First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, LouisianaRomans 13:8-14
September 4, 2011 – Ordinary (23A)
September 4, 2011 – Ordinary (23A)
[My wife, Treva, served as lay reader on this day two days after our 11th wedding anniversary.] I am reminded today of the first time Treva and I led worship together as husband and wife. It was shortly after our wedding at the church I grew up in, John Knox Presbyterian in Marietta, GA. It was a lovely service, and I greeted the congregation with no small amount of pride – introducing my bride as liturgist. After the service she graciously whispered in my ear, “You do realize that you introduced me as Treva Lewis, right?”
Oh, the effects of love. Love holds you accountable. Love affects your actions. Love is at the core of our being, like a rock thrown into the abyss and creating ripples that flow through eternity. Love is the only debt worth owing someone, for love is the only currency that pays for itself.
Paul has just finished telling the church in Rome that governance is a good thing, no matter what. “Pay your taxes. Do what you are told, and don’t complain,” says Paul. Now, we have to remember that during Paul’s day, Roman occupation was certainly oppressive, but they generally allowed the Jews to manage and order their own society. Christians were still seen as a sect of Judaism, and Paul did not want the Roman government to see followers of Jesus as a group of troublemakers.
So Paul tells the church and its members not to be indebted to anyone, unless it is the debt of love. And apparently, the debt of love is owed to – everyone! Paul says to love your neighbor as yourself. I think that is one of the most confrontational statements in the Bible. Love my neighbor as I love myself? I have to feel as responsible for the basic needs of food clothing and shelter for others as I do for myself? Beyond the basics, I have to offer the same level of comfort for others that I offer to myself?
Now, bear in mind that Paul is offering no critique of any governmental or political system here. He wrote these things when the rule of law was that might makes right. Political processes and representative forms of government were beginning to form, but counsels were always driven by coalitions and allegiances. Isn’t it so nice that all of that has changed?
No, Paul was not concerned about governmental systems. He was concerned about the government of the heart. He was concerned about timing and the opportunities that might just be missed if the church did not wake up and step into the light of day! “Put on the armor of light,” Paul says!
Funny thing about light – it reveals things held secret in the shadows. So the protection, the effect, the result of our armor is…vulnerability. Yes. When we put on Christ we become vulnerable. We become more open to change. We become more likely to be affected by the concerns of others. Things that use to feel like they satisfied our desires no longer do, because our need has become less connected with the self and more connected with the other.
Now, this may sound very idealistic to some. It may seem improbable and impractical to assume that each of us could or should shoulder the responsibility of the needs of others. After all, this country was founded on an ethic of self-determination and hard work. Why should that change?
Again, Paul is not suggesting that people should not be responsible for themselves. Instead he is stating that following Christ into the light of day means that we cannot turn aside from the needs of others. Believe it or not, there are even new trends of business models based on this very idea.
The following is an example from the website for a shoe company called Tom’s: In 2006, American traveler Blake Mycoskie befriended children in Argentina and found they had no shoes to protect their feet. Wanting to help, he created TOMS, a company that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need. One for One. Blake returned to Argentina with a group of family, friends and staff later that year with 10,000 pairs of shoes made possible by TOMS customers.
Why Shoes? Many children in developing countries grow up barefoot. Whether at play, doing chores or going to school, these children are at risk of: catching soil-transmitted diseases, which can penetrate the skin through bare feet; getting cuts and sores that are dangerous when wounds become infected; and many times children can't attend school barefoot because shoes are a required part of their uniform.
As of September of 2010, TOMS customers have distributed 1,000,000 shoes in 23 countries.
That is a pretty amazing example of how one person of means has created a system to help others who are without resources. That type of attitude and spirit certainly needs to be applauded, but it doesn’t let us off the hook. We need heroes of faith to encourage and inspire us, but without our action our appreciation of others is simply self-gratifying entertainment.
The question I am left with, after hearing about someone who inspires me, is a question of affect or effect. What is the effect of the love I have seen expressed? What is the product? How does this love affect me? What does it make me want to do?
According to Matthew, love makes us hold each other accountable. Love makes us respect each other enough to challenge one another privately and confidentially. Not only that, love drives us to seek agreement between the church and those who have made choices that have separated them from us.
On the surface, this passage seems pretty straightforward. A church member sins, and so you confront him or her. If that member still persists, go get a friend and do it again. If she or he still persists, treat that person like an outsider. While those are the words of God, I do not believe the practice of judgment and division to be the Word of God – the divine Logos, the living, breathing presence of the grace and mercy of God.
That’s why I believe there is more to it than what’s on the surface. Matthew’s audience was Jewish. They knew the sin being referred to as it is described in the Levitical code. They knew and understood that sin was not just an action, but an orientation. Sin has to do with our motivation. Are we motivated by malice or kindness, self-interest or mutual concern? Not only that, sin was not simply something done by one person, it was something you could not walk by without becoming responsible for it. Leviticus 19:17 even says, “you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself,” and verse 18 tells us once more that we are to, “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
And there’s one more thing. Matthew was a tax collector. So, for Matthew to write the story of Jesus and for Jesus to say, “Treat them like the tax collectors,” begs the question, “How did Jesus treat the tax collectors?” Apparently he treated them like he treats you and me – with love and forgiveness.
Now, so far we have heard the call to love our neighbor as ourselves. We’ve heard the call to become vulnerable so that we can become more able to see our connection to the needs of others. And we have heard the expectation of holding one another accountable, always remembering to love as we have been loved. Remember how I said that loving was like throwing a rock into the abyss and watching the ripples flow? Well, this is the part where Jesus shows up with the biggest rock of all – and he places it in your hands.
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be let loose in heaven.
And now we begin to see the effects of the amazing and wonderful love that has been offered by Jesus. The effect of God’s love is that everyone becomes a person of value to you because you are able to see that everyone has the same value to God. The effect of love is that you realize that another person’s loss is your loss. The effect of love is that you realize that there are people who feel estranged from the church, and that it is our responsibility now to demonstrate to them that we are a community of grace, mercy, and peace that is incomplete without them. The effect of love is the realization that our actions have eternal consequences, and that we can begin to experience eternity here and now!
The effect of love is to be called to this table to be reminded again and again that you are God’s beloved, and so are they. How this will affect you and your relationships with others I can only begin to imagine, but I look forward to what is yet to come. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen. Amen. And again I say Amen!