communities to think and talk and act in different ways than they have before; becoming neighbors with people we once kept apart from. These are interesting days to talk about keeping apart from others. We may be called to get close in ways the world will caution against, called to ask ourselves what Jesus would do, what Jesus would have us do, given his example and his teaching that we are obligated to the sick and hurting among us.
Thirdly, the gospel who is Jesus comes into Samaria and undoes 900 years of prejudice and racism, 400 years of segregation – not in the entire territory but in the hearts of those who meet him. Or, at least some who meet him. His disciples are not there yet. But there or not, they now have Samaritan sisters and brothers. Because as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus Christ in Samaria turns out to be the same gospel of Jesus Christ it was in Galilee. And getting our heads and hearts around that is, and has been from the beginning, the most astonishing thing about the gospel. For God so loved the world, the whole boatload of us. Jesus talks shop with a Samaritan woman as if they were standing in a synagogue, and his disciples have to pick their chins up off the floor.
One day in India our group was in yoga circle talking about our day, and Nancy – Nancy is awesome – said, “India has taught me that I actually don’t like monkeys. I only like the idea of monkeys.”
No wonder Jesus has to go through Samaria, else we’ll all just keep liking the idea of Jesus – the Jesus who thinks and talks and acts just like we think Jesus ought to think and talk and act. Instead, Jesus marches to the cross, dragging his disciples and church along with him, past all our prejudice and our privilege, through the sucking mud of our assumptions and our apathy, step by step, watching him meet stranger after stranger after stranger, until finally our idea of the gospel of Jesus is smashed to pieces on the truth of who he was, and is, and shall always be. As he told our sister Samaria – I AM.
Would you pray with me?
John 3:16 is the first Bible verse I ever memorized, and I don’t remember not knowing it. I also don’t remember thinking about what it meant – only what Sunday School teachers said it meant: that if I gave my heart to Jesus I would go to heaven when I died. I had to grow up and read and pray for my own self to discover that we don’t have to wait 70 or 80 years to cash in that memory verse. Eternal life doesn’t begin when we die. It never begins, and it doesn’t end. We live in it – like fish live in water.
This time-and-space-bound kingdom full of flesh and bone, so much noise and so many words, so much beauty and so much heartache, where death is both ever-present, sadder than sad, and a channel to that deeper, wider life, is but a pocket of that ocean my first Sunday School teachers called eternal life. I also kind of imagined John 3:16 lived on a Bible page all by itself. And here it is tucked inside a story about a man named Nicodemus who visits Jesus at night and turns out to be a living example of the very story Jesus tells him – one of those born again followers of Jesus. Or, maybe, a daylight disciple.
Would you pray with me? When we are tempted to make faith small, O God, to tuck and fit it into the lives we already have, may seekers like Nicodemus draw new vision and courage from us and from our life together. We ache for the courage to abandon our grip on things that do not last, to embrace what cannot be lost. Amen.
In a world so full of chaos and suffering, why should my life be so calm and comfortable? I wrote that in my journal on Friday morning – and was promptly just appalled at myself. Because the answer is so profane and trite. My life is comfortable and calm because I choose for it to be – which got me to thinking about Nicodemus and his choice to go see Jesus at night and how that worked out for him. He also had a pretty easy life, considering his time and place – Roman-occupied Israel. A member of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council – the group that will eventually petition Pilate to have Jesus put to death, he has status and power, political and religious.
One of John’s major themes unfolds in chapter 3: darkness and light. Often as not, he puts them in the same sentence:
And the theme has a sharp edge the church in good faith must address: “darkness and light” has embedded itself into our church language and our everyday language as “blackness and whiteness.” Every time we refer to some moral situation as a gray area, what do we mean? We mean it is neither black nor white, neither right nor wrong, bad nor good. Which color is right? Which color is bad?
In movies who wears the white hat? The good guy. What color is the tower that smart people live in? Ivory. What do our hymns have to say on the subject?
He's the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star,
He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.
Whiter than snow, Lord, wash me just now,
As in Thy presence humbly I bow.
And the one this morning:
For each perfect gift of thine To our race so freely given,
written in 1864 by an Englishman and sung in white churches who know good and well he meant the human race.
Most hymns are quotes from scripture, and they are accurate metaphors. Snow IS white. But white is no more clean than red or green or purple or brown. Purity as whiteness is a Bible theme that was never meant to register as a skin color. White western culture did that hundreds of years ago and left a residue so embedded in our language we mostly don’t hear it until it’s pointed out to us. But hopefully we want it pointed out since it’s hurtful and, most of all, divisive to the body of Christ.
Nicodemus is the one who visited Jesus at night. He is introduced this way three times in the gospel of John, beginning here. Did they know each other already? or does Jesus simply recognize him for who he obviously is – a Jewish ruler; member of the Sanhedrin, the group he knows will eventually drive him to the praetorium? Instead of small talk, they fall instantly into rabbinical debate.
Nicodemus: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God;
for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.
Jesus: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God
without being born from above.
Nicodemus: (taking the bait) How can anyone be born after having grown old?
Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?
Jesus: I’m not talking about your mother. I am talking about the kingdom of God.
Birth there happens by water. And Spirit. Don’t pretend you don’t know
about Spirit. Spirit is what sent you here. Just like the wind, it sends us
where we would never go on our own.
Nicodemus: How can these things be?
Jesus: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you still pretend not to know?
The scene continues like a play in which Nicodemus listens along with the audience to Jesus’s sermon about the darkness and the Light – the light by which he thought and prayed, apparently, by which he re-read his Bible, by which he watched and listened in his Temple council meetings. The light is changing how he thinks. We know so because we can hear it in his voice when he shows up again in chapter 7, this time in the daylight.
The crowds have really gone after Jesus. Rumors are spreading about him being the Messiah. Folks are getting noisy and the Sanhedrin is worried about Roman attention, so they send their own soldiers to arrest Jesus. But the soldiers themselves are taken by Jesus’s teaching charisma – so they leave him alone, which makes some of the council members even more upset, reminding the soldiers whom they work for, when Nicodemus (who had once gone to Jesus at night) tentatively pipes up to remind his colleagues that our own law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing. A reminder they do not appreciate at all and to which they respond by calling Nicodemus a Galilean and suggesting he search and see that no prophet will come from Galilee. A response that proves them both mean and ignorant.
I feel for Nicodemus here, watching him trying to integrate what he likes about Jesus with what he likes about his calm, comfortable life; sprinkling radical faith on top of his solid reputation in a town where reputation matters. Hoping that isn’t what Jesus is talking about when he says, And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light. Here, and over and over again, John will say that Jesus is the Light. The Light. Jesus has already given me all I need. My choice: to hoard all my trinkets and toys like they are going to save me. Go figure.
In chapter 7, Nicodemus gave it a shot and mostly failed. At least he’s doing Jesus’s working in the daytime now and still letting the Lord work on him, apparently (see Chapter 19 of John). Turns out there’s another member of the Sanhedrin who secretly followed Jesus. Remember his name? Joseph of Arimathea. Neither of them is mentioned throughout Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution. Nor when Jewish council leaders go to Pilate to ask that Jesus’s legs be broken so he’ll be dead and buried – the whole ordeal out of sight before Passover tourists arrive in Jerusalem. John says, in the midst of it Joseph went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’s body. Nicodemus buys and brings the burial spices. Together they carry the bloody, filthy soiled body of a condemned criminal – handle it, intimately, in ways no Jews who cared about ritual purity would consider.
Nobody doubted whose side Nicodemus was on now – now that he’d just embraced the body of a dead criminal. Again, friends, not just dead: eviscerated. Blood, urine, feces – human death is really, really messy. However dark it looked and sounded and smelled at the moment, Nicodemus chose to embrace the Light. I can’t tell you what was in his head and heart, but Jesus knew. Jesus knew that first night in the middle of the night when Nicodemus first came to see him, when Jesus received him and entertained his questions and pushed back with questions of his own – questions about the Spirit which Nicodemus was trying so hard NOT to listen to. And the other question: “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” Only in the dark he didn’t know. Only so long as he stayed in the dark he didn’t.
But he didn’t stay. The Spirit moved him to the daylight – the same way it will move the rest of Jesus’s disciples in this story soon enough. It moved Nicodemus to go where Jesus went. To the praetorium and the cross, to embrace death without a shred of fear. Nicodemus’s bid to faith began in the middle of the night and took him to a graveyard where he chose to love the light rather than the darkness. To love the light demanded that he move, that he commit to certain action, to certain allegiances that would sever him from the comforts of life as he’d known it so far.
