Sunday, September 30, 2018

The One Debt Left: Sermon on Romans 13:8-10 for First Responders Appreciation Sunday

For a time, everything in the firehouse in Tasley, a small settlement in rural Accomack County, Virginia, stayed still and quiet. It was the twelfth day of March 2013. The day had worn on. Evening had come. And then not just evening, but bona fide night. At 9:26, things were still and quiet. But at 9:27, the sleepy stillness was split as a call came in. Not just any call, but the one they'd been dreading, the one they knew was coming. And in an instant, the still, quiet firehouse sprang into immediate action. Not a hundred seconds had passed before, untangling themselves from every other preoccupation, they were ready to roll – and on the scene in minutes.

For months, a serial arsonist had been on the loose in Accomack County, torching structure after structure. All had begun in mid-November the prior year. As the realization dawned of what was going on, it set the entire community on edge, especially as attacks grew more frequent. Their home was a heavily rural district, not the bustling region it had once been, so the landscape was littered with abandoned buildings ripe for targeting. The residents began keeping lights on at night, afraid the arsonist might mistake their darkened home for a vacant one. Sensing that no stranger would bother tormenting them so, members of the community grew suspicious and wary around each other. But at the same time, they drew closer together in supporting the law enforcement and emergency response efforts with massive outpourings of gifts and baked goods.

The whole ordeal was a drain on the firefighters of the Tasley Volunteer Fire Company. When the arsons began, they had just twenty-six active members in their department. And yet, with so few personnel, for a time they dealt with a fire nearly every night, one after another, in scarcely relenting succession. Matters had gotten so bad that the volunteers on duty, mainly younger men in their mid-twenties, had chosen to sacrifice their private lives and just move into the firehouse itself. It was a narrow building, an older, smaller house; what might in theory have passed for a bunk room was in shape a crawl space and in practice a closet, so they laid out their sleeping bags on the floor of the main meeting space. A stash of movies and video games kept them occupied during the stretches of waiting. They arrived as a family, lived as a family, slept as a family, ate as a family.

And now the most dreaded call had come. Whispering Pines, just half a mile down the road from the firehouse, was a defunct motel in lengthy decay, decades closed, symbol of a prosperous but dead past. Not too many in the area would particularly miss the creepy old building by the side of the road. But to others, it was history, pure and simple. More important for the living, the roof of every house nearby was weighed down by a layer of dry pine needles, and Whispering Pines, the arsonist's latest target, was throwing off softball-sized embers with panache and enthusiasm. It was, without a doubt, the largest of all the arson fires that had plagued the county. To passersby, the whole area looked like hell's invasion of earth. Fire leapt seemingly from every clod of dirt. The night air was orange and red and black. All visible things had been devilishly transfigured into ghastly, infernal parodies of themselves.

The buildings on the property were all too decayed to send personnel into to fight from within. And so, for over five exhausting hours, with a multiplicity of tankers and engines on scene – all that the Tasley Volunteer Fire Company could provide, and several of the closest other fire departments as well – the Tasley company took lead around the premises, spraying everything they could muster, endeavoring, if nothing else, to contain and mute the blaze. And then watching, waiting, watching, waiting. Sustained by McDonald's deliveries through the long haul, the men were tired when, just a few minutes shy of three in the morning, their chief, Jeff Beall, gave the order to shut things down.

Surely, they hoped, this greatest building would be the pièce de résistance – the final stroke in the arsonist's mad handiwork. But their pagers went off the next night, too. Thankfully, a couple weeks later, they caught their serial arsonist. Imagine their surprise when the arsonist turned out to be arsonists – a couple – boyfriend and girlfriend. Imagine their surprise to find out the man was a former volunteer, known to absolutely everyone, and whose own brother was one of the active members fighting these fires from first to last. Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick, whose story is intertwined with that of the investigation in journalist Monica Hesse's book American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, had a dysfunctional relationship, one they'd hoped to salvage somehow through this exciting activity. Is that love? Infatuation, certainly. Romance, maybe. But ask those who lived in fear as arson scourged the land, ask those betrayed by the revelation: Was that love? Does love burn down the world? Is real love an arsonist?

Bound together by crime, their infatuation scorched the world around them, unconcerned for the damage in their wake, even as they hypocritically made the pretense of grieving with their neighbors. Divided from each other on their apprehension, their bonds fractured. They turned on each other. Testified against each other. Blamed each other. Moved on from each other. By the time Tonya came to trial, she had a new boyfriend, and she and Charlie would scarcely look at each other in the courtroom. The fires hadn't reignited enduring passion; they'd exposed the brokenness and unhappiness that they'd felt lurking beneath the surface. And because, all throughout, their insular romance lacked real love, agape love, the law had to restrain them. And now they have to pay a 'debt' to society in their imprisonment. That's the grim necessity of the world we're living in.

Paul envisions a different sort of world. As he pens this letter we've been reading from, he knows that Roman Jews and Roman Gentiles alike live in worlds obsessed with law – the Torah, the Law of Moses, for the one; the imperial and senatorial edicts of Rome, for the other. And he knows that both Roman Jews and Roman Gentiles struggle at times with this mess of laws that breed like rabbits. He knows that his hearers, then and now, are so prone to get tangled up in the red tape of eight billion obligations. But that's not how we were meant to live, this vast bureaucratic disorder, this ball of red tape and regulation, this never-ending cycle of debt, this tiresome dance. “Owe no one anything,” Paul cries out (Romans 13:8a). That's the idea.

But Paul knows that law is necessary in the kind of world we have, the kind of world we've made for ourselves. Law is necessary for a world in debt. Law is necessary for a world on fire. See, in a world on fire, Paul notices, in a tinderbox cosmos and a tinderbox society, we need to be told not to light fires all around us, fires that risk burning the floor out from under our neighbors – which not only wrongs them, but weakens the decaying planks where we stand, too. It's a world on fire. A world on fire is a world badly in need of law.

In a world on fire, we cast smoldering lustful glances, we reach out with sizzling lustful touches – the news is full of it, our neighborhoods are scarred by it, our lives at times bear the heat of it – and so the law tells us, “You shall not commit adultery” (Romans 13:9a; cf. Deuteronomy 5:18). In a world on fire, we nurse resentment in our hearts toward our brothers and neighbors; we let anger smoke and smolder; we let our pride get inflamed; we lash out in words and actions that scald and burn each other. So the law tells us, the law has to tell us, “You shall not murder” (Romans 13:9b; cf. Deuteronomy 5:17). In a world on fire, we try to grab control, like the games of tug-of-war you see at the fair. We want to control, possess, claim ownership of each other's property, each other's identity, each other's decision-making, each other's reputation. We hack and slash and plunder in so many ways. And so the law has to tell us, “You shall not steal” (Romans 13:9c; cf. Deuteronomy 5:19). In a world on fire, we burn with desire, we look askance in envy on the blessings of others, we want to stand tall by scorching what's around us with the heat of our desire. And so the law has to tell us, “You shall not covet” (Romans 13:9d; cf. Deuteronomy 5:21). Whether with our deeds or with our words, we are tempted toward the arson that the law is dedicated to reining in – for the Bible calls even just your tongue “a fire..., setting on fire the entire course of life, and [itself] set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). No wonder it's a world on fire.

But there's one thing the Apostle Paul sees, even in a world on fire, even in a world in debt, even in a world set to burn and hogtied with red tape: “The one who loves the other has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8b). All the commandments for a tinderbox world, any law you can devise to restrain the arsonists who'd damage it in this way or that... those commandments, those laws, those regulations – they multiply out of control, they get out of hand, they tangle up our lives in ways we at times need but find so complicated and so frustrating. But you could slice the Gordian knot, the big ball of red tape, and tame the furiously procreative laws by summing them up under a single capstone. And Paul hauls it out of his Bible and puts it on a big banner and hangs it up for all to see. And here's the one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9e; cf. Leviticus 19:18).

Hit that target, and all the rest is bundled in with it. The law all along has been begging for us not to wrong our neighbors, not to burn out the floor from under them, not to cast the world into smoky perplexity and blazing chaos. That's all the law ultimately wants. And love will never set fire to a neighbor's home. Love will never set fire to a neighbor's family. Love will never set fire to a neighbor's livelihood. Love will never set fire to a neighbor's reputation. Love will never set fire to a neighbor's prosperity. For “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10a). Note well, I don't say romanticism – that can do wrong to a neighbor, as Charlie and Tonya made clear. I don't say sentimentalism – that can do wrong to a neighbor. But love, authentic love, the sort of love Paul means – that does no wrong to a neighbor. See, to love your neighbor as yourself is incompatible with – it's a preventative measure against – being an arsonist of the moral fabric of your community. That's the sort of fire prevention we need. What we need is this “love” that, in the freedom it gives us, is so far from lawlessness that it amounts, Paul says, to “the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10b).

