PRAYER: God of Love and Justice, teach us to reorder our hearts that we may put love at the top of our agendas. Let all other things fall away that we may practice love first and foremost. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Yesterday, September 9, 2023 would have been my Dad’s birthday. But not just any birthday; yesterday, my dad would have been 100 years old. September 9, 1923 – 100 years ago. I want to tell you about my Dad. He was born on Randolph Ave in Jersey City, at the home of his maternal grandparents. He grew up in Plainfield, and then after serving in World War II in the belly of a B24 bomber, he used the GI Bill to get his degree from Rutgers and he became a Certified Public Accountant. That career choice makes a lot of sense because my dad was a numbers guy. He looked for – and usually found – patterns in numbers; he had a memory for them that would amaze you. He was a faithful member of the Roman Catholic church for his entire 93-year life, and he and my mom raised all of my brothers and sisters and I in the church.
When I decided to change careers 14 years ago and go to school to get my degrees and then on to seminary, he took great interest in the process of the United Methodist Church for me to become ordained. I remember telling him when I was accepted to Drew University, that it would take me 3 or 4 years to get my Master’s, and he told me that I was wasting my time. Don’t get me wrong – he supported my change of careers; he was actually pretty proud of me for it. But he said that I didn’t need to spend all that time and money in order to be qualified for ordination. The process, according to him, was much simpler.
The reason why he said that it was a waste of time to go to seminary was this verse in Romans 13: 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, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” My dad insisted that all I had to do was to go to my professors at Drew, quote this verse to them, and they would hand me my diploma. It really is that simple… or so he believed that it should have been.
The truth is that it is much more complicated than just knowing this verse… being able to recite this verse from memory. Because not only do you have to know it; you have to live it. And that is always the more difficult part, isn’t it?
But in my dad’s defense, he was not a theologian, he was an accountant. He knew balance sheets and he knew that the first rule of accounting is that the debits must equal the credits. So, when he quoted this verse to me – which he did often – he saw it as a balance sheet. Love your neighbor as yourself and everything else balances. He understood – as Paul obviously did – that Jesus himself said this very thing as part of the Greatest Commandment. In Matthew 22, Jesus said that the greatest commandment is, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Paul’s writing to the Romans in our reading today comes at the end of two chapters in which he is setting a moral compass for the first century Christian church – a balance sheet, if you will. Starting in chapter 12, he tells the young church to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. He exhorts them to not be conformed to this world, but instead to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, so that they may discern the will of God. He tells them to let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; to love one another with mutual affection. He commands them to rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. All good stuff. And finally, toward the end of chapter 12, he tells them to contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality for strangers, that if their enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
Paul is using this rhetoric to draw a contrast between the way things were and the way things are and can be. The way things were, he says, we were slaves to sin, and now, we are adopted into the family of God with an inheritance of righteousness. In chapter 6, Paul says, “But thanks be to God that you who were slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted and that you, having been set free from sin, have become enslaved to righteousness.” We were out of balance before, but now we are in balance.
I’m sure that all of us would prefer that we live our lives debt-free in every way, because in our culture, to be debt-free is a marker of self-sufficiency, of full autonomy. My dad, the full-time accountant and amateur theologian would agree with the 19th century clergyman Robert Jones Burdette who said, “Don’t believe the world owes you a living.” We get caught up into this belief that we have to be completely self-reliant, and we see our faith as good Christians from a perspective of our rugged individualism, not dependent upon anyone or anything.
All of that leading us to today’s reading. Owe no one anything, except to love one another. For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. This is where Paul begins to rebalance the spreadsheet. This is where our faith ceases to be about our own individual debts and about our communal life in the life of Christ.
He’s saying that we have to begin to think and act in a way that is not about ourselves, but others. And it means that making our love for others rock solid. In other words, our love for others is not merely an individual pursuit, but a communal one. It isn’t enough for me alone to say I love my enemies, it is a practice that we, as a community must endeavor to pursue together.
The debt of love is one that can never be fully settled, so we grow up into the salvation that is ours in Christ by loving our neighbor through the work of the Spirit. The working out of our salvation is a community undertaking, making it impossible for us to live as anything other than as a community.
Joann Haejong Lee, a prolific pastor in the San Francisco area writes that “The call to love is not an escape from our duties to one another. It’s a call to live with even more intentionality and attention to the needs of others. We do so not because some rules or laws tell us we have to but because we have experienced that radical and welcoming love ourselves, and that love compels us to strive to be better. We are not called to be rule followers. We are called to experience and understand the deep love that undergirds and upholds the commandments of God —and by intimately being known and loved by our God, to then extend and share that love with the world.”
Paul is reminding us that relationships with our neighbor are fulfilled in love. I would hope that we all have the moral compass that tells us that we would never murder, steal, commit adultery, lie, or dishonor our parents, or anyone else for that matter. Paul is reminding us however, that it isn’t enough to simply refrain from doing these things that we wouldn’t do anyway. Love is not something that we’re supposed to do with an attitude of ‘grin and bear it’. Love is something that comes to us without cost, and our task as children of Christ is to then pass it along. Love is a gift of God’s grace, poured out on us in Christ. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and it is the means by which we demonstrate God’s grace in our lives.
God sent Jesus to break the relentless hold of sin and death over human beings, “in order that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”. In verse 12, Paul says that the night is far gone; the day is near. This is an age-old way of saying that it’s a new day and a new opportunity for us to refresh our balance sheet of how we love one another. It is an opportunity that comes to us every day – an opportunity for us to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
When we owe nothing but love to one another, we are entering the reality that we are all completely dependent on God’s grace, not only for our forgiveness, but for our very existence. Our lives are reframed in relation to one another in our everyday interactions in such a way that all of those other things on our balance sheet become significantly less important in the scheme of things. We are set free by love and our balance sheet becomes clear of any debt whatsoever.
This week, in your prayer time, in your devotional time, I want you to reflect on where we – as individuals, as a church, as a community, can love better, demonstrating God’s grace that is freely given to us, and that we should be freely giving to others.
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, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” You know, I never went into any of my professors’ offices and told them that verse. Maybe I should have. I wouldn’t have graduated any sooner, but I think my dad may have been on to something. The accountant in him knew that love is the ultimate authority and when we practice it in the context of the greatest commandment, to love the lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, our balance sheet becomes debt free.
To God be the glory.