Scripture – Romans 13:8-14 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Rally Day – 9/10/17
So, have you heard the one about the new bride cooking her first Thanksgiving dinner? (I think some of you have, but I’m going to repeat it anyway…) It’s early in the morning on Thanksgiving Day and the new bride has stuffed the turkey, brushed it with some melted butter, tied up the drumsticks and placed the big bird in the roasting pan for the long slow roast. She opens the oven door and bends over, puts in the turkey and stands back up to close the oven door, when the door won’t close. The roasting pan is sticking out of the oven by several inches and the bride panics. She steps back and goes through her brief mental checklist and is quite sure this is a standard size stove and that this is the same roasting pan her mother used for years. Her mother having gone home to God years before, the new bride calls her Dad on the phone, who is expected later that day along with a small crowd of other family members, mostly in-laws, but who has some solid experience in the kitchen. “Dad,” she cries into the phone, “the turkey won’t fit in the oven! I can’t close the door. It doesn’t make any sense!”…to which Dad calmly responds on the other end, “Toots, have you tried turning the pan around?” So I turned the pan around – you might say I switched it from “portrait” orientation to “landscape” – and it fit just fine and I closed the oven door. As I remember, the turkey was delicious.
There are all kinds of circumstances where we need to be turned around in order to get our bearings. ‘Tis the season right now for getting our bearings: many of us here this morning in the midst of orienting ourselves to new situations, needing to look carefully at our positions in order to move forward. We have several high school freshmen among us today, having gone through orientation to their new schools in the past week who maybe still have to stop in the hallway to collect their thoughts about just where they’re going and to what. We have some new deacons this year who may be clutching their copies of the Deacon’s Handbook, which may or may not instruct them on which switches back there turn on the ceiling fans. Our newest visitors don’t know where our library is and we pray that we have made our worship bulletins plain enough for the person worshiping with us for the first time to comfortably join in.
So we’re orienting and re-orienting ourselves this month to navigating schools, maybe new workplaces, and to the elements of our own church life together, be they physical or procedural. This morning, however, I’m going to invite us to “ZOOM OUT” from our own individual situations right here and now, to ZOOM OUT further and further to re-orient ourselves to where we all are today in the really big scheme of things. Yes, you are a student or a parent or an empty-nester or a retiree, a grandparent, a person in a particular time of life, and we’re all sitting in a pew in Mystic Congregational Church with other members of this local faith community, and we are part of a larger Christian community which extends across Mystic, Connecticut, New England the United States, North America and all the continents in both hemispheres and which dates back from 2.2 billion Christians in the world today to just a few hundred people over 2,000 years ago who were so touched by Jesus as to risk their own lives to spread his message of love and inclusion. That’s who we are and where we came from and where we are right now. Through our births and baptisms we are sitting here this morning, part of the body of Christ, part of a religious tradition which was only ten to twenty years old when Paul wrote this letter. A religious tradition which believes that God came to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and with his resurrection began the in-breaking on earth of the realm of God which will be consummated with the second coming of Jesus Christ. The realm of God: already here but not yet. Paul thought it would happen any day now when he wrote his letters and 2000 years later as we sit here in this church, it still could. We live in the same theological space Paul and the first Christians did, grateful for the good news of the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life through Christ’s resurrection available to all God’s people AND waiting for his return and the final consummation of the realm of God.
So when Paul writes, “You know what time it is…the moment for you to wake from sleep,” he is not only writing urgently to the church in Rome in 50 CE, he is writing to us. Rev. Shelley Stackhouse of New Haven writes:
“This urgency in Paul relates not only to his perception that Christ’s return may be imminent, but also to his understanding of the immensity of the task before the young churches; nothing less than working with God toward the transformation of the world. These two millennia later, that task still sits at the center of the mission of the church, and it is no less urgent…”
We need to orient ourselves to find our Algebra class, to find the switch to turn on the speaker in the library, to locate the Parish Hall for the first time, to close the door of the oven, but my friends, as we begin school and Sunday School and Confirmation and choir practice and committee work this September, we need to remember and re-orient ourselves to our mission, not only as church together, but as human citizens of the world, to the immense task we have of “working with God toward the transformation of the world.” A world in which our own country is a leader.
And how do we do possibly begin that immense task? The answer is so old, so obvious, so simple and yet so easily forgotten: Love your neighbor as yourself. Paul writes: “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.’”
He continues: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Theology professor Eleazar Fernandez reminds us that the love to which Paul is referring is not the emotional, sentimental, warm and fuzzy kind of love. He writes: “The love that does what is good to the neighbor is a love incarnate in the form of justice or right relation; it is a love that establishes egalitarian practices; it is a love that subverts covetousness and greed.” Here’s a re-orientation for you: Fernandez maintains that “In contrast… to [today’s] practices that dominate the wider sociopolitical atmosphere, [and we can name them easily: greed, selfishness, exclusion, instant gratification, exploitation, all motivated by lust for fame and wealth] faith communities are characterized by practices of radical love and generous hospitality.” I pray we are among them.
And this is where we do a complete “180”: Love fulfills the law. Fernandez writes: “That which is the fulfillment (love) is now the measure of the law. Law must serve love of God and neighbor, not the other way around. Law must bow down to the demands of love; it must carry love’s desire for justice.” You may remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writing in his Letter from a Birmingham jail: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God….I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”
My dear friends, all that we do must be done with love as its genesis, its method and its goal. All that we do must be because of love, done with love and be for love. That is who we are, where we came from and that is who we must continue to become. If it requires our adjusting our thinking, so be it. If it requires our adjusting our direction, so be it. If it requires our completely turning around, then we must. If it means challenging our existing laws so that they bow down to love, so that they show compassion and mercy over injustice in every form, we must make ourselves heard.
Our mission, both as a faith community and as individual loving human beings living in this community, this country, in this world, remains “nothing less than working with God toward the transformation of the world.” We know what time it is and now we remember who we are. Amen.