What does a love like that look like? Certainly we don't see it on display by the arsonists. I dare say we catch a better glimpse by casting our vision more toward that Tasley firehouse. In the time of trial, they came together – they moved in together, undertook all their actions as a unit. They temporarily gave up their own homes, their own private privileges, to share a common life. They ate at the same time, traveled everywhere together, so that, should the call suddenly come in, none could be left behind. While enjoying their amusements – the movies, the video games – they held them loosely, ready to sprint away at a moment's notice, refusing to let their amusements be their distraction from the call of need around them. Petty squabbles couldn't be allowed to get in the way of the task at hand when the time came. Each saw him- or herself as serving the others and serving their community. They were vigilant. They were active. They were devoted. They were diligent. And they needed to be. There are plenty of structures out there that are vulnerable to catching fire, and plenty of people out there in need of rescue and assistance in every strain of emergency: fires, crashes, health crises. For such things, we have firefighters and other first responders in this world – and thank God for that.

But we live in a world on fire in bigger ways. Your life may be on fire in ways that your smoke detector will never pick up. A cosmic arsonist stalks the darkness like a pestilence, an arsonist of the whole soul, breathing out spiritual smallpox and maddened to incinerate all creation with his fiery darts. And we are all, to one extent or another, his accomplices. That's what Paul means when he talks about 'sin.' A simple word, a short word, for being an active accomplice to this cosmic arsonist. Sin, especially against one another, so frequently amounts to spiritual arson – and if you play with fire, you're going to get burned yourself.

The only solution to the arsonists of Accomack County, Virginia, or – God forbid – to any similar crimes that should come to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, would be – where? A firehouse. A company peopled by those bound together by devotion who follow their chief's lead in responding to the needs around them. And so, too, the only ultimate solution to a cosmic arsonist, and his plethora of accomplices in our neighborhood, is the church of God, where dwell the people of love. A company peopled by those bound together by devotion, who follow the lead of local lieutenants and chiefs, responding to the needs around them, but commissioned by the Holy Fire Commissioner sent down from heaven, Jesus Christ, who himself braved the fiery trial of the cross, who let himself be burned by the sum total of human moral arson, but who walked safely and healthily out of the blaze in the beauty of resurrection. Living and fireproof, he's got the cosmic arsonist's number. The cosmic arsonist won't get away with it. He doesn't stand a chance.

Jesus promises, in the end, to douse the inferno and regrow bounty and beauty from every ash-heap. And in the meantime, he has poured out his Spirit, a river of living water welling up in and flowing from each believer's heart (cf. John 7:38), to flood each assembly with mutual love that overflows to all the world and does far more than the law could ever ask or imagine. Keep tapped into the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from “the LORD, the fountain of living water” (Jeremiah 17:13), and the fire-hose of his love will never fail against the fires of this world. With that in mind, Jesus, Giver of the Spirit, has indeed commissioned a people to gather here on duty, diligent and vigilant, to train and be ready to respond to every call that comes through. It's no wonder that, in describing the saints whose faith made the biblical headlines, the Bible depicts them as those who “quenched the power of fire” (Hebrews 11:34). May that be us. May we here, each one of you, each one of us, answer the one debt left: to quench a world on fire with a love that fulfills and overspills the law, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Servants of God in Washington: Sermon on Romans 13:1-7

In the front of the room there sat a nineteen-year-old with dirty-blond hair and gray eyes. He was in charge of the meeting in the Curia Julia. By his side sat a rather older man, his co-consul, Lucius Calpurnius Piso. As for the young man, he was just beginning to shake off the effects of last night. He'd been out late in his usual 'pranks' – carousing, stealing, doling out beatings at the wine shops and the houses of ill repute. He should have known better than to do it the night before the senate meeting, but impulse control wasn't one of the young man's strong suits. Since becoming emperor three years earlier when his mother Agrippina poisoned his stepfather Claudius, he'd done the same to his stepbrother Britannicus and then struggled against his mother's control. Fortunately, he had a few good and reliable advisors. He'd met with them earlier in the morning. There was Sextus Afranius Burrus, the praetorian prefect, commander of the imperial bodyguards. And there was Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the philosopher and poet, his boyhood tutor and now often speechwriter.

Still, running the government could be a tiresome task for a man of nineteen. The youthful Nero had so many people to consult. His personal secretary Epaphroditus was with him frequently. There was Faenius Rufus, the prefect in charge of the city's grain supply; Titius Flavius Sabinus, the new urban prefect, effectively mayor of the capital; and now, in front of him, gathered senators, clad in their togas with the distinctive purple stripe. It was not one of the busier times for them, but still there was plenty to do. Since settling the quarrel with the quaestors over the treasury last year, they'd doled out four hundred bronze coins to each resident of the city (in hopes of blunting the mounting tax complaints), given directions to build a wooden amphitheatre, cracked down on slave-led assassinations of their masters, banned provincial magistrates from wasting tax revenue on lavish entertainments, and now were dealing with an extortion case. Cossutianus Capito, governor of Cilicia, had returned to Rome so the senate could settle the charges of extortion pressed another senator, Thrasea Paetus, on behalf of the Cilician people. Things looked to be going Thrasea's way, and not so good for Cossutianus.

Nero and Piso looked out at the senators while Thrasea pressed his case for the Cilicians. Over there was the consul's brother, the other Piso. And then there were Aviola and Marcellus, some of the last consuls during the reign of Claudius. Dolabella was there, and Suillius Rufus, and Nero's friend Vestinus Atticus. And then there was Aulus Plautius, the man who'd conquered Britannia fourteen years ago, and was now dealing with questions of a domestic variety, overseeing the trial of his wife Pomponia, who stood accused of secret involvement in some obnoxious new superstition about a foreign god called 'Chrestus.'

Earlier that May Sunday morning, dozens of gatherings of fellow-practitioners of Pomponia's superstition met around the districts of Rome. And as Thrasea put the Cilician governor on trial, they were reeling from a long letter by a Jew from the Cilician provincial capital of Tarsus. The letter was brought to them by a merchant woman named Phoebe and her scribe Tertius from one of the port villages near Corinth. As they made their rounds through these Roman gatherings, they found most to be in the swampy immigrant ghettos, mainly in crowded apartments. Not only were protests brewing over sales and import taxes of all sorts in the market, but the Jews had another reason to complain. Ordinarily, there'd be no tribute tax to pay, as they lived in Rome; but during their five-year exile, they'd been in the provinces for the census, and now even after they returned, insult added to injury appeared in their tax burden. Needless to say, they weren't happy. As for the non-Jews in these gatherings, Phoebe found plenty who weren't thrilled with their government – and some who just weren't sure. We have reason to think that at least two of these gatherings of Roman Christ-followers were in fact groups of public servants who'd been incorporated into the low levels of the imperial bureaucracy – basically as if there were a little church meeting in the IRS, and another church full of congressional pages meeting in the Capitol building. Well-educated and conflicted, they wondered what Paul's advice to “overcome evil with good” meant for their careers in a pagan government headed by a nineteen-year-old lout (Romans 12:21).

Figuring out how to relate to the governing authorities of pagan Rome was tricky – no less tricky than figuring out how to relate today to governing authorities in Washington DC or in Harrisburg or in your local township board or borough council. And Paul's first word to them on the subject explains that these governing authorities – whether the emperor, the senators, the urban prefect, the tribunes or quaestors or any of the other officials – this whole thing has been “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). It's a God-provided thing. They are, in a real way, his servants – “the authorities are ministers of God,” Paul says (Romans 13:6). One of Paul's earliest readers, Irenaeus, writing 120 years later, commented on this passage that when God saw how far people fell from righteousness, he instituted governments to safeguard at least a minimum degree of justice in the world.

