Suited Up (142)

You all came very close to having to sit through a sermon on taxes. We’re lucky we started in verse eight and not verse seven of Romans 13. This is verse seven: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due . . . .” We jumped into the passage in the next verse. We’re just in time to hear Paul tell his readers not to owe anyone anything except love. And this meant something. In the ancient Roman world people’s lives were ordered by their sense of obligation, to the empire, patrons, ancestors, even friends. But Paul says that the good news reorders things. Yes, those who believe this good news should still pay their taxes; they should be a benefit to the larger community, not a drag. But because Jesus is the crucified and risen presence of God, they could let the whole system of honor and obligation go.  

Except . . . for love. That obligation never goes away. There are times in life when you don’t owe any taxes (aren’t these great?). Yet there is never a time when you don’t owe others love. So Paul reminds us to love those to whom we are connected. Paul doesn’t say it here, but elsewhere scripture says we love others because God does and because every person has inherent worth. They just do. So do you. Not because of what you do or, for the little ones, because of what you might do some day, not because of how you will contribute—you are worthy of love just because you are.

Take a deep breath, exhale, relax in your seat. You are worthy of love just because you are. And so are others.

Love others, Paul tells citizens of that ancient capital city, and God’s instructions are fulfilled. Augustine used to say that if someone totally butchered their interpretation of the Bible but ended up at love they were like someone who got lost on the way to the library but ended up there anyway. Success!

What are we about as a church here in Ottawa? I think just that, learning to love those to whom we are connected. Incidentally, it was a little over 50 years ago that the first church building here was completed. It was designed by an architect from Toronto, funded by a combination of loans from the conference and money raised within the congregation. The construction contract was awarded to the only company that bid on the project. The church owned two acres that they had bought years previous on what was then the very outskirts of the city. Part of the property was sold off to pay for the building. Around the same time a new minister arrived. Frank, I’ve read, provided OMC with “challenging leadership” and “thrust the congregation into the vortex of the radical sixties.” By 1967 there were 40 committed members here. They welcomed transient students and other young folks. A coffeehouse was set up in the basement as well as an office for a fellow who helped American’s avoiding military service in Vietnam. Neighbors sometimes complained because there were so many young people hanging around they were sure alcohol, drugs and sex must have been involved. Some things have changed in fifty years.

As we enter another season of ministry I can’t help but think about the future, this year and beyond. I want to encourage us to think bravely and hopefully about the coming decades. Just as the church we are now would likely not have fit the context of the late 1960s, so the church we are now may well not fit the context of the coming decades. This can sound like a recipe for a lot of work, a lot of wrangling and a lot of congregational meetings. It can sound complicated. Just as it does, however, we would do well to remember these lines from Romans 13: love is the fulfillment of God’s will, God’s dream for how we treat each other. Of course, as we see in the verses that follow and as we see in our gospel reading from Matthew 18, loving someone else doesn’t mean turning a blind eye when they get involved in self-destructive behavior. We would hope as much in their response to us. Yet the core of this mutual accountability is not selfishness but love.

Love isn’t just how we color in our lives after they’ve been given shape by something else. Love shapes the very outline of our lives.

Marlena, a young woman living in Toronto, had degrees in communication and journalism. She had a good job. She was an amateur triathlete. Marlena said that she was a “poster child for well-adjusted millennials, complete with fancy road bike and regular consumption of kale.”

A couple of years before she had been told to write a story about women religious, that is, about nuns who had devoted themselves to worship and caring for others. What she had not expected was that such a life would seem beautiful to her. It would look to her like the way she was called to show love for others.

So, not long ago Marlena quit her job and sold her stuff. She says, “It is for love alone that I quite my dream job . . . .” She decided to commit herself to the work of God’s people in the service of others. She wasn’t running from something bad; life in Toronto was pretty good. She was headed toward a form of life that would let her show God’s love with an undivided heart. She was 30 years old, it was 2017 and Marlena had decided to become a nun. Love shapes the very outline of our lives.

Here are Paul’s next words to the Roman Christians, after he has encouraged them toward love: “Besides this,” he says, “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” We should live in the light of day, “not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.” Let’s not miss the fact here that quarrelling and jealousy are put right in line with not being faithful to our sexual vows and getting hammered to avoid life. Instead of all that and instead trying to gratifying our worst desires, we can put on Christ. Get up, a new day is just about to dawn. Put the night behind you; get ready for what’s coming. Get suited up. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” that is how Paul says it.

