My family has been together for the holiday. My household. My sisters. My nieces. My nieces' husbands and eight of their ten kids. Four of the kids and their parents stayed at my house. Kids played and played; they got in and out of the water; they ate their weight in sugar – which is to say that every night by bath time, they were soaked in that wonder- ful summertime sticky, sweaty, dirty stink that all kids get. A smell that I happen to love.
I first loved it in 1984 when I was a 20-year-old Baptist summer missionary in inner-city Chicago. It's the smell of happy, healthy, well-cared-for kids. Kids who play hard and who get baths on more days than they don't. 1984 was also the summer I first learned that kids – and grown-ups – who aren’t so healthy and well-cared-for smell dirty in a different, sadder way. I can’t stop thinking about those kids in the camps – 11,000 of them, give or take. Twice the number enrolled in Monroe County public schools. That we even have such a sentence as those kids in our prison camps is appalling. You know they aren’t getting baths and clean pajamas every night.
And no doubt there is a stench – not from the kids, of course. The stench is rising from a nation that claims God’s favor while doing the devil’s bidding. Where a few profit from the torture of children and the rest of us simply stomach it. An abomination, to get biblical about it, no less than the nation described by the prophet Amos in chapter 5. An abomination: whatever is vile, shameful, detestable; putrid, even. That which God hates for its opposition to God’s purposes, which are: justice, of course, and love.
Abomination is the $5 word, while sin goes for a dime a dozen. Sin is the “gift of Adam,” Paul calls it, compared to the gift of God in Christ Jesus – kindness, undeserved kindness, un-earnable kindness – for which the only faithful response is acceptance. Acceptance that, if we are willing to imagine it and then exercise the faith to do it, shall have us Living. Like. Kings.
Shall we pray: We may fantasize about being powerful, O God, even as we decline the power we have in the moments faith is required, in the situations courage is called for. The beginning is to accept our helplessness, our need of you; to receive you as creator, savior, sustainer, of our lives, of our life together, and to let that be enough. Amen.
Can the gospel really be this simple, friends? That the kindness of God has undone death. And not by accident, nor by the force of our wishing it so, but rather by design. By the design of the divine creator in the reality where we live and move and have our being. The kindness of God – also called grace – is more powerful than sin, more powerful than death, more powerful than the fear of death.
Not only that, according to the Apostle Paul: this kindness of God enables folks who don’t especially like each other to be church together. Folks who ordinarily don’t get along so well ought to be able to go to church together. He is trying to make a church out of Jews and Gentiles, folks who believed themselves to be so fundamentally different from the other that shared worship and service seem impossible. We are just too different. “Two churches will be better.”
Lots of folks are okay with that. Not Paul, who naturally assumed also to be speaking for God. Much of Romans is his philosophical argument with their reasons for resisting his theology of the One Church. They don’t know the Law, apparently one of the Jewish reasons they could not be expected to keep close faith with Gentiles. How would anyone know when Gentiles are breaking the Law if they never learned the Law itself? Paul manipulates their question a bit, it seems to me, to make his argument. But not so much that the text misses its mark.
Sin came a long time before the Law, Paul says, going back not to Moses, or back to Abraham this time, but ALL the way back to Adam. Do you know what the name Adam means? In rudimentary Hebrew, “earth.” Ground. Dust. Creature made of dust. A highly embellished meaning is first of his kind, which makes me think of Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, at its most literal Adam means dust.
Do you also know that Adam isn’t spoken of in the Torah as an individual person? He’s not a person, a character like Noah or Abraham or Moses. In writings outside the Bible, Adam is treated as a representative of humanity – that first of his kind usage again.* (*Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans, Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 2001, p.92)
Paul, on the other hand, treats Adam very much as a person in order to compare him to Christ, who for Paul was as much the first man as Adam. This stretch of comparison and contrast between Adam and Jesus can be a little maddening. Paul uses a rhetorical device that is frowned upon in preaching, using a negative example to teach a positive truth – Jesus did good in exactly the same way Adam did bad – the way coaches and choir directors show players and singers how NOT to shoot or sing. Paul says, All people have inherited both men’s bequests: from Adam, sin and death; from Christ, life and grace. Both of which are done deals.
By the kindness of the creating God, dust drew breath and lived: Adam and Eve, born into a sinless, perfect world. Out of the kindness of the same God, they were given everything necessary; destined to live without toil; invited to trust the creator to feed them, rather than feed themselves. They chose toil, rather than trust. Toil unto death. Their children followed suit – unto death. In perpetuity, as it turned out.
Jesus was born and drew first breath in a world polluted with corruption and stained with grief. He reissued the invitation to trust the one who created and had always loved them wholly, completely. Sticky. Sweaty. Dirty. Smelly. Christ – as much the first of his kind as Adam ever was – put to death and risen from dust, so we will live and rule like kings (my second favorite phrase of the CEV translation of Romans 5, verse 17).
Other translations use the word dominion, not nearly as fun as live and rule like kings. Who doesn’t, in their own way, want to be a king? or queen? It is the fundamental plot of our favorite stories: lords and ladies; chosen ones; wizards good and evil; poor boys and princesses; even modern American politics. All of them are the same story – a set of characters vying for the one throne to rule them all.
And where our own wishing to be king falls away, we are wishing for the perfect king or queen to take care of us. Candidate season is coming around – something like a hundred and fifty people are running for president – not one of them may suit our fancy, but some part of us, of almost all of us, is ever holding out hope in the idea of the perfect one, that secret confidence that there is a person, somewhere, about to go public with the exact skill set and personality and spotless record, to fix everything that's broken.
Or maybe it isn’t a person we secretly are hoping for, but the safe and stable and prosperous world we think that person is going to create. We may not own that fantasy daily, but it’s there. For me it’s there. Anybody, amen?
How’d we get so far from where we said we’d started, friends? If where we start is faith in Jesus worked out in our life together? worked out in our study of the scripture? worked out in our everyday communion with the Holy Spirit?
Who’s been telling us this story, this fantasy, in such a way that we believe it? That some poor weak and broken fellow or woman, one just as screwed up, overwhelmed, and exhausted as you and me, is going to get us out of a mess we’ve spent generations working to build?
Because there is the sad reality of kings. Kings and queens are people, down to the very last one. They get hungry, angry, lonely, and tired on their good days. On their bad, they take children from their mothers and put them into cages. But kingship has a certain beauty too – in its mythical sense, at least. The mythical king or queen cannot ever be overruled. So he – or she – is never overwhelmed.
Imagine such a power as that, friends. A mythical sense of being king is Paul’s suggestion to us for how to think of grace, of what it means that God has been so very kind to us – so very kind to us in Jesus Christ. God’s kindness toward us cannot ever be overruled. Not by anything or anyone in this world. Meaning, by faith we’ve no cause for being overwhelmed!
What if we believed that? believed it heart, mind, soul and strength? Believed that, since God has been so kind to us in Jesus Christ, life is something brand new, where we can do anything on behalf of or in imitation of that kindness and never, ever be afraid? For we’ve nothing in all the world to lose. Nothing worth keeping, anyway.
To believe such a thing, it seems to me, is going to take lots of prayer. The kind of prayer in which what we ask for is to see and hear and feel and smell God everywhere. In the joyful and the broken. Paul’s language may be mythical – calling ourselves kings, for heaven's sake! But Jesus is real, friends, isn’t he? Death has been defeated and our destiny has been set down – hasn't it?
The last word on this present reality has been spoken, whatever we choose to do. If to our shame we choose to live only unto ourselves, God’s kindness holds. Abomination upon abomination notwithstanding, God’s goodness to us holds. God’s will shall be done, with us or without us.
Still, I think, kindness is the better course to take, kindness that stays on the move, grace ever shifting between and among us, rushing to the most broken places like all those healing blood cells to a wound. Only, only, only ever, friends, you sweet friends of Jesus, only once we are ready to believe that Jesus loves each of us here and now, without a single thing about us changed or different, will our hearts finally, rightly break for all the hate and the hurt in this land of ours.
Only then will we truly lose our stomach for the hatefulness done to our brothers and our sisters in the name of God. Only then will we rightly raise our voice and find our feet and do as Jesus told us and made us able to do. Suffer the children to come unto me. Let us pray the day comes quickly.
My first sermon title for today was “Gracefully Wrong.” Then I came up with sermon #2 with the title “Fantastically Kind.” The CEV uses “undeserved kindness” to translate charis. We have been given the fantastic, undeserved kindness of God. What shall we do with it? That is for sermon #3.
You may have grown up in a house like mine, where work came before play; homework and chores before TV; kids old enough to drive are old enough to get a job. I’m an oldest child. If you know much about birth order, you know I took to these notions like a fish to water. I had a paper route from the time I was 12 until I was 15 – The Louisville Courier Journal. Before high school was over I had a résumé that included full-time babysitter, fast-food taco maker, and grocery checker.
Until well into adulthood, the best hourly money I ever made was at the hardest work I’d ever done: detasseling seed corn in the Mississippi Delta. Farm work. I got sunburned and mosquito bitten. I learned to watch for snakes curled and sunning on cornstalks. I wanted to quit after the third day. My dad wouldn’t let me.
