Our scripture lesson from Romans tends to come off like one of Paul’s tightly packed declarations of “what is what” in this new expression of faith that came from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes it feels as though Paul is making sure that we get it all, and at times with little elaboration.
This portion has the feel to me. I have been reading Romans pretty closely these past couple of months and I love the book. Some of the chapters are hard to fathom, but Paul has lots of good things to say and the instructions are so powerful.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; 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.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
I was born and raised in the church, being a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ. I was born in 1955 and the UCC came into being in 1957. Like Hamilton, we are children of the church, finding our calling into the UCC as a result of our being raised UCC. The UCC is in our genetic spiritual makeup, so to speak.
And while I cherish and identify with the UCC roots of my childhood and teen years, my real spiritual awareness and development came through the non-denominational movement of the Jesus People. In high school, I met some Jesus People who lived outside of Ravenna, where I grew up, and began hanging out with them. They were very intentional about the faith and growth in Christ. The leaders were young, and I was very impressed by these hippies who loved rock music, lived with excitement and took a stand against drugs and the other vices of the era. They were always looking for ways to share the Love of God as revealed in Jesus. They spoke to me in many good ways, but in other ways, they confused and sometimes appalled me. Eventually, I could gain nothing new through the Jesus People and returned to my home church – Ravenna First Congregational UCC.
One of the things that confused me about the Jesus People were the pat answers they often delivered. I never liked simplistic Jesus People responses. One leader had a bumper sticker on his car, “Jesus is the answer – what’s the question?” Even as a young Christian I would want to say things, the question is, “Where is the saltshaker?” Or who invented the chili dog? Or Big-Bang or creation? Saying that Jesus is the answer in such naïve, basic ways ended up being an insult to me. It is once again pulling out the Magic Jesus card to get what we want out of life by making short cuts. Being a Christian does not exempt us from the challenging waters of daily living.
John in his Gospel tells us that “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.” That is more definitive. That will guide us. We can follow miles of the way of Christ as we learn more about him, We can receive reams of “how to” information from the Bible which helps us determine truth. And we can follow every notion of a healthy life on all scales – social, spiritual, financial, mental, familial, diet – whatever, if we seek to live the life Christ offers. Yet, in all of these things, we still miss the answer of a living and growing relationship with Christ if we stop at “Jesus is the Answer – What’s the question?”.
The problem with boiling things down to some blandly managed cure-all and cover-all is that we miss the intricacies and complexities of life and faith.
After a beginning in life that enjoyed great health and strength, my life since about age 27 has been a huge challenge. At that time, I developed a nasty auto-immune disease that over the duration of 18 years, killed my liver. Literally. Praise God that I was one of the few for whom a match was found, and I received a transplant in 2000.
A few years later I developed a form of lymphoma that about 27% of transplant recipients can develop and faced an uncertain year of chemo. Statistically, only 30% survive this blood cancer.
Through all of this, due to the liver disease I developed crohns/colitis conditions which have had a great effect on how I live.
Additionally, I developed labyrinthitis, which caused bleeding in the cochlea of my left ear, making me totally deaf in that ear. The chemo had previously reduced my hearing by about 45%. My right ear, my good ear, thankfully retains about 60% hearing.
My meds cause me to be highly susceptible to tooth decay and skin cancer. And, most disturbing, I used to have long, lustrous hair which I found to be very fun and strikingly stylish. Sort of like a Harry Styles look.
But Mark, the bumper sticker declares, Jesus is the answer to all of your questions. That feels disingenuous and somehow short sighted.
For almost 40 years planning and going on work camps with youth and some special adults have helped define who I am and why I am in ministry. By the way, the comment about special adults is that it is rare to find an adult who will give a week of vacation to travel with and supervise sometimes as many as 45 kids. It is easier for a teenager to sleep on a floor with a yoga mat than it is for someone in their 50’s or 60’s. Or even in their 70’s.
With these committed saints we have visited and assisted many enclaves of poor and struggling people. We have worked with poor Black, Native American, and white families, as well as poor South Africans. We have seen unspeakable poverty and we have created literal miracles for the families we have been honored to serve. We have watched our youth, over and over again, break free of the illusions and myths of poverty as they met and loved families so disadvantaged that some have cried when facing the realities of the world. It gets real.
And what would compel us, teens and adults alike, to enter such places and do what we could to help?
One of the clues is what Paul says in our verse from Romans. He tells us that our duty and our debt is love. Paul sees his people, the Jews, negotiating life by following over 600 laws and he tell his followers that we must love our neighbors and that in this we actually bring into being the fulfillment of commandments. It is through love that we Christians complete the intention of good behavior and treatment through the law by actually doing so in a spirt of humility.