Still, he embraced the cross, not knowing for sure what came next – only confident in the words of Jesus as he’d heard them once before: For God so loved that world, that whoever believes in him, is bound for everlasting life. May his wisdom and his courage bring our own hearts, minds and bodies to such faith.
Few words have as much power to re-align a room full of perfectly politically correct progressive-white-people liberals talking about race in America as the word “reparations.” It's one of those words that proves words don't have meanings; they have usages.
The simple meaning of “reparations” is “the payment of a debt owed.” America has an unpaid debt for labor done, but not yet paid for. Labor for which everyone but the laborers themselves were paid. In usage, it means so many things to so many people that bubble up in anger, shame, guilt, conflict.
Why bring it up here? Because Paul and Timothy’s letter to Philemon has been used by the church in America to discuss slavery in various ways, but so far – in my experience – not with regard to debts owed. How these debts are resolved among the followers of Jesus, Paul writes, is not the business of business, but rather the business of faith.
Let us pray: You have paid a debt you did not owe, O Christ, for a debt I could not pay – which is not to say there are debts outstanding that we cannot yet make right in this life by your grace and with the courage of this faith. “Let goods and kindred go,” we sing. May we hear in this text your call to let go our goods for the work of justice. Amen.
Philemon is one of the leaders of a house church in an unnamed town. The church meets in his house. The letter, though addressed to the leadership and the congregation in verses two and three, shifts to speaking directly to Philemon in verse four – a shift we can't see in English, since “y-o-u” is both singular and plural. In Greek, verses two and three are second person plural, as in “y’all.” From verse four, Paul speaks to “you” – Philemon – with his colleagues, his congregation and us overhearing everything Paul has to say to Philemon. Not secretly, like eavesdropping, but on purpose. Paul means to add the pressure of being watched, as Philemon hears this letter about him, read to him.
I get the sense that Paul is bringing up old business here. After waxing on a bit about Philemon's good faith, Paul comes to the point, saying (and I paraphrase), “My brother, I appeal to you to do your duty with regard to Onesimus.” There is no introduction of the topic. It sounds mid-conversation. There are details we don't know, like how Philemon and the slave got separated; how Paul knows Philemon doesn't want it back. What has Philemon already said on the subject? What has Onesimus said? I would love to have been a prison mouse, listening to Paul and Onesimus talking together. All that is sure: Philemon doesn't want the slave back. Paul is determined to send him back.
The name Onesimus means useful. Paul's usage of the name is especially clever; he turns it around to point out Philemon's opposite conviction, that Onesimus is useless. He is indeed both useful to us both, Paul says, and you have a duty to him. A duty I have the right to command you to do, but prefer to appeal that you do because it is the right thing to do. That is classic Paul right there. He does it twice in the text, again when promising to pay whatever costs are associated with the return of Onesimus: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.
I suspect two things with regard to Philemon's duty: if Philemon is the man of faith Paul said he was, I suspect he’d have already taken Onesimus back, if he thought it the right thing to do. And I suspect Philemon might have been offended at Paul's use of the word “duty” with regard to his property. Slaves were property, not persons. Plows were property. Buildings were property. Land was property. Slaves had duties. Slave-owners, also known as property owners, had rights. And property owners, as we know from our own time and place, are generally resistant to being told what they can and cannot do with their own property. “Property rights” we call them.
As a property owner, Philemon had the right to keep his slaves and do with them as he saw fit. He had the right to sell them if he wanted. If a slave ran away, Philemon had the right to kill it – the legal right to prevent it from further devaluing his property. It sounds worse than it was to our ears, because we have trouble thinking of Onesimus as property.
Another way of listing Philemon’s rights as a property owner: he had the right to
Now I realize how horrifically awful that sounds, but I want you to get a sense of how normal Philemon’s reality was, so as to hear how outrageous Paul sounds to Philemon and his congregation. My brother I appeal to you to do your duty with regard to Onesimus . What duty exactly? Philemon's duty as a business person? as a provider for his family and this church that meets in his house? as a recipient of God's grace in Christ Jesus? as a disciple of Jesus and a leader in his church? To which of those duties does Paul appeal but not command, as he says?
Seems that when he has his church groove on, Philemon knows what's what. But when he gets to his office Monday morning, he's all business and his faith doesn't come along. There is no more preachy thing to ask than “does your faith go to work with you on Monday?” and probably nothing more presumptuous by someone who works in a mostly empty church building several days a week. The text asks, all the same: will we do our duty, whatever business is at hand?
I can imagine Philemon thinking Paul has no idea what he deals with? ALL the duty to which he feels bound, the pressures of maintaining so much property, of trying to turn a profit when the margins are so thin, to have not just a family and a business but now a church too depending on him to keep everything afloat. And with regard to this Onesimus mess – why couldn't Paul understand that of his three choices none of them were good?
And Paul's offer of a fourth is so outrageous he would laugh or cuss if his whole congre- gation wasn't watching: take him back and treat him like a brother. Can you imagine a case competition at the Kelley School of Business for ANY business problem, to which students bring a presentation titled “Take him home and treat him like a brother”? Their professor might – MIGHT – suggest they had misunderstood the problem from the beginning. 2 x 7, 48 does not equal a bluebird. Ever. Is there even such a thing as multiple duties, conflicting duties, in the lives of believers – followers of Christ? Or are those conflicts simply the joints between the carefully constructed walls we've built between our faith lives and our real lives?
What Paul is actually doing here, is pounding away at the division between how we live and think and feel most of the time and how we live and feel and think when we revel in the sweetness of God's goodness to us in Christ Jesus and his grace, isn’t it? Paul knows Philemon's good faith and does not hesitate to brag on it. He also knows that Philemon does not want Onesimus back and seems to feel no conflict there, no tugging at the edges of his heart or soul, where significant tugging ought to be.
Philemon had a business problem. Philemon’s world agreed with him as to how to solve that problem. Philemon’s church might also have agreed with him – cut his losses the least expensive way possible – while Paul’s solution was a long-term, familial relationship. Paul is agreeing with the gospel. Relationships are the business of faith. Even the business of business, apparently. And unless we see this, friends, we aren’t seeing the gospel yet. The gospel breaks down all those partitions with which we so carefully organize our lives, our rights and our responsibilities. At home and work and church, we have but one set of duties: to love God and to love our neighbors.
I’m not even sure it turns out to be bad business in business terms. Many businesses are testing it with good effect. Patagonia is one. But for those who call ourselves believers, it’s the good that gets the accent when speaking of good business. It wasn’t Philemon’s fault he didn’t know before, but it is his choice to learn and know now, to be not just changed, but utterly transformed. Now obviously I have no idea how Philemon reacted to this, but neither does anyone else. And it just makes sense to me that someone who considered his runaway slave useless, who didn't want him back, who was having to be talked into taking him back at all, would be gobsmacked at the idea of receiving him as a brother.
Paul might also have cut his losses in the least expensive way possible. He could easily enough have put Timothy and Onesimus on a bus to Philippi carrying a letter to Lydia, instructing her to take the boy in, treat him like a brother. Conflict avoided. And what else would be avoided? The stalling for another season, another generation the reconciliation, the transformation, the divine justice inherent to the gospel they all preached and professed to believe.
Which brings me back to the subject of reparations. For Philemon to do right by Onesi- mus, something has to give. And that something is sole ownership of the rights and privileges that belong to all God’s daughters and sons: the right to be known and treated as a human being, a soul endowed with the image of God and possessed by the spirit of Christ, someone useful and deserving of the same respect as any other human being, someone whose labor is valuable and deserving of just reward.
We aren’t given to know what Philemon chose to do with Onesimus, only that he knew what the gospel asked of him: that he understand that his business – all his business – was now the business of faith, which made it the business of family and of justice in all his relationships, even relationships he’d never before recognized as relationships at all.
One beauty of the gospel, friends, is: it is never, never, never too late to do justice. Would you pray with me?
The smarty-pants Bible teachers of the world agree on one thing only about the book of Hebrews: the Apostle Paul didn’t write it. As to who did write it – lots of guesses. Some even say Phoebe. Remember her from the first Sunday we read Romans? Scholars believe she was Paul’s strong arm in Rome, sent to deliver, read, and implement his teaching, as well as coordinate his mission to Europe out of Rome. Why it’s called “To the Hebrews” is also a mystery, since it’s not really a letter and there’s nothing particularly Hebraic about it other than quotes of the Jewish Bible. But those are from the Septua- gint, the Greek First Bible.
