Saturday, September 06, 2008

What Do I Owe You?

Hah! I'm finally going to get my sermon up on time. So again I say, 'Ha!'

The Sermon Today, Romans 13: 8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The 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.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11Besides 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; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
In this passage, Paul continues his lessons on ‘how to live like a Christian’ for the church at Rome. In my mind, I have this image of Paul leaning out of the window of a train that is pulling out of a station, waving and shouting out last minute instructions to those of us standing on the platform as the train moves away. “Don’t forget to lock take out the trash.” “Turn off the lights before you leave.” “Walk as a child of the light.”
He began this section of his letter by reminding us that God is asking for, and deserves our whole lives, every tiny bit, every minute of every hour of every day, not just our Sunday morning lives. Then he went on, last week, to paint us a picture of God in Christ as our role model and remind us that now, since the resurrected Christ no longer walks the earth with us, we have become God’s role model for the rest of the world.
Between last week’s passage and this week’s Paul talks about how we should live in relation with the governmental authorities and what it means to be not just a citizen of God’s kingdom, but also to still be functioning as a part of a worldly kingdom. This wasn’t just a theoretical issue for Paul and the Roman church, it was an incredibly practical one. At the time of this letter, Christians had already been banished from Rome once and forced to leave behind either their faith or their homes and livelihoods. They had only recently bee allowed to return and it was anybody’s guess how long the capricious Emperor Claudius would allow them to remain.
And that brings us to today’s passage. Paul begins with an unusual grammatical construction—a Greek double negative. A more literal translation, although bad English, would be ‘Owe no one nothing except love.’ Now, in English, as we all know, a double negative is really a positive. But in Greek, a double negative is just a really, really strong negative. So Paul is stating this just as forcefully as he possibly can. Since Paul is so concerned about this, it must be important, then.
And so what is he saying here, that we shouldn’t be in financial debt. Well, yes, certainly. Most of us already know that. And even without Dave Ramsey, I’m pretty sure that the Roman church members knew as well just how draining, just how depressing and just how debilitating it is to be enslaved to financial debt. Talk about living counter-culturally, especially in the credit-crazy world of America today. But that’s another sermon.
Yes, Paul was talking about financial debt, but he was also trying to cause a paradigm shift in the Roman Christians. He was trying to help them see themselves and the world they lived in in a whole new way. He wasn’t talking just about financial debt but also about relationships. What he was saying is that we have to get away from taking care of others because we feel like we owe them, or God something, and move to a place where we take care of them not because of a debt, but because of love. It all goes along with what he said earlier about seeing others as God sees them. It’s about responding to them not out of obligation, not because ‘that’s what a Christian would do,’ not because we have too, but because we love to.
Once again, Paul is not making it easy for us. There are some people that make it hard for us to love them. They are mean--to us or to others. They are negative--and their refusal to see anything but the down side makes us want to run away every time we see them. They are self absorbed--so interested in their own illnesses or hardships that they are blind to the blessings in their lives or the happiness in someone else’s. Or they are just so needy--so desperate to know that someone cares for them that they just wear us out and we’re afraid that we’ll sucked into some kind of quicksand if we get too close to them. By now, each of you probably has a mental image of someone that in your opinion I have just described. Yes, they are hard to love. And yes, they are also us, because sometimes we are the ones that are hard to love.
So, Paul says, love them anyway. Not out of duty or a sense of obligation, but out of God’s love. This is what God is asking of us. We aren’t bound by any law, we are bound by love.
And, he goes on to say, we can’t put this off. We can’t afford to cling to any hardness of heart toward God, ourselves, or each other because we are running out of time. We can’t put it off any longer. We can’t sleep on this. Why, because ‘the night is far gone, the day is near.’
Now some people think that here Paul is talking about the return of Christ to redeem the world. There is evidence, in this letter and other letters from Paul, that he, like many in the new church, expected Christ’s return to be imminent. It could be coming any day now, even, as Anne Lamott says, ‘next Tuesday after lunch.’ But Paul had been working in God’s fields for a long time by this point, and it’s not so clear that he still thought that might happen in his lifetime. Who knew when the time might be.
But he also knew, as we all do, that whether Christ came today, or tomorrow or not for a long time, it really shouldn’t matter to how we live our lives. If we are truly living fully for Christ, if we are completely focused on God, if we walk daily, 24/7 hand in hand with the Holy Spirit, then it shouldn’t make any difference to us when Christ returns because we are ready all the time. So what if we knew when Christ was coming? If we are living in love like Paul is calling us to do in this passage, knowing that Christ is coming tonight during volleyball practice shouldn’t change our behavior one little bit. No small challenge there.
So how do we achieve this goal? How do we live up to this impossibly high standard? We’ve talked on other Sundays about prayer, Bible study, private and corporate worship, partaking of the sacraments like we are going to do in a little while, all these ways of learning to live like Christ. But here Paul gives us another image. ‘Let us lay aside the works of dardness and put on the armor of light….Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ….’ Let’s think about that image for a while.
In Rome, as in most ancient societies, what we call sumptuary laws were common. These laws basically dictated what you could or could not wear, and what you could wear usually depended on your profession or social class. The best known of these laws from Rome were the ones restricting the wearing of purple to royalty, and just how much purple you could have on your toga depended on just how royal you were.
Even today, we still recognize some tiny remnant of this in our obsession with dress. Entire careers have been made for people who can tell us what to wear or not to wear to make a proper impression in a given situation. Personally, I have gotten so bored with the whole power tie thing that I almost automatically pay attention to any man, especially a politician, who doesn’t wear a red tie.
And Paul knows all this. He knows that ‘you are what you wear.’ He knows, just like we all do, just how much what we wear and when affects how people respond to us and what they think about us. So what is his recommendation? Pul on Christ. Wear Christ like a garment, so you are completely wrapped up in God, hidden behind Christ, and only Christ shows. We all have work clothes and church clothes, school clothes and play clothes, uniforms and civvies. But over all of these, the ultimate outfit is Christ. Wrap yourself in Christ. Walk like Christ, talk like Christ, look like Christ and you will eventually come to love like Christ.
It’s time to quit sleeping. It’s time to get up and get dressed. It is time now for us to begin to walk children of the light, because that is what we are.
In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer—The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen