Sermons are meant to be heard. There is something that gets lost in just reading one. The following sermon was written to be spoken aloud which explains why the writing is not always perfect and the punctuation is at times nonexistent. Nevertheless, I pray that it speaks to you.
THE CONTINUING DEBT OF LOVE
September 13, 2017
There’s an old episode of the Seinfeld Show in which Kramer is acting like a talk show host and one of his “guests” mentions El Paso. And Kramer says: “El Paso? I spent a month there one night.”
I kinda feel like these past three days have been a month. It was only three days ago that we were watching a storm move up the west coast of Florida – wondering what it might do to us. And now, a month later it feels like, we are still recovering – some of us praying for power and others of us praying that school would start again.
So tonight we bring all of the stress and exhaustion of the past three days and pause and rest and remember that God is bigger than the storm – no matter what kind of storm we are in.
Let us pray.
God give us eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to understand what it is you want us to learn this night. We pray in the name of the one who calms the storms, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Tonight our scripture passage is from the letter Paul wrote to the Roman church and in the first part of this letter he lays out the theological basis for what he believes. He talks about law and justification and faith and grace. And it’s in this first part of the letter that we get Paul’s take on some great theological truths.
But in the second part of the letter he turns his attention to the question of “How, then, shall we live?” In other words, after we have learned the basics, after we have the foundation, how do we go about our day to day lives - living in this new reality that we find ourselves in?
Now, this was not just a thought exercise for Paul. It was deadly serious. The church in Rome was dealing with a lot of issues. It was a church made up of Jewish Christians who kept acting like Jews – that is they followed Jewish law. There were also Jewish Christians who did not follow Jewish law. And then there were Gentile Christians who could care less about Jewish tradition. And all these different groups of people with different traditions and different world views and different politics and even different ideas about what it meant to be a Christ follower – all these different people were together in one church.
Add to that the Jewish people in Rome who were not Christian who hated the Jewish Christians and wanted them driven out of the city. And on top of that they were living under a ruler – Nero – who was absolutely crazy and had no love for the Christians. Add all these factors together and you had one tense place. How could they worship Christ and grow as his disciples when they couldn’t stand the person sitting next to them and there was a chance that at any moment a Roman thug was going to burst down the door and take them all away?
This is the soup of toxicity that Paul was writing to. So it makes sense that he spends about half of his letter telling them how to live as authentic believers in a place like Rome.
And what I like about this letter is that we also live in Rome. We also are faced with issues of diversity and difference. We also must confront at times the fact that our beliefs are not going to jive with the prevailing beliefs of the day. We also must deal with people who claim to follow Christ but absolutely rub us the wrong way. And so maybe there is something Paul can say to us as well.
Our text tonight is from the 13th chapter of Romans beginning with verse 8. You can follow along on the back of your worship guide or in your Bible or on your device. Listen as I read it tonight.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 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.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11 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; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
There is a lot going on in this passage but I want us to focus tonight on the debt to love and how putting on Christ gives us the power to love others as ourselves.
In the first few verses of this passage Paul is telling his listeners that love is the greatest part of the law. In fact, if you love one another, Paul is saying, then you have fulfilled ALL of the law. He even gives some examples from the 10 commandments. Now, this is nothing new that Paul is saying. Jesus said the exact same thing and later when Paul writes to the Corinthians he would expound on this idea with a whole chapter about love – a chapter that ends with the phrase “The greatest of these is love.”
Now, we have to be careful here because Paul is not saying that love earns you salvation. Love is not a thing that if done correctly will gain us access to God. Just like keeping all of the Jewish law will not gain you God’s favor. In fact the whole first part of this letter is Paul saying that keeping the law will not make things right between you and God – only Christ can do that. Only the death and resurrection of Christ makes us justified before God. The law cannot save us. So Paul is not saying that if we just get our love right we can work our way up to God.
Instead, he’s saying that the Jewish law and the love that fulfills that law shows the world what God is like and what God’s kingdom is like. It’s a walking billboard – a testimony about the kingdom of God. So we love one another not to earn our way to God, but because we are citizens of another kingdom a kingdom where love is the currency of the realm. We love because we are loved. And in sharing that love we are sharing a picture of what the world should be like and what has happened in our lives because of Christ.
But here is the most honest thing I can say to you tonight. We do not know how to love. Or if we do, we are terrible at it.
We tend to blow right through the love statements in the Bible – like “we got that”. We hear about love all the time. Our culture from trash magazines to prize winning novels is always talking about it love. So we could be forgiven for thinking we know how to love or thinking that we are pretty good at it. But the truth is we just aren’t. Paul says that we have a continuing debt to love others. But what does that even look like? How do we even start doing that?
Our problem is that we want love to be earned. We want to get something for our love – even if it’s an acknowledgement from the other person that THEY know we are doing something for them out of love.
We tend to divide ourselves into groups of people whom it’s ok to love which means that it’s perfectly ok not to love someone not in our group – someone who is other. From the different tribes in Kenya that are impacting that county’s election to the ethnic cleansing that’s happening in Burma between Buddhists and Muslims to the tension in our own country between Black lives matter and no, all lives matter, even when we label someone as redneck or white trash or homeless or looser. Even in the church we divide ourselves based on theology or Biblical interpretation or even worship style preference. All of this division seems to come easy to use and the fact is we are not very good at paying the continuing debt to love others.
So what are we to do?
Thomas Merton, who was a monk and taught people a lot about meditation and contemplation once said: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”
The answer to loving others is not to judge but to simply love. To love without requirement or expecting anything. To love even the unlovable. To love those who are not in our group.
But this is hard. Too hard really.
One of my favorite books in the world is To Kill A Mockingbird. In in that book Aticus Finch tells his daughter something about how to love.
You see in chapter three of that book Scout, Aticus’ daughter, has gotten into a fight with Walter Cunningham so Scout’s brother invites him to come eat lunch. But while eating lunch Walter shows that he’s from the country by the way he eats and Scout just starts laughing at him. And when their maid, Cal, hears this she yanks Scout into the kitchen and says:
"There's some folks who don't eat like us," she whispered fiercely, "but you ain't called on to contradict 'em at the table when they don't. That boy's yo' comp'ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?"
"He ain't company, Cal, he's just a Cunningham-"
I think too often we think of the “others” in our lives as just Cunninghams. When it fact, they are company.
Of course Cal let’s her know that that’s no way to think about people or talk about people and later in that chapter Scout has a conversation about all this with Aticus. And we get that famous line: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
We are different from other people. We have people in our lives who think differently and act differently and certainly irritate the heck out of us. We have some people in our lives that we are convinced are just evil. And then Jesus comes along and Paul comes along and says that we have a debt of love to pay to each and every one of them.
The only way I can think of to even start to pay that debt is to try and walk around in their skin for just a moment. For just a little bit maybe see what it feels like to be a black man in America and why you might want to march against a civil war statue. Just for a moment see what it feels like to not have the education and vocabulary to speak in a way that people won’t look down on you. Just for a moment feel what it’s like to be that grumpy person at work who you might find out is struggling with a child at home who is in crisis. Just for a second walk around in the skin of that person who is saying all kinds of nasty things about you and feel their insecurity.
We do this not because it’s what Aticus Finch said we should do. But because that’s what Jesus did. In showing us how to live Jesus shows us over and over again that love for the other person is always preceded by knowledge of the other person. When we don’t know them – we fear them and fear pushes out love.
But even then I’m left with a question of how. You see I don’t have it in me sometimes to make the effort of walk around in someone’s skin. I’m too lazy or scared or something. Maybe it’s just too hard.
I think Paul understood that because in the last part of our text tonight he talks about laying aside the works of darkness. (And not loving the other is by definition a work of darkness.) And we lay aside these works of darkness by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.
The only way to truly love someone else – is through the power of Christ. And it is by tapping into this power that we are able to walk around in their skin and call them company and love them as Christ loves them.
But to do that we have to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” as verse 14 says. We have to daily come to Christ and say “I can’t make it through the day without you. I put aside all of the darkness and shadow that prevents me from fulfilling the debt of love and I put on you and your spirit.” And you know what, we may have to pray that prayer every day – maybe many times during the day. But doing so allows us to start living the life that God is calling us to live and to start loving the people God is calling us to love.
Tonight as we come to the table, use this opportunity to put on Christ and dedicate ourselves to paying the debt of love to everyone we encounter.
Let us pray…