Most likely, this sermon for some congregation or congregations somewhere in Italy late in the first century was composed and preached by a well-educated Jew with deep Hellenistic training. I’m going with Phoebe, since nobody knows and it’s my only chance to say “she” in reference to the Bible writer. I could be wrong, but no more wrong than most everyone else. For all that isn’t known about the preacher, loads is known about the listening church. Namely, they were worn out from being and doing church. It happens. (That pause was your invitation to say “AMEN” – and now it’s too late. Sorry.)
They were worn out from the week-in, week-out work of worship, fellowship and ministry. (Now it’s starting to feel like a trick, isn’t it?) Plus, in their case the constant harassment by their neighbors and the Romans, the confiscation of property, the persecution, the beatings – “torture,” she calls it here – the jail sentences, the family separations (this is all listed in the early chapters of Hebrews), all of it together had them rather discouraged, rather tired of church life.
They were missing worship meeting (Hebrews 10:25); they were slacking on the ministry; they were really struggling to muster the same joy in the faith they’d once had. In their weariness, the preacher says, they’d begun to act out of fear rather than the once-and- for-all-confidence that comes with salvation in Christ Jesus. In Hebrews 8:5, the preacher describes the church as – and I love this language – “a shadow and a sketch of heaven.”
Her entire sermon is a treatise on the nature of Christ, meant to encourage them to remember what they once knew for sure. It is a call to endure this new phase of their life together. They are now grown-up believers in a grown-up church, dealing with the grown-up realities of faith and ministry in a hard world. The “sketch and shadow of heaven” they once cast is not sufficient for the people and church they are now, nor for the world as they can now see it with their grown-up eyes of faith.
She tells them in chapter five, baby believers – and, likewise, baby churches – live on spiritual milk. Grown-up believers and grown-up churches live on spiritual solid food. No way is milk going to suffice for a church under the demands of persecution, imprison- ment and torture. Nor for a church full of grown-up Christians who are aware of the injustice and imperialism crushing our world and who are now in their sixth decade of ministry in the same community.
No wonder you are exhausted and depressed, her sermon goes. You aren’t eating right and you aren’t eating enough! She offers this new diet, if you will: take another look – take a real look – at the Christ you follow. And she spends twelve chapters walking them back through what they know of Christ and the meaning of the Christ event for their lives and their life together, leaving them to decide: Shall we be a grown-up church who slowly starve ourselves to death by insisting on eating a baby church diet? Or shall we pull up to the table she has set for us in her twelve-chapter sermon, take it, eat it, and be changed into the sketch and shadow of heaven we are called to be now?
Let’s pray a little prayer before moving into our text for today: For new confidence in things hoped for, and new certainty in what we do not see, we pray, O God. Amen.
Hebrews, chapter 13 is the sermon the preacher preaches after she promised she was done. Some churches call it “the announcements” or “having heard the Word, let’s do the Word.” The chapter 13 To-Do List is not exhaustive, but enough to keep most churches busy. I’m calling it a list of seven. Let’s go through them.
# 1 – Let mutual love continue. I read #1 as the umbrella for the rest. The rest are ways of maintaining this mutual love so essential to our life together.
#2 – Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have enter- tained angels without knowing it. Hopefully, you recognize entertaining angels as a First Bible reference to Genesis 18, when the traveling strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah brought them the news they’d long prayed for: Sarah would get pregnant and have a son. But why do we have to be promised angels at all? Is it that we are afraid of strangers, or that we mostly just don’t want to be bothered, to be put out; that culturally we’ve come to see our time, our resources, our homes, even our church as our resting place? The faith question might be, at what point does one become a host instead of a guest in this world? and in the church? At what point does the shift occur in one’s faith?
My friend Cathy and I have six children between us, all born inside six years. In a particularly long stretch with her son who wouldn’t sleep unless someone was holding him, a very wise college-age babysitter told her, Miss Cathy, I don’t think you’re going to like me saying this, but someone has got to be the parent here. Put that baby down in his bed and let him cry until he can’t cry anymore. That could be a terrible metaphor if you hear me saying we ought to make strangers cry. It could be an okay one if you hear the preacher of Hebrews telling the church, “Somebody has got to be the grownup here.”
We who have been taking sustenance and comfort from the hand for quite a while now need to realize we are the grown-up church now. And that makes it our turn to turn and show the world the same hospitality we have so long enjoyed. Some of those we are to feed – like the angels – will come to us. Others we will have to go find.
Thus, #3 – Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Some of their brothers and sisters in the faith are in jail. Jail then wasn’t the luxury experience it is now. Prisoners had little more to eat and wear than what friends or family provided. Are you following our local jail situation? The department is cooperating with ICE to separate families, deport members of our community seeking legal status, acting outside the boundaries of their office. They are in violation of federal law – the Constitution, that is.
A grown-up church sees in this situation an opportunity to remember the prisoner and those being tortured. The biblical congregation had brothers and sisters in jail for their faith. Beaten and tortured. Going to them wasn’t safe, but it WAS the definition of mutual love. (So much more I could say on this.)
#4 – Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Adultery – the ultimate detonation of mutual love in a covenantal relationship. Some of us may know someone, a family, broken by adultery. And it’s easy to point away from ourselves, even sympathetically. “Wow,” we say, “that is so hard.”
Less conspicuous is the fact that adultery is just one example of infidelity. And all of us have been hurt, maybe even broken, by infidelity – other people’s and our own. Times we broke promises to people that we should have kept. Times we trusted promises from people we never should have. Times people took advantage of our trust, tricked us and lied to us because they were sinful or greedy or weak. Times we let ourselves believe what we knew were lies just because we so badly wanted them to be true, because we were weak and sinful, and ended up ashamed. Times we even believed the lies of things – things that never said a single word, just dangled their promises in front of us and let us fill in the words: jobs, success, reputation, popularity, alcohol, food, money – what- ever we give the best of ourselves to, rather than to the one to whom we made our promises.
Notice how the preacher puts sex and money next to one another on her list [Hebrews 13:4-5]. I didn’t know till this week there’s a word for “the love of money”: pleonexia (plee ah nex′ ee ah). 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Adultery. Pleo- nexia. And what the preacher is finally talking about is the love or trust of anything that displaces our trust in the promises of God to be with us no matter what. As she repeats in verse 6: So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
#6 – Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the out- come of their way of life, and imitate their faith. And then more in verses 17-18: 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing-- for that would be harmful to you. 18 Pray for us; we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.
This whole bit makes me feel itchy; I probably couldn’t address it save for verse 8. 8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” the verse which sets Jesus as the standard-bearer. The rest calls church leaders to heed their own words, to be the grown-ups they just told their congregation to be, treat Jesus as the standard-bearer in the work of a shepherd. We are responsible. We are to be held to that responsibility, not shrink into some fake humility and say, “Oh, I’m just a screw-up, don’t follow me.” Some of the responsibility is on you, to obey and submit – which I take to mean let them lead.
Let them do this with joy and not with sighing-- I think simply means, do not make our jobs harder than necessary, for that would be harmful to you, she says, which I don’t quite know how to take. Was she threatening them a little, like when a mom says, Don’t make me come up there!
And pray for us – right on! – as much as you are willing. Because we – I – really do love this life and want to do it, deeply and with integrity and faith. Amazing how long the announcements can go on, isn’t it?
#7 – Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God, probably the most obvious item on the list – except, the fact that she has to say so suggests it might not be so obvious. Share to the point of sacrifice. When did you last give away something you couldn’t do without? – since only then does it qualify as a sacrifice. Everything else is just a gift.
Short of life itself, do you even know what might count for you as sacrifice? Are you willing to consider it, here and now, today? Short of sacrifice, we are still eating the softer food of faith. Short of sacrifice, we can be the church. But we will still and always be as the preacher here described us: a shadow and sketch of the kingdom of God we claim to be.
Would you pray with me?
We’re about to start another remodeling project at our house, which reminds me of the book I once owned called Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels and Replacements: Without Murder, Madness, Suicide or Divorce. As soon as our kitchen was done I got rid of the book, because it was too creepy-realistic. The central premise of the book was this: Retrofitting anything is always much harder and far more complicated than starting from scratch; so unless you really, really, really love your house, don’t do it – just move.
The Apostle Paul really, really, really loved his house. The Temple, the synagogue, Judaism. And he worked for thirty years trying to retrofit it to include Christ-followers – both Jews and non-Jews worshipping Christ and serving the gospel together within the larger house, if you will, of Judaism.
Different sects (as in sections) of Judaism already existed in Paul’s time: Zealots and Pharisees and Samaritans. The same is true today. If you are ever in Jerusalem, you’ll see all flavors of Judaism – some religious, some not. Even the most religious Jews, the Orthodox, have sorted themselves out into different sects. There are Orthodox Jews whose socks and pant legs are indicative of the sect they are part of: black socks, white socks, short socks, high socks, pant legs outside of socks, pant legs tucked into the socks. So Paul’s idea of another new sect wasn’t that far out, except for the part about including Gentiles. In the end, that was the deal breaker.