He’d say things like, “So you think you are too good to do farm work? Work is the price we pay for the kind of life we want, and being prepared to work hard is what keeps a person safe and fed and healthy.” Are those things true? Sometimes. Not for everyone, everywhere.
And he was altogether right in the ways he meant to be. But I overlearned. I let his good lesson on temporal things infect my understanding of all things, including faith. The lesson that we must earn everything we have isn’t useful in matters of faith. When it comes to faith, it’s worse than un-useful. It can be sinister, actually.
There is such a thing as sinister theology. We know Paul is trying to lay a new foundation of loving, full inclusiveness in the church. But before he can do that, he had to rip up an old one that is already deeply rooted, that was religious for some (Jews) and is culture today for others (Americans).
And the one footer of that foundation of deeply-rooted segregation and prejudice is this notion that the undeserved kindness of God, delivered to us in Jesus Christ, is something we deserve, something we can earn.
Once upon a time I coveted having my own Le Creuset cookware. Purple Le Creuset. Every now and then I’d see it at Goods for Cooks and just sigh. It’s obscenely expensive, so I never got any. Then, one day in 2010 a woman I didn’t know e-mailed me and asked me to call her. I thought it must be a scam, but I did anyway. She told me a story. Her company was trying to clear old claims and she’d tracked down my e-mail. Because in 1953 my grandmother had bought a $1000 life insurance policy on my mother who was 18 years old. And single. And pregnant. My grandmother made herself the beneficiary.
My grandmother is a story in herself. I’m sure she never told my mother this. 57 years later, I got a check that I cut into four. My siblings and I received an undeserved kind- ness from my grandmother and the Slovene National Benefits company of $460 – with which I bought two pieces of purple Le Creuset. My son uses the dutch-oven nearly every time he cooks. Amazing story, right?
Now, suppose instead of using it, I put that cookware in my garage, unopened? That I read about it every day and sang songs about it once a week? That I prayed God would see me fit to use it someday? You’d probably call me crazy, eh?
But bring that crazy to church, and we call it – what? Faith. Discipleship. Are you with me, friends? I cannot tell you how many blocks I’ve been around trying to figure out what to preach. This is all I have. Paul says we have already been made acceptable to God, and now, because of Jesus Christ, we live at peace with God.
Until we get that, friends, about ourselves, no wonder we cannot open our hearts and lives to others. Either we live our life as this world describes – something to be pursued and earned – or we live the lives God has given us, fully, down to our toes, accepted, and at peace with God forever.
My new favorite song this week is called “Too Good.” It says, It may be too good to be understood, But it’s not too good to be true. It’s not too good to be true.
Would you pray with me?
I had imagined bringing you some impressions from the CBF meetings in Birmingham, but I am going to hold them for our church council meeting next weekend, add some video to show you, and hopefully include Jodi and Laura Beth. For now, thanks for your generosity in helping Jodi and Laura Beth to travel as well. We enjoyed the trip and met some really lovely Baptist friends. For now, I want to take just a few minutes’ reflection on Paul’s conversation with the Romans on the nature of faith.
Would you pray with me? We’d rather be good than be patient, O God. We’d rather prove ourselves than believe you love us in our unworthiness. Give us the courage to ease up and let go, and simply trust you when you say you love us as we are. In your name, we pray.
If always and consistently keeping the law of God were a real possibility for the lovers of God, there would be no need for faith, Paul says. God might have passed out the homework at Mt. Sinai and then just walked away, trusting Moses and his wagon train of refugees with the whole future of humanity. But God didn’t. God is not naïve, any more than humanity is trustworthy.
In Eden humans had just one rule. They broke it. Moses was given ten. They failed at all those too. The Jewish scholars added 613, a hedge around the law to help them not break the bigger ones. Do you know why Jesus was sentenced to 39 lashes? It was because the law calls for 40 lashes and the hedge helps us not break the law. But if you are going to break it, it is better to break the law by doing less (39 lashes) than by doing more than the law calls for (41 or more).
When Jesus summed up the 624 rules (Eden’s one plus Moses’ ten plus the 613 in “the hedge”) into just two rules – the ones he told us to remember – Do you remember? Love God with all your heart . . . – we still come up short more often than not. Amen?
Interestingly though, in his discussion of the law, Paul doesn’t speak of Moses. Why, do you suppose, Moses is not ever presented in the text as the father of us all? That title is Abraham’s. Father of us all, a blessing, a light to all the nations back in Genesis chapters 12 and 17. Abraham had neither law nor Torah. All he had was – what? A promise. A promise of another homeland. He had a perfectly good homeland already, the land of Ur sitting on oil reserves to last a thousand years. The land of Ur in Abraham’s time is modern day Iraq.
God promised and by faith Abraham obeyed. Picked up and moved everything he owned to the only scrap of land in all the Middle East with not a drop of oil below the dirt. Can you imagine how modern history would be different, if the Jewish promised land had been the land of Ur? Another rabbit for another day.
The promise to Abraham was two-part: a homeland for his people, and people to become his people. As many as there are stars in the sky, God told Abraham. Children? Yes. And nations too. Remember nations – ethnee? Ethnicities, races, foreigners, gentiles. At the time the promise was given – here we come round again to Paul – Abraham himself was a gentile, uncircumcised. His name wasn’t even Abraham. Just Abram.
Why all this explanation of Abraham, the one the early church called a friend of God (we know that from the apostle James)? Because the best rule followers among us can’t keep all the rules. We just can’t. And Paul knows the church needs to take this in, that faith always, always comes before law. Just as Abraham comes before Moses.
Those of us who love the rules for the order and the structure and clarity we believe the rules convey not only cannot keep the rules; we can’t make rules fast enough to keep up with the chaos humanity is constantly conceiving.
And yet, for some of us, our love of the rules is not swayed. Their presence comforts us: on paper; on stone in courthouse lawns; in the voices preaching their necessity and promising their enforcement. Amen? Paul does not say, Amen. Paul says, Faith.
Whatever comfort and security, whatever hope and peace this world allows, whatever justice (also called righteousness) is available to God’s people is gained not by our success at keeping or enforcing rules, but by our acceptance of the same faith he offered Abram. Accepted not as wages paid to a worker, but as a gift given to the one who God has decided deserves it, whom God has called righteous. For no other reason than God wanted to.
And see, there is the reason against which there is no argument. God wanted to. God can’t give us faith and walk away, of course. Faith is to our believing as air is to our breathing. Faith comes daily from God, if not every hour or moment. And faith has no other source, much as we might wish it so. We can’t earn it. We can’t buy it ahead, like groceries every Saturday. Faith comes new each day and only ever to the ones who show up to receive it, of course, willing to treat whatever is given as if it is enough. Because it is enough. It is enough, because God has deemed it enough.
Actually, on their first date, it wasn’t Abram who showed up, but God. Dressed up like angels, just to emphasize the point that Abram truly did nothing to earn this gift of God. He was just home, watching Netflix, or whatever one did in the land of Ur 4000 years ago.
I personally still like my plan better. Do you remember green stamps? My mother collected them, when she bought groceries and gas and things. She let me lick and stick them in those little books. We’d get about 100 filled and then go get a free toaster.
It would be awesome to fill up little books of faith stickers to turn in for something useful – a healing maybe. Or some extra courage. Then we’d always know how much faith we had in the bank.
But there is no faith bank. That’s not how God wants it, apparently. Not with Abraham, the friend of God. Or Jacob. Or Moses. Or Naomi or David or Daniel. Or all those prophets. Or Mary or John or Jesus or Paul. Or any of the thousands of other friends of God, who discovered what is always true between good friends: the very friendship itself is made of the faith God gives and the friends gratefully receive, day by day by day.
Would you pray with me?
Let’s pray . . . that our own little lives and our life together will be conformed to your law, O God. May this be our highest hope. For each of us to love you with our whole heart, with all our mind, all our strength and all our soul, to love each and every neighbor as we ourselves are loved by you. Amen.
Since there is only one God, he accepts Gentiles as well as Jews, simply because of their faith, says the Apostle Paul.
Gentiles plus Jews equal the whole world. We divide the world differently – into Gentiles we like and Gentiles we don’t. God is God of Gentiles we don’t like and loves them like God loves us. They are our brothers and sisters, since God is one.
We’ve agreed we’re monotheists, the Trinity notwithstanding. Maybe we aren’t as committed to all being included as we are to monotheism, as committed to one body as to one God – as if they are different.
That God is one is not the problem, is it? It’s the “God is the same God of us all” part, the “God is the same God TO us all” part that has Paul’s readers up in arms, then and since. Now included.
In March it was the Methodists getting all the press, remember? In June, Baptists take our turn. I expect you’ve seen the news this week that the SBC voted not to recognize the term gay Christian in reference to persons or groups – lest they fail to call a sin a sin. They’d have gotten better coverage were it not for a Baptist preacher in Tennessee. His shenanigans don’t bear repeating here.