What could that mean: put on Jesus the Messiah? Wouldn’t that be putting on a mask and being inauthentic?

There is an interesting parallel to Paul’s underlying assumption in some streams of postmodern thought. Kenneth Gergen is one example. He’s a psychologist and professor at Swarthmore.  Gergen doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a stable self. You may have some consistent characteristics, but there is no true, unchanging you. You can’t be true to your inner, unchanging self, he suggests, because there is no such thing. We often think that even though we may change our behavior for certain situations, there is still some core self to which we can be true. What Gergen’s postmodern take on things suggests is that there is no such self below these changing garments. Whatever ‘you’ are is a result of your decisions and your social context—always.

This kind of thinking might be troubling to our romantic ideas about being “authentic” and “being true to ourselves,” but it is not the least bit troubling to Scripture. Put on Jesus Christ, Paul says. That is, take on parts of that identity. In Romans 13 it means wake up from your sleep, behave in such a way that you don’t need to hide and “love your neighbour as yourself.” We love ourselves quite naturally, generally at least. Our bodies are programmed for it. However, scripture says that we live best and we light up the world the most when extend this love to others. And this is the heart of things. The heart of Jesus’ ethic. The summery of the law. It is the essence of how we make our way in the world. Whatever the future of our congregation holds, we are to put on Christ and to love others as we love our selves.

But how? How do we put on Christ? Lest we get too focused on the gendered aspect of this passage, let’s remember that elsewhere scripture tells us that we are also the “bride” of Christ. The gendered language runs both ways.

So let’s say we want too. Let’s say something about Jesus’ teaching speaks to us and we see putting on Christ not as a demand but as an opportunity for really making our lives count. How do we do it? The short answer is by God’s grace and by practice. That’s true, but I think we can pull two more specific things from our readings in Romans and Matthew.

Here’s the thing from Romans. Remember, the question is how do we put on Christ? Look at the two important actions in the last paragraph we heard from Romans: “wake from sleep” and “put on.” Notice that both of those are things we do. You get up early to get a run in. You get suited up to prepare for something specific, playing hockey, going to work, going on a date, whatever. The point is that putting on Christ doesn’t just happen. It requires a deliberate decision and purposefulness. What’s more, it requires a certain sincerity and earnestness.

In my house we sometimes give each other a hard time for not choosing what team to root for until we know who won or not having an opinion about what we want to eat until someone else has chosen for us. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to live passively, without commitment. Never trying or never being earnest about anything lets us live in total irony. It lets us make jokes at everyone’s expense except our own. We aren’t vulnerable to being made fun of because we never cared anyway. That’s a temptation I know I face. But putting on Jesus requires the risk of trying and the risk to standing for something and the risk of not always being half-assed. The grace is in the fact that we can, in the fact that the call reaches us at all, and in the Spirit’s support.

The other thing about putting on Christ and learning to love comes from our gospel reading. If you have spent much time in church circles you should be familiar with this passage. It’s the built-in how-to for negotiating church life. Here’s what it says:

  • If another member of the community sins against you, go and complain about it to others.
  • Then, if things don’t get better, go and complain to someone on a committee. They have more power.
  • If that doesn’t work, go to still other people and complain about the people on the committees.
  • If even that doesn’t work write a long, public blog post and leave.

The nervous laughter of conviction is my own. What Jesus actually instructs us to do is to engage directly with those we are in conflict with. We approach them personally, and if that doesn’t work, if they don’t listen, if the power imbalance is too severe, we take a couple of others with us. This is the way of love within the reality of our sinfulness.

There’s no hiding the fact that churches can be nests of gossip, that is, for unloving rumors, for using our words to do violence to others. I’m guessing that was a temptation for communities in 1967 and I’m guessing it’s a temptation for us today. But here in this passage, right here in our scriptures, we have an antidote. We don’t need to go looking for a fancy, jargon-filled new theory. We have, by God’s grace, a model right before us. A practical way to love and to learn the skills of making peace.

I’ll close with this invitation. As we head into a new year of ministry together let’s wake up. Let’s think about our future together with confidence and joy. And let’s return, again, to the core of our mandate, or we might say, to the core of the gift we bring to the world: loving others as we love our very own selves. To be a Christian community, in whatever decade, is to be a place where we learn how to do this. This is who we are. We are a people learning to put on Christ.

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