Nearly a hundred years after Paul preached and wrote, along came the suggestion of describing the Christian church as non-Jewish altogether. In effect, it mostly was already. No doubt there were anti-Semitic intentions therein. But had he lived to see it, Paul would have protested. He preached and worked his heart out and he didn’t get his way – obviously. But imagine if he had.
Obviously we can’t account for lots of other maybes, but we’re just pretending anyway – so let’s try. If Paul had gotten his way, we wouldn’t be here, but we might be next door. On any given weekend next door at Beth Shalom, just like now, the Reformed Congregation meets for worship on Friday evenings. They are the liberal Jews who are cool with having a woman rabbi. The Conservative congregation worships on Saturday mornings. And the Orthodox congregation has their own place near campus. If Paul had had his way, we’d be worship-ping over there on Sunday mornings with the other Gentiles and the Christ-following Jews – just one big happy Jewish religion.
Think of the real estate that would be available – just in this town! Just imagine. Had Paul gotten his way: no Catholics and Protestants; no Baptists, Presbyterians or Methodists; no Episcopalians, Pentecostals or Lutherans.
What else? Of course there would be other stories to tell. But think of all the blank pages in our history books. No Crusades! What would Billy Graham revivals have been called without the Christian crusades to annihilate the Muslims? No Roman Inquisition. No Portuguese Inquisition. No Spanish Inquisition. Would there have been an Enlightenment? A Renais-sance? Think of the books and the movies we’d have missed, if Paul had gotten his way. We owe him everything; and still, Paul didn’t get his way.
Only in glimpses and glances does the church reflect the Oneness of Christ for which Paul gave everything. So here we are – next-door neighbors and friends, mostly. I say “mostly,” because New Testament texts like Romans 11 are divisive between us and must be handled respectfully. For his part, I’m not sure Paul would be so much disappointed as glad it isn’t his problem anymore. He did the best that he knew, in the time that he lived, with the information he had. It wasn’t his fault folks didn’t follow his lead. After all, not even Jesus gets his way in our lives all the time, amen?
Are you – am I? – the people we would be if Jesus were getting Jesus’s way in our lives? Probably not. So we gather: to tell ourselves the truth before God; to be encouraged by the word; to enjoy the taste of the grace that makes us hunger and thirst for more; and, hopefully, to leave here week after week a little bit braver and a little more ready for Jesus to have his way in our lives and in our life together. I’d like us to pray together and then take just a few minutes’ consideration of Paul’s address in chapter 11, which I am calling “Grace Is Grace.”
We are yours, we say, O God. Give us a glimpse of what a life that might be, we pray. Amen.
Chapter 11 is Paul’s mic drop. In speaking to the Jews, he speaks to every dominant group in every human society everywhere: “You can share your privilege, and I promise you won’t die.” In speaking to Gentiles, he speaks to every marginalized, disinherited people made to feel less than – not for anything they’ve done but by virtue of their birth. “Knowing you are equally loved by God does not entitle you to lord over anyone, including those who oppress you.”
If that doesn’t sound like you, you are in Group One. Jews were the first privileged Christians. Somebody had to go first. With the privilege comes the responsibility – amen? – the responsibility in this case to go tell, which those first Jews were assigned by Jesus himself. Go where? to the ends of the earth. And do what? and make disciples of whom? all nations. And what do you remember from sermon after sermon, about the word for “all nations”? Ethne. Gentiles.
That’s us, friends. Welcome to the ends of the earth. I remember being a kid and learning all about the ends of the earth. That’s where our missionaries went, carrying Jesus from here to there. Always east: to Europe, the Middle East; to Africa, the Far East; to China. The heroes – like Adoniram Judson and Lottie Moon. Somebody tell me who Lottie Moon was.
I went to Baptist Sunday School from bed babies to the college class, twenty-two years of Sunday School class. But it was not in Sunday School but a history class at Arkansas State University that my understanding of the ends of the earth came completely undone.
The gospel was not first dispensed in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania or in Richmond, Virginia. In fact, it was first dispensed in the East and it traveled west. We were literally almost the LAST to know. And somehow we ended up thinking we were first and that it was our job to get the gospel shipped overseas before the whole world went to hell for our neglect. We are the ends of the earth and would do well to remember it – to remember Paul was talking to us in Ephesians 2, where he wrote:
So then, remember . . . you Gentiles by birth . . . remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
as well as in Romans 11. For, not only are we the Jews so prone to use our power to exclude, we are also these Gentiles so prone to lord over others as if we were the first, rather than the very last guests to arrive at this party, skidding through the doors of the banquet hall as they are closing once and for all. My favorite preaching teacher, Fred Craddock, was fond of saying, “Wherever and whenever and for whatever reason anyone is not welcome to sit at table with you, to eat with you, then you do not have church.”
How easily, friends, how easily do we equate sharing with having less? Because we have not yet caught the vision and the scent of our Oneness in Christ, that only when our siblings are welcome do we have any grasp of the gospel, of God’s welcome of our sorry selves. Either everyone eats or everyone starves. Unless we are one, we are alone, clinging to a fantasy.
Apart from Christ, what do we have worth clinging to? Joined with Christ, there is no end to grace.
So why do we cling to what we cannot keep? And why do we fear losing what we know, in our heart of hearts, can never be taken from us? We cling, because living by faith is really, really hard. Trusting in the truth, acting on the truth we cannot see and hear, is never, ever the easier, simpler life choice. The world doesn’t reward us for it – sometimes quite the opposite – because we are few in number too, which can make faith in the unseen sometimes feel all the crazier.
Paul uses the example of Elijah, who was so discouraged and sick of faith he told God he was the last living prophet on earth. God told Elijah to stop being so dramatic (that is in the “extended edition” of Romans), because in fact there were still 7000 faithful prophets left in Israel. But it can feel that way sometimes, can’t it? Like the world is going to hell this very day, and it literally does not matter if you try to be faithful or not.
Paul goes on relating his theory of how the Jews’ rejection of the Christ opened the doors for the Gentiles’ inclusion. And if such an awesome outcome could come from their lack of faith, just imagine what might happen if they were to turn that ship around and start doing as they ought. But in the question he answers I can hear a hint of that same fear that is so constant in our socio-political lives now.
Radicalism and even violence is an everyday occurrence now, sparked in no small part by a culture’s fear of losing our place in the world. “Identitarianism” is one word for it, white supremacy retrofitted for an extremely sensitive culture. It’s easy for us to brush aside such thinking as ignorant – low-class, even. Though we wouldn’t say that. Think it maybe, but not say it. However, the Christian question is “Are they welcome?” and “will we be church?”
Grace is grace is grace, Paul says, or we are not church. Let us be church, friends, today and in all the days God gives us. Shall we pray?
I am a follower of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is a witness to my conscience. So I tell the truth and I am not lying when I say 2 my heart is broken and I am in great sorrow. 3 I would gladly be placed under God’s curse and be separated from Christ for the good of my own people. 4 They are the descendants of Israel, and they are also God’s chosen people. God showed them his glory. He made agreements with them and gave them his Law. The temple is theirs and so are the promises that God made to them. 5 They have those famous ancestors, who were also the ancestors of Jesus Christ. I pray that God, who rules over all, will be praised forever! Amen. [Romans 9:1-5, CEV]
You know, anytime someone says, I promise I’m not lying, folks are going to assume, Yeah, he’s probably lying. Here we have the Apostle Paul swearing by Jesus and the Holy Spirit that he ISN’T lying, when he says he’d rather be cut off from Christ than offend his Jewish kinfolks.
A couple of hints that he might be lying or, as my mama used to call it, storying (“Now Annie, I think you’re storying to me) – for one, in this very text he uses “they” instead of “we,” when speaking of Jewish history. We know from the fifteenth chapter of Acts and the book of Galatians, along with other texts, Paul was perfectly willing to offend his Jewish brothers ALL the time. So why would he say it here? Hyperbole. Exaggeration. The Bible is stuffed with it – storytelling liberty. It’s what storytellers, Jesus included, did, using over-the-top language to make a point.
No doubt Paul knows they know he’s storying in that self-deprecating way in order to deprecate them too – which is exactly what he does, starting about verse six and carrying on for most of three chapters, much of which is a line-by-line recitation of Jewish religious failure: failure to be faithful; failure to understand their own religious history; failure to understand the Christ event in light of that religious history.
