Sermon Sept 10 2023 Romans 13:8-14 What do we owe?        Rev. Betsy Hogan

So I heard a prayer this past week. A blessing, actually. It was written by a colleague, Sara Jewell – she’s a United Church writer and she’s been working as a teacher, and she wrote this blessing while thinking about the kids she taught last year in Grade Six, as they were about to make the big move to Grade Seven.

But honestly? I feel like it could be for lots of people. Maybe even for lots of us. See what you think, at any rate, because I’m going to read it out. It’s called…

Blessed are you
who are weird
we are blessed by you
your quirkiness
by your sense of humour
and social awkwardness that has a charm of its own
by the things that make you different
make you stand out
stand tall 
Blessed are you 
who are weird 
who feel like you don’t fit in
who don’t know how to fit in
who worry you’ll never fit in
we are blessed by you
a square peg surrounded by round holes
we don’t want you to change
don’t want you to smooth your corners
reduce shrink warp your shape
in order to think act speak the same
as the round pegs
because you 
who are kind and encouraging
smart and funny and caring
who treat others the way you want to be treated
who treat others the way they want to be treated
you don’t need to fit in 
you already belong
to your own big heart
We are blessed 
by your big weird heart
and the world needs more of you
you, just as you are
are a blessing 
and we will follow your weird and wonderful heart
Now, I don’t know about you, but that makes me really want to lean into being weird. 

Which is actually as good a description as any for all the writings of the Apostle Paul. Including his letter to the church in Rome that Donna read for us this morning.

Because the whole entire point of all of the Apostle Paul’s writings, all his letters to the various earliest churches that he founded hither and yon that are collected together in our New Testament –

The whole entire point of all Paul’s writings is to make his readers, to make US, really want to lean into being weird.

“Weird” in the sense of utterly counter-cultural. Obviously out of sync. Notably different and questionable and maybe a little disconcerting but very much unapologetic about that. Embracing it, even. Totally owning it. Totally leaning into that counter-cultural weirdness… of being Christian. Following the Way of Jesus. 

Which for Paul, in those first decades of people following Jesus’ Way, has absolutely NOTHING to do with the kind of smug and legalistic attempts at “Christian counter-cultural” that we might hear about now.

Because those are the actual opposite of counter-cultural. They’re mirroring the culture of empire. They’re replicating it – they’re really only about the appropriation of power on so-called Jesus’ behalf instead of the state. Measuring and enforcing righteousness based on a very specific and deeply limited and dehumanizing understanding of purity. Not only of identity but also of behaviour.

It’s still Christianness as Empire. Christianness as power-over. Christianness as just one more expression of a culture based on dominance and oppression.

But Paul’s Christianness? The one he quite desperately wants the early Church, quite desperately wants us, to lean into?

It’s not that at all. Plonked down in the middle of the Roman Empire – plonked down into the Greco-Roman philosophical foundation of individualism and democracy and personal freedom – the Way of Jesus that Paul describes, it’s deliberately COUNTER-cultural. 

It’s deliberately weird. It doesn’t fit in. It’s out of sync with the priorities and values and norms of the world around it, and that’s what Paul wants SO MUCH to get across to those to whom he’s writing, including us.

Especially now that we’ve finally had “empire” wrested away from us, more or less, after that whole Constantinian eighteen centuries or so. Because this is when we really get to reclaim what the Way of Jesus, what the early church that Paul and others oversaw, was meant to be about. How it was meant to be deliberately different from the world around it. How it was meant to embody deliberately different priorities and values and norms. How it was meant to be weird.

Because the truth is, it should feel weird. We should feel a disconnect between the Way of Jesus and the way of the world around us. Because they ARE different. Just to take the most obvious example, the Way of Jesus is wholly non-violent. No eye-for-an-eye and in fact overflowing with grace. Forgive forgive forgive. No retaliation, no getting back at. To a point that most if not all of us are always going to struggle with. 

Because it’s always going to crash up against… Hitler. It’s always going to crash up against our instinct to protect ourselves and others. It’s always going to crash up against the absolute imperative to leave and end violent relationships, to say NO – I AM BELOVED AND WORTHY AND A CHILD OF GOD, and I’m turning the other cheek and getting right out of here. And that isn’t unfaithful or unrighteous or some kind of easy way out – if we learn nothing else from the Bible it’s should be that God is really stunningly unrigid and amazingly understanding and probably isn’t at all surprised if we can “appreciate” Jesus’ line on non-violence while at the same time making our own… just a little more fuzzy. 

Because I think that’s been toughest counter-cultural element for Christians of the Way of Jesus, since the very beginning. When the guards are hauling Jesus away in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Peter pulls out his sword and… he uses it. 