Honestly, friends, I’m with you in the horror and frustration. But when I can generate a sliver of compassion, my best guess is that he was terribly mistreated once upon a time. Such hate generally comes from deeply wounded souls, such venom from a soul begging not to be hurt again, a soul that may believe he is protecting others. Here’s the thing: God does not protect us by attacking us nor abandoning us, but by loving us and joining us where we are in this life. Including us in God’s oneness. Besides – unto what could God abandon us, if all that is, was made by God? is sustained by God?
To whom or where can anyone be banished ever, if God is everywhere, if God is all that is? We’ve already agreed on that, remember? I will never leave you orphaned, Jesus said. Did he mean it is impossible? Around and around I go with these thoughts. They are my lens upon scriptures. Then we come to Romans – and Paul. Telling Jews they will not escape this brotherhood of theirs. This sisterhood.
If there is only God and God is all there is, they are ALL my brothers and my sisters. We are made of the same stuff; your life, my life, our lives – atoms of the same living universe, just housed in different skins. Life made from the breath of God, conformed to God’s own image somehow. LeBron James and me: same stuff (go figure) which is the life which is God.
The heart is a poor sermon writer, where sentences run on and statements read like questions when they are not. Truth is what I’m casting for – and catching very little. Yet gospel truth will not be grasped by my brain or yours. Nor faith. Faith doesn’t come to us intellectually. Faith lives on the ground in our hands and feet and mouths, in what we do, what we say, with these bodies – these lives – of ours.
Paul preached to congregations not unlike us gathered here. Folks who worked and raised kids and fretted about the bills. Who believed in Jesus and wanted to be faithful – but had no small bit to learn about how. The gospel of Jesus Christ is how, Paul said. This is the entire syllabus. What measure of the gospel comes to life in and through the church is the measure of your faithfulness. The salvation of the whole world in the death and resurrection of Jesus – those are the words.
The resurrected Jesus in the world today – that’s you. And you. And us together as we live it, those same gospel words now brought to life, measured in our unity – our conformity – to the love he’s given us, doled out to one another and our neighbors. Not in the flash and awe of programs, but in our contact with other human beings, however subtle and small the appearance. Popsicles and peanut butter sandwiches, for example; a whole building that smells like sweaty kids.
Paul’s first reading congregation struggled to believe he meant them to love each other like family. Business partners, maybe. Acquaintances, okay. But family? Yes, family. Since God is one, there are no other parents. God is all any of us have, making us all kin, whatever else feels true, however much we don’t like it.
Here we are, Rainbow Baptists sitting down with the ones from Tennessee, and we’ll do as we’ve been told or not. But the measure of our obedience will be the gospel serving that the world receives from us. Paul – crazy Paul – got saved, rescued like a swimmer drowning in devotion to a truth he did not understand. One God could have just one people, he was told. That part he got right. Your people are that people was the part his people mistook, the part he got saved from, then told to go save others.
Since God is One and God only has one people, all people are God’s, Paul said, about a million times – a good lot of them in a letter to the Romans. In chapter 3, verse 21, he gets down to business, the Jesus part of his story. He’ll really pull it apart starting in chapter 9. For now, he simply says again: does God belong to you folks on the right? oh yes? How about you over on the left? Yep, you too.
Does that mean everything you learned before about kindness, justice, and humility doesn’t mean a thing? For heaven’s sakes, no. Now it means more than ever.
Would you pray with me, friends?
One problem with Easter being late is how it bumps Pentecost into Bible School, leaving preachers like me in a bind about how to plan the service. The last two weeks of my online clergy groups have been all about how to incorporate the tongues of fire into our worship spaces. Now I get to post a picture that says, all you need are three sheets of styrofoam, ten cans of free paint and Susanne Parker.
Most of you will spend something like fifteen more hours here this week, so I want to be brief this morning. Brief, yet focused enough on Romans again to hear Paul echo the message of Pentecost, our oneness in Christ, our sameness. Not only that we are each just like the other, but that we are of the same one Spirit, a distinction that means more to me the more I contemplate it – and truthfully, the more I read the Eastern mystics, who have language for it that we don’t. More on that another time.
Let’s talk a minute about the church at Rome in the time of Paul. I doubt emperors are much different than kings and presidents, as it has to do with their own popularity. The further they fall out of favor with their people, the more prone they are to find a scapegoat to blame and deflect attention. According to some accounts, in the late 00’s - 40’s CE, Jewish riots in Rome were causing such disorder and turmoil, Emperor Claudius felt he had no choice but to expel the lot of them from the city.
They’d been expelled from Rome before, in 139 BCE and again in 19 CE. Why this time, you ask – food shortages? Pogroms? Supposedly they were in the streets about whether Jewish followers of the Christos should be allowed to worship in synagogues. Now does that sound right to you? Because that doesn’t sound right to me. Not that some might not have been upset about that? Arguing even. But rioting? Really? What do Christians get excited enough to protest about today? Abortion is the only one I can think of, that Christians don’t share with non-believers, that Christians are willing to go to jail for.
However many Jews there were in Rome – a few thousand maybe? – realistically, how many were believers in Jesus? One hundred? Two hundred? Claudius needed someone to blame, and Jews have been the doormat of history forever – so he chose them, and they were gone. Gone for five years, until Claudius died and the new emperor took the throne. His name was Nero. What do you know of him?
If those Jewish Christians had had any idea what Emperor Nero had planned for them, they’d have certainly stayed away. But they didn’t, so they didn’t. The Jews returned in 54 CE, and the Christian ones found a church that had moved out of the synagogue, was worshipping on Sundays and being led by Gentiles – Gentiles who didn’t agree that just because their Jewish brothers were back, church life had to rewind by five years. They struggled to figure out how to worship and work together. Gentiles believed they could lead as well as Jews. Jews felt pushed out by their church brothers/sisters, the same way they were pushed out by the Romans.
You’ve no doubt read about the adjustment it was between men and women after WWII, the assumptions people made about men going back to work and women going back to homemaking and mothering. Men came home from the military and took over the jobs women had been doing for four years. (I read a similar article about the Civil War. For all the horror of it, women got a reprieve from childbirth, four whole years of not being pregnant.) Three years of the struggle goes by when the church in Rome receives a letter from Paul. It is hand-delivered by a woman named Phoebe, Paul’s partner in ministry, his agent, the one who speaks for him in his absence.
Do you see how the delivery of the letter conveys the message of the letter? She arrives in his place. She reads the text. She explains the text. No doubt at the end they told her they really liked her dress. She is not simply a FedEx carrier. She is cantor, rabbi, preacher, and pastor. If they told her they liked her dress, it was only because they didn’t yet know how to address her as rabbi and preacher. It’s not clear if they recognized her as Paul’s administrator. And, we will learn, she is an administrator. The message she preaches in Rome is theologically true. It is also organizationally expedient. Both are Phoebe’s job.
Paul believes his work in the east is done. He wants to open a new work in Spain. The only established churches from which to launch such a mission are in Rome. Egypt is getting started, thanks to the Apostle Mark, but is much too far from Spain. Carthage, in Tunisia, is much closer but still 100 years from having established churches. Paul needs the Roman church strong, and while the church since then has not always taken his advice, he chose solid theology as the source of that strength. Only insofar as you work out the trouble between you, will the gospel of God be evident in you. If you are not one in spirit, you bear no light to the One Spirit who is God, Creator, Savior, Sustainer of all that lives and breathes.
Again, again, again, and yet again, Paul will speak of the righteousness of God: entrusted to Israel; for the benefit of the whole world. The way some parents take the money they earn and set up a trust for their children – the money belongs to the parents, but is not for their use only; it is for the benefit of those who come after. As Paul says in Romans 3:2-3 (slightly paraphrased): The Jews were entrusted with the scriptures. Because some were unfaithful with them does not nullify the faithfulness of God! Paul’s point being that the righteousness of God entrusted to Israel extended to the Gentiles from the beginning.
And that righteousness, remember, is reflected everywhere in creation – most of all in relationships. Our relationship with each other, our relationship with creation, is right, is justified, when that relationship lines up with or is inside the margins of (justified margins, same idea) the righteous-ness or the right-ness or the justice of God. Our right relationships reflect, reveal, repeat, reproduce the righteousness of God. Thus, Paul’s prescription for the church: we are to love each other the way God loved us in Christ Jesus. As it has to do with this text, love them even if they don’t deserve it – since none of us deserved to be loved by God, and God loved us anyway.
Hopefully our first two weeks in Romans have you reflecting on your prejudices, maybe discovering some new ones you weren’t previously aware of. I’ve realized how really prejudiced I am toward people I consider prejudiced. When I get going I’m amazed at how judgy my thoughts can be. Also, toward people who carry guns in ordinary places. The smugness in my heart and mind probably makes Jesus want to drink gin from a cat dish. (I’m borrowing this expression from Anne Lamott – from Traveling Mercies, I think.)
Yet, Paul’s message can’t get through the doors – of our hearts or the church – until we’ve embraced our own depravity. Critical to these prejudices of ours is our confidence in our sense of difference. We’re too polite a people to say out loud that we believe we are better than others. When church folks say, there but for the grace of God go I, what are we saying? That could be me. But in my secret heart, I for one am also saying, thank God that isn’t me! We are grateful to be different! The difference is what matters to us!