Summed up, in my own words, like this: Either everything Judaism has taught us so far brings us to the conclusion that the Christ event applies to every person equally OR the point of our own religion is to paint some divine, spiritual justification over our own pride and prejudice. We are either one in Christ or none in Christ. As he says it in I Corinthians, chapter 1: either the cross is for everyone or the cross itself is powerless.
Paul has many ways to say it, but he has nothing else to say – at least, nothing else that matters until the church has nailed this down. Because until we have this nailed down – that the salvation we claim belongs to everyone equally, you and me and you and you, and every human being on the planet – we’ve nothing else to do that can truly be called church. Any-thing else makes us a service organization, nothing new, nothing different from what far-better-organized service organizations in this world are doing. Undeserved and unconditional kindness is all we have that humanity can get nowhere else.
And if we don’t have it, friends, we can’t give it. Everything else we do with the name Christian church on it is a cover for our own self-delusion, our own attempts at being good rather than our acceptance of God’s goodness toward all of humanity – and us therein. Anything we try will be contaminated by that human pride and prejudice we learn in the world, and the world cultivates in us. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. And while we benefit from that enormously, don’t we also push back against it?
Paul is pushing back against that – pushing back in Romans, chapter 9. They are having trouble with the “F” word again. What’s the “F” word of church? FAIR, of course. His Jewish congregants apparently think it unfair that gentiles get to join the church without having to follow all the Jewish laws they themselves must follow, particularly circumcision (understandable) and food laws. If we can’t have cheeseburgers, neither should they.
Isn’t it funny how things change and how they don’t? And how Paul’s argument holds. It’s the gospel that holds, of course. We can only guess what his congregants have said, but it sounds like they’ve attempted to make the case that “the promises of God belong to us because we belong to Abraham.” Paul’s retort is that plenty of people belonged to Abraham that weren’t included in the promise.
He’s already made the argument in Romans that far more people than they were ever willing to even acknowledge were included in the original promises to Abraham. Here he points out that plenty of people belonged to Abraham that were NOT included in the promise. Ishmael and Esau are his examples. AND, occasionally God would go out of God’s way to use someone totally beyond the pale – the Pharaoh for example – to accomplish the promise. The point being: your argument is lame.
And then, Paul asks the superlative question of the text. Who do you think you are to ask that question? Who do you think you are to even use the word “fair” in reference to God? Don’t you think that the God who excludes whomever God wants can also INCLUDE whomever that God wants? God can do what God wants, and it is none of your business.
Consider for a moment that God has included you? What have you done lately to deserve inclusion, my friend? What have you done, ever, to include such undeserved kindness? Would you call it fair that you have the gift of God in Christ Jesus? And yet you propose to tell God who is or is not equally deserving, to add conditions for others, when God has put no such conditions on you?
Paul will go on and on this way for a bit, calling his church folks “lumps of clay,” which is truly awesome. You know that moment when you realize you’ve lost an argument and you are no longer trying to win – you are just trying to save face? How icky it is to me depends on how invested I am in my reputation, versus my desire to live in the truth – because losing can be life-changing, when it brings us into conversion, when some sliver of truth opens itself up to us. And there comes this wave of nausea and grief at how wrong we were in some idea or belief or way of being. But it isn’t embarrassing, because swirling in that same wave is a new kind of joy and energy that is released upon the realization of truth we did not see before.
Friends, I did not always believe as I do now about the full inclusion of all people, uncon-ditionally, in church life and leadership. I didn’t not believe in it either. I was just sometimes itchy and uncomfortable around some people, and so I let other people’s stridency speak for me. But then I had friendships with people from groups around whom I’d been previously uncomfortable. Then I got uncomfortable with the stridency. It felt mean to me. I decided I couldn’t be part of Mean Church.
So I studied the Bible. A lot. And while it's not a preacher-y, Bible-y way to say it, I decided the whole exclusion theology of my church experience was built on the dominant group’s anxiety and fear. (Remember my discomfort?) And while Jesus doesn’t talk specifically about gay people or trans people, Jesus constantly talks to fearful people, saying over and over and over again, Do not be afraid. And even though he drives me crazy sometimes, Paul really is the most fearless disciple in the entire New Testament. He is the living epitome of Jesus’s suggestion that we do what he did and expect him to deal with the fallout.
I don’t do that. I’m a total coward. But I am convinced of God’s faithfulness despite my chicken-hearted ways. Paul has won the argument long before he ever quits writing. He makes and proves his theological case. The problem, of course, is that theological proof wasn’t Paul’s project. In spite of many thousands of dissertations since, Paul’s purpose was not systematic theology – because he wasn’t a theologian; he was a pastor. His purpose was ekklesia – community; church; life together. A life together in which followers of Jesus reflect the gospel of Jesus: that in Christ the undeserved, unconditional, salvific love of God has been woven into the make-up of human be-ing. It is part of us, part of creation.
What chlorophyll is to leaves, the love of God is to human be-ing. What warmth is to sunlight, the love of God is to human be-ing. What sweetness is to a summer peach, the love of God is to human be-ing. Who do you think you are to question that? Paul asks the church. We shall question it until we know, friends – until we know that love, the way we know our own breath. And only then, only then, will we detect it and celebrate it in the faces and the being of all seven billion of our seven billion brothers, sisters, and gender fluid siblings on this planet.
Would you pray with me? To know your love for us, O God, to recognize ourselves as your darling, darling ones, without need of improvement or change – for this we pray, that we might discover it in one another too. Amen.
Reading Number Nineteen from The Tao of Healing: If all the scientists, analysts, and theorists disappeared today, not one part of truth would be lost. If all the judges, lawyers, priests and prosecutors disappeared, not one part of morality would be lost. If all the investors, speculators, and brokers disappeared, not one part of wealth would be lost. On the contrary, truth, love and abundance would be more easily received. Center yourself first in the Wholeness and all the parts will be yours.
The truth cannot be separated like the yolk from the white. Every shred of truth holds all of it. In every human being there is the fullness of Christ. And what we conceive as difference is the conjecture of our own fear – our pride acting in reverse – bearing no resemblance to the faith we claim.
And yet we never stop, do we? We never stop de-centering ourselves. Moving ourselves around inside the expanse of the creation. Re-arranging our environments for the reasons people do. For convenience. Efficiency. Productivity. Those are the reasons we say out loud. Safety, as much as anything. We all want to live in the safest neighborhood we can afford. We'll sacrifice to get there. When we bought our first house, the realtor told us we'd be happier if we bought a bit more than we could afford. Salaries go up, she said; your house will stay the same size.
We separate ourselves. It’s what we do – put as much space as possible between ourselves and whatever makes us feel unsafe. We organize and categorize and classify and grade our lives and the lives of those around us, based on our respective fears. There aren't many people I actively avoid – fewer than a handful – but loads I don't go out of my way to see. It's better for my mental health, I say to myself. Maybe. Or maybe I’m just making up excuses to cover up some fear.
It’s this reconciliation that is on Paul’s heart and mind as chapter eight winds down – the reconciliation between what we claim to believe of God and the kind of people, the kind of believers, and the kind of church we choose to be.
Let’s pray together: Put us in the eyes-wide-open presence of our fears, O God. Set them side by side with your love for us so that we know we have a choice, each and every day, to live like your beloved children and your church. Amen.
“The most stunning rhetoric of the New Testament” is Professor Luke Johnson’s assessment of the last third of our text for today, Romans chapter eight. Johnson frames it as the opening argument by a defense attorney out to prove to a jury – the Roman church/ us – that, believing as they so obviously do in the righteousness of God (also called justice, remember), they by definition also believe in the full inclusion of the Gentiles in church. Either Jews AND Gentiles have ALL been reconciled by God in Christ Jesus or the righteousness of God itself doesn’t stand. The full case is made in chapters 9-11. The opening statement is here, framed in eight questions.
These eight questions are what I want to consider – more quickly than it sounds like – considering. Number one is the most rhetorical: What shall we say about all this? Like when a parent says, what am I going to do with you? The kid is about to find out. The next seven questions, plus three chapters, are what he has to say about this.
Numbers two and four are the same question, twice stated: If God is on our side, can anyone else be against us? If God says his chosen ones are acceptable to him, can anyone else bring charges against them? Anyone who’s been in Sunday School a minute knows the Sunday School answer is supposed to be “No.” Anyone who’s lived in this world fifteen years or so knows the answer so often turns out to be “Yes.” I’ve lived the better part of my life among people who said without hesitation that God loves everyone the same, but who live as if we don’t take that idea seriously at all.
Full inclusion of all people is part and parcel of our faith. And yet, look around the room. How diverse are we, really? In experiences – yes. How about all the other qualifications of diverse? In race and all the connections therein, we’re aren’t more than four white paint chips apart. Socially, politically, economically, educationally, we end up pretty much in the same neighborhood, the best neighborhood we can afford – for the school district and the property values, but for the unspoken as well: safety.
