“Do, or Do Not”

“Do, or Do Not”

The eyes of the nation,
and perhaps the world,
have turned towards the book of Romans
this week.

A news story broke
about immigrant children being separated
from their parents and being kept
in rather squalid detention facilities.

And our government,
in particular our Attorney General –
who happens to also be a United Methodist,
responded to this story,
to accusations of human rights abuses
against children, by quoting the bible.

I am not going to pull any punches on this friends. This sickens me.
It literally makes me sick to my stomach.
A government official,
a United Methodist no less,
using the bible to justify ripping families apart.

We can bandy about
with the context and interpretation of Romans 13,
and we can discuss the finer points
of immigration reform.

But friends, there is a serious problem,
an extremely dangerous problem,
when anyone, especially the government,
uses God’s Word to justify actions
that our hearts know to be wrong.

The bible has been used
to justify wars and crusades.
It has been used to justify eugenics and slavery.
It has been used to justify
the oppression of women and minorities.
It has been used, over and over again,
to prop up the powerful and
destroy the lives of the vulnerable.

It has been used and abused
in order to mask the evil that our hearts desire
as “okay” with God.
And friends that is most definitely not OKAY,
not one little bit.

Part of the case that Paul made in Romans 1
was that who God is,
God’s essential nature and being,
is revealed in the creation that we see around us.

In Romans 2 Paul tells us
that even the law of God,
that which God expects us to do,
how God wants us to live in community
with one another is, at least in part, instinctive.

In our scripture this morning
Paul talks about how gentiles,
those without the law, can still,
by instinct do the things written in the law.

That is even without the written law of God,
people to whom God has not directly spoken
or interceded, can follow the law,
can do what is right in the sight of God
and will therefore be judged by that law
written on their hearts.

So we can talk about context and interpretation
and differing schools of theology,
but at the end of the day, our hearts know,
our hearts instinctively tell us,
that these actions,
the tearing apart of families
and the detention of children,
by our government, on our behalf, are wrong.
No matter what a handful of verses
in Romans 13 might be twisted to say.

You probably know by now that I’m a fan of Paul.
Paul’s letters have shaped the church,
shaped how we live together
and what we believe, in important ways.

But I also recognize
that one of the big mistakes people make
when interpreting the New Testament
is beginning with Paul.

Paul wrote a large chunk of the New Testament
and many of those letters were written
even before the gospels.
So it can seem natural and appropriate
to read Paul and interpret the gospels
through his writings.

We then read and see and experience Jesus
through the lens of Paul.
But we forget that even if the stories of Jesus
were not yet written down,
the stories were being told.

Paul had heard the stories,
knew the stories that eventually
were written down in the gospels.

Paul wasn’t writing because he, Paul,
was so important.
He was writing because Jesus is.
And so it is imperative
that as we approach the bible,
in particular the New Testament letters,
that we approach them through the lens of Jesus.

In the parlance of the late 20th century,
as we read and interpret the New Testament,
we must ask ourselves “What Would Jesus Do?”

That being the case, whenever I read Paul,
as I am an awful lot right now
for this series on Romans,
I spend a lot of time thinking about what Jesus did.

And one of things Jesus did a lot was tell stories.

As I was praying over this passage
from Romans for today
one of those stories kept creeping into my mind,
a parable of Jesus that fits in rather well.
And its in the gospel of Matthew and it goes like this:

The chief priests and pharisees
were giving Jesus a hard time again.

This time wanting to know
by what authority he did all of the things he did.
Of course he answered their question
with a question,
and it was one they couldn’t answer
unless they wanted to lose face.

So Jesus pressed on and told a story of a man,
a man who had two sons.

The man went up to the first son
and asked him to go and work in the vineyard.

The first son flat out said
“No. I’m not going to do that.”
Disappointed the father went to the second son
and asked him to go and work in the vineyard.

The second son said
“No problem, father. I will go and do all you ask.”

In the end the first son,
the son who had told his father “no”,
changed his mind
and went and worked in the vineyard
as his father had asked.
The second son however,
the one who agreed to do the work
in the first place didn’t.

Jesus then asked the priests and Pharisees
which son did the will of the father.
They answered him, “The first, of course”.

Then Jesus told this gathering
of religious muckety-mucks
that the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners were going to enter the kingdom of God
ahead of them,
because God cares a whole lot less
about what we say
and a whole lot more about how we live
and what we do.
It does us no good to pay lip service
to love and grace, if we don’t live by them.

“For it is not the hearers of the law
who are righteous in the sight of God,
but the doers of the law who will be justified.”

Author Brennan Manning put it another way,
“The greatest single cause of atheism
in the world today is Christians:
who acknowledge Jesus with their lips,
walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world
simply finds unbelievable.”

There are sections of Christianity
that make a big deal about right belief.
About making sure that what we believe
has the right words to it,
that the words are the most important thing.

Things like saying,
that it is by grace we are saved through faith.
By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Anything else, they will tell you,
isn’t Christianity, isn’t salvation.

They make a big deal about saying
you cannot earn your salvation.
And that is true.
Salvation is a gift.
And it comes by grace through faith.
We don’t earn it, but we can and should prove it, and that is the distinction that Paul is making here.