So on the one hand, Paul says, these governing authorities are a gift of God. They serve God, in their own way, through what they do. They have a good purpose. For that reason, Paul tells them, they can't get involved in the assorted resistance movements they're tempted to. “Whoever resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:2). That's what Paul says. Rebelling against 'the man,' raging against 'the machine,' trying to buck 'the system' – that road, in fact, is picking a fight with God himself, because God is the power behind the system. Disagree with how the authorities govern, that's their right, in the Roman churches; but the government as such is put there intentionally by God to be a benefit and to fulfill his will, and an attitude of general resistance to it just won't do. That's true in Rome, and it's true in Iraq, and it's true in North Korea, and it's true in Belgium, and it's true in America. It's true in 1787, and it's true in 1950, and it's true in 2010, and it's true in 2018.

At the same time, Paul wants to be very clear that these authorities were “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Which God is that? At the time, the emperor virtually claimed to be a god, and they saw plenty of Roman gods as the powers behind the curtains of the empire. Paul's saying that Jupiter and Mars and all the rest have not a thing to do with giving Rome any legitimacy. If it were up to those idols, the whole thing would be a charade. No, there's a different God behind Rome, a very specific one: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – the Christ, you'll remember, who was sentenced to death by a Roman governor. And Paul is saying that the whole system, from the emperor on down to governors like Pilate, in fact only has legitimacy because they were put there by the God we meet in Jesus. The power that gives legitimacy to the entire Roman government, Paul is saying, is a former death-row convict raised from the dead and now enthroned in heaven. And clearly, Paul thinks, if the cross is any indication, Jesus has a very different idea of how the government ought to run.

That matters, because Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He's the divine power behind the government, which means he's the divine power above the government, to which the governing authorities are accountable. It's him they're supposed to be serving, and “there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1). It's the God of Jesus Christ who made “every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). Jesus is the Lord to whom even Nero is answerable for how he governs – and so is every other official and every other institution. Because this God instituted the governing authorities, this God owns the governing authorities, whether they admit it or not. And every decision they make, every act they take, each will “give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).

So Paul explains that, on the one hand, even this pagan government around them is instituted by God, which means we mustn't have the attitude of resistance. It also means that the early Roman Christians who perform accounting, secretarial, or errand-running work for government officials are in a potentially good place – a place God created, a role where they can serve him. But this pagan government is enrolled in the service of a God it denies, which will hold it to account. And the same is true in Harrisburg or Washington. Every act of every governing authority is answerable to Christ. Every word from the president's mouth or Tweet from his fingertips – answerable to Christ. Every opinion drafted by a Supreme Court Justice, every bill proposed and debated in the House or in the Senate – answerable to Christ. Every administrative rule cranked out by a bureau – answerable to Christ. He is the judge and the standard of everything that happens in our government. When we're tempted to be complacent with business as usual, we remember: they'll have to answer to Christ for every decision, every vote, every law, every grandstanding speech, every backroom deal.

Paul also subtly warns the Roman believers not to get suckered in by imperial propaganda. There's plenty of sloganeering in first-century Rome, no different from modern Harrisburg or Washington. There, one of the key features of propaganda in Nero's early years was the claim that the Roman sword had been put away. Nero was supposed to say things like, “My sword is sheathed, nay, fixed in its sheath. … I keep harshness concealed, but I have clemency always at hand.” He boasted that all Rome's thousands of swords were “now restrained by my authority,” and so although he had a “power of inspiring terror,” he had put it away. A key feature of Nero's propaganda was that he had put the sword away, and would not use it in how he governed. Remember that when you hear Paul tell the Roman Christ-followers that a governing authority like Nero “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). The very thing Nero boasted made him different from other rulers, Paul says to the churches, “Don't buy it.” Don't buy the propaganda. Don't let Nero pull the wool over your eyes.

In Harrisburg or Washington, is there any less propaganda? Claims that one administration, one party, is so very different from 'politics as usual'? Paul warns us against gobbling up any party line hook, line, and sinker. Don't let them pull the wool over your eyes. Don't buy the propaganda. Even if it sounds good. Even if it inspires you. Even if it has a patriotic ring to it. Don't buy it. Nero wanted Romans to see him as offering a new golden age. And he, like every emperor, put his hopes in Roma aeterna – 'eternal Rome.' But the Rome of Nero wasn't and isn't eternal. God “determined allotted periods” for it, and no more (Acts 17:26). Nero did not rule forever, and Rome was not forever. No presidential term is eternal. The Jefferson administration had its start and its end. The Nixon administration had its start and its end. The Obama administration had its start and its end. The Trump administration had its start, and it will have an end. No executive order is eternal. No judicial precedent is eternal. No bill passed by Congress is eternal, not even when signed into law. Even the Constitution itself is not eternal. Neither is the United States of America. Get your fill of the anthem now, because “the day is at hand” when we'll never hear it again (cf. Romans 13:12). It's not eternal, no matter what our propaganda leads us to believe. What's eternal is that Jesus “will reign … forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).

So the Roman government isn't eternal, and the American government isn't eternal. Jesus' government is eternal – and the Roman and American governments are just two tools he uses in this dark and broken phase of world history. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the God who instituted those governing authorities. That means they have certain purposes to carry out – which also means they can overstep their bounds. So what are they supposed to be doing? Paul tells us two key things: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God, an avenger of wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4).

Two things the governing authority, described ideally, is God's servant to do. One: give approval and recognition to what is good. Two: penalize what is bad. We heard two weeks ago about how we're freed from the burden of vengeance because that's God's exclusive prerogative (Romans 12:19). Paul tells us now that, at least partially, God exercises his vengeance through the governing authorities he calls his servants. We see that as the governing authorities punish criminal activity. Not every sort of wrongdoing falls within the governing authority's jurisdiction, but many do. And at the same time, the governing authority can hold up good examples and give approval and reward to good conduct. When functioning well, a government can maintain at least the bare minimums of ethical order in society – an ethical order warranted by God. It can't justify us, but it can keep a space clear for us to proclaim and embody the good news and to otherwise lead “a peaceable and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). The governing authorities have the responsibility to let that be possible by maintaining conditions conducive to it: letting us worship God and witness to God and live for God in ways that are peaceable, quiet, godly, and dignified. Paul knows good and well that governments don't always do that. The Bible he reads is full of oppressive kings trying to fight God and disrupt the lives of God's people (cf. Psalm 2:1-3, etc.). But even some of the worst governments in history have still aimed to hold up some model of good behavior and punish at least some real crimes, and Paul offers that as a starting point for how to get along with whatever government that is.

So the governing authorities are instituted by God, and accountable to him, no matter what their propaganda says. Their purpose is to serve God by approving what's good, and thus teaching us positively, and also by punishing what's bad, and thus restraining disorder. That is meant to clear the way for God's people to enjoy peace and be a respectable healing presence in society. In light of that, resistance isn't the right sort of general attitude to have. Instead, Paul says, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. … One must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:1, 5). Subjection, not resistance. The word Paul uses here has the sense of fitting into place, into rank, behind or beneath some other thing. To be subject means to fit into place under the authorities. It's a voluntary choice Paul advocates: the opposite of resistance and rebellion is to acknowledge that the governing authorities may make valid claims on us, that they deserve something from us, that we are to look to them for certain things.

What does that look like in practice? Paul explains that each kind of governing authority is owed something in particular, and every soul under their jurisdiction should give it, including us. The first thing he mentions is the tribute tax – the thing exiled-and-returned Jewish residents were so irritated about having to pay. For us, the nearest equivalent would be federal income tax. Paul says to pay it faithfully, just as you owe it. Then he gives mention to the other sort of tax in the city, the indirect taxes – things like sales tax, usage tax, import and export duties, all the sorts of taxes you'd encounter in the marketplace. For us, this includes our assorted sales tax but also property taxes, estate taxes, and maybe even state and local taxes unless you count them in with the other one. In either case, Paul wants all his bases covered. No matter which part of the government you're paying it to, or how it's supposed to get there, pay what you owe (Romans 13:7). Paul says that, in fact, he's sure the Roman believers have been paying their taxes already, in spite of grumbling about it, which is another piece of evidence they already agree with him on the governing authorities' legitimacy (Romans 13:6).