My husband grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas. If you know anything about East Chicago or East St. Louis you know everything you need to know about West Memphis. He was six when the police came to interview his family about yet another murder on their street. “What do you suppose was the motive, robbery?” asked the detective. And in his tiny six-year-old voice, my husband piped up, “Robbery? In this neighborhood?”
We don't call it segregation, for heaven’s sakes, or privilege. We call it the same thing all parents everywhere call what they do: the best we can with what we have for our kids – never recognizing how we might have conflated the gospel of the world with that of the Christ. The gospel preached by the world is one of irresistible self-interest, one that anesthetizes our fears and blesses our stereotypes. And somehow, we missed the moment in which we chose that gospel instead of the gospel of Jesus.
Friends, we have no permission – biblical or otherwise – to play or defend this mad, mad game of human segregation, of separation, of irreconcilability and at the same time lay claim to the righteousness of God.
The third question is in verse 32. In King James it reads: He that spareth not his own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? I chose King Jimmy for saying best what we know deepest: that, having Christ Jesus, we already have everything. That, having Him, we have nothing else to ask for. We have a million other explanations, but at the end of the day, what if it is our fear of scarcity that drives our faith into segregation, separation and exclusion? Our confidence that if there is enough for everyone, there won’t be enough for me?
Over and over in human history, the fear of scarcity has turned to policy and theology, to no good end. People always get hurt. As you know, I’ve made quite a mess of things in my grand plans to be at Pridefest this year. I didn’t do my homework. I drove some of you crazy. I am considering it my chance to practice humility and your chance to practice kindness.
Another piece of that pie that I didn’t know was a piece of it is this. In just a few weeks I’m leaving for a big vacation. I’ll be gone a month. I had this great idea to invite some of my oldest Baptist clergy colleagues to supply preach for me while I’m gone. They are a married couple, recently retired from campus ministry. They excitedly agreed – for a week. Then they read our website. The same website that another group said isn’t bold enough in support of LGBTQ+ people. My friends apologetically had to go back on their word. I want to take the high road. Outwardly I have. Inwardly – sigh. It is not easy for me – mostly because I still think I am right.
I am still pretty mad at the idea that gospel preachers have declined to preach the gospel to people they believe most need to hear the gospel. That would be you, by the way. They don’t want to appear to agree with you by attending church with you. I’m wise to the lack of humility I am currently projecting. I am searching for the line between arrogance and Righteous Indignation.
At the same time – decline to preach the gospel, really? After what he’s given us, who are we to withhold anything in our pockets from anyone else, the gospel most of all??? Do we own the air we breathe? Do we own the stars and moon? Do we own the gospel? The antidote to scarcity is radical generosity. Give yourself away and see how much self you still have left. Find out there is no end to what the Lord can do with a person or a church that has given up fear as a way of life.
Question five: If God says his chosen are acceptable, who can bring charges against them? Really, the same as questions #2 and #4 but pressing the point that God who created and initiated this way of being called righteousness, called justice, called grace – translated, remember, as undeserved kindness – God does not give it for us to hoard like candy, to use as bait for catching others. Do we understand, friends, this acceptance we have received from God is the only thing we have to pass on in God’s name? Like Mattie says in True Grit, “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.”
So much else we have, we treat like something God means us to have, never acknowledging how hard we’ve squinted at the scriptures to come up believing that. Can you condemn them? goes Question Number Six. No, indeed, comes back the answer. No indeed, knowing what you know of Christ. No, indeed is in fact the answer to questions two and three and four and five and six and seven. Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Nope. For added drama, there is a list. Can trouble? No. Suffering? No. Hard times? No. Hunger? No. Poverty? No. Danger? No. Death? No. For many, poverty is harder to imagine than death. Still the answer is no.
It’s hardly a complete list, but the point is still made: nothing human-made or inflicted can separate us from the love of Christ. Because the love of Christ is not an additive. It does not exist somewhere apart from our existence. It is here, now, within and among us, again as close and real as breath. Paul says, look at us; we are constantly about to be wiped out like sheep in a butcher’s pen. Which sounds terrible, but only to people too attached to life as a sheep, people with no idea of the peace that follows the tiny peace available in a world that is not that different from a sheep pen some days.
The climax of the rhetoric Professor Johnson describes is here in verses 37-39. Those seven man-made dangers already listed are matched by seven cosmic ones – cosmic threats as useless as the first to separate us from the love of Christ. Not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing. No thing. Not one thing – on earth or in heaven.
Aren’t you the slightest bit tempted to imagine it? To believe it? That in Christ we have all we need. And so does everyone else. That no one we meet ever needs us. They may need us to share what we have. But they don’t need US. Any more than we need them. Because in us all the fullness of Christ already dwelleth. (I’m going to start speaking in King James.)
But together – only together – shall the great oneness of Christ be plain to us. And only when it is plain to us shall we ever be through with the fear-driven, soul-sucking, heartbreaking myth of human separateness. We just won’t need it anymore.
If all the scientists, analysts, and theorists disappeared today, not one part of truth would be lost. If all the judges, lawyers, priests and prosecutors disappeared, not one part of morality would be lost. If all the investors, speculators, and brokers disappeared, not one part of wealth would be lost. On the contrary, truth, love and abundance would be more easily received.
Let us center ourselves first in the Wholeness of Christ and we shall surely, here and now, have a taste of heaven. Would you pray with me?
Outside the poetry, hardly ever is King James my favorite translation of the Bible. But I do love Romans 8:18: For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. I love it for those first three words and how they remind me of my mother and all my mother’s people talking their everyday talk: I reckon I oughta get supper started. I reckon it will work out one way or another. If I asked to go over to my friend Sharon’s house, she’d say, “Well I reckon. But you all play outside and don’t pester Eileen.” Eileen was Sharon’s mom and my mom’s good friend.
Reckon is a word from the dialect of my people, and it’s in the stories I love most, like Forrest Gump and Huck Finn. Simply, it means to have figured something out, to have worked it out in one’s thoughts, experience, heart. I thought I would read you a bit of Huck working out some theology from chapter three. He still lives with Miss Watson and the spinster widow in this part.
… Miss Watson told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way. I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it. I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to myself, there ain’t nothing in it.
I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant – I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself. This was including Miss Watson, as I took it. I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it – except for the other people; so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go.
Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s if he wanted me, though I couldn’t make out how he was a-going to be any better off then than what he was before, seeing I was so ignorant, and so kind of low-down and ornery.
The image of Huck turning the nature of God over and over in his mind is as good an image as any of the Apostle Paul trying to tell heads from tails – to tell life in the flesh from life in the Spirit. He’s rewriting not just his theology, but his own life’s meaning and purpose, in light of the Christ event and reckons Jesus changes everything: That the sufferings of this present existence – the big ones and the small ones – are not even worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.
Let’s pray, friends, and then take a look at the middle part of Romans 8.
How we walk and talk and think and live every moment of our lives; how we treat each other and understand the world; what we feel, what we want, what we need; whom we love, how we love; the meaning of death, the purpose of life – O God, you’ve got us living in the upside down now, where everything is different, even when nothing we can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste has changed a bit. Help us find our way. Amen.
When I chose this sermon title, I knew exactly what bulletin cover I wanted. Don’t you love her?
Reinhold Niebuhr is where I got the term sublime madness. He uses it in the context of religious people’s involvement in political and social change, saying that it takes a kind of sublime madness to imagine a world in which perfect justice is possible, because such imagination, he writes, does not count as evidence for what is possible. Only that which can be seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted counts.
I love the picture for the way my hen seems to imagine herself as so much more than a mere backyard chicken. Sublime madness is, simply, what Paul calls hope. Hope – the confidence that what we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste is not all there is to count on in this life. Hope – food and drink for our soul, more than enough to live on, should we choose to take and eat.
Paul gives three gifts in this middle section of Romans 8: his masterful metaphor for the meaning of suffering, a very useful word about prayer, and three verses Protestantism might happily have done without. Just to get it off the board, I’ll take $400 under Protestant Reformation: another word for the “L” of 5-Point Calvinism. Answer: What is Predestination? Do you know the “L” I am referring to? Limited atonement. The idea that God has already sorted us out; the heavenly banquet has a divinely-fixed guest list; only God knows for sure who’s on it. Never has one word causes so much ruckus.