A friend of mine, Gary, recently asked me to explain this business in the United Church of Christ that God is Still Speaking. I have thought about his comment for weeks.
I remember the beginning of this campaign back in 2004. Admittedly, I don’t always care for the programs and projects of the upper echelons of the UCC, but this one really grabbed me. The idea that God is Still Speaking is meant to remind us all that God still has much to say and that God was not done speaking as the ink of the last word in the Bible dried. The StillSpeaking movement is working to reveal that our faith is relevant in times exactly like these and that our first foot forward as the UCC is to be extravagant in our welcome. Our invitation to all people must be sincere, heart-felt and non-judgmental. Period. Because there is truth in these words from our denomination. “Because no matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here. Here at the United Church of Christ.” If you could fit that on a bumper sticker – that’s one worth having.
On the UCC.org website we can read, “Today, under one collective identity, we can enthusiastically lift up that the UCC is a welcoming, justice-minded Christian community. At a time when religion is too often portrayed as narrow-minded and exclusive, many are raising their VOICES for an alternate vision:
- Where God is all-loving and inclusive
- Where the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts everyone as they are
- Where your mind is nourished as much as your soul
- Where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary
- Where together we grow a just and peaceful world
Later, in 2006, our denomination decided to produce some ads to acquaint people to the UCC. It started with a pretty punchy quote, ““Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” That’s a good line. It was suggested that this quote came from some famous theologian. “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” And in fact, I think it was. It is great theology to proclaim that God is still speaking. Who was that theologian? Gracie Allen. Some of us remember the comedy team of Burns and Allen. Gracie Allen at her theological best, “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” For a time, we had a banner with this quote up at the FLC.
In time it was decided among our UCC leadership that it would be cool to develop television ads accompanying this advertising campaign for the United Church of Christ. Our denominational leadership was very surprised when the ads were rejected by the major networks – CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX. “Too controversial,” some said. “Too religious,” others judged. Imagine, something religious being controversial.
The video showed a traditional church family sitting in a traditional church. A woman nearby struggles with a crying baby, the traditional family glares disapprovingly, and then they push an ejection button and the mother and crying child are jettisoned from the church. And then the family ejects a poor person, a gay couple, and a Middle Eastern-looking man. Finally, the voice over said, “God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we.”
The networks apparently determined they did not want anything that provocative on television. Such a message was apparently too controversial to place in the same stations that glorify many creative ways of breaking and defiling God’s commandments and teachings. Imagine all that we see each day on the screen, and the message that God does not reject us is too much to broadcast.
God is still speaking. God speaks into our daily lives with encouragement and compassion. Paul says in times such as these that God’s forever message is that we must live honorably with the light of God guiding and directing us. Paul says we should “Put on Jesus – be garbed in Christ” as we move through our days.
This is the real face of relevant Christianity. No Magic Jesus card to take care of all of our ills and distresses. Rather, the absorbing into our own lives the essence of the living Christ – whom we love. That we love boldly and completely. That we look through the easy answers of bumper sticker theology and face the unprecedented challenges of the day. Love encourages us through our own stressors and crises and assures us that Jesus is with us in the midst of pain, uncertainty and confusion. Love compels us to break out of our comfort zones and put ourselves in places of challenge for the good of those who live lives with minimal everything – housing, food, warmth, finances and so on. And love opens to us a world view that God still has much to say to whomever is willing to listen.
Friends, we may differ greatly in our politics, levels of socio-economic status, thoughts on racism and privilege, attitudes of law and order and in defining what is just and what is unjust. But God is calling us above our varied opinions and positions. God is asking us to insert love into whatever you think or believe. Love brings understanding and civility – something that Facebook cannot provide. Love opens our eyes to see pain and discord from all sides and to step in and think of creative ways to continue to minister to all.
And in our midst, love is in action even when we are not seeing each other face-to-face. Jim Scheuermann is still providing meals for Loaves and Fishes by handing out sack lunches. Bella and Sydney Atkinson are baking each month treats to add to the bags. They are not asking recipients for whom they will vote.
Many are making calls and sending notes and checking in with members of our church family. They are making sure folks are being cared for and have enough resources. Not a one is asking about how they feel about Black Lives Matter.
Our pastoral care team is continuing to minister in creatively ways to those facing illness, death or other challenges. Prayers are being shared and not one word is asked about how one feels about environmental issues.
In other words, above those choices and positions that could potentially divide us, we are working to love one another because that is what Paul prescribed as being the highest mark of God still speaking. It is never too late to love. Love never goes out of style. And as Paul reflected in another of his writings in 1 Corinthians: 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.