But there's more that we owe besides different kinds of taxes. Paul says we also owe “respect” and “honor” to those to whom respect and honor are due (Romans 13:7). No matter who holds it, we're to show respect to the office, at the very least – that's something we owe. Treat the governing authorities with due respect for their office. Maybe that's the president. Maybe that's the legislator. Maybe that's the judge in the courts. Maybe that's the IRS agent or the borough council member or the township supervisor. But respect in the way you treat them, respect in the way you talk about them. America has always had a problem with intemperate criticism of our elected officials; some of the first elections were just as nasty as the latest. But even when the office-holder is someone who dishonors it, even when they seem to make a mockery of it, even when they're as deranged or corrupt as you can imagine, still they are owed a certain degree of respect in that office, as part of what it means to be subject to the governing authorities. That's what Paul is telling us. And then, beyond that, there are those who serve well and faithfully and are owed an even higher degree of honor and praise for it. That, too, is part of what we owe: particular praise for good performance in government. We don't often do that enough, especially at the local level. We can highlight their accomplishments, thank them, send notes of encouragement – all things they may well appreciate. In doing that, we show both respect and honor.

That's what submission or subjection to the governing authorities looks like. But like I said, Paul is under no illusions that the governing authorities always stay within their bounds or do what's right. Nero will eventually have Paul beheaded and other Roman Christians burned or savaged by beasts. Paul grew up on stories about evil kings who wanted to be worshipped. Even short of that, Paul knew that many kings and many emperors were cruel tyrants, possibly insane or incompetent. Irenaeus, one of the first people to comment on these verses, suggested that God provides the sort of ruler who fits the people's character: sometimes the nation gets a leader who's beneficial and just; sometimes they get one who's punitive and overbearing; sometimes they get one who's arrogant and ridiculous. After all, God says through Hosea, “I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath” (Hosea 13:11). Frequently in our days, the choices we get as candidates have a lot to say about the character of America, and it's seldom flattering; God holds them up as mirrors. Paul knows this kind of thing happens. Paul is hardly naive. There's a reason he avoids the word 'obey' in this chapter. There are many times when subjection to governing authorities will look like obedience. But he steers clear of telling us flatly to obey the governing authorities. Sometimes, with all due respect and reverence and subjection, we nonetheless have to dissent and disobey: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Submission doesn't require obedience when they stray outside the bounds God has appointed for them. As the servants of God, the governing authorities derive their powers from him. They have limits; there are things they cannot do, and things they cannot ask of us. So Paul bids the Roman gatherings of believers to prayerfully get together to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). It's true here, too. Authentic Christian submission to government means meeting together as a church to discern when obedience to God requires us to disobey or challenge the governing authorities of the land. But whether in obedience or disobedience, Paul charges us to above all “owe no one anything, except to love each other … Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10). More on that next Sunday.

Paul's sketch of what God instituted governing authorities for gives us a sense for how to measure, how to discern, the sort of government we live under. Do they stay within their bounds? If so, good; if not, they need to learn not to overstep. Do they praise and commend those who do what's good? If so, good; if not, they ought to start. Do they avenge wrongdoing? If so, good, though hopefully they temper it with mercy; otherwise, they risk letting chaos and oppression rule the roost. And do they acknowledge which God ordained them? If so, again, good; if not, they need to be reminded what God's kind of rule should look like.

There are more opportunities for that in today's America than in Nero's Rome. None of the people reading this letter for the first time had any input into who the emperor would be, who the senators would be, who any of the provincial governors would be, or the urban prefect, or most any of the offices in question. We have a bigger role in our system than Paul's first audience did in theirs. If Nero had to face popular elections, if Lucius Piso and Thrasea Paetus and Cossutianus Capito had to face popular elections, you bet your bottom dollar Paul'd be urging the Roman believers to faithfully and thoughtfully engage their own role as part of the electorate.

Whether inside or outside the ballot box, though, here's the last thing Paul would tell us to do. Challenge the governing authorities – borough council, township supervisors, local mayors, all the way up to the White House and the Capitol – to know the God who ordained them, to carry out their just mission, and to keep to their proper bounds, so that we can worship, witness, and live “peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Challenge them where they need it, but show respect and honor wherever it's due, pay all the taxes that are due, and cultivate an attitude of willing subjection to the servants of God in Harrisburg or Washington, who are appointed by Christ and accountable to Christ. Washington, Harrisburg, Rome – none are the eternal city. But all are the seats of God's servants now for our common good. Encourage and help them to do it well, and pray to the God and Father of Jesus Christ for them – to him be all glory forever. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Rejoicing and Weeping: Sermon on Romans 12:9-16

“Shall we be jolly or sad?” That was the question – the question that appeared in the New York Daily Herald on Palm Sunday that year. With the war swiftly drawing to a close, all sorts of celebrations were getting scheduled over the most solemn days of Holy Week, when Christians were supposed to be mourning the betrayal and death of their Savior. “A queer muddle all around,” the papers said. But Palm Sunday celebrations continued as usual. The people in every church in the city rejoiced together. In the Brooklyn Tabernacle, one preacher lifted up the passage we ourselves heard last week – “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”

The Monday morning paper brought news that had already trickled into the city by the prior evening – the threat was fading, the main enemy force had surrendered. Over breakfast, it seemed like every table in the city was abuzz with the sensation. Although it rained in torrents from morn to night, still flags went up all over the city, flying proudly and joyously. The day after that, at Trinity Episcopal Church at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street, members and neighbors alike flocked to the church for a special service of thanksgiving shortly after the completion of a hundred-gun salute in Union Square. Hundreds couldn't even fit into the church to hear the Beatitudes read. Though arranged on short notice, the Lord's Prayer, sung as the organ reached its crescendo, sounded like the unified prayer of a whole nation in one room. Four priests gave abundant praise for the return of peace; all joined in chanting out Gloria in Excelsis Deo – a thousand voices and more, sustained by two organs playing in harmony. Hearts lifted high to God, songs of gladness and praise filled sanctuary and sky.

Two days passed. It was Maundy Thursday, the anniversary of the Last Supper. Altars were decorated. Then came Good Friday, and while the day was supposed to be for solemn seriousness, it was hard to keep a lid on joy. The draft had been rescinded, and all over the city, celebrations broke forth with abandon for rich and poor alike. All rejoiced – but a few brokers mourned, those, the daily papers said, “whose business it has been to fatten on the misfortunes of their fellow beings” and who now “found their occupation gone.” An ugly sight they must have presented – this handful of men, grieving amidst the rejoicing of a blessed city.

The curious gladness of Good Friday gave way, the next morning, to devastation on Holy Saturday. The feature article of the Saturday morning paper brought no happy news, but rather a shocking word no one thought they'd see: “Assassination.” The Chief Magistrate of the nation was dead by 7:22 on Saturday morning. Silence settled like a suffocating blanket over the metropolis, punctuated by bulletins and extras promoting contradictory reports, and the sounds of weepers pacing Broadway from Wall Street to Union Square. All the flags announcing the joy of victory fell to half-mast sorrow. Even the poorest of the poor spent what little they had to buy tiny flags with crape to pin up where they lived. Buildings of all sorts – draped in black and white fabric, draining the color from the city. Trinity Church was among them, and their great flag, sailing high over all the city, fell to half-mast, too. In the closing hour of the morning, the sorrowful crammed the church, still as death, punctuated by the words of the pastor and the heavy sobs of the people. The congregation knelt to sing.

The next morning was Easter Sunday – the gladdest, most dazzling day of the Christian year. But the city was drenched in tears. Inside, Trinity Church was decorated with Easter finery, all glowing bright, while the outside of the building still wore its black. The church had never been seen so full – not even at Tuesday's thanksgiving service. Even the Hallelujah Chorus sounded heavy and broken. Men and women sobbed bitterly. The preacher found it all but impossible to keep focus on Jesus and his resurrection; it seemed obscured by the devastating tragedy at hand. He announced that Christ “rose not only to bring light and peace, but to be the judge of the world.” Pray, he urged them, pray for Christ to bring justice to a heartbroken nation. And yet... and yet it was Easter morning. Christ is risen. “With our lamentation,” Rev. Dr. Francis Vinton said to them... “With our lamentation, let us mingle praise, as becomes us on Easter Day.” And so, with heavy but determined hearts, they sang again: Gloria in Excelsis Deo. And then dispersed. How hard it is for one heart to carry both truest joy and truest sorrow.

But on that day, in that hour, at least the city and country were united in mourning together. Or, almost. The day before, when news first broke, a ferry crossing the waters had its grief interrupted by one passenger who was smugly glib over the whole thing, and spoke quite lightly of President Lincoln's death. One passenger who rejoiced in the face of others weeping. In unison, the rest of the passengers hurled him overboard into the cold April waters. That same day, a few men on Wall Street spoke lightly of the tragedy; bystanders beat them senseless, and one, Charles Anderson, nearly so to death before the police intervened. Levity in the face of grief is seldom appreciated. So too the next day, as maids in some homes, and waiters at one of the city's luxury hotels, were fired en masse for openly rejoicing. There's something wrong with those who weep in the face of others rejoicing, and something wrong with those who rejoice in the face of others who weep.