You can read up later if you want. I’ve a tiny contribution, which is this. Far more people act like they believe in predestination than profess to – meaning, we all have folks we are sure God is going to send to hell, or should. We categorize people and passively assume God agrees with us. Not because we are terrible people necessarily; but, rather, how could we function otherwise? How could we function if we truly, truly thought that those brown children in cages at the border were as precious as the little ones who sleep in our houses. Is that harsh? Of course. And humbling, hopefully. A breaking up of the resistance to justice that takes courage and to the sort of kindness that takes effort. I reckon that’s all I have to say about predestination.
About prayer, Romans 8:21-23 has maybe the wisest prayer advice ever: when you don’t know what to pray, you don’t have to. And maybe you shouldn’t, because some prayers have no words and some don’t need to be prayed. I’m guessing most of you have never attended a quarterly Southern Baptist Associational meeting. In my previous job, attendance was required. A quarterly associational meeting is a local denominational business meeting that feels compelled to be a worship service too. So there are boring reports and loud preaching.
Of the four years I attended them, I remember only one with any clarity: the time a preacher prayed a train wreck of a prayer from the pulpit. For nearly fifteen minutes in his prayer – remember, every head bowed, every eye closed, with us standing up – he recounted a conversation between himself and the beautiful young woman who had recently cut and styled his hair (I kid you not; he said “cut and styled” in the prayer).
Line by line, he told the Lord – and allowed all of us to listen in – how the beautiful young woman confided in him about her troubled marriage and how he encouraged her, and how she longed for a husband so wise and so godly. I had to sit down and put my head down on the pew – not because I was overcome with the Spirit, when actually I was just sweaty and anxious and needing to laugh. Not because it was so funny, but because it was so awful and I was so nervous. I was praying – praying that he would stop.
At first glance, of course it’s a prayer that should never be prayed. But what if it’s actually a prayer that had no words? I suppose God heard what he couldn’t say: maybe that he felt unimportant; that there in that room full of preachers, where he had again been skipped over when they were looking for someone to preach, he felt again like his work, his ministry, his life even, didn’t measure up so much. Maybe that’s what God heard, while I was in pew judging him.
There are prayers we shouldn’t pray: prayers that insult God, by asking God to do what God has already done. God save me from this or that situation, when God has already saved us from every situation. Or asking God to do what God has equipped and called us to do. God be with the poor; God take care of the refugee. The only prayers worth praying are the ones that pulse with hope, and these are the prayers where language is most likely to fail – the ones for which we are least likely to find the right words, maybe even least likely to find the voice to say what is on our hearts – be it suffering or joy or something more nameless yet.
The third gift is Paul’s metaphor for the meaning of our suffering. I have this image of him in his cell, tapping his feather on his desk – writer’s block, don’t you know – getting up to refill his wineglass, and seeing a hugely pregnant woman walk by, carrying her toddler and shopping bag. He has his image. We are her, he says – humanity, in fact, this whole creation – we are her, bearing ourselves and creation itself toward our own rebirth in Christ. And this bearing – it is heavy. It is heavy and we are weak. But we will come out of it remade, a new humanity, a new creation.
I love how in Paul’s image we are both mama and baby. I’ve been the mama in labor three times. About a dozen times I had the privilege of being nearby. One of my sweet congregants – who shall remain nameless – was in transition, as the doulas say, for so long and the baby had their chin tucked so far into their neck, their head was shaped like a hammerhead shark.
Another UBC kid had a head like an upside-down ice cream cone – only not a sugar cone. A cake cone, perfectly flattened on top, the whole thing tilted to one side. It wasn’t jaunty either. It was more alien-ish. My first baby came out scratched and bruised, like she’d already been in a fight. They laid my second, my son, on my belly – huge, bright red, and screaming with hunger. My second thought was, he’s perfect, I love him. But my first thought was, no way was this enormous thing inside me. This cannot possibly be my baby.
The point is, it’s hard to be the mama – but it is also hard to be the baby. One is tired and heavy-burdened. The other is squished, folded up in darkness and then . . . the only way out is head first through a tiny little opening. It’s painful and traumatic when it goes well! Don’t you wish you could remember how delicious it must have felt to stretch for the very first time? My husband says that when babies stretch, they don’t go back to the size they were before. They grow the tiniest little bit.
I love thinking that is also what dying is like – only, it’s our hearts and souls that are all squished up in this present darkness, this flesh-bound reality. That when we die, our souls stretch into their true shape and size, shed of all those identities we thought we needed to breathe, to be. Is that crazy talk? If so, I don’t mind.
This sublime madness, Reinhold Niebuhr said, is a madness the secular imagination isn’t capable of achieving, as it requires that one disregard how things look and sound to the world. This sublime madness – also called hope – is turned toward ultimate and, for the moment, unseen realities. Paul started with law and grace and he’s moved to flesh and spirit. He’s got lots and lots of words left before he’s done – done persuading us that we have a choice, the choice, between despair and hope.
Jesus has done all that’s needed, friends, all that’s needed for us to endure – and not just endure but to thrive with joy – in a world that offers little cause for hope. This world need not overwhelm us. Not if we choose hope. Not if we, once and for all, but also every morning and sometimes ten times a day, lean away from the world and lean into the Spirit. Lean in with all our breath, with all our feeling, all our thinking, all our expecting. So much so we feel a little crazy, a little bit mad, if you will.
A sublime madness, that one guy called it. I reckon he might be right. Let’s pray.
Remember Jesus’s parable of the father with two sons? It’s a practically perfect picture of Paul’s teaching in Romans 8 – a father, who embodies this life in the Spirit Paul describes, and two sons, both living according to the flesh: the younger one training at life in the flesh like it’s an Olympic sport; the older one pacing himself more. But make no mistake: he is just as much living in the flesh as his little brother, but with none of the fun. He is bitter as a too-green persimmon, biting his tongue to the very end, when he walks up onto that party the day his brother came home and all that seething resentment comes pouring out of him.
At the end is when the younger son wakes up to the fact that he’s already dead. Dead a son as he is, the younger one knows his father, or thinks he does. I am dead to him as a son, but I can still go back as a slave, he tells himself, while his brother never thought himself anything other than a slave – muscle and breath born to do the master’s bidding.
People living in the spirit don’t know a difference between slaves and sons. There are only children, as Paul says in verse 16, children of God. Paul says the same in his letter to Philemon, which Sarah read and which I’ll preach after I return from my trip this fall. Romans will end someday.
Children of God know who we are and we know whose we are. We know, as Richard Rohr writes, that we are not punished for our sins. We are punished by our sins. To live in the Spirit is to live inside the reality of a certain kinship, a connection between ourselves and the creator of all that lives and breathes and has being. In speaking of the Human-God relationship, Child-Parent is both the best and still far too small a metaphor for describing it – which makes it not useful for everyone, and for some too horrifying to consider. For some, brother-sister or friend-friend or student-teacher works better, because their in-the-flesh experience with a parent-child relationship is just too damaged, too frightening a metaphor to use in imagining how God loves us.
To live in the flesh is, simply, to live outside the reality of that kinship; to choose, by default or design, to trust only that which the eyes and ears can see and hear, what the physical senses can touch and confirm. Which is actually very little when you think about it, isn’t it? We order our days on a great deal more than what we confirm with our senses moment by moment, don’t we? I don’t inspect my car for safety every time I jump in to drive somewhere. I don’t test the sturdiness of every chair I sit in, the sanitation of every spoon that goes in my mouth. We trust lots and lots of things, day in and out.
How do we confirm the truth of the Spirit of God? the truth of our preciousness to God? the truth about how very, very loved we are? the truth about the persistence of that love, regardless of our resistance to it? Simply, friends, by living as if it is true. The same way we sit on chairs and drive cars we don’t test first. Just moving into the reality and discovering that in fact it does hold us up. To live in the flesh is to believe anything other than that we are precious to God – and then behave that way. To mistreat this life, this body, other people, this creation, is to disbelieve in our own preciousness, to believe it possible for anything to interrupt or disrupt or muck up that preciousness.
Because we can’t. We cannot ruin the preciousness. Nothing we have done, nothing we might ever do, can change it. It is not ours to change, the truth of our belovedness, the truth of our value. It is a God-made truth, cosmic truth, not of this world. Human beings have too much self-interest ever to think up such an idea. Doesn’t keep us – both human beings and the church – from trying to remake this preciousness, this belovedness, in our own image – the image of our need to feel worthy. So we make divine belovedness something to be earned, rather than assumed.
I remember when I had my first baby, and we got all these sweet baby onesies and sleepers for her. They were so soft and cozy, and I wondered Why can’t grown-up clothes be as soft and comfortable as baby clothes? Everything has to be a little bit tight, a little bit scratchy, and also pinch our toes, or we aren’t dressed appropriately. Have we done the same with faith? Created an environment in which if we aren’t slightly tormented we aren’t sure God loves us? What if – just imagine this for a moment with me – what if what God wants most for each of us, and for all creation, is that we be happy, safe and loved?