When I was in seminary around 1990, my teacher, Molly Marshall, was the first woman theology professor to be granted tenure at a Baptist school. A reporter from a Baptist publication asked her if she believed in the depravity of men. She answered, “Oh yes. And the depravity of some women.” She was joking to call out his sexist language – but inside is the reminder, We are a depraved species through and through. We act out that depravity every time we rebel against the righteousness of God, the rightness, the justice, of God.
The whole system operates, is driven, by divine love. Love is the energy, the very air and light and water, of all that is. All we have to do to rebel against it is be unloving – in thought or word or deed, anecdotally or systematically. Creation’s not undone, of course. We are. We have thrown ourselves on the floor like a screaming toddler, maybe even broken things, or hurt something living, for the hope of being where no one of us can ever be: beyond the love, beyond the righteousness of God. God is always in place. Grace, salvation, gospel, goodness, love – all are always in place.
Depraved means corrupted. Depravity is love corrupted. It’s a sorry choice in a situation so filled with possibility. But until we get clear on where we stand, each of us and all of us together, we will never appreciate what God has done for us. Which is what Paul talks about next. I hope to, with you, when we look at it.
In preaching Romans, the idea is to bring you and me into awareness of our sameness to the church to whom Paul wrote. To us, “normal” means white, Christian, unquestioning our assumptions about everything. Part of childhood for me was the assumption that kids were a special class in that, even in really scary places like Vietnam, kids were safe. No one ever said this, it was just one of those things I figured out. I was always figuring things out when I was little. I am struggling to find the language for this, found only in socio-political-economic – not theological – writing. Yet it is here – in Romans. Wrapped in some ancient culture bindings. I beg your patience and your feedback as we proceed together.
Literally no one in Bedford, Indiana in 1969 would have called my mother a race activist. You remember the song “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world, Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in his sight….” I knew that we were white people. I knew what black people were, because I'd seen them on TV. But I couldn't figure out red and yellow. So I asked my mother. But she would not say red people are the Indians and yellow people are Chinese. (“Chinese” meant Asian. Oriental actually.)
I don't remember what she said, exactly, only that afterward I still didn't know who the red and yellow ones were. It was probably something like, “Oh Annie, it’s just a Sunday School song about how Jesus loves all kids the same. Now go play.” From which I gathered in my child brain that kids were all safe. Nothing bad happened to kids.
Colors aren’t people, except in our language. And yet, the colors we assign to people have everything to do with what happens to them. May was a bad month to be a brown kid in U.S. custody. Another brown kid died in a detention camp at the border. A brown kid died in a motel on Walnut Street this past week, of starvation. He weighed 50 pounds. Nobody in this town had eyes on that little boy until he was dead. His siblings are now with strangers and his parents are in jail.
It is truly offensive to hear kids referred to by color. And yet, color is the religious language chosen by our culture to speak of the universal love of God. The revision of the song goes how? “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world. Every color, Every race, all are covered by His grace.” I hope you are not sick of coming to church and hearing about race. Friends, we haven't even gotten started. Race is going to be nipping our heels every step we take through the book of Romans.
The white American church got away with 400 years of not talking about it. But not on my watch, tiny as my watch is. What's amazing is that the white American church has gotten away with ignoring race while preaching and reading a text positively soaked in it. To say we don't see race is to say we have not read our Bibles. That does not have to be.
I have a clergy friend who was horsing around at church youth group when she was a young teenager. Some boys were chasing her and she ran through a plate glass window. Her legs and arms and face got the worst of it. She had hours and hours of surgery. Hundreds of stitches. She's older than me, and still sometimes a splinter of glass will work its way through the surface of her skin. Race is likewise embedded in us, in our life together. It might work its own way out; but we must do the surgery, in our lives together as a church and as a country.
We will, as Paul says in Romans 2 verse 12, perish; cease to be a church; cease to be a nation. We may still breathe, of course, but breathe some other kind of air – the air tinged with the wrath of God poured down on the people of whom God has finally had enough. By the way, I didn't have a bad week. I'm not in a bad mood. It is just that my assignment is this “Wrath of God” text in Romans and I have declined skipping it, while not knowing how to preach it.
God loves us, and we don't need a book of laws to know so, Paul says in Romans 1:20 (CEV):
God’s eternal power and character cannot be seen. But from the beginning of
creation, God has shown what these are like by all he has made. That’s why
those people don’t have any excuse. They know about God, but they don’t
honor him or even thank him. Their thoughts are useless, and their stupid minds
are in the dark. They claim to be wise, but they are fools.
The other side of divine love is wrath – divine hatred. It's hard to hear. Not fun to say either. But what does it mean to say “God loves us,” if God doesn't care what happens to us? I have to believe God hates children being murdered – by fathers and by prison guards. If God doesn't hate the evil that happens to children, what trust do I have in God's love for me and mine?
Maybe God is only disappointed. Whatever. I want a little more than that. I want the power of God exercised in love AGAINST child suffering to be as huge and overwhelming as God's love displayed in a rainbow or a waterfall. I want God to sigh with the same satisfaction when kids are well and happy as God sighed at the end of each day of creation. Creation as it was meant to be: rainbows, waterfalls and safe kids. Creation right and just, except for where we've wrecked it, sinned against creation, sinned against the creator, invoked the wrath of God.
Beginning in Romans 1:18, Paul goes on a two-chapter explanation of why we all deserve to perish. Early on he mentions homosexual acts by men and women. Paul was not a fan of what he saw in his day. Nor would I have been. Sex for sex's sake, no matter who you're with, is not what it's meant for. Sex nourishes a relationship the way food nourishes the body. Both are gifts of God easily abused. He called it unnatural, though. He did. You know what else was unnatural then? Bathing regularly. Shaving your legs and armpits. Living past age 45.
I don't want to skip this or get hung up here either. Just to point out, again, that the two verses that mention sex are in no bigger font than the five in which he lists all sorts of indecent things people do. Romans 1:29-32:
They are evil, wicked, and greedy, as well as mean in every possible way. They
want what others have, and they murder, argue, cheat, and are hard to get
along with. They gossip, say cruel things about others, and hate God. They
are proud, conceited, and boastful, always thinking up new ways to do evil.
These people don’t respect their parents. They are stupid, unreliable, and don’t
have any love or pity for others. They know God has said that anyone who acts
this way deserves to die. But they keep on doing evil things, and they even
encourage others to do them.
That's page one of Paul's case for the wrath of God, all of which his audience probably appreciated, assuming Paul was talking about the same sorry folks they knew in their town too. They weren't wrong – just thinking too small. They assumed Paul was ONLY talking about their neighbors.
Verse 12, where Greg began reading, continues the same thread begun in verse 1 of chapter 2: the hypocrisy of religious people. (Paul calls them Jews, which for us is both religious, nationalist, and ethnic. In application to ourselves and our own prejudices, this is why I keep calling us white, American Christians.) All these first eleven verses are so good, especially in the Contemporary English Translation – I really want you to hear them:
Some of you accuse others of doing wrong. But there is no excuse for what you
do. When you judge others, you condemn yourselves, because you are guilty
of doing the very same things. We know that God is right to judge everyone who
behaves in this way. Do you really think God won’t punish you, when you behave
exactly like the people you accuse? You surely don’t think much of God’s wonderful
goodness or of his patience and willingness to put up with you. Don’t you know
that the reason God is good to you is because he wants you to turn to him? But
you are stubborn and refuse to turn to God. So you are making things even worse
for yourselves on that day when he will show how angry he is and will judge the
world with fairness. God will reward each of us for what we have done. He will
give eternal life to everyone who has patiently done what is good in the hope of
receiving glory, honor, and life that lasts forever.
But he will show how angry and furious he can be with every selfish person who
rejects the truth and wants to do evil. All who are wicked will be punished with
trouble and suffering. It doesn’t matter if they are white- American-Christians –
or not. But all who do right will be rewarded with glory, honor, and peace, whether
they are white-American-Christians – or not. God doesn’t have any favorites!
Don't you love that? I love that! But I also know it got those folks' backs up, the same way our backs go up when we feel put on the spot for what is true about us but doesn't seem like it should be our fault. Was it those religious peoples' fault their religion had taught them to be so prejudiced? If we decide No, what does that matter? If we decide Yes, what does THAT matter?
What matters NOW is will we do right, now that we know what IS right? Which is the heart of today's text: Gentiles who don't have the law (by “law” Paul is talking about Torah, five books of the 1st Testament) and yet are able to keep the law – the heart of it, the justice of it – while Jews who have the law (the books themselves, read and taught) do not keep it. Having – or sometimes Paul will say knowing the law – is neither here nor there; does not please God; does not make one right with God. There's that word “righteousness,” which is also justice. Knowing the law does not put us right with creation which, by design, is just.
Brand new thoughts are hard, friends. Believing all your life that the world is one way and then discovering it is another – whew, that's really hard. It will get up inside every part of reality and probably never stop infiltrating.
That's me when I realized how steeped in racist thinking, feeling, seeing, talking, believing I am. How the privilege that was once invisible to me is absolutely everywhere – in every word I speak from this pulpit, and the way we've read the Bible, just as Paul's Jewish contemporaries had read their Bible – even the ones who'd come to know Jesus – in such a way that reinforces our own worldview, in which we are not extremely privileged but, rather, extremely blessed. And the rub of the entire letter to the Romans is, y’all are gonna have to get over that.
