My Sunday sermon based on Romans 13:8-14.
“Don’t get mad, get even.” This stock phrase occasionally comes out when one has been wronged, usually by a friend who is imagining possibilities of revenge. Unless, of course you’re Ivana Trump or follow her way of thinking, and then you say, “Don’t get mad, get everything.” While we didn’t hear it explicitly this summer, surely this sentiment rang true in Ferguson, Missouri by some on both sides of that conflict. Don’t like what has happened, then let’s loot a neighborhood store. Don’t like what you see, use excessive force. The snag comes however with the reality that these responses never even out; the conflict ratchets up with every response. That’s how we ended up with photos on the front page of the Globe that looked like they came from the Middle East and not the MidWest.
It took Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson to calm things down there. He came out his first night after taking over for the local police and marched with the people of Ferguson who felt like they weren’t being heard. He gave out hugs and kisses and laughs. Gas masks were put away. Barricades removed. And peace prevailed that night.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” Paul writes to the Roman church. Before we turn this into a phrase all about money—the thing we hear when someone mentions the word “owe”—Paul himself has just addressed that in the preceding verse; he writes, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” We need to pay what we owe people; if we “have an obligation, [we should] honor it,” as one commentator put it. He continues, “The main thing [we] owe everyone is ‘to love one another.’” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, pg 41)
And how hard that is. Let’s be honest about that. It’s much easier to hear the words being pounded into us daily by our culture that we are the most important, that we should do things for ourselves, that we must preserve our own best interests. We do have laws to make sure that there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed: if a neighbor wrongs you, you cannot do bodily harm without consequences legally. Or if you cheat another person, there is recompense available to them.
St. Paul tells us that if we truly want to keep the law we must love. In this day and age, love has become only an emotion, a response to something or someone. I love both a good curry and my wife, although I hope not in the same way (although both are a bit spicy). Love, in the way that Paul uses it, moves beyond emotion into the realm of actions. Someone can say they love their neighbor but if they don’t back it up with some deeds, with their behavior, then the words are rendered meaningless. Love even when you don’t feel like it, Paul says. Even when the emotion has gone, show your love to others. Stay true to the call to embody sacrificial love to your neighbor.Paul then explains the seriousness of what is at stake to this church that is puttering along on autopilot. “Wake up!” he shouts as loudly as he can in his letter—he would probably use all caps today. “Salvation is nearer now than ever before; the kingdom is coming soon!” Light is overcoming darkness. The dawn of a new day is beginning to break into the night driving the darkness away. Put on the armor of light and live honorably. Don’t be consumed with drunkenness and self-serving physical intimacy. Don’t be constantly quarreling or filled with jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus.” He gives quite a list. Unfortunately it’s a familiar one in our world, this actions he tells us to avoid. It’s the inevitable result when we put ourselves first and follow after what will entertain us or bring us gratification.
I do not think as some theologians out there that at our core we are bad or doomed. I do not believe that there is no good to be found in us. Yes, when left to our own devices many of us—probably most of us—will choose the path that leads to what we deem is best for us, blindly missing the boat. Yet even the most self-centered among us will often reach out in a crisis and care for someone else. We are not so tone deaf to the needs of others. When given the challenge to dump ice water on our heads and make a donation to help researchers find a cure for ALS, we do it and post a video online. As of this week, over $109 million has poured in to the ALS Association. When someone faces a time of grief, we send cards and make meals and check in.
So it’s not as if we don’t get it, we do. It’s just that far too often we doze off and don’t remember. We forget when our child comes up looking for love and there is too much else on our plates to pay attention to. We fail to remember when we mumble just a few token words to a spouse and then move on to something else not hearing what they said to us. We do not recall when we’re tired and in the checkout line and snap at the cashier because the scanner isn’t working fast enough. We forget when we make it all about us and our needs and desires. We make it about emotion, about feeling love, rather than making it about action especially when the feeling just isn’t there.
And that’s why we need to put on Jesus, to clothe ourselves in him. Jesus embodies love. When he met broken people, he gave them wholeness. When faced with sinners, he didn’t heap on condemnation but presented a way out. And he offers the same to us. Wholeness, healing, new life. There before us. In a word, love.
But he does this not simply for us, but to bring about transformation in the world. Imagine the Ukraine with both sides standing down and treating each other with respect. Or those spreading fear in Syria and Iraq releasing prisoners and seeking a way forward with their enemies. Or maybe think about the transformation needed in your own home, your own family, where cynicism and anger is replaced with joy and peace and the deep security of love. Relationships healed. Respect and justice given to all people.
It sound almost too good to be true, right? Almost. Until we remember Ferguson and Captain Johnson, or Martin Luther King and a segregated America, or Gandhi and an independent India. They all provided glimpses into the kingdom. I’ve seen homes transformed too, by Jesus’ power and love, relationships restored, anger replaced with goodwill.
But to get there we need to wake up. We must see that the time has come both in our own lives and in our world. We can help usher in the light of Christ’s kingdom if we act with love to all our neighbors, both inside this parish and in our community, and further out into our country and, yes, even in the world. It begins with you and me. We need to clothe ourselves with Christ. And then we must take action.
So on this Sunday morning, I must ask, is there someone you need to reconcile with? Is there a ruptured relationship that needs healing? Regardless of who is “right” and who is “wrong,” without considering how you can get even, can you instead offer kindness and love? You may be rebuffed, as was Captain Johnson, and Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Jesus by some, but that doesn’t negate the need to allow love to transform us and share that with others.
Don’t fall back under the spell of sleep offered by the darkness in our world, or the call to self-centeredness. Put on Jesus. Show his love. Become messengers of Christ’s kingdom. And when we do, our homes, our neighborhoods and our own lives will show signs of the transformation that only love can bring. May it be so. Amen.