As for Trinity Church, its history had stretched back a number of years before that week. Their first building at the south tip of Manhattan went up in 1698. The third Trinity Church, consecrated in 1846 and the one that saw the joys and sorrows of that tumultuous week in 1865, is the structure that still stands today as an Episcopal parish church. At the time, it was the tallest building in the United States. The congregation has seen its ebbs and its flows in the long stretch since then. In time, the crowds subsided. It has never been perfect. One usher quipped in his diary that, for the side of the church he collected offerings from, the large offering plate was “a kind of practical satire,” since their level of generosity would suggest a teaspoon as “the more suitable utensil.” They've no doubt had their share of controversies, their share of lapses, their share of troubles.

Long before their first building was built looking out over the Hudson River, a collection of scattered churches around some of the fourteen divisions of first-century Rome were hardly perfect, either. Broken by the tragedy of Claudius' order to expel Jews from the city, and then perplexed by their reintroduction to the city and church life, this Christian network had loose ties; the churches weren't communicating, they were going their own way, they were in conflict, and even within a given house or tenement church, there could be plenty of tension and difficulty. The tragedies and celebrations that should have brought cohesion in each church, and that should have brought the whole network together... They just didn't.

When Paul, writing an exhaustive treatise for them from his base in Corinth before he heads toward Jerusalem, looks over at their situation, he isn't thrilled. He sees so many challenges he wishes they'd work through before he comes their way. His vision for the church, like he'd told the Corinthians earlier, can be summed up in one main thing: Love. And love doesn't look like what they're up to in Rome. Love looks so much deeper than how it is there. And maybe love looks deeper than what Paul would see among and within our churches in Lancaster County today. What do you think?

Paul explains to them that “love is without pretense” (Romans 12:9). It's not just about play-acting, a show to put on when somebody's watching and then abandon when they're not. It's real. It's authentic. It's heartfelt. It's genuine and sincere. And it looks like a close-knit family “being devoted to one another in brotherly love” – a big leap from the fractured and self-absorbed lives of the Roman churches Paul's heard about. No, they need to cultivate real relationships in each church. Paul would tell us to be committed to our churches, to actually treat each other like family. When the going gets tough, a close-knit family sticks together. A close-knit family gets together, gathers to share meals and spend time with each other. That's genuine love. And they have to share things in common, “having the same mind toward one another” (Romans 12:16a). They may not agree on all things – what family does? We may not agree on all things, but we can agree on love. We can agree on some common goals, if not always the smartest way to get there.

And in a loving family, the well-to-do members, the successful members, the well-educated and refined members, don't look down on those who ain't – nor do those who ain't aim to scorn those who is. Love is “not minding the high things, but going along with the lowly,” and “not being wise-minded in yourselves” (Romans 12:16b-c). That's what Paul says. No one of these churches should think it can get by on its own. We shouldn't think we can get by on our own, as a church, without the other churches in our district and conference, or the local churches of other biblically faithful denominations. We can't. Paul tells us we can't. Nor, within our local church, can one piece get by without the rest – we heard that lesson two weeks back.

In a loving family, Paul says, love looks like “taking the lead in honoring one another” (Romans 12:10b). We go out of our way to take the initiative in making the others look good, in showing them honor. That was a hard word to hear in Rome back then, when folks said that honoring somebody else was something people hate, since it feels like being deprived of honor yourself. But in a loving family, instead of trying to make yourself look good, you try to make your family members look good. And that, Paul says, is how it should work in each one of these churches – and between them. We should focus on treating each other well, talking up each other's accomplishments and character, taking the lead in that. And we should be advertising all the great news that's coming out of our other district churches and sharing that with the neighborhood. It's why we try to promote events at the other churches nearest to us here: to take the lead in honoring them, just like the Lord tells us to through his apostle right here. It's biblical. Let's keep at it.

And as we do that, Paul says, family-style love means not being lax about it. When it comes to honoring each other, when it comes to building each other up, when it comes to working to make each other look good, Paul tells us it means “not lagging when it comes to zeal” (Romans 12:11a). Paul's imagining a church, and a church network, that turns its back on slacking off. Instead, love means “boiling over in the Spirit” (Romans 12:11b) – letting the Spirit of God, with all the gifts he brings, flourish in us. Rather than stifling our gifts as we're prone to do, we should keep them from getting rusty by keeping them active. And the only guideline we need to how to use our gifts rightly for each other is to use them in “serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11c). By remembering that we're all the Lord's servants, whether here or at Terre Hill or at Bridgeville or at Mt. Airy or at California or at the church down the street that's denominated under a name besides EC, we can keep our gifts on track in family-style love under the Lord we're all called to serve.

For Paul, a loving church needs to have some things in common, and one of them is a common hope. What are we looking for? What are we expecting? Ultimately, we should be expecting and looking for the day when the Lord Jesus will return to bring this new creation he's started into full bloom. What we're looking for isn't the growth of our church – though that'd be nice, and may well be how God blesses our faithfulness. What we're looking for isn't the moral upkeep of the nation – though that wouldn't be a bad side effect for our collective faithfulness. What we're looking for is the action of God in the return of Jesus. Family-style love in the church means “rejoicing in hope” by reminding each other of what's really in store, a new heaven and new earth with God's presence at the center, all thanks to Jesus (Romans 12:12a). In the meantime, though, things are likely to be rough. We know how rough. Elsewhere in the world, the church is outright persecuted with all manner of violence. In America, some forms of soft persecution are creeping in. More relevant to our lived experience, we get sick, we struggle, we grieve, we die. It's rough as we try to stay anchored in the hope that's in store. So Paul reminds us that family-style love also means “being patient in tribulation” (Romans 12:12b). Jesus is on his way when the appointed hour comes, and until then, we have to endure.

The only way to do that, Paul says, is by being “constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12c). Family-style love in the church means getting together to pray regularly. We do that on Sunday mornings. That's a start. It should take place more often. And it doesn't mean just listing a series of the woes of relatives and neighbors. It means refocusing our prayers the way Paul's prayers were focused: God-centered, Jesus-anchored, Spirit-powered, big-picture praying, with the rest finding its place naturally within that priestly, family-style work. And that adds up in a big way to how Paul pictures a healthy church – a church that embodies family-style love.

From the 1870s to today, I'm sure there are times we've come closer and times we've fallen further. And just so, from the 1690s to today, I'm sure there are times Trinity Church in Manhattan has come closer and times they've fallen farther. But one thing is for sure. For at least that one week, they embodied a key characteristic of love: “to rejoice with those who rejoice; to weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). And oh boy, did they ever. When the war ended, they rejoiced with all their neighbors; when the president was struck down by John Wilkes Booth, they wept with all their neighbors. They actively shared in the lives of those around them.

What about the churches in Rome? Paul would've reminded the Gentile Christians to celebrate with the Jews who returned – their fellow believers and even the ones who didn't believe. And even beyond their churches, he would've reminded them to celebrate the lives of their fellow church members, the lives of the other churches in the network, the lives of the people down the street. Not every celebration could be joined, it's true. Romans had plenty of pagan festivals Christians couldn't in good conscience join, and love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). But a new marriage, a baby being born, success at work? Any Roman Christian could rejoice in that, even if the person so blessed was a despiser of the faith, and surely if it happened to a fellow Jesus-follower.

As hard as anyone tries to 'pursue' the church in putting us down, that's how hard, Paul says, we should 'pursue' chances to show hospitality (Romans 12:13b). To be good hosts. To invite travelers into our homes – vital and important especially in Rome, where travelers passed through all the time. Paul plans to be one himself. But not just for Christians, but in general, Paul tells them not to just passively wait, but to actively go looking for people to put up with room and board – people to host, people to feed, people to welcome. Reading Paul, you'd get the impression he thinks an empty room or empty couch in a Christian home is a contradiction in terms, or at the very least a wasted space and a lost opportunity. Around here, with all the bed-and-breakfasts and the different sort of local economy, we still take Paul's point. We could at least host celebrations for our church family and for our neighbors, couldn't we? We could send cards of congratulations for every good turn we hear, couldn't we? We could join in the festivities in every way compatible with our faith, couldn't we? Couldn't we “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15a)? And in our churches, couldn't we keep our ears open for every scrap of good news, and let it sincerely fill our hearts?