In verses 17-24, Paul expounds upon his brothers' and sisters' hypocrisy. The very things they preach ought not to be done are the very things they themselves do. Some things never change apparently. And in verse 25 he opens the topic of circumcision – a continuing argument in Paul's ministry, a particular point of the Law which some of his Jewish believers get especially wound up about. No more than half, of course.
You get the joke, right? The circumcision argument is a joke in the way it's supposed to be about inclusion and yet excludes half the people concerned. Must Gentile men become Jewish in order to become Christian? Must gay people become straight to be Christian? Must non-western Christians dress like Westerners for church in their own countries? These have been real questions since the time when Paul wrote to the Romans.
Two modern cases: The Claxons, Southern Baptist missionaries who were members here some years ago, told me about the conversations they had in the 1950's in Nigeria, when African families joined their churches and women wore skirts and necklaces and headscarves. Of course, ALL the American male ministers wished the women would also wear blouses.
Some insisted that it was the Christian thing to do. Others, Neville included, were reluctant to insist – feeling like insisting on a blouse was the same as insisting on circumcision. However, some of the people they served circumcised little girls – also a cultural tradition. The missionaries also thought this through and decided they would interfere, as respectfully as they could, but with the mission of ending the practice. Emma told me it was very slow and difficult work.
Do you see how followers of Jesus might come to the two conclusions that welcoming topless women to church AND interfering in a child-rearing practice are both exercises in equality among believers? Where the Bible says nothing about either, specifically? Each generation and location of the church will have its own set of conditions in which to work out Paul's teaching. Our ancestors in the faith can be helpful. Some of them in what NOT to do, others in what TO do. Always, always, always – we are squeezing and tweezing at the privilege and prejudice embedded within us and among us, resisting the gravitational pull to pretend we are fine.
The end of verse 16 slays me. Here's 15 and 16 (NRSV):
They who have no religion show that what the law requires is written on their
hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting
thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my
gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
We can pretend as much as we need. We may fool others. We may fool ourselves. But the Lord knows exactly what's going on in here (heart) and here (head). God knows that we know what God requires of us. And if we could only see that doing what the Lord requires of us is THE answer to absolutely everything that is wrong in the world….
The law, as Jesus said it in Luke 10:27: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind – and love your neighbor as yourself.” And my favorite, Micah 6:8. “The Lord has shown you, you humans, what is expected of you: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.”
No doubt it is a lot. No doubt the world won't care. But I still believe it is everything, friends. Positively everything.
Would you pray with me?
It is wonderful to be back. Many thanks to Deborah for filling the pulpit while I was away, listening to lots of preachers preach about preaching as moral imagination. Which “sap to syrup” boils down to telling the truth in a culture that no longer even pretends to value the truth. The gospel truth is what we tell: Jesus lived and died and rose, once and for all people – God's act in Jesus Christ, making plain what had always been true. Not politically true, but cosmically, divinely true: all persons are equal before God.
We know it and believe we believe it. However, we eat and sleep and breathe and read and think and work and walk around in a culture hell-bent to convince us otherwise. And by “us” I mean white Christian people. We aren’t much in touch with our own prejudices, keeping them fairly neatly tucked away, mostly from ourselves. Every time Paul writes in Romans first to the Jews and then the Gentiles, remember we're the Jews – the ones convinced that we are more right than whoever we think isn’t right; and very often, it is our faith or our theology telling us we are right.
Just to open ourselves up a little more to the book of Romans, I want us to do a little meditation exercise. Ask yourselves – just to yourselves in your own hearts and minds – “who are the people I find most difficult to approach joyfully? gladly? From whom would I least like to hear opinions? With whom would I find it really challenging to plan a worship service? lead a Bible study? Who would I very much not like to go to church with? to sit next to in this worship service? to share table with on Wednesday night?”
It might be someone specific – a personality that annoys you. It might be a people group – their moral choices are hard for you. Maybe it's their politics – but you do best when you can be apart from them. These are prejudices, friends – regard for other human beings on the basis of something other than their humanity.
One of the privileges of the dominant group in any culture is that our prejudices don’t sound like prejudices. They sound like shared values. We may not believe some Nazis are good people or that black people aren't mistreated. But we do abide some degree of white supremacy, don't we? We abide the safety and the freedom and the opportunity white supremacy affords us. We abide the privilege that white supremacy affords our children. Privilege that will muzzle the gospel of Jesus Christ sometimes. Or distort it to our advantage, even.
Interestingly, however, no one I heard at the Festival of Homiletics preached from Paul. Interesting in that it was moral imagination that drove his preaching. A devout Jew who met the Risen Christ and realized the “truth” about God he'd always known – wasn't. And you know what that is called? That's called conversion. Trading of what we in good faith believed to be true for what we learn is true, when new information and experience shows our hearts and minds so. And then changing our lives accordingly.
But – there is much trouble with conversion. It doesn't stay put. Jesus is alive. And we are ignorant. And fearful. And we learn slowly.
This is as good a place as any to stop and pray: That we might find our heart and lives' true home in you, O God, so that the truth spills from us without hesitation; that we might pray to know the truth and live like people who have prayed that prayer, with nothing to fear, nothing to protect, we pray now. Amen.
So, Romans. The book is called Romans because it a letter written to the church at Rome. The next book is 1 and 2 Corinthians, called that because it is a letter written to the church at Corinth. Why is Romans before Corinthians? It's longer. Why is Corinthians before Galatians? It's longer. Paul wrote Romans from the city of Corinth, around 58 C.E. He had never visited the church in Rome. Church history has no record of how a church came to be there.
The first seventeen verses of chapter one are the abstract of Paul's letter. He introduces himself as he wants to be known. He outlines his topics. He makes every effort to connect with them personally. Verse 1: Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. Most English translations say “servant.” “Slave” is better. “Bondsman” or “bondservant” is best. Except “bondsman” means something different in English. A bondservant was an indentured slave who had paid their debt and was free, but instead of setting off on their own, asked to remain with the master – to trade obedience and labor for the master's care and protection, thus binding themselves to the master for a lifetime. Today we call this student debt.
As a sign of the bond, they went to a priest, who stood the bondservant against a doorway and drilled an awl through the earlobe of the freed person, marking them as a bondservant. I am a bondservant of Jesus Christ, Paul says. I was free; now I belong entirely to him, called to be an apostle – his apostleship is a sore spot between Paul and the other apostles, to which we will get in later weeks – set apart for the gospel of God. The rest of verses 2, 3 and 4 are a brief summary of the gospel. But this word for the “set apart” phrase is what interests me most here. The Greek word is aphorizo, most literally “off horizon.”
Who is off horizon? Someone on a different planet – right? – who sees the world from an entirely different perspective. People who look and see what everyone cannot. Having met the Risen Christ, Paul sees what he could not see before. Which links directly to verse three. Listen to me – this is so important in Romans. The things Paul could suddenly see that he couldn't see were two things, the two themes of this letter noted here in verses 3-5: the equality of Jews and Gentiles before God in Christ Jesus. Technically “every Jew and Gentile” counts as every human being, right?
He could see the equality of all people before God in Christ Jesus. But he could also see – this is verse 3 – listen – listen – listen, that this equality before God was NOT NEW in Christ Jesus. Not for those who had been reading the prophets. Not for those who called Abraham their father. Not for Jews like himself. For them, the equality of all people before God had always been true. Verse 3 goes like this: the gospel which God promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures. I do wonder which truth blew Paul's socks off more? They are really one and the same. But it was only for one he was beaten and stoned and thrown into jail most times. Telling them they were wrong is what drove his Jewish brothers to violence.
Can you imagine the audacity of suggesting that a 2,000-year-old faith system might have missed something? Something critical? That such a religion, even in good faith, might actually have maintained theology and practice that were racist? Or sexist? Or nationalistic? Exclusionary? And then used the holy scriptures as defense of such practice and theology? (This is supposed to make you laugh, in that grimacing kind of way.)
In verses 5-6, Paul describes his ministry intention for coming to visit them: to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To preach the gospel to the Gentiles and to you. They can't say he didn't warn them. It will be a protracted argument throughout the letter, no doubt written not only for the believers in Rome but for those across all the churches he has preached.
Romans – the scripture Paul didn't have, setting forth the gospel of God revealed to him by the Holy Spirit; received and sifted through his imagination and his years of obedience to it; heard and received in some places more warmly than others; heavily doctored in some places more than others. If only he'd had some scripture to point to and say, see, it says right here.
What he did have was a Holy-Spirit-driven hunch that made him brave and made other people think he was nuts – the Holy-Spirit-driven hunch that drove him back and forth across the Mediterranean, leaving Asia Minor and Greece speckled with churches. The same Holy-Spirit-driven hunch drove him to compose most of the New Testament.
Yet another 2000 years has gone by now, and I suspect most folks outside the church would scoff if we told them basic human equality is the very subtext of the New Testament. What do you suppose folks who consider themselves “churched” might say? Out loud I suspect they'd say, “Of course. Anyone can be a Christian.” Not untrue. Nor what Paul hoped we'd learn, it seems to me. Jew and Gentile are ethnicities, friends. Consider your list of prejudices. I suspect they are NOT fixed, in that those people could be more like you wish they were if they tried.
All these traits are traits, fixed or fluid, mixed, chosen or assigned: sexuality; the amount of melanin in one's pigment; being a dork, as we've talked about before. These things are accessories. They carry no weight in our relationship with God. Only humanness itself has matter. If we could only imagine such a way of faith, such a way of life. Yet, we are blind. We are blind to our blindness.
In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr writes, “Nothing can be called sacred that does not include everyone.” I had to put the book down and breathe for a minute when I read that. And try to remember anything I'd ever attended in a church that, by his definition, could be called sacred. I got a little sad and decided Richard Rohr had to be wrong. Then I remembered Richard Rohr is never wrong, and I got a little more sad because I couldn’t remember anything.
So – what is sacred, then? Nature is the most sacred experience, I decided. Nature doesn't care if a person is rich or kind or pretty or cheerful. The sun will shine and birds will sing for anyone. And golden retrievers – they don't care who pets them. They'll go home with anyone who even looks their way and has a couch. The fact is, friends, church has missed some really important truth. It's hard to know. And absolutely necessary, if we hope to be found faithful. And we do, don't we? Don't we?
We aren't just playing here, are we? More than ever, friends, I believe the only hope this world has is the righteousness of God woven into the fiber of creation. The other translation for righteousness is – what? Justice. The rightness of God and the justice of God are the same thing. Nature knows. Left to herself, nature functions rightly. Humans? We could. We can, if we ever choose to function as we were meant to, as Paul describes in verses 16-17, the end of the beginning of his letter to the church at Rome – and to us, of course. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Would you pray with me?
A couple of weeks ago, Rob made a comment about me not liking Paul, and I protested and Rob kind of rolled his eyes. It's one of those things I don't want to be true, so I don't like it being pointed out by others.
I want to like Paul, because I fundamentally agree with him. I agree with him about the urgency of the Christian gospel for the salvation of humankind. Not in some theoretical, theological explanation of God, but in the universe-bending reality of Jesus’ resurrection: the annihilation of death's power over life and the subsequent loss of power we have over one another.
We may take each other’s breath, but no one and nothing may separate us from God. A world full of people who know that, Paul said, will be a new creation. It’s Paul’s ways and means that give me so much trouble – and the way so much of the really mean-spirited, localized things he said got printed in the same size font as his fundamental explanation of the gospel. That’s what makes him so difficult to like. His bedside manner, we’d say if he were a surgeon.
Along with all my own issues with ministers, he drives me nuts for the same reason so many do – how he takes himself so seriously, for one. A few years ago a new minister arrived here on the east side of town. The day he moved into his office his church had a roof leak, and rain water poured through his office ceiling, all over the boxes that had been delivered. I thought it would be hilarious to take him over an IU golf umbrella as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift, you know, the very first time I met him. He did not find it hilarious at all. He only stayed a few years. We never really connected. Tom just didn't get me.
Paul wouldn't have gotten me either. He'd have had no interest in getting me. Paul had no interests apart from preaching the gospel. He had no family, no hobbies, no particular place that he called home. (He does – weirdly – have a Facebook page, maintained by a guy named Seth, no doubt a seminary student who takes himself very seriously.)
Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the peacemakers. Not Paul. Paul was loud, overbearing, and argumentative. He was prone to violence before his conversion and not averse to it after. Dialogue and compromise were not his go-to solutions. He was way more likely to ask forgiveness than permission. He was not big on second chances for people who screwed up. He had nothing to lose and heaven to gain, as he said more than once, which made him either crazy brave or stupidly reckless. Or both.
His authoritarian personality was aimed at a single target: the total reconciliation of humanity with God, achieved in the event of Jesus Christ. Which left him no time or patience for anyone who imagined the gospel had to do with less, be they his enemies or his beloved churches.
Let's pray: Help us be like Paul where and when being like him furthers your purposes, O God. May the urgency with which he shared the gospel infect your church today. Amen.
Do keep in mind that Paul is the same person after his conversion that he was before. A high-born, well-educated Jew, a religious leader with power in the Temple system. Before the Risen Christ got hold of him (Acts 9), Paul was profoundly sure that the Christ-followers within Judaism were a threat so urgent and insidious to the faith, he personally sought and delivered their death warrants. Jesus decided, “Hey, I want that guy on my side.” So he struck him blind and terrified and sent him to stay with some Christ-followers until he decided what to do with him.
Significant time passes between chapters 9 and 13. Paul goes to Jerusalem to join up with the original disciples – Peter and his bunch. He's genuinely surprised they aren't excited to include him. If there is one distraction to Paul's ministry, it's this – his relationships with the other apostles.
Eventually they do work together, but the originals never truly accept him as a brother. There's always this tension. Grudges, miscommunications. He brags in a way that is so annoying – and yet sort of sad, embarrassing almost: Paul making his own case for how he's as good as them.
He reminds me of a high school kid we knew when our kids were young. Carl and I worked the band booster tent at high school football games years ago. One night, right by our tent a boy picked a fight with a smaller boy – and lost. Carl broke them up, but the bigger kid's nose was already smashed in, blood everywhere. I took him by the arm and brought him to the tent. He was angry, crying (like high school boys do, you know – angry that they are crying), and yelling at me, “I'm fine. It doesn't even hurt!” Just spitting blood with every word. I know it, I told him, just let me see if your teeth are okay. I cleaned him up a little so he could go to the parking lot and finish the fight.
Paul doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as he did when I was a baby minister, before I saw enough of how the world is – how hurting people imagine no one will notice how much they’re hurting if they sound loud or tough or smart enough. I think a good therapist could have really helped Paul find some peace and stability, maybe even some real friendships.
The book of Romans is dense writing from near the end of Paul's ministry, as close as anything the Bible has to Christian theology. The seeds of that theology are right here – decades earlier – in the 14th chapter of Acts. Mimicking Jesus’ marching orders in Matthew 10, church leaders send disciples out in pairs to various regions to preach, teach, and heal. Barnabas gets paired with Paul. (I'd love to know how that happened.)
Nevertheless, they go, using the same general plan Paul will follow for the rest of his career. Arrive in a city and locate the gathering place where people worship: synagogues in Jewish towns; temples or academies in Greek places. I tried to imagine where Paul would go now, in Western societies. Where do thinking, worshipping, unchurched people gather? Cyberspace, eh? Maybe Paul would be in his room in front of his laptop camera. His own YouTube channel? Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, having just been chased out of Iconium by some offended Jews.
Two details matter here. The huge one to be addressed as we move through Romans – for lack of a better title: Anti-Semitism, the New Testament church history. Second: what happened in Iconium. They had preached in a synagogue there, and a bunch of people believed their message about Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles. But some of the Jews who did not were offended. Offended the message was offered to Gentiles too, as if they were equally entitled to it. A message they themselves did not want, yet were convinced that it ought not be available to their Gentile neighbor. So convinced, they are willing to commit violence to block their neighbor’s access to it.
Paul and Barnabas make a run for it to this town Lystra, where they plan to do the same thing again. It's not clear if they are in a synagogue or not, but among the listeners are followers of the Greek gods. Paul is preaching along when he notices a man who, he can tell, has the faith to be healed. I've no idea what that means but I think it's amazing.
The guy is triple crippled, Luke says: lame, born that way, had never walked. Luke wants us to really believe this is a miracle. Paul tells him to stand. He stands. He jumps. He walks. Triple healed. And the crowd goes wild! Hermes and Zeus have come down in human form to their very own village. They rush to pay proper homage. A priest is fetched. And bulls, for the sacrifice that must be made – right now. Can you imagine the party they are about to throw?
The text goes by fast, so it's easy to miss what doesn't happen, what would so easily happen had any other preachers been there. Remember the sons of Zebedee? (Mark 10) They asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he came into their kingdom. They'd have probably bickered about who got to be Zeus. Think if Paul and Barnabas had said Yes. Think of the leverage such a position would have allowed, the platform and protection for their preaching and their ministry. I can imagine lots of ministers seeing that offer differently than Paul and Barnabas did.
Paul protests immediately, “We are mortals just like you.” And he circles back, preaching his way to the one story he came to tell. He might have made some headway even. It's easy to think so, if we stop reading here. But the text has no break. Those same Jews from Iconium who were chasing them catch up. And they get their say with the crowd. And because folks are fickle, then and now, they win them over.
This time we don't get details, only that the crowd picked up rocks and stoned Paul and Barnabas until they believed they'd killed them. Because they could, same as folks still do everywhere, every day – kill the folks who suggest that everyone deserves to have what by all rights only belongs to some. Maybe not with literal stones.
There are folks in supposedly free countries right now casting votes to take away people's rights. Because they wear suits and speak English and don't throw actual rocks doesn't make it different. Folks are just as dead because of an embedded kind of prejudice that exists at so deep a level within our hearts and our human culture that we have no words nor name for it. So deep and urgent is our need to keep that injustice dormant within and among us, there is little we won't do to drown the mention of it out loud.
