June 29, 2014
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Paul’s words on sin and the body have caused no end of trouble in the church and beyond. Our liturgist and I can go on for hours about whether Paul caused the damage or his interpreters did, but let us just say that it has sparked many a debate over the centuries.
And the language of slavery is nothing if not problematic, given the history of our country and the terrible legacies that have come from centuries of slavery and its offspring: racism and Jim Crow laws and redlining and so many other tragedies.
With those understandings in place, there is something going on here that is important. In speaking of slavery, Paul is using an illustration that comes from everyday life around his listeners. In their understanding, a slave owes a master allegiance and obedience. This does not justify or sanctify the institution. As Paul says, he is just using examples that people can follow.
Paul offers the image of sin and righteousness like two competing masters, like two powers to whom one must practice obedience. And if we are slaves to sin, then we follow such wise ideas as “if it feels good do it,” and “looking out for number one,” or “well, if nobody catches me, is it really all that wrong?”
He asks what advantage do we gain following such things? They end in death. Maybe not immediate loss of life, but there is no hope to be found in them. There is no redemption, no resurrection, no healing, no joy, no peace.
But then Paul uses a strange turn and says, “Now that you are slaves to God, what advantage do you gain? What is the end of this servanthood?” The advantage is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the end is eternal life.
If our obedience is to our ego, or to our status, or to our stock portfolio, our security, our own gain at the expense of others, then there is no advantage, and the outcome is the same. No hope. No love. No life.
But if we are obedient to the love of God, and so practice love of neighbor, or if we are obedient to love of neighbor and so practice the love of God (it seems to work both ways), the advantage is the presence of the Holy Spirit and the outcome is glorious.
Rob Leveridge, a fellow alumnus of Chicago Theological Seminary, tells the story of when he first got to the church he was serving. He had to learn a lot of names in a hurry. The problem was that he was not that good at remembering names. He says that someone once told him it was good for a pastor to remember names, but he can’t remember who said it.
Well, early on he preached on Jesus’ words about being the salt of the earth. By all accounts it was a good sermon, well received by the congregation. And later that week, someone left a canister of sea salt on his desk with a note, “May you never lose your saltiness.”
The canister came with a lovely card, signed by the giver. The problem was, he did not know names well enough to put together the name and a person yet. And then the card went…somewhere. He could not find it. And he was too embarrassed to ask, “Does anyone know who gave me this lovely gift whose card I lost?”
The salt sits on his shelf as a wonderful encouragement. And he has learned something from this. Because he could never properly thank the person who gave it to him, he realized that acts of kindness may have an impact far beyond the knowledge of the giver. They may continue to inspire in ways that the original giver never sees.
And it did more than that. He writes:
[Because of this gift] I think about this salt ALL THE TIME. I think about the fact that someone appreciated me enough to give me this gift. And because I don’t know who it was, I find myself looking at people and treating people AS IF the gift came from them. I’ve been in probably hundreds of ministry situations and conversations when I’ve consciously thought to myself, “I wonder if I’m talking to the person who gave me the salt.” Because really, I might be. Whenever I think this thought, it makes me kind of happy, and boosts the affection I feel toward the person by just a little bit. This is kind of weird, I know. But in this roundabout way, the person who gave me the gift has been what s/he encouraged me to be: salt, that flavors friendships and communities and wider world with grace.
It is all too easy to keep track of how many slights we have suffered from another. It is all too comfy to keep score.
Last week I spoke about fear being the default setting to life. I do not know which comes first, being all wrapped up in myself bringing about fear, or fear getting me all wrapped up in myself. Maybe it is like Paul says; it is a downward spiral that feeds on itself.
But what if we went into that same moment, that same meeting with someone, asking,
• Are you the one who gave me the salt?
• Are you the one who God sent with a cup of cool water?
• Am I the one who has a cup of cool water for you?
Our Gospel reading says that even such little graces echo the love of God. The world may take no notice of them, but they may make all the difference in the life of the person to whom they are given.
This church is good at acts of kindness. This congregation practices what I am talking about every day.
Sure, we all get caught up at some point keeping score or counting slights. But how many stories of how someone’s small gesture meant a world of difference to us could each one of us tell?
Is this not the grace of God, to be part of a community that offers its love care prayers and support in so many ways, large and small?
For you, for your discipleship, for your compassion, for your practice of grace:
Thanks be to God.