Of course, not all news is good news. Life is rough in a broken world. There will be tragedies in our lives and in our neighbors' lives. Griefs. Sicknesses. Financial hardships. Losses. Disasters. Funerals. Times when those in our church or those on our block have reason for weeping. What does Paul say in that hour? “Weep with those who weep,” he tells us (Romans 12:15b). Don't turn away from anyone's sorrow; enter it, share it, suffer it alongside them. Be a consoling presence where you can, but also just be a co-suffering presence. Even if you've got no words to say, just be there to weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, lament with those who lament.

Sometimes there will be ways to help, especially in the church. Paul says another mark of family-style love is in “contributing to the needs of the saints” (Romans 12:13a). Distribute what you've got to them, as a way of distributing part of their hardship onto yourself, and sharing in bearing their load. But whether that fits or not, be emotionally open to the joys and, yes, the sorrows of others. That was a weird idea in first-century Rome, a city where Stoic philosophy was doing quite well, a strain of thought that encouraged people to be unmoved and impervious to suffering. Paul says, rather, don't be emotionally closed off; be more open. More empathy, more sympathy, more imagination; be active in sharing what your neighbors are going through, and certainly so for those in your church or church network. Don't turn away from anybody's joys or anybody's sorrows; don't resort to clichés that only insulate you from what's really going on. Jesus doesn't bid us be a church of clichés; he wants us to grapple with dark and bright realities as they are, and to look then to the hope beyond.

Rejoicing with those who rejoice can be hard, if we aren't feeling very light ourselves. It was hard, in 1865, for people at Trinity Church to rejoice with Christians around the world in the resurrection of their Lord. It was hard, because they had their own national sorrows. And yet they had to lift up praise amidst their laments, to rejoice with those who rejoice. And weeping with those who weep can be hard, if we're in a more chipper mood ourselves. And yet the Holy Spirit can expand our capacity, to have hearts big enough to carry our own joy or sorrow as well as the sorrow or joy of those around us.

Rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep – it is hard to do. I won't deny that. And yet failing to weep with those who weep, and failing to rejoice with those who rejoice, can have such painful effects in the lives of weepers and mourners. Think of how tacky people found it in 1865, when the draft was revoked and those who stood to profit were in open grief over the end of lucrative warfare. Think how provoked people were that weekend in 1865, when some few made light of the Lincoln assassination in the face of those grieving a national tragedy. The reprisals were pain lashing out – and though the violence was wrong, the pain was real.

In today's America, it's a lesson we still have to learn. Every day, when I log on to social media, I still hear all about the latest big controversy of American culture: the national anthem protests. Remember that? It's still a very live issue. We're all talking past each other. And it's all because we've failed this verse.

Here's how I look at it. When Americans stand for the national anthem, when they hear hopeful and idealistic words about “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” when they hear the song and see the flag meant to represent those things, it's an act of rejoicing – rejoicing in the many gifts the country has received, the many glad-hearted values the country was meant to embody, however faltering we've been. It's a shared affection, a common commitment and cherishing, a rejoicing in the endurance of glimmers of moral beauty amidst the smoke and turmoil of a troubled world. Why were some vocal factions offended when some football players visibly refused by kneeling? Because in doing so, they refused to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” In its place, they lamented in the face of the rejoicing of their fellow-citizens. No wonder some people now, as in 1865, were provoked!

But then there's the other side. In kneeling, the players meant to embody the posture of a flag at half-mast – not out of hatred for the country, but out of grief over a national tragedy, just like flags flew at half-mast in the wake of the Lincoln assassination. That national tragedy is felt especially keenly by racial minorities in America who receive unfair and unequal treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system and in American society at large. Numerous incidents over the past several years, as well as day-to-day life, for some Americans links to the lengthy legacy of oppression in the slavery Lincoln abolished and the patchy history of recovery that came afterward. America doesn't always live up to the ideals she professes, and some in our country mourn the fear and suffering they endure. In the face of their real sorrow and real pain, many of us have, in turn, refused to “weep with those who weep.” In its place, we minimize their suffering; we rejoice in their faces as they mourn and weep and lament. How well did that go over in 1865? No wonder some now are provoked into protest! 

But imagine what could happen if we more consistently wept with those who wept, mourned with those who mourned, and really took upon ourselves their sorrow and pain in the face of discrimination. Imagine what could happen if they and we still found ways to rejoice with those who rejoice in whatever blessings or virtues the country yet has. Wouldn't that make a move toward a healthier country, if we all learned better how to both “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep”? What would our national culture look like, I wonder, if even 10%, 20%, of the people made a concerted effort to do so in the face of any given hot-button dispute?

The church can make that happen – we can make that happen. Not just when it comes to the anthem protests, and not just when it comes to any other big national controversy, but right here, in our neighborhood, in the life we live alongside our neighbors day by day. We can make it happen because the Holy Spirit gives us hearts big enough for our own joys and their own sorrows, or our own sorrows and their own joys. We can make it happen because we have made a family, made for family-style love. And by pursuing Paul's prescription for family-style lovin' in the church, we'll be better positioned to share each other's joys and sorrows as well as those of our neighbors. Like Trinity Church in 1865, we can welcome the joys and sorrows of our neighbors and each other into this place, gathering them up, throwing the bonds of family wide open.

It starts with us. It starts with you, this family-style love. You, all of you, each of you, can be present to the joy and the sorrow of the house next door. Each of you can rejoice with your neighbors, your relatives, your kids and grandkids, your co-workers or schoolmates, your church family. Take the initiative, send messages of light and blessing, host the party or just join in. And each of you can weep and mourn with the same people when they hurt and grieve and struggle and suffer. Take the initiative, be there for them in silence or send words of compassion and fellow-suffering. Allow the joy, allow the tears, to enter your heart. It's the kind of possibility that our family-style love as a church is meant to make possible. And imagine, just imagine, what could be if you were known in your workplace, your school, your church, your neighborhood, as someone present and emotionally available to the life-situations of each one, and who can point, in joy or in sorrow, to the one hope: Jesus Christ. Let that be our love. Let that be our witness: of rejoicing and weeping, as Jesus did, and in his name. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Vengeance: A How-To-(Not) Guide: Sermon on Romans 12:17-21

'Twas a fair if misty afternoon at sea. From a half-sunk rowboat, a captain surveyed the damage to his vessel – the hull breached, the doom of all still aboard seemed sealed. The ship had been rammed by a whale that now floated, waiting, nearby him – just in front of the captain. But it – that whale, a massive albino unmistakable in age and feature – well, that was what he'd set sail for. The captain, in his late fifties, had been a whaler four decades, since leaving the cusp of youth. But that whale had ruined his last voyage – ruined him his last voyage – a fact the captain recalled every time he walked, whalebone peg from his bitten-off stump clunking against wood in alternation with his sole good leg. In the wake of the tragedy, people said the captain's “torn body and gashed soul” had “bled into one another.” Oh, that “murderous monster” of a whale. To the captain, it seemed something more – something like the prison wall of the universe, confining him, representing the face of the malicious void beyond, which he had to breach, had to strike that taunting cosmic malice.

Ever since they'd embarked on this voyage, he'd had one thought in mind: to find that same whale and bring it to its death. Nothing could dissuade the captain; he'd chase the whale all over the earth, even round and round the flames of hell itself, before giving it up. To him, that whale was the most loathsome thing, invested with all the weight of evil since the days of Adam. The sight of it chased all thought of himself, all thought of his wife and boy back home in Nantucket, from his mind. That whale seemed somehow... vengeful. Vengeful in striking the hull of the whaling ship that pursued him so far. But the whale's vengeance was met by the captain's. That was his single driving passion: vengeance. 'Twas a “wild vindictiveness” that drove him. “Vengeance on a dumb brute,” a critic said – no, the captain thought, vengeance on malice itself. But right in that particular: he had sailed for one “all-engrossing” object, to gain “an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.”

And so, as the Pequod in the distance took on torrents of death-dealing water through its breached hull, her captain cared for little but the whale before him – at long last. The whale seemed to wait for their encounter, too. Standing, and letting go for a moment of the gunwale to which he'd clung for safety, the captain shouted, “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee!” And a last harpoon flew from the captain's hand. It struck, but the line behind ran foul, and no sooner had he cleared it than the rope managed to catch him by the neck and shoot him from the boat. It dragged him down as the whale dove, tangled him beneath the deep – and so vengeance was the end of Captain Ahab.

