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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Standing Up When It Seems Too Much: Reposting "Put On the Armor of Light"

I suspect that most of us have arrived at times when it seems that the obstacles are too big for us and the opponents are too strong for us.  In such a time, the Apostle Paul's words to the Roman church become a lively message to us.  In the shadow of a powerful and greedy empire, they read his words of hope that still speak to me in these times that can be very discouraging for people who love justice and pursue the common good.  Respectability politics will not achieve justice, only delay it.

This sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on September 7, 2014.

Romans 13:8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
             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; 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; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (NRSV).
In the text that was read this morning, the Apostle Paul makes remarks of the same sort that the Prophet Micah did many centuries before.  As Micah had posed the question, “What does the Lord require of you?”, now Paul offers the guidance that we should “owe no one anything, except….”  Micah said that it is really pretty simple.  Do justice.  Love mercy.  Walk humbly with God.  Paul says they should narrow it down to this:  love one another.  That’s all you owe anyone.  That’s what Jesus said really mattered.  That’s what God expects of you.  That fulfills the whole stinking law, every jot and tittle of it.  Of course, you can learn by studying the specifics of the law, but Jesus already told us how to sum it up:  Love your neighbor as yourself.
So in the way that you live with others, if you love them, you will do no wrong to your neighbor.  And the law is largely about telling you what wrongs not to do.  So love, and you won’t do wrong.  That’s why love fulfills the whole law—every bit of it.
Paul was continuing a train of thought from what to us is the previous chapter.  Of course, Paul did not divide his letters into chapters and verses.  Like you or I, he just wrote out his sentences and paragraphs.  The chapters and verses were added later by readers who wanted to be able to analyze and talk together about the books in a systematic way.  That way, you and I can quickly get on the same page for conversation and study.  But Paul did not have chapters and verses.  So I should say he was continuing a train of thought from a few paragraphs before.
In our habit of speaking, in chapter 12, verse 10, he started talking about living toward Christian love with one another as God’s people.  Just before this section, he had written about how everyone has gifts from the Spirit, and we are not all the same.  But each of us has something to offer to one another and to the whole group, like parts of the body all have their function.  He told them back there, “Let love be genuine.”  Those verses were part of the wedding vows Everly and I spoke in 1980.  That short sentence is now engraved on the gravestone where she is buried.  “Let love be genuine.” 
It was a commitment we shared with one another.  In so many ways, we certainly fell short of the ideal, but it was a byword for how we knew we ought to live in relation to the world and the people God had given us.  But it is not a statement specifically about the love of married people.  It is about the love that we have for one another in the church.  It is the love God expects us to have for all God’s children.  As followers of Jesus, married people and families should also live up to this kind of love.  So Paul is making it plain here.  Love genuinely.  Love honestly.  Love thoroughly.  Love wholeheartedly.  Love the lovable people, and love the unlovable people.  Love when you are eager to do so, and love when you are on your last nerve. 
But, we may ask, isn’t there something or someone I can hate?  Paul says to hate evil.  Don’t harbor your evil thoughts.  Don’t plot evil devices.  Don’t fixate on evil responses.  Don’t seek revenge.  Hate evil, but don’t act evilly to oppose it.  Hold fast to what is good.  Keep on imagining the good possibilities.  Look beyond people’s troublesome actions to see the good that is in them.  Think of ways to return good for evil.  Do not repay evil for evil, but put your mind on a noble response to the times when you are wronged.  At the climax of this reflection, he tells them there is a way to fight evil:  overcome evil with good.  Let good grow and snowball and expand and press outward until it overwhelms all the evil it can find.  Don’t let evil overcome you.  You get out there in all the goodness that God can produce in you and let that goodness overcome evil.
Paul knew that the times in which these Roman Christians were living were evil times.  Powerful people wanted to persecute them, put them in jail, fire them from their jobs, take away their homes, make outcasts of their children, drive them out of town.  Rulers were selfish and devious, and so were their assistants and lackeys.  Soldiers and police were directed to obey the whims of the rulers.  They might not have the strength of conscience to realize that the policies of the leaders were twisted and wrong.  Paul was not deceived.  He knew his own life had hung in the balance of unjust laws and unjust rulers before.  So he acknowledged that the times were rife with evil.  He warned the Christians to watch out.  And he taught them that even in an evil setting and situation, God had a different way for them.