Or even better, imagine this: what if what God wants most for each of us sentient beings is that we know we are to be happy, safe and loved? what if we need not feel guilty or ashamed for wanting it, because in wanting it for ourselves we agree with God that the very best life for us is one in which we are happy, safe and loved? It’s God’s prerogative, don’t you think, Susanne P. said this week in Bible study, to decide what God wants for God’s children? One of those questions that answers itself.
If God wants to regard us as children instead of slaves, isn’t that God’s prerogative? If God should choose to love us without even the threat of punishment for our sorry ways, toward ourselves, toward each other, toward the planet, and toward God’s own self too, who are we to say God can’t or shouldn’t? God does not love us because we are good. God loves us – why, friends? – God loves us because God is good. And insofar as we can take that in, the God-given happiness already saturating nature will seep and soak and transform our grief and fear as well.
There is no straight or easy path between life according to the flesh and life in the Spirit. Rather, it’s an invitation we accept, or not, in the everydayness of being human. Life in the flesh is exactly that: faith in human flesh to save itself. Which, stated that way, we know, is absurd. Flesh is forever dying and cannot save itself. And yet, and yet, the trickery never stops, does it? The compulsion to believe what is before our eyes in the moments when we are hurting or afraid? The anxiety and the want for immediate relief, combined with brain and body chemistry like dopamine and adrenaline, how are we not going to be drawn away from the Spirit?
But the Spirit doesn’t beg; she only waits, like the father on his front porch in Jesus’s parable, waiting for his kids to come home to him. She doesn’t scold or fuss or harass us out of bed. She waits, and she waits, and she waits. There’s no amount of time she will not wait, for us to realize we’ve been in her lap all along. And when we do, friends, when we do, the kind of life we’ll have – I expect we cannot even imagine the kind of life together we shall have, my goodness!
For the last, some lyrics from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song, an old one but still my most favorite of hers, called “Jubilee.” What she names “jubilee” I think of as this Spirit of God always here among us, around us, and within us.
I can tell by the way you're walking You don't want company
I'll let you alone and I'll let you walk on And in your own good time you'll be
Back where the sun can find you Under the wise wishing tree
And with all of them made we'll lie under the shade And call it a jubilee.
And I can tell by the way you're talking That the past isn't letting you go
But there's only so long you can take it all on And then the wrong's gotta be on its own
And when you're ready to leave it behind you You'll look back and all that you'll see
Is the wreckage and rust that you left in the dust On your way to the jubilee
And I can tell by the way you're listening That you're still expecting to hear
Your name being called like a summons to all
Who have failed to account for their doubts and their fears
They can't add up to much without you And so if it were up to me,
I'd take hold of your hand Saying come hear the band Play your song at the jubilee
And I can tell by the way you're searching For something you can't even name
That you haven't been able to come to the table Simply glad that you came
When you feel like this try to imagine That we're all like frail boats on the sea
Just scanning the night for that great guiding light Announcing the jubilee
And I can tell by the way you're standing With your eyes filling with tears
That it's habit alone that keeps you turning for home Even though your home is right here
Where the people who love you are gathered Under the wise wishing tree
May we all be considered then straight on delivered Down to the jubilee
She calls it “jubilee.” Paul calls it “life in the Spirit.” Call it whatever you like. Just call it, friends, call it. Would you pray with me?
Father Richard Rohr says that bad theology is a lot like pornography. It has all the fantasy of a real relationship without any of the risk.* [*from The Divine Dance]
What is the fantasy – that is, the bad theology – at work in Romans, chapter 7? It is that the Law is necessary for righteousness. That’s the Bible talk version. The everyday talk version is that the better we behave – the more we conform to the rules – the more pleased God is with us; that it is possible to be good enough.
What is the risk? Finding out the truth once and for all that we are pathetic failures at being good – not because we are weak, not because we are bad, but because we are human. Real relationship with God is grounded in the truth: the truth that God never has loved and God never will love anyone anywhere because they were good. God loves everyone everywhere because God is good.
Let’s pray: For the truth upon whatever tongue you’ve laid it, O God, may we listen. For a glimpse of your Spirit in the most unlikely places, may we watch. So that our faith might find deeper breath – for this we pray, O God. Amen.
In Romans chapter 7 the Apostle Paul is still making his case against the fantasy – as he says it, the insufficiency of the Law to accomplish righteousness with God.
Everyone to whom he writes is a Christ follower, many of them from the same rule-loving religion as Paul, who have spread themselves some Jesus over the top of the rule-loving religion they’d always had.
“No,” Paul says, “no.” The Law must be removed, not because it is useful for its own purposes but, rather, simply because it is no longer necessary now that we have risen with Christ. Paul’s first example is marriage. Note: this is not a text on biblical gender roles in marriage. It is an analogy of those early believers’ relationship to Jewish law, with some use for the church’s understanding of the difference between doctrine and faith.
You are no more bound to the Law, Paul says, than a widowed woman is bound to her dead husband. The Law by its own design says that dead husband has no legal hold on her. The Law is no more use to you as a follower of the Christ than her dead husband is to her. Can he provide for her? Can he protect her? Can he give her any affection, any comfort? He cannot. Neither can the Law, Paul says. Only the risen Christ can do that for us.
New Testament Professor Luke Johnson’s illustration of Paul’s illustration goes like this: The Law is like a prescription from the doctor. Sick people who go to the doctor and get a prescription generally don’t carry the scrip around believing the slip of paper will cure them.* [*from Reading Romans]
The Law and the prescription are good for what they were meant for: putting a name to our trouble. But neither has any power to cure us or keep us well. Are you with me? The Law is dead as a widow’s husband, Paul said – this week and last – and we are dead to it. Which isn’t to say the church hasn’t been propping our own version of the Torah up in a pew and treating it like royalty for the last many hundred years – “Nobody’s perfect” – and quoting Paul in the teaching of it (verses 14-20): I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate.
The church affirmed that nobody is perfect while at the same time emphasizing that the closer we get to that perfection, the more pleased God is with us – until we didn’t know the difference between bad theology and good, what the Bible teaches and what it absolutely does not.
At five years old I could have told you, specifically, what sorts of children please God most: children who share; children who are kind; children who obey; children who don’t talk back; children who are helpful. My brother said he heard a bad word and said it. My mother asked, “Do you think Jesus likes it when he hears you say words like that?”
That is such bad, and it can be dangerous, theology. For all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is the conflation of the legal with the good; the result being – even church people struggle to know what the word “sin” really means. When I enter the phrase “remember their sin no more,” Grammarly always wants to make it “sins” – plural. Sin is not singular or plural. It is ontological, a state of being, a form of existence. Again, friends, God doesn’t love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. Our ontological condition, if you will, is beloved. We are loved.
“Faithful” is the state of living in conformity to our belovedness; “sin” the state of living in resistance to our belovedness. Sin is related to Law coincidentally. This is a point Paul makes strongly in verse seven, teasing apart the Law from sin. What makes something legal? Powerful people get it written down, codified. Generally, what is legal is what serves the interests of the powerful. What makes something right or good? It serves the interests of the whole creation; it conforms to the very the nature of God.
To be legal does not make something right or good. Our country legally has children in prison camps, remember. Does anyone believe that reflects the nature of God? Slavery was legal in our country for a long, long time. Forms of it are still legal around the world. It has never been right. Discrimination has never been right. It was legal for a long, long time and, again, still is in many places. My colleague Reverend Dr. William Barber, who leads the Moral Monday movement, says that voter suppression laws currently on the books are THE greatest moral threat to American democracy. Wrong – and perfectly legal. Sin is related to Law only coincidentally.
It’s possible to sin by obeying the law and to be good by breaking it. Sin is not calculated by our failure to keep our lives legal. Sin is calculated by our decision to resist our God-given status as beloved; to act, to live, in harmony with, at peace with, God’s goodness in all of creation; to swim in that river, to breathe that air. Are you with me?
That we might conceive of redeeming ourselves by so cumbersome and unwieldy an instrument as the Law is a fantasy we’ve held on to for too long, especially given the alternative. If I let go of this useless thing that never worked anyway, Paul asks – to no one in particular, it seems to me, or maybe in a prayer – then who will rescue me? And it is as if he suddenly remembers, “Oh yeah!” – verse 25 – “Thank God! Jesus Christ will rescue me.”
And that is what he goes on and on and on about in chapter eight. We will follow him there next week. Would you pray with me?