Herman Melville's classic 1850s novel Moby Dick is about many a thing, but on the surface, at least, it portrays the quest of one man for vengeance against the whale that not only stole his leg but comes to embody all his rage. And no one can deny the white whale hurt Ahab. Think about it: to watch so many of his last crew slaughtered and torn apart in the ocean foam, and to have his own leg bitten off, and to have it replaced with a prosthetic made from whale bone, but every step he took reminded him only of what he'd lost. I can't imagine the torment Ahab went through, even physically, let alone psychologically. Not a one of us here, I think, has had quite that done to us. 

But I won't deny, couldn't deny, that we get hurt in this world – not by whales in the sea, but by men and women quite like ourselves. Some of us have been wounded, hurt physically, attacked. Some of us have been traumatized by tragedy of human craftsmanship. Some of us have been bankrupted by the machinations of others, robbed blind, left destitute. Some of us have been tossed to the curb, abandoned. Some of us have been accused falsely of wrongs we didn't commit, had our names dragged through the mud. Some of us have been excluded and exorcised from former places of business, former places of leisure, former places of worship. In a world of crime and offense, a world of blood and sweat and tears, it doesn't take a whale to hurt us; we get wounded, traumatized, cursed, excluded, denounced, betrayed, and all the rest, just in human society. Maybe it's a small thing, sometimes – a petty word or glance, a sharp remark, a simple slight, that sets your blood a-boilin'. Or maybe it's a larger thing – something that shakes us, something that redirects the path of your life.  Whether it be an unkind word or a terrorist attack, evil is at large in our world, and we get hurt.

The Bible never ignores that. And the Bible doesn't tell us to ignore that. “Just shake it off” isn't the biblical way to see things. Neither is the old Stoic idea of being imperturbable – undisturbed by all the misfortunes that come your way. No, the Bible tells us to “hate exceedingly what is evil,” while we “cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). The Bible is too honest to pretend the world is fair or life is fair. Injustice is out there. It is real. It matters. We should take it seriously. Even when it gets personal.

Faced with the different ways we get hurt, slighted, excluded, and betrayed, we hate it – we hate injustice done to us. And that's not wrong – we're to hate what is evil, and hate it a lot. That can easily drive us to vengeance. That's a heavy word – 'Vengeance' – but more commonly these days, we just call it 'Payback.' And it isn't only about the big things. A business does wrong by me, and what's my first thought? Leave a bad review – but my mind might not be on other potential customers, but on hurting the business. Payback. I get cut off in traffic, and what's my first thought? Drive in a way that inconveniences them, whether it be by tailgating or getting around and slowing them down. Payback. Someone gives me the cold shoulder, and what's my first thought? Giving it right back to them, engaging in some passive-aggressive games, giving them a 'taste of their own medicine.' Payback. Someone criticizes me, and what's my first thought? Lay into them, put them in their place, teach them a lesson. Payback. Vengeance. Our world seems to run on vengeance. On payback. How else can we show we hate what's evil than to punish it, training those around us not to hurt us any more? We do it all the time. With our neighbors. With our relatives. With our co-workers. With each other. We want to behave in a way that will hold up a mirror to the way they've treated us. Payback. And just like Ahab, things may not feel right until we've done it; it can stew and boil inside us, because injustice is plain to see.

And yet... And yet, not so long after Paul tells us to hate what's evil, he says something else. He says, “Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17). How can that be? How can we not fight back? How can we take things lying down. If the business does wrong by us, aren't we to one-star it? If the colleague picks a feud with us, aren't we to outfeud him? If the driver cuts us off, aren't we to inconvenience her? If the family member cheats and mistreats us, aren't we to respond in kind? If the system cheats us, aren't we to work against it? If the whale bites off our leg, aren't we to hunt it? How else, when we're on the spot, can we show we take evil seriously? Something seems wrong here, we want to tell Paul.

But then Paul makes it worse; he says something harder: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves” (Romans 12:19). And we wonder, “Really, Paul? Really? Never avenge yourselves? Never get payback? Never teach them a lesson? How, then, shall they learn?” And Paul says back, “You heard me.” When the business does wrong by you, don't make it your aim to hurt them back. When the driver cuts you off, don't make it your aim to inconvenience them – Paul says, not even to curse them under your breath (cf. Romans 12:14). When your neighbor complains about you, Paul says, don't level the playing field by destroying their reputation. When your family member treats you coldly and distantly, don't give them the cold shoulder in return. When your critics surface with words of hurt, don't lash back with hurtful words of your own. Not even for the big cases. Not even against the whales of the world, the murderous monsters that roam the seven seas – and the seven continents, too. Paul doesn't say, “Sometimes avenge yourselves, when the case is serious enough.” Or, “Sometimes avenge yourselves, when it should be a quick thing to teach them to fix it.” Just, “Never avenge yourselves.” That's the word Ahab couldn't hear.

It's hard for us to hear, too. It makes no sense. How can we hate evil without showing evildoers in our lives that we take their evil seriously? But Paul sees something all too true. Paul sees that our vengeance, our own efforts to get payback, to put people back in their place, to teach them a lesson, can so easily get out of hand – that they run too high a risk of dragging us and our worlds down with them. It's too easy, in seeking to punish evil, to become an evildoer. Criticizing our critics, our words can run away with us. Inconveniencing the driver who inconveniences me, I can put myself in harm's way (or them!). Giving the cold shoulder to a cold kinsman, I can ruin a relationship's chances for revival. Tearing down the reputations of those who falsely accuse me, I can land in hot water myself. Our vengeance spins out of control: remember the Hatfields and the McCoys. Think of the escalating atrocities in almost any war. Sometimes the whale wins the day again, and you end up tangled in your own schemes, fathoms beneath air and sun.

It's hard for us to hear not to avenge ourselves. That seems so much like being a pushover, a doormat – like letting people, letting life, just walk all over us, by showing that we don't take injustice seriously. But Paul isn't done with his sentence when it tells us to never avenge ourselves. He says there's something else to do instead: “Give place to the wrath” (Romans 12:19b). And what he means is, “Step back and make room for the wrath of God to take care of it.”

That phrase – “the wrath of God” – we don't much like that. It's not the way we picture God in America these days, is it? God is all about love, about mercy, about kindness and grace. But the Bible paints a richer picture and uses some heavier colors. The psalmist prays, “O LORD, God of vengeance, God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O Judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve” (Psalm 94:1-2). Hear that title: “God of Vengeance.” When injustice rears its ugly head, that's how the psalmist sees God. When people get crushed, when the vulnerable get killed, when towers fall, when darkness thinks God isn't watching, the psalmist turns to a vengeful God, a wrathful God. The psalmist maybe remembers the song God taught to Moses, the one Paul quotes in today's passage. In the face of those persecuting Israel in the desert, God says, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense … for the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone … I will take vengeance on my adversaries and will repay those who hate me. … Rejoice with him, O heavens, and bow down to him, all gods, for he avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries” (Deuteronomy 32:35-36, 41, 43).

In the face of the world's evil, Isaiah pictures God wrapping himself in “garments of vengeance for clothing” (Isaiah 59:17), and foresees the proclamation of “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Jeremiah, a persecuted prophet, prayed for God to “take vengeance for me on my persecutors” (Jeremiah 15:15) and ultimately preached about God's vengeance against both Egypt and Babylon (Jeremiah 46:10; 51:11). Ezekiel heard God announce his vengeance on the Edomites and on the Philistines (Ezekiel 25:14-17). Micah heard God promise, “In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey” (Micah 5:15). And the prophet Nahum even opened his book with the bold announcement, “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies” (Nahum 1:2).

It's not just the Old Testament, either. In Revelation, the martyred saints pray for the Lord to “judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 6:10), and it shows God doing what the prophets foresaw by “avenging” on Babylon the Great “the blood of his servants” (Revelation 19:2). John the Baptist threatened the Pharisees about “the wrath to come” (Luke 3:7). Paul warned that an unrepentant person was “storing up wrath for [himself] on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5), and that for those who “obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8), and that “the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6). Revelation describes Jesus as treading “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15), and just so, Paul pictures the coming day when “the Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who don't know God and on those who don't obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). In the New Testament just like in the Old, God is a God of vengeance.