He could tell them this because Paul also knew that the time in which these Roman Christians were living were good times.  They were fertile with opportunities for virtuous living.  They could watch the growth of their love touch their neighbors and their neighborhoods.  God was not defeated by the Imperial power.  God was just getting started showing them all that God can do.  So when they come up against violence and wrong, Paul said to live peaceably with all.  He said don’t avenge yourself, but stand up against evil by doing good.  Don’t flag in your zeal.  Be ardent.  Be motivated.  Work it out.  Yes, work it.  Work that goodness that God has placed in you.  Be intense about fighting wrong, but do it with goodness. 
Paul knew that the Roman Christians should have hope.  Knowing that hope, they could rejoice even in hard times.  They could show patience when they suffered because their hope is in God.  They could continue in prayer, knowing that God is with them and guiding them into the next opportunity to overcome.  Love one another.  Show mutual affection.  Outdo one another in doing right and honoring each other.  Make sure no one is in need.  Show hospitality.  Love, love, love, love, love, in word and deed.  Because God created this world to be good.  God’s goodness has been poured out in your lives.  Good will prevail, even if not in every moment, if not in every situation.  Even after setbacks, we can build a better world in God’s power and grace.  Death is defeated.  Christ is risen.  Good will prevail.
Paul had pressed this case hard in that earlier section, the second half of chapter 12.  Then he took a kind of aside.  He chased a rabbit.  He made an illustration of sorts.  He planned to finish his exhortation about love, but there was this little matter of the Empire to deal with.  He started talking about how they should act toward Caesar and Caesar’s minions.  But he talked about it in vague terms.  He talked about his enemies in abstract terms.  He did not say anything about Caesar, per se.  He didn’t name Caesar or any of the lesser officials.  He did not say anything about the Empire or the Senate or the Roman Legions or the Centurions.  He did not name any of the officials or even their offices.
Instead, he talked in broad theological terms about divine creation.  He talked about God’s good work in creating humanity as social beings.  He talked about the concept of authority in the abstract.  He said that having a system of authority is a good thing.  Ruling authorities, in general, help make our lives better.  Human authorities, as a concept, contribute to a better life for us.  In the ideal, authorities reward good and punish evil.  According to its purpose, authority maintains justice. 
But of course, Paul has been talking previously not about theory, but about the facts on the ground.  The facts on the ground were that Roman authorities were prejudiced toward their own kind.  The facts on the ground were that Christianity was an illicit, an illegal community of faith.  The facts on the ground were that everywhere Christianity had raised its liberating message of God’s love for the least and the lowly, people in power had gotten angry.  From the synagogue officials to the Sanhedrin.  From the Proconsuls to the Procurators.  From the Kings to the Emperors.  From the Pharisees to the Sadducees to the who knows who sees you practicing Christian faith, people wanted to shut it down.
That’s what Paul was telling them in the discourse about letting love be genuine, hating evil, and overcoming evil with good.  The facts on the ground were that the authorities, not in concept, but in flesh and blood, were coming down hard on the Christians.  The facts on the ground were that people who in theory were supposed to keep the peace were disturbing the peace.  Officials whose job was to serve and protect were self-serving and destroying lives in the streets.  Paul understood what was what.  He knew that everybody who had a title did not live up to the duties of office.  He knew that power, once it is in someone’s hands, can become a tool of domination.  That is what he and the Christians in Rome saw.  It’s what they knew.  It’s the yoke they felt on their shoulders.
So he said, in theory, they should recognize the goodness of authority.  They should cooperate with authority to do good.  They should not resist authority just to get their own way.  Paul was not being a respectability preacher here.  There have been a number of people lately talking about “respectability churchfolk” and “respectability preaching.”  They mean those people who try to find the fault in an unarmed youth’s behavior for his own death.  They mean those people who say that if the black community could just work harder to stay in school, to dress conventionally, to keep a job and keep their noses clean, then things like Ferguson would not happen.  That’s what they mean by the “respectability” view. 
But Paul was not talking respectability, and neither am I.  Paul was not saying that the answer to our oppression is to be more docile in obeying our oppressors.  He was not saying that the real problem is us, so we need to mend our ways.  No, he knew who was troubling the world.  God was not doing this.  The church’s service to God was not doing this.
If the powers that be want to keep people down, it does not matter how respectably people act.  They will get pressed down on.  So the answer is to press back.  That’s why Paul was saying that they need to get serious about resisting evil in the world.  They should continue their efforts to overcome evil with good by pressing the authorities to do the good they should do.  But he was not fooled into thinking that Caesar or his minions were likely to do the good.  That’s why he reminded the church to go ahead and pay taxes to whom taxes are due and revenue to whom revenue is due.  But then he turns the phrase.  He speaks with irony and from the point of view of faith.  He does not say that some people who demand your respect may not deserve your respect.  No, he is not that explicit.  He does not say that Caesar has not earned the honor that he wants you to show.  No, he is more subtle.  He says to pay respect to whom respect is due.  (Wink, wink.)  He says give honor to whom honor is due.  (“You know what I mean?”)  God deserves our honor.  Caesar probably does not.
But just so we don’t conclude that he means to start blatantly disrespecting the officials, and blatantly dishonoring Caesar, he goes back to his previous theme about loving our neighbors.  Now, we are finally back to the text we started with.  He says owe no one anything except love.  Martin Luther, the 16th-century reformer translated that verse as a declarative statement, not an imperative.  He said it means that you don’t owe anyone anything, except you do owe everyone love.  God made us for love.  God made us to love one another, to be loved by one another, to receive love from one another—God made us for love.  So even Caesar gets our love.  Even the harassing official on the street gets our love.  Love does no wrong to the neighbor.  Love fulfills all our requirements and obligations.  Not just a feeling of love, but more importantly a way of treating someone.
Having made his case about love that’s genuine, that overcomes evil with good, that supersedes whatever resentments or desires for revenge we may have, Paul then starts talking about how important it is for us to stand strong in the face of evil.  He does not mean for us to sit back in our bedrooms thinking loving thoughts about those who do evil.  He does not mean for us to wait around the kitchen table until the tide of evil forces overwhelms and swallows up our whole neighborhood, our town, our community institutions.  He does not mean hiding behind church doors, shouting and singing while the neighborhood dies.  No we can’t just nap while destruction is happening all around us.  Overcoming evil with good is not a passive admonition.
We have to know what time it is.  It is the time for God’s good news.  It is the time for people to know that we can live together in harmony.  We can live together in love.  It’s the time that no one any longer has to be trying to dominate anyone else.  People can make a life without domination systems.  So if it was not real to you when you first got saved, then it needs to become real to you now that God is not interested in just a little bit of our lives.  God is not interested in just 10% of the church people to be part of the struggle.  God is not interested in just a token commitment.  God wants the whole of us.  God want you, and God wants us, and God wants you and me and us to be building the beloved community.  That is the whole reason God made the world and put us in it.  God wants to see that loving, just community come into the light of day.
Paul tells them to lay aside the works of darkness.  Now somebody might try to twist the term darkness here and make out that dark is equivalent to black, and that somehow blackness is opposed to God.  But Paul was not talking that way, and we know better than to fall into the trap of that kind of thinking.  Darkness here is the absence of light.  Light is the beacon that shines upon the realities of the world and reveals the truth.  Darkness is the world hiding from the light.  What is hidden from the light is afraid, is ashamed, is deceptive, is indifferent.  But in the light of day, we have to take a stand.  We have to show who we are and what we live for.
Paul says that the light is our armor.  Armor is our protection.  Bringing the truth into the light of day is our hope, because Jesus himself is the truth.  The love of God is the truth.  People able to get along and treat one another right is the truth.  Enough good gifts of God to feed and clothe and shelter everybody is the truth.  Letting everyone have a good education is the truth.  Paying people a decent, living wage is the truth.  Finding ways to keep people in their homes is the truth.  Our armor is joining together in the truth. 
You or I alone might try to stand up to the powers that be and get ignored.  But we are not alone.  God has put us together into a holy nation, a peculiar people.  Together, in solidarity with one another and with God, we can stand up to the powers and be heard.  This is the heart of the labor union movement.  The people with the capital, the people with the money—these people know that they need to organize into corporate boards and chambers of commerce and political action committees if they are going to make the world go their way.  Their hope is that the workers and the average people will stay disorganized.  A labor union exists to provide the organization necessary to stand up to the owners and managers who want to be in charge of our lives.  In a way, the church is a labor union of the neighborhood.  We organize together and care for our neighbors with the intensity and capacity to be a union of neighbors, loving our neighbors.  We join Durham CAN to operate as a union of people of faith and people of commitment to press our theoretical public servants toward being actual servants of the people.  The union makes us strong.
What time is it?  Paul says we had better know.  It is a time when people full of fear are trying to shut down and shut out and shout down and shut up the voices of those who are suffering.  They are belittling and humiliating teachers.  They are closing off access to voting.  They are shutting down jobs and taking them places where the poor workers have no protections.  They are refusing to hear the cry of the poor.  They are warehousing the desperately unemployed in prisons.  They are blaming the victimized and the marginalized for all the social ills.  They are shooting down our children in the streets.  They are claiming that the 1% deserve to own half of all the goods in the world.
We’d better know what time it is.  We have to lay aside the works of darkness.  The works of darkness are many.  Hiding out and believing we cannot make a difference is one of the works of darkness.  Get out in the light and stand for truth.  Being satisfied that we have a home and a job and not caring about others is a work of darkness.  Get into the light.  Letting some misguided police (I know it’s not all of them) continue to do whatever they have made it their habit to do, just because they can get by with it, is a work of darkness.  Pressing for reform is our armor of light.  Paul says don’t get discouraged and drown your sorrows in drunkenness.  Don’t go out and party because you think the world is going to hell anyway.  Get into the light.  Shine a light for God.  Shine a light for justice.  He says don’t take up the ways of the oppressors and sink into debauchery.  Don’t say that since the world is all corrupt anyway, I will now join the corruption of licentiousness, and consider that I have a license to do whatever I “blankety-blank” well please. Being free from the law does not mean that each of us can be a law unto ourselves.  Let a light shine into that despair that wants to give up on making things work, and let that light bring the hope of Jesus Christ who showed us another way. 
And don’t slip into the darkness of arguing and quarreling with one another.  We can find a way together to move forward.  It is the deceiver that tells us that it has to be my way or the highway.  Let the light of cooperation and solidarity shine.  And Paul says don’t become jealous of who is getting the credit.  If the Mayor or City Manager can bring a change, then let them claim the credit, even if they did so only because we pushed them and nudged them and scared them into doing it.  If the Police Chief wants to turn around and start policing in a fair and just and transparent and clean manner, then let him have the credit, no matter how slow he was in coming around to the light.  If the legislature wants to do right by our teachers and our voting citizens, let them have the credit, even if they did it kicking and screaming in resistance to the flood of people crying for justice.  Let the light shine above and beyond jealousies.  If justice is done, we don’t care who gets the credit.  We know God is the one who gets the credit.
So dress yourselves up to be the image of Jesus Christ that the world needs to see.  He did not count his own life above others.  He did not let even the small children or the disabled widows be disrespected.  He did not tolerate the poor being mistreated or the haughty and wealthy acting proud.  Paul says we should get dressed in Jesus.  Go to our closets, pull out a hanger with Jesus on it, and put that on.  Wear Jesus out into the wide world.  It’s a graphic image of the deep theological claim that in his life and death and resurrection, we have been united to Jesus.  God has drawn us into God’s own self.  So our image should be a beacon of God in the world.  We are the Jesus the world an see.  Jesus is the light of the world, and we keep on shining that light.  Be a light.  Be a beacon.  It’s a dangerous and troubling time.  But it is a time ripe for goodness.  The harvest is plentiful.  The workers are few.  We must work while it is day. 
Drawing on the words of songwriter Kyle Matthews (“My Heart Knows,” See for Yourself, Benson Records, 2000.)

We’ve thought it through,
And we’ve decided
We’re sure of You,
Whatever happens to us…
Whatever happens to us.
And if you lead
Where there is no path,
Where there’s no way out
And no way back,
We will go where we have to go;
Give what we have to give;
Face what we have to face;
And we will live where we have to live.
Our hearts know where home is.
Our hearts know our home is with You.

The road is rough—
Our courage leaves us.
The way of love
Was never easy for You.
And it won’t be easy for us.
But If you’ll reach down
From time to time
And let us feel
Your hand in ours,
We will go where we have to go;
Give what we have to give;
Face what we have to face;
And we will live where we have to live.
Our hearts know where home is.
Our hearts know our home is You.

Our hearts know, Lord.  You are our home.  So lead us now.  Lead, us Jesus.  Lead, kindly Light.  Lead and we will follow.  Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to God.

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