I need to begin today with a few words on current events. We heard from our Attorney General this week that there is a biblical injunction from St. Paul in Romans 13 to follow all the laws of the ruling government. Therefore, the recent policy to separate families at our southwestern border is endorsed by God. The Press Secretary when asked about it doubled down by saying, “Enforcing laws is biblical.”
So let’s take a look at what Paul wrote in context within his letter to the Romans. In the verses leading up to chapter 13 Paul exhorts the Roman Church to do this, “Let [your] love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” He continues in that train of thought about empathizing with others and doing good and then he gets to the verses referenced by our political leaders.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” But then after a few more verses about the duty of paying taxes, Paul writes this: “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.”
Theologians call this tactic of finding verses to suit your argument eisegesis or proof-texting. It’s looking at the text from your position and agenda and then reading into it what you desire. For example, what is ignored in the arguments around Romans 13 are those additional verses which show Paul’s thought leading up to his declaration and his conclusion. “Hold fast to what is good, hate evil, extend hospitality. Love your neighbor as yourself.” The other thing missing in their explanation is who Paul is writing to. Paul sends this letter to the body of Christ gathered at Rome. Christians were persecuted greatly during this time by the Emperor; they were a small minority that the Empire was seeking to crush because they worshipped differently, and because they made political claims that Jesus himself was Lord rather than the Emperor. This cost them dearly. Paul himself would be executed likely under Nero for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus in an inhospitable time. The interpretations of the text we heard this week are reading it the other way round; the ones in power demanding that the minority hold fast to the law. In reality, our country is most closely aligned to the Roman Empire, and those entering into our country more like the persecuted Christian minority.
Even more so, the Bible’s narrative proclaims again and again that we should care for strangers. In the Torah, the first five books of Moses in our Bible and the centerpiece of faith for our Jewish neighbor, God’s most frequent command—appearing 36 times—is this: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs wrote recently that “the Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to non-citizens.” We also know well the parable of the Good Samaritan when a lawyer trying to slip out of loving others asks Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response: even those you least expect and who you may despise.
I know I am speaking quite a bit about this, but I want to ensure that you understand the claims made this week are biblically untrue. God again and again encourages us to love others, to treat the strangers, aliens, and the least among us with dignity and respect. We make this declaration ourselves every time we renew our baptismal covenant proclaiming that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and that we will strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. Separating families in the way we are doing is not biblical; it is unjust, unholy, and unchristian. Proclaiming otherwise is blasphemy. Caging up children and using them as political pawns is reprehensible and must end. Surely we can figure out ways to both encourage safe and responsible immigration, and show concern and charity to those seeking a better life in this nation. I’ve made a list of resources that may interest you in responding to this atrocity.
I could possibly end there, but then I will feel as if I’m not holding up my end of the bargain in talking about the scripture we’ve heard this morning and making sense of it together. So a few words about seeds.
Jesus doesn’t tell many parables in Mark’s gospel. He keeps on the move, healing people, preaching good news, and seeking to spread the kingdom of God. The few parables we do get tend to be about agriculture. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, and the sower does not know how.” And then of course, after some time, the harvest comes.
What’s remarkable to me is what is not included in this image. The sower simply scatters the seed and then goes to bed. She doesn’t stand over it, becoming frustrated when it doesn’t sprout quickly enough, or wondering what would make it grow more substantially. The farmer just waits. Which is not how we like to do things in our culture. We like to work hard and keep at projects. We manicure our lawns. We weed. We fertilize. When others fail to do so, we notice. And yet Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is different. We scatter seeds and then let the work of the Spirit happen.
Because really what can we do to get seeds to grow? It takes sun and soil and moisture in ways that we cannot control. We go out faithfully to spread the good news—to proclaim the deep love of Christ for all people—and then hope that those seeds make an impact. And, if we think about it from the ability of things to grow, we know it does. We can make the connection to the impact of the kingdom when we see what we would deem as unwanted green shoots in our driveway cracks. Or the vines that creep along our flower beds. Here on the church grounds, I’ve noticed that young trees have sprouted up in unexpected places and taken root over the past couple of years hidden beneath other bushes. If you really want to see the generous love found in God’s kingdom, look at all that pollen that has been covering every possible surface recently. That fine coating of yellow particles found everywhere this Spring holds the possibility of new life. Seeds spread all over have nestled in with a bit of soil, drunk in the rain, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun. And they grow without any help from us.
And that’s what the kingdom of God is like. It’s like a seed that has found its way into our hearts and keeps growing on its own because of the intense warmth of God’s love for us and our world.
This week I’ve been thinking of the words attributed to the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero—martyred for standing alongside the poor and needy in his country in 1980. I shared them with our vestry this week, and I want to share them with you as well. “It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
“This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.
“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”