You know why Paul was so irritating? Not because he said something so outrageous, so false, so wrong. He said what everyone knew and feared and couldn't bear to face. This world as it is cannot stand in light of the love of God, the love of God for God's creation.
The way human beings regard each other is something other than the very fiber of creation. It may be who we are, but not who we were created or are destined to be. We are God's. And God is making all things right, from the greatest to the least.
The living Christ got hold of Paul and he could not go back to not knowing. And nothing anyone said or did bothered him enough to try. That people know, was all that mattered to him. And so he found his place. I look forward to reading him with you.
Let's pray together.
Today we are looking in Matthew 9, laying it side by side with Matthew 28, which may have been Jesus’ last word to his disciples – but not his only word – concerning the ministry to which he has called them.
Every sermon Jesus preaches is like a pizza we're all sharing. We take up our slices and spend the first ten minutes (or 2,000 years) picking all the olives off because, God forbid we eat what he serves. In Matthew 9, Jesus is preaching, teaching, and healing. Most folks listening love everything he says and does. A handful, the most religious in the bunch, don't. They call him “Satan's servant.” Doing the devil's work, they say. Eventually, they’ll say he's dangerous. And they won’t be wrong. A Christ-like church is dangerous – preaching, teaching, and healing whatever folks come along.
Such a church is dangerous to an empire used to keeping its power by keeping folks helpless and harassed. Such a church is dangerous to organized religion too, if that religion hopes to stay cozy with the empire. All of which is to say, insofar as the Great Commission really is a thing, Matthew 9 is where it sings to me.
Let's pray, God of all life, that we might realize that all life is all one thing. The life that pulses in our hearts is the same which gives birds flight, the same which makes our food grow. Wherever life meets life, may we regard and treat it tenderly, reverently, gratefully... and always in your name. Amen.
Verse 4:23 through 9:38 might be called “Matthew’s Ministry Field Manual” – Jesus showing and telling what he wants the church to do and be. Watch me. Listen to me. Then go, say, and do that. What he does, chapter 4 to chapter 9, is preach, teach, heal. At the beginning and the end of the section Matthew says (it's practically verbatim), 35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. Crowds gathered everywhere he went.
Now I’ve no doubt Jesus was a good preacher, and everyone loves good preaching. But you and I both know it wasn’t the preaching drawing those crowds: it was the FREE healthcare. He cured every disease and every sickness, Matthew writes. Every single one was a pre-existing condition. Jesus never asked for prior authorization. No deductible to be met. “Every disease and sickness brought to him” is how the text reads.
The crowds were amazed. They marveled. Who wouldn't be? Cubans, maybe. Dr. Paul Farmer, of Partners in Health, says Cuba has the best healthcare system in the western hemisphere. You should read Tracy Kidder’s book about Dr. Farmer, by the way, called Mountains Beyond Mountains. Citizens of countries with universal healthcare might not be as amazed as us that Jesus was a fan of universal health care. He healed every body; every disease; every sickness. The crowds marveled. Representatives of the religious establishment – not so much. They see the same thing and call Jesus “Satan’s tool.”
Don't miss this. Don't miss religion saying out loud in their most religious voice that healing poor people is the devil's business, that relief from suffering, that human compassion, that common decency has nothing to do with the religion they represent.
The text records no direct reply – just moves the camera back to Jesus, staring at the crowds while we read his thoughts. Harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. There is his reply. The religion which ought to protect and defend them, doesn't. Instead, religion is just another pack of wolves, in cahoots with the Empire, feeding on the weak and helpless. Matthew says it turned Jesus’ stomach. Actually, stirred his bowels is the closer translation for the word “compassion.” It's the pain of love – when other people's suffering hurts us.
In Jesus’ time emotions were thought to live in the gut. We say they live in the heart, but only because we think ourselves more polite. Don’t miss that what turns God's gut is a two-part tragedy: his beloved sheep are so harassed and helpless; and his shepherds are allied with the wolves.
The shepherd metaphor was not born in the New Testament, nor first in reference to Jesus. All through the First Testament, the king of Israel was repeatedly called their shepherd – along with the prophets and the priests. Remember Ezekiel 34, a text I've sometimes preached at Thanksgiving:
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd…. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill… with no one to search or seek for them. … 9 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10…I am against the shepherds; … I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed [my sheep] with justice…. 27 They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord…. 28 They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29…they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations…. 31 You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God. I, the Lord, have spoken.
Six hundred-and-eighty-five years, give or take a few, between Ezekiel and Jesus. Different empires. But God's sheep seemed to be doing no better. How about now? This little sliver of Matthew sings to me in the way it latches what Jesus said in the Beatitudes to what he did as he traveled through cities towns and villages – and to his expectations of us, the church, people claiming to be his, here and now. His explanation to his example to his expectations. A clarity to our mission and our task that informs as to the nature of our business here. We preach; we teach; we heal – according to our gifts, interests, resources, and the needs of the sheep in our midst.
Now, Jesus mixes his metaphors more than any preaching student would ever get away with. In his mind's eye they are sheep, but in his spoken lesson they are a field crop in need of harvesting – and by farm hands, not shepherds. Pray that more will come, Jesus tells his disciples. There's so much to be done, so few here to help. I have turned this verse over in my mind at least a hundred times, looking for a door or window into it.
Why does Jesus tell us to pray for more workers? It was George Buttrick who helped me get the tiger by the tail. He was a Presbyterian preacher and teacher. He pastored some churches and then taught at Andy D’s school – Harvard – for decades; then at mine – Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – until his death in 1980. About this passage he wrote (I'm paraphrasing): In calling us to his field, Jesus calls us away from the field of ambition, where the workers are many and the harvest not worth carrying away.
Of all the reasons Jesus tells us to pray for more workers, maybe the most obvious is also the truest. It’s hard and we would rather not do it. We’d rather serve our own wants, while avoiding the suffering of others. Jesus knows this about us. Knows that over the long haul of church, it will take lots of us to do this work, since harassed and helpless appears to be a permanent state of affairs. Other people’s suffering hurts us. We are human beings. We don’t like hurting, and we aren’t yet enough dependent on Jesus for the grace necessary to bear such hurt. But like our religious ancestors, in the first testament and the second, we have found a way to reconcile our compassion and our self-defense and call it faith.
Just as Jesus spoke to Jewish disciples neglecting the call of their prophets, Matthew speaks to a church neglecting the call of the Christian gospel. The split we see in the crowds listening to him that day we now carry inside ourselves, inside our life together. One part of us – a big part – is, like the crowd, amazed at grace, grace freely bestowed upon all people for no other reason than that God wants it so. Another part of us, like the religious representatives of the time, persists in wanting to keep the security we already have regardless of the suffering around us.
Carl and I have a friend named Sarah. Sarah has two little girls, ages 4 and 6. Recently before school, she and the 6-year-old had this conversation: “Eleanor, go make your breakfast.” To which Eleanor replied, “I want a bagel.” Sarah said, “Ok. You know how to make a bagel, yes?” And Eleanor said, “Well, I don't want to waste my time.” These two parts of us, compassion and selfishness, vie for our energy and time. The text calls us back to honesty, reminding us that the absence of grace in all its forms – health, knowledge, justice, decency – is hurtful to God. And so God deems that it shall not be. Death is to be defeated in all its shapes and venues: sickness, poverty, and injustice; mistreatment and abuse.
We cannot help Jesus defeat death upon a cross. Neither do we need to. That business is done! But we can love people here and now. Kindness, justice, and humility are well within our reach, should those be the tools we choose to work with. I totally get Eleanor. How easily do I reconcile the importance of some work with the surety that it's someone else's job? Jesus barely tells his friends to pray for help, then he gives the job to them in the next chapter.
I’ll end with this, a story from this past week. If you don't think people in our society are harassed and helpless, then you clearly have not met anyone trying to get enrolled in Medicaid. Medicaid is a program designed by wolves, to care for sheep. You can see the conflict of interest. As best I can tell, the mission of the program is Do a little as possible with as much paperwork as possible; the strategy is stall them until they die. And yet, inside that den of wolves, and throughout the systems connected to it, there are shepherds who are outsmarting those wolves right and left. Joan is a caseworker for the Social Security Administration and she is a wily one, let me tell ya. She coached me on how not to coach a client on his paperwork in such a way that I knew exactly how to coach him. I felt like a secret agent!
There was also a doctor, a nurse, two pharmacists and another random citizen and a banker, none of whom scored any personal or financial gain from their shepherding ways, all of whom could have spent way less time and energy and still have done their jobs. I have no idea if they call themselves Christian. I'd call them Christ-like. In the struggle between compassion and self-protection, they have chosen compassion as the driver of their lives. They have discovered compassion to be the better life. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes compassion turns our stomach.
But, friends, the pain of love is what makes us human. To the degree that others’ suffering doesn't bother us, we are also becoming less human. Humans forfeiting their humanity eventually turns into genocide. But well before that, what we have is a world of folks who are forever helpless and harassed. Like sheep without a shepherd. Like food crops withering in a field. And that, friends, is a stupid, evil, violent waste of something as beautiful as a human being. A waste that hurts the heart of God – or gives her diarrhea, depending on one's literary era. And will hurt our own hearts too, the more obedient we become, the more like Christ we pray to be.