We can know God’s Word
and believe God’s word
but our life, what we do, how we live,
how we treat one another,
is going to prove if the salvation we claim
is genuine.

The life that we are to live in Jesus Christ
is not about creeds.
It’s not about having the exact right beliefs.
Sure we have some basic things
that we agree upon,
but ultimately Christ came to show us a way to live. A way to live with compassion and mercy,
with justice and grace.

Some of us figure that out
without the scriptures and sermons
while others, who have all the advantages,
who get to study and hear and learn
and be reminded and encouraged
again and again, some of us still miss the point.

It is the doers of the word
who are justified in God’s sight.

One of the reasons I love John Wesley is that,
for all his studies and all his preaching
and all the emphasis he put on right belief,
even more than that,
Wesley was a practical theologian.

The Methodist tradition
has long emphasized right practice
over right belief;
no matter what we say or think about God,
it’s what happens when the rubber hits the road
that matters most.

One of the big ideas that John Wesley left us,
was what we call “The Means of Grace”,
or the ways in which we gain access
to God’s grace.

He broke those means or access points
into two categories.
Acts of piety,
those things which we do
for our own personal spiritual enrichment
and practice.
Like going to worship, celebrating communion, studying the bible, reading other theologians,
prayer and fasting.

The second is acts of mercy,
those things which we do
for the benefit of others,
that is, as we have received God’s grace
through our acts of piety,
we release God’s grace to others in acts of mercy.

In feeding the hungry,
in visiting the sick and the prisoner,
welcoming the foreigner,
in serving the stranger,
in forgiving those who sin against us,
in sharing our faith,
our belief in a gracious, merciful,
and loving God to all we meet.

Both kinds of grace,
the acts of piety and the acts of mercy
are necessary for our faith,
our faith that comes by grace alone,
to be healthy, to be vibrant,
to be a faith that is attractive to people.

When we forget that,
when we become all about the letter of the law,
about thinking that merely saying the right words,
the words we think God or our pastors
or people in general want to hear
is more important than actually doing it,
we find ourselves in a big heap of trouble. 

We find churches closing their doors.
We find the bulk of people outside the church
unable to take us seriously
because they are not stupid.
They can read the words as well as we can.

I am sure most of us know someone
who is not a Christian
or doesn’t care to be affiliated with the church,
who knows the bible,
who knows how to love their neighbor,
a whole lot better than most of the folks
we know who claim to love and follow Jesus.

I know several folks who deny
the very existence of God,
who think the Church is full of delusional people,
who live and walk closer to Christ
– though they would never call it that –
closer than even I do at times.

Because it’s not about knowing the right words
but rather it is about living those words,
and there are a lot of people
who live those words without ever knowing them.

How much more,
should we who know the words, live by them? How much more should we live to be the example,
to shine the light into the darkness?

The world is watching us.
It is watching to see how we live
and how we respond.

I don’t think the way to respond
to Jeff Sessions is to put him on trial
in Methodist court;
I don’t even think the way to respond
is to vilify and demonize him.
I think we respond
by loving our neighbor even more.

Many of you may remember a fellow
by the name of Bob Goff
because I made you read his book “Love Does”
once upon a time.
In Goff’s most recent book “Everybody Always,”
he writes:

“There is no school to learn
how to love your neighbor,
just the house next door.
No one expects us to love them flawlessly,
but we can love them fearlessly,
furiously, and unreasonably.”

We will eventually get to Romans 13 –
and I expect that we are going to have
some great discussion around it
long before we actually get there.
But I want us to remember
something very important.

While Romans 13 does say some things
about being subject to the governing authorities,
it also says something far more important. It says:

“Owe no one anything,
except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. ‘You shall not murder; you shall not steal;
you shall not covet;’
and any other commandment,
are summed up in this word,
‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor;
therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

The law written on our hearts
and the law handed down by God
and contained in the pages of our bibles
is not fulfilled
when we use the law to hurt others,
when we judge and condemn them,
when we use God’s word
to make their suffering sharper,
to heap injury upon injustice,
to tear their families apart.
That’s what the Pharisees excelled at,
but that’s not at all how Jesus lived.

Jesus reminded them, and reminds us,
that the law exists
only to help us better love God
and love our neighbors.

And if your neighbor is suffering
– even if it’s the Sabbath,
even if they’re unclean,
even if they’re (gasp) a woman,
even if they’re a foreigner
or an immigrant or a tax collector or a prostitute.

If your neighbor is suffering
the number one law is: love them.
Care about them as you care about yourself.

Jesus says, and Paul in Romans 13 says,
the law is fulfilled in a love
that does no wrong to a neighbor.

John Wesley’s first rule is “do no harm”
– do no harm to your neighbor,
the neighbor right next door to you,
the neighbor across town,
or the immigrant neighbor or refugee neighbor seeking a better life.

There is no loophole: who is your neighbor?
the one who is in need.
And this is no time to pass by on the other side.

Love does no wrong to a neighbor.
That is the law of God on ink and paper.
That is the law of God written on our hearts.
That is the law that brings righteousness
and peace and joy.

May we remember it.
May we believe it.
May we live it;
may our whole lives bear witness to mercy,
to compassion, and to love.
May we learn what it means
to take the risk of loving as God loves us.
Amen? Amen.

Romans 2:12-16

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