But it’s not the only way that the Way of Jesus was then and still is counter-cultural. It’s just the hardest and most obvious. 

Because another one is the willingness to make sacrifices for the good of someone else. It’s at the heart of Jesus’ Way – literally going the second mile. If someone takes your shirt, also hand over your coat. And greater love hath no one but this, to lay down their life for their friend. 

We’re so conscious, in the world around us, of the valuing of “not being taken advantage of”. Of “not being a doormat”. Of “not being used”. We have all this good and important self-help language now around boundaries, and self-care, and it’s okay to say ‘no’. 

Which is great! But it also led, not too long ago, in a conversation about clergy burnout on our United Church minister FB chat group, someone writing “Jesus never said to give give give of ourselves over and over, world without end” – and someone else replied “Oooo, I think you’ll find he did…”

And argh. Counter-cultural disconnect. The Way of Jesus is radically self-giving. It is kind of okay with “being taken advantage of” and pouring it out and sacrifice – our own comfort or well-being laid down for the sake of someone else. And of course, Jesus did periodically go off into the wilderness on his own for a bit of downtime, and it IS crucial for us to remember that –

But the orientation toward sacrifice, the willingness to forego for ourselves in favour of others, to really not care that we might be “being taken advantage of” – it’s a real and live element of faithfulness that we should feel as deeply counter-cultural. Because it is. It’s not what the world teaches. It’s different.

And it’s meant to be. Just like non-violence. These are meant to make us weird. They’re meant to make us not quite fit in. Just as we’re the ones who are weirdly meant to really start from grace and forgiveness and exercise all the possible care against violence, we’re also the ones who are meant to be weirdly ready to go the extra mile, to pour it out, to make the sacrifice. In a way that was at least as counter-cultural in the ancient Greco-Roman world of Paul and the earliest Christians as it still is in our world now.

Because the extraordinary thing to me, in fact, in looking at the piece of Paul’s letter to the Romans that Donna read earlier for us – this one tiny portion of Paul’s many urgent appeals to the earliest Christians to lean into being weird – is that at its heart it honestly sounds like it could have been written last week.

Into this culture around us now. That apart from defaulting to an eye for an eye and recoiling from the notion of sacrifice also seems to be devolving somehow into such a hyper-individualism, that it’s essentially turning into me-for-me and you-for-you, and don’t tread on me and all my rights and freedoms – and we owe each other nothing. Not well-being, not safety, not our taxes, not space, not health precautions, not our time, not simple courtesy, nothing. 

To the point that it’s not just counter-cultural to be non-violent, grace-filled, rather than an eye for an eye, and it’s not just counter-cultural to be willing to go the extra mile, be taken advantage of, make the sacrifice –

But it’s even counter-cultural to believe we owe each other something as members of the human family. 

We might imagine it’s kind of new, this hyper-individualism that’s kind of overwhelming our culture now. But the truth is, it has its roots in that very same flowering of Greco-Roman philosophy that surrounded Paul and the early Christians then. In all those good things like democracy and personal freedom and individual rights. That were all at once terrific – AND starting to disconnect people from the sense of being intrinsically bound together, like they owe each other something. And they were starting to operate instead as though they owed each other nothing.

So it's already counter-cultural when Paul writes about it two thousand years ago, and it’s even more so now. Because “I urge you, friends,” Paul says to the Romans, Paul says to us, “to lean into this counter-cultural Way of Jesus, to lean into being weird. Because it’s not ‘we owe each other nothing’. It’s ‘we owe each other nothing but love’. Which is actually everything. 

The Greek word Paul uses here for love is agape. It’s not romantic love or “brotherly love” or friendship love. It’s that kind of love that – yes – it’s always grace-filled, it’s always pouring out, it’s always going the second mile – but what it’s really essentially about is a sense of responsibility to and for each other. 

It’s believing and behaving like yes, we DO owe each other something, as a human family. The Way of Jesus is believing and behaving like yes, we owe each other what makes for fullness of life, as Jesus always puts it: food, shelter, safety, well-being. We feel responsible for one another because we ARE responsible for one another.

It’s pretty counter-cultural. Not completely, because it’s made its way into the Netflix show The Good Place. And not completely, because it’s made its way into occasional political discourse in the language of social contract.

But if Jesus and Paul would probably prefer “covenant” to contract – it’s a bit less transactional – what they’re really hoping we’re up for… is leaning into it.

So go be a little weird, says Jesus, with all your grace and going the extra mile. Go be  a little weird, say Paul, with your big weird heart, like you’re put here to care, like we owe each other something. Go be a little weird, and go with God’s blessing. Amen.