We can be uncomfortable with that. We don't feel at ease today with that, maybe – at least, not until we're hurt, not until we see evil up close, and then we remember its value. There's a Croatian theologian who teaches at Yale – I met him once – who grew up in socialist Yugoslavia, which was ripped apart in the Yugoslav Wars. And there's one passage from one of his books that I'll never forget. He said:

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. … My last resistance to the idea of God's wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. … Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God's wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn't wrathful at the sight of the world's evil. God isn't wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

Miroslav Volf is right. God is a God of Vengeance because God is a God of Love. God is a God of Vengeance because injustice against his people, injustice against you, is not something he will tolerate. He loves you, he loves us, far too much to let our harm go unavenged. That's why Paul chooses this verse to remind us who we are: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but give place to the wrath, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (Romans 12:19). Paul reminds us that we're God's beloved ones. God can afford to be a God of vengeance because no whale, no leviathan of the deep, can drag him down; but the reason God is a God of vengeance is because he loves you too much to watch those who hurt you get off scot-free.

And Paul explains to us that this truth, this reminder of God's wrath and God's vengeance, is exactly what frees us to abandon the hunt. No matter how badly someone has hurt you, you don't have to carry that burden. You don't have to carry it, because God loves you so much that he guarantees he'll deal with it – in his own way. No matter what someone has done or said to you, putting them in their place is not your place; it's God's place. And when we try to take vengeance into our own hands, we are getting in God's way. Vengeance is his – therefore, not ours. Payback is his exclusive domain; we need to stay out of it, stand clear of it, yield that turf to him and give him elbow room to work when and how he chooses – which, as it turns out, frequently involves the cross of Jesus Christ.

So what's Paul said so far? Injustice in the world is real. Injustice in our lives is real. People hurt us in many ways, they do us wrong. And we should hate evil – hate it with a burning passion. But that doesn't mean we're to deal in payback. Payback is God's business, not ours. So Paul tells us to never avenge ourselves, never try to dish out a taste of their own medicine, never try to get even, never try to get payback. If there's something criminal done to you, of course you're free to refer that to the proper authorities – Paul outright tells us that the ruling authority in the land is supposed to be “God's servant, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). But that's between God and his avenging servant, and our position is to never avenge ourselves but to instead leave a vacancy for God's action, trusting that his love for us will set all things right.

So where does that leave us? In the face of all the hurt, all the evil we're supposed to hate, do we then just let it slide – do we keep our distance? Paul tells us to aim to “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). But Paul is hoping for something better than mere avoidance, if possible. Paul asks us to respond proactively to the hurt, the evil, the injustice. “Bless those who persecute you,” he says; “bless, and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14). Instead of cursing, instead of criticizing, instead of tearing down, we should work for the benefit of those who have harmed us. The driver who cuts you off – respond by driving in a way that blesses her. The coworker who won't stop getting in your way and in your face – respond in a way that blesses him. The family member who stirs up trouble – respond with blessing. The leader who betrayed you, the business that cheated you, the group that excluded you – respond in a way that blesses him and them.

When we're hurt, it's easy for our minds to get drawn into stewing over it, making our blood boil like Ahab's. It's easy to daydream about all the things we'd like to say and do to get back at those who did that to us. Paul suggests a better use for our brainpower. “Repay no one evil for evil” – don't even think about it – “but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). When he says 'give thought,' he means to do active planning. Instead of meditating on payback, meditate on mercy. Not in a way that makes you look like a pushover or a doormat, but a way that shows an even greater control over the situation – Paul's calling here for an active response, not just a passive one. We aren't to be paralyzed in the face of conflict, not fearful when confronted with injustice and hurt, but to have already laid plans for how to respond in a vengeance-free, mercy-soaked way.

Hunting around in Proverbs, Paul has an example to suggest: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Romans 12:20; cf. Proverbs 25:21). It's an idea that Elisha implemented all the way back in 2 Kings 6: the Syrian army comes to threaten Israel, so by the prophet Elisha's prayer, God strikes the enemy soldiers blind, and Elisha leads them into Samaria to the Israelite king. Seeing his enemies blind and helpless, the king of Israel asks the prophet if he may strike them down and win the day. But Elisha gives him other advice: to “set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master” (2 Kings 6:22). It was a concrete act of mercy – more than the blind Syrian soldiers could have expected, to have their enemy whom they persecuted come to their aid in their moment of weakness.

In that story, the result, we're told, was that “the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel” (2 Kings 6:23). And so Paul and Proverbs tell us to feed hungry enemies and water thirsty enemies, “for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20; cf. Proverbs 25:22). The idea is to heap up the burning shame of remorse through these acts of practical blessing – to hopefully shame the one hurting you into realizing that they're lashing out at a friendly face. The hope is to shame the evildoer into repenting.

Does it always work out like that? No. Paul's a realist. It's why he tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Paul knows it doesn't always depend on you. Sometimes the other party just can't bear the thought of peace. So sometimes, it isn't possible to have peace with everybody. Even after you heap burning coals on their heads through active blessing, sometimes they won't repent, won't turn, won't give up the evil they've done or plan yet to do. In that case, Paul says, just make sure you stand clear, and trust the God of vengeance to handle it. Just because the evildoer doesn't change his or her tune, doesn't mean you have a reason to change yours – because God has freed you from the burden of avenging yourself, and has told you to stay out of his way.

When we take it upon ourselves to dish out payback, even if it's petty, even if it's passive-aggressive, even if it's a small thing, we're encroaching on God's turf. What's more, we're tempted to “repay … evil for evil” (Romans 12:17). But who's left standing in a contest between evil and evil?  You guessed it: Evil. Evil can't beat evil – it can only multiply evil, multiply hurt, multiply hate. And when our hearts and minds stew over the things we refuse to release into God's care, the evil done to us keeps its hold on us. It drags us down. It tempts us to vengeance. It clings to our thoughts and our emotions. It restricts our freedom to relate to people unburdened. When we don't turn vengeance over to the God who holds the copyright on vengeance, it will eat away at us, distort us, mangle and deform us. Remember Captain Ahab – his obsession with the whale consumed his life, blocked out every other thought or pursuit, and brought about his destruction and that of his whole ship. “Do not be overcome by evil” (Romans 12:21). Don't let that evil attach to your heart and overcome you. Hate doing evil more than suffering evil.

But don't ignore evil. We can't ignore evil. All that's necessary for evil to triumph is for it to go ignored and unopposed. We can't afford to let evil run rampant. We have to name it for what it is. We have to stand in its way. We have to work for justice in this world – justice in how we treat others, and calling on God's appointed servants to administer his justice well – but that doesn't mean avenging ourselves, taking justice into our own hands, as it were. To hate evil, to stand in opposition to evil, to show that we take seriously the hurt that's been done to us – there's another way. There remains an option for victory.

And that option is the path of active blessing that Paul's been talking about. When you feed your hungry hater, when you give a drink to your wounder when he or she is thirsty, when you take care to show kindness to the one who hurt you, in deliberate and planned proportion to the hurt so that there's no mistaking that it constitutes a conscious response – well, Paul calls that “overcoming evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Take evil seriously by beating it with serious good. That's the only way forward. In Captain Ahab's case, it would've meant leaving Moby Dick to a long and happy life. In the case of the Hatfields and McCoys, it would've meant the sorts of joint family reunions the families really now do these days. In your case... what might it mean? What would it look like to claim the real victory – not by getting payback, but by leaving that in God's hands and aiming to overcome evil with good?

Maybe someone has come to mind during this message. Some person in your life who's done you wrong. That particular family member, or co-worker, or neighbor, or former leader, or schoolmate, or former spouse – or current spouse, for that matter. Someone who's hurt you, done evil to you, treated you unjustly, in a way that at some time or another, you've been tempted to treat them in a way that might teach them a lesson or put them in their place or otherwise pay them back. Well, pay them back this way: We've got a church cookout coming up. Reach out and invite them. Yes, that's my challenge for you this week. Go to them and seek ways to bless them somehow. Don't let the estrangement, don't let the hurt, don't let the wrong have the last word. If the two of you disagree on who did what, don't let that drag you back down into the dispute. Let God make it clear to them, and to you, what you and they have to repent of. Just bless them, bless them in the face of their injustice, and give space for God to handle the rest.  May our God teach us how rightly to overcome evil with good, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.