The sermon from September 10, 2017 on Romans 13: 8-14 –
I attended a funeral yesterday for one of the many loved elders in my life, someone who had steadily encouraged me on my path of ministry.
Among her many skills, she was a musician, playing both the piano and the pipe organ.
The music in tribute to her was thus especially important and especially lovely. The final hymn was Charles Wesley’s ‘O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing,’ I have sung that hymn so many times in my life that I can generally sing the verses – and there are 7 if you sing them all – by heart.
But yesterday the very last phrase on the last line in the last verse caught me in a way it never has before.
“Anticipate your heaven below, And own that love is heaven.”
And own that love is heaven.
That sits with me as a fine entry point into our scripture for today, but first let’s back up a moment.
This passage comes toward the latter part of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. He’s writing to a community formed right in the heart of the Empire.
Like the other communities whom Paul writes or visits, the early Roman Christian communities are trying to figure out what it means to live as a follower of Jesus – to discern the implications of choosing that path.
We know it is a diverse community. At the end of the letter, in chapter 16, Paul sends greetings by name to 38 different people. Some names are Jewish and others pagan. There are 3 married couples and 32 unmarried people (widows, young single people, sexual minorities, and others).
Paul names 10 women, 8 of them leaders in that early church community. Somewhere between a third and two-thirds of those he names – depending on who you ask – are slaves or liberated slaves.
So in this long letter to this substantial community living in the heart of the Roman Empire, Paul focuses on the question of what it means to live in a diverse community and to do it well.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
When Paul puts it this way, it makes sense, right? All of these commandments sum up to treating one another well – with respect and kindness and recognition of shared humanity and reciprocity and mutuality.
That is love.
This type of love relates to individual behavior and it relates to systems.
For I can be kind to your face, but if I consciously uphold an oppressive system that has its boot on your neck, then what I am really doing is walking over to you and bending down to your face as it is mashed into the ground and offering you platitudes.
Maybe that’s better than spitting on you while you are down there. But it’s hardly acting with love. Love means working to get that boot off your neck – and then giving you a hand up, so that we stand together.
That’s love. It’s not platitudes or mushy feelings. It’s action and risk and commitment. It’s accountability and prophetic wisdom.
When we manage to do the right thing, we often want to put ourselves into the center of the story. Look, I’m a little mini-savior! I’m the hero too – just like Jesus!
We forget that this is not about us.
It’s about God and God’s people and God’s love.
We are called to be of use, not to glorify ourselves.
To see it otherwise is to feed into the shallow tropes of individualism that define contemporary culture – and that has nothing to do with God.
The whole point for Paul is the well-being of the community. It is a radical community in which the slave and the master are equal. The foreigner and the native are equal. The Jew and the pagan are equal. The man and the woman are equal.
As the theologian Ted Jennings frames it, in Paul’s vision of God’s realm, we are absolutely different and absolutely equal.
Otherwise it’s not love.
Think back to the boot on your neighbor’s neck. What would it mean for us to refuse to exclude our neighbor, even when our neighbor was slave or foreigner, poor or disabled, black or transgender, Muslim or homeless?
That sounds as radical in our time as it did in Paul’s.
Yesterday, I saw a drone video of a prosperous area of Miami Beach. It was abandoned ahead of the coming hurricane. Stores and beachfront condos boarded up. Wealthy residents long departed for safer spaces. They may or may not have a home to come back to when all of this is done, but they have resources that will enable them to start over if that time comes.
Then I read this morning that 530,000 people in Miami-Dade County alone live below the poverty line – and that’s an annual income of $16,240 for two people or $24,600 for a family of four.
There are not just dozens or hundreds of people, but tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people who are too poor to evacuate to safe places, to poor to prepare for a hurricane by stocking up on bottled water and non-perishable food and flashlights and batteries and generators because they have to pay for rent and medical bills and everyday food staples for themselves and those they love, too poor to have reliable transportation to take them out of harm’s way.
They have nothing extra and likely often not even enough.
What would it mean to live as if everyone were truly equal? Because if it is so in the eyes of God – and I’d argue that teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul point us to a radical equality of human beings – then why do we not live as if were true?
Otherwise our concept of love is reduced to self-gratification (I love you because you do this for me) and the equivalent of feel-good youtube puppy-snuggling-with-baby-goat videos (and y’all know I am a fan of both puppies and baby goats, but that’s a mighty shallow notion of love.
This comes to us from message of the Jewish Torah, our Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible – Leviticus 19:18 – You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
The Jewish texts of the Talmud tell of the Rabbi Hillel, whose life overlapped with Jesus’. The stories goes that a Gentile came to him saying that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”
When we turn to the Gospels, we hear the words of Matthew 22:34-40 – When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Paul is not even concerned here about the first part of Jesus words. Apparently the struggle for the people of the church at Rome isn’t with loving God, it’s with loving their neighbors.
The latter part of the passage gives us more insight into the challenges to love in that community.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.
For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.
You’ve come this far. You have committed together to owning that love is heaven and that love for your neighbor is both a central commandment and the deepest challenge.
And yet it is the heart of our faith – it means nothing to say you love God if you are not committed to the practice of that love in loving your neighbor.
Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
By all this, Paul is telling folks to not act like all those other folks out there, those folks who are bound up only in gratifying their own selfish desires, in partying so hard that they ignore the needs of those around them, who abuse the trust of others, who are consumed by envy and in-fighting.
Don’t be like that, Paul says. Let us live honorably. Let us so fill our hearts with the love of God that it overflows out of us.
Be certain of this – there is no exploitation in love. There is no room for opportunistic self-gain in love. There is accountability, one to another, but there is no room for vengeance.
I therefore lift up to you the opportunity to examine on a daily basis your own motives – and the motives of our society and our political structures.
I lift up the opportunity to notice that some revel in their hatred.
Others mask their love of power and money and material accumulation with the verbiage of love for others.
Love isn’t about appearance. It is never vicious, even when it is fierce.
Love is the hard work.
Love is a sensitivity to the dynamics of power in any and all relationships, individually and societally.
Love is the unflagging dedication to the equality of all.
Love is stripping away the fear that holds you back.
Love is living as if we were already free, living as if we are all in this together, as if we are all bound up together in the fate of one another and of the planet.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
And own that love is heaven.
|Unidentified, may have been made by Hardman and Co.. Spirit with Sevenfold Gifts, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55828|