Would you pray with me?
Matthew 28:16-20 still makes me itchy, more so than all the rest of the Bible put together. But it's not the Bible at all – it's me. And it's also church. And I don't know if it even counts as a sermon to explain that, but in case you grew up anything like me (and the fact that you've found your way here suggests that maybe you did), maybe my story will somehow connect with yours and give all of us back what ought to be a joyful text this Sunday after Easter – a text that clarifies and confirms what our lives and our life together are about now, as we step from here into eternity.
Let's pray: May it be all joy, O God, to know you in your risen-ness. May we treat it as our privilege to love others – knowing you already do, just as you love us. That all we need from you is done. Ours is to live by faith – in kindness, justice and humility, among all people, everywhere. Amen.
What text is this? What's it called? Does your Bible page have a chapter title? The Great Commission. The Great Commission is the church's language for Jesus’ charge in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples.” In my white, western, Protestant, evangelical experience, Great Commission specifically referred to Jesus’ command to tell the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The Baptist world of my teenage and young adult years had Great Commission campaigns. The names of two which I will never forget, sadly, were Bold Mission Thrust and Laypeople for Christ. I asked Ben what the words bold mission thrust made him think of. Combat, he said, or space exploration. In Baptist lingo, it was a plan to tell the gospel in person to every person on the planet by the year 2000. I asked him about laypeople for Christ, and he just said, oh that's really just awful. That said, nobody did it better than Baptists in the 20th century. Hospitals, schools, food security. And churches, thousands of churches. Millions of new believers the world over.
But that story has a backside, if you will, in which this same Great Commission language was used by the church in the west as a front for her collusion with the political and economic powers that invaded, colonized, murdered, enslaved and robbed Africa and the Americas for 400 years. If this sounds too awful to be true, I'll direct you to the Doctrine of Discovery. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/content/doctrine-discovery-1493
The thing about the Great Commission – Jesus didn't say it, right? It's not red on your Bible page, is it? If it's there, it's like a chapter heading. Church history doesn't quote the term until about 1650. And then only rarely for 200 more years, when along came an Englishman named James Hudson Taylor. Ever heard of him? He was colorful, apparently. Anybody know what happened in the 1840's that has to do with China? The European opium market opened up. And an 18-year-old Christian man in England heard the Lord tell him to go tell Chinese people about Jesus.
For three years he studied Chinese and rudimentary medicine. At 21 years old, he got on a boat and sailed to China. He stayed 51 years, coming back to England every few years to recruit more missionaries. He was thought shocking for wearing Chinese dress; for growing a pigtail; for refusing to spend his time translating Chinese for English business people and diplomats. He was critical of other missionaries who did, who, in his opinion, spent too much time with white people when they should be with Chinese.
Folks thought it appalling that he sent single women into the interior alone to work. His missionaries were to live on what they were given – never to beg for support from others. He started his own missions organization, which is still operating today. He wrote, China is not to be won for Christ by quiet, ease-loving men and women. … The stamp of men and women we need is such as will put Jesus, China, [and] souls first and foremost in everything and at every time-- even life itself must be secondary.
Apparently what made him colorful was Reverend Taylor's conviction that when Jesus said go make disciples of every nation He really did mean GO! The same way Jesus emptied himself of the things of heaven to come to us, he [Taylor] emptied himself of all things English. “Go!” was not just Go! “Go!” was also “Stay!” Taylor died in China in 1905. He was 72. In between he recruited hundreds of missionaries, established hundreds of mission stations. He never solicited for money, and tens of thousands of people heard the gospel. In his pond, he is very, very famous – like the Underwoods in Korea. I'm attaching a link about him to this sermon, so you can read more: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/missionaries/hudson-taylor.html .
It's no good regretting – only being better. I wish people like Reverend Taylor were my earliest associations with the Great Commission. I wish my earliest understanding of this text in which Jesus is charging his apostles had focused on the scene more than the chapter title. At most, all a child needs of this text is, here is Jesus giving the grown-ups one last job before he goes back to heaven.
But that is not the children’s sermon of my childhood. I called my friend Angela to check myself on this, for fear I was overstating it. (You also can judge for yourselves.) The Great Commission upon which I was bottle-fed went something like this: Boys and girls, the eternal destiny of your friends, family, and neighbors is in your hands. Do I have a witness?
Theologically, that isn’t true. Spiritually, it is abusive. When parents poison kids it's called child abuse. When theology poisons people it's called spiritual abuse. It's all trauma. But the thing about trauma is that to the traumatized it's normal. Just like, to a kid who doesn't know different, child abuse is, simply, home or mommy or love. To a baby Believer, whatever his or her age, spiritual trauma is the same thing as faith.
Let me see if I can explain it in a story. By the time I was twelve, I was overwhelmed with anxiety about my friends who might be going to hell. Along with my dad. And some neighbors who were devout Catholics, yet claimed to never have heard that Jesus is supposed to be your personal Lord and Savior. Your PLS.
It sort of makes me laugh now, but it was not funny then. It was terrifying. (I might have been a wee bit of a sensitive child.) As I knew it, the Great Commission demanded – DEMANDED – that I tell every person I met that Jesus loved them very much and if they didn't accept him as their PLS, he'd have no choice but to let them go to hell when they died – them and all their loved ones too. He didn't want to, of course. He simply had no choice. At no point in my childhood did my brain say to myself, “That is horrible.” Or, “That is stupid.” Or, “That doesn't even make any sense.” Why? Because I was a kid! And because good grown-ups were saying it – the Pastor and my Sunday School teachers. People who spoke for God.
My brain couldn’t say it. But you know what did, ALL THE TIME? My belly. My gut. My nervous system. From the time I was twelve years old, the thought of telling people Jesus would be sad to send them to hell, but he would, made me feel like I was going to throw up and cry at the same time. A response as automatic as yanking my hand off a hot pan. In both cases, my body was telling myself, DON'T DO THAT! YOU'LL HURT YOURSELF! But, of course, that was not the message I got. The message I got was that obviously I didn't love my Jesus or my friends enough to be brave. – I need to hear if this is making sense to anybody.
One time in 7th grade I decided I was not going to be a horrible, terrible person anymore. I was going to tell my friend Joy that Jesus loved her and didn't want her to go to hell. Joy was about as much of a criminal personality as I was in the 7th grade. Neither of our mothers let us wear make-up or go to movies after dark. Nevertheless, her eternal destiny was at stake – and up to me. Not up to Jesus, mind you – the one who had already died and risen for her; up to me and the cafeteria conversation I had planned. I would tell her on a certain day and lunch time.
I sweated and almost threw up all morning. I had barely started my prepared speech before Joy blurted out, “Do you want to know if I'm saved?” ”Yes,” I practically panted. “Oh sure,” she said, “way back when I was 8.” I was hung over for days after. Which happens with trauma. But there was a new feeling too that I wasn't expecting, that I didn't understand for a long time. The feeling is relief, the sensation that my friend Joy can now be crossed off the list of people who haven't heard the gospel. Not because she's saved, but because she had her chance.
I remember a seminary chapel speaker who said that no one deserves to hear the gospel twice until everyone has heard it once. A person could definitely hang a meaningful ministry from that. On the other hand, I can't shake the sensation that Jesus crossed no one off his list. The sensation that he would be disappointed to see us doing so, racking up the numbers as we go. Which is a whole other rabbit I don't have time to chase. Back when I was 12 – and 25 – it upset me more to tell someone “Friend, Jesus loves you enough to send you to hell” than it did to think that person might actually go to hell. Does that makes sense to anyone here but me? You know why? Because it is a lie. It is a cultivated, well-told lie, told not always for love of the world – the nations, to use Jesus’ word – but to pacify our own fear.
Friends, once we know a lie is a lie, telling the lie is worse than the lie. Untold, lies die. Jesus doesn't send children to hell for their lack of information, information withheld by other children. That's stupid. If it weren't stupid, it would be horrible. When my brain didn't know anything at all, my belly and my nervous system, my soul, my heart of heart of heart, knew that was a lie and begged me not to tell it. Because my soul wants me to be okay, not burned or traumatized. I don't blame my preachers and my teachers – unless they also knew it was a lie. But the ones who did helped me see it and say so. Nothing, ever, is all just one thing, is it? So much Christian love and ministry has been bequeathed under the Great Commission banner. And so much harm.
My mind goes back to Hudson Taylor, the white man in Chinese clothes and a pigtail, who learned to be a midwife when men really didn't do that kind of thing. Colorful, I tell you. I wonder if he'd say, Oh, the Great Commission, yes. That is Jesus’ charge to his apostles and disciples just before his ascension, a summary of their three years of apprenticeship overlaid with his own death and resurrection, which they at the time still barely understood. His will for their lives, you see: Do for others what I have done for you. It will terrify you sometimes. Make you crazy . Bring you joy. It will take everything you have and more. I will be with you every single moment. Let us begin.
Would you pray with me?