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.

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