Proper 17: August 30, 2020


If you were at with us last week, or listened to the whole service online, you may have recognized our prelude. Once again, we used Joseph Haydn’s “Austria,” a piece with a complicated history, including as the tune for the Austrian and German national anthems, the hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” in our hymnal, and several school songs, including Columbia University, University of Pittsburgh, and Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro.

As I said last week, the history of this piece of music, how it has been used and, I’d argue, abused to stir up nationalist fervor got me thinking about how a particular passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been abused to demand obedience in nations with a large Christian population. That passage, the beginning of Romans 13, reads:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

And, so isolated, you can see why authorities might use this passage to demand obedience, but, as I said last week, Paul’s letters, like the rest of Scripture, are not meant to be cut apart and removed from their context but are written to be viewed as a whole. We do not get pick and choose the parts that say we can do what we want without assessing them with the larger scope of the text. In this case, Paul’s words about behavior toward the government come after Romans 12, a chapter which, between today and last week, the lectionary presented in its entirety. Last week, we read chapter 12, verses 1-8:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”

This passage focuses on life within the community, within and among the house churches in Rome. The Jesus-community in Rome was having something of an identity crisis. Likely first established in Jewish households, it had expanded to include both Jews and Gentiles, but then, in AD 49, the emperor expelled Jews from the city, only relenting after five years—so, as Paul is writing, the Jewish community of Rome has recently returned to the city, to their synagogues, and yes, to the house churches that have now spent five years developing along purely Gentile lines. After this five-year separation, the Roman Christians needed to relearn how to be a community. Last week, I urged all of you to remember, as the election season heats up, that you are a community, and not to allow yourselves to become so wrapped up in national concerns that you lose sight of the people, well, I wish I could say sitting next to you, but you know what I mean. I said, over the next few months, to pay extra attention to the things you say, share, and post online: are they true, are they helpful, are they kind. I asked you to remember that you are a single community and so I asked you to act, over these next few months, in such a way that you will have no problem greeting your neighbor with the peace of Christ on Sunday, November 8.

These are, of course, things we should always aim for, but it will be harder for a time, and so we must try harder.

This week, the lectionary takes us into a new section. Paul asks his readers, the house churches in Rome, to turn their attention outward. He reminded them how to be a community together, and now is reminding them how to relate to others around them, to those who are not joining them in the house churches, but who worship in the synagogues and temples. Paul writes:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Early Christians were quite familiar with persecution, and certainly, for the Roman church to whom Paul is writing, the Jewish members would have been. They had only recently returned to the city after a five-year expulsion.

Paul is echoing the words of the prophet Jeremiah speaking to the captives in Babylon: “seek the welfare of the city…for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” In fact, though the lectionary took us through Jeremiah last year, I advise you to spend some time with Jeremiah this fall, especially chapter 29. Read that alongside Romans and Exodus, which the lectionary is pairing for us this year.

God is saying do not continue the cycle of violence. You might hear this and think, what about “an eye for an eye.” Give me a minute and we will get there.

Paul continues, saying: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

Do not isolate yourselves. Our call is not to hide away, not to try to build a perfect community in one small church or town or valley or even country, but to be a model for the world.

Paul continues, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

 “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The Gospel is not a suicide pact. Suffering is not salvation. You do not earn “God points” for being abused. You can speak up, you can leave, you can protest. Jesus caused property damage. Do you imagine Paul would say Jesus was wrong for flipping the money-changers’ tables at the Temple? Should our Hebrew midwives last week have obeyed Pharaoh’s order? When economic, social, political, and yes, religious systems are instruments of oppression, those systems can and should and must be opposed.

Paul does not, however, give license to do anything. There are limits. There are guardrails. I told you we would get back to that “eye for an eye” bit. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy each have a variation of that phrase, but much as we have internalized it as “an eye for an eye” it might be better read as “one eye for one eye,” or, even more accurately, “only one eye for one eye.” The law of retribution was not an authorization of vengeance, but a limit for when people could not be dissuaded completely. It is a demand for no more than a proportional response. When Paul says “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” he is quoting, again, from Deuteronomy to say that ultimately, revenge is reserved for God. In a world of blood debts and honor killings – and if you think that doesn’t describe our world, think again – Paul is saying “you do not get to do to them what they did to you.”

Paul offers an alternative. “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’”

Now, that “heap burning coals on their heads” gives us some trouble. Paul is quoting from Proverbs, chapter 25, verses 21-22. It is a sentence that has caused some scholarly difficulties, but I think we have held onto its meaning in our idiom about “burning with shame.” Paul’s metaphorical burning coals are the fuel of that inner fire. The fuel that forces one who had been an enemy to see you as a friend. That also forces us to see where we have been wrong in our treatment of others.

Last week I asked you all to remember that you might be wrong. This week, I will add to that. When you do realize that you have been wrong about something you might feel that shame, feel that burning. It is not pleasant. It is not comfortable. It can be terrifying. If, however, we want to learn, to be better Christians, better neighbors, better friends, and, yes, better citizens, we must learn from it, and so we must sit with it.

I have said before that God gives us stumbling blocks to show us when we need to slow down, when we are doing something wrong. This is not just for our inner selves, not just for our own journeys, but for how we relate to others in our immediate communities, and in our wider world.

Twice in today’s text, Paul tells us to choose good.

Today’s text begins: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;” and concludes: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Scripture is full of guidance on how to tell good and evil apart because we are terrible at doing that on our own but remember how Paul centers the question: “Let love be genuine.” We have talked about truth, helpfulness, kindness. I asked you to act so that you can great your neighbor in the peace of Christ on November 8. If you are acting in and from love, that is a good start.

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