Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
I have to start out by saying that in my 16 years at St. Clare’s there have been five
times when the Old Testament reading has been on the story of Abraham nearly
sacrificing his son Isaac. This Sunday would be that day, but as we are only using
one lesson in addition to the Gospel, I am going to spare myself and you all
from having to come up with one more reason why this challenging story was
included in our scriptures. If you have no idea what I’m talking about I invite
you to go look up the story in Genesis, chapter 22 and then we’ll talk.
We have enough going on without dealing with child abuse, human sacrifice, and trying to prove that our love for God is more than anything or anyone else.
I’m not sure talking about slavery is much easier, especially considering all
that’s going on with our complicity in that, but I am hoping Paul’s words in
his letter to the Romans can be dealt with.
Weare all slaves to something. Sometimes those things do more to destroy our
goodness and nearness to God than help us achieve anything good or useful. We
all can also enslave other things or people for our own sense of entitlement.
Those things usually end up destroying the essential goodness of whatever it is
we’ve co-opted for our own benefit.
Bob Dylan once sang, “You’ve gotta serve somebody. It may bethe devil or it may be the Lord, but you’ve gotta serve somebody.”
In ourreading in Romans this morning, Paul is saying something kind of like that. Hedoesn’t mention the devil, but he does say that we will all serve either sin orrighteousness, law or grace. He says that we will inevitably be the slaves ofone or the other.
I think most of us know which side we’d like
to be on, but more often than not, it’s so dang hard that we make deals with
the devil just this once…or twice, or try like crazy to justify our actions.
Our justification that slavery over black
people was OK came out of an understanding that people of color were not fully
human. It was OK to treat them like animals or to give them only 3/5’s of a vote because they weren’t
like the people who were making the laws. They were set apart because they were
unlike the white humans. It was OK that they serve a Master because the Bible
speaks plainly about being a slave – and being a good one at that.
Our justification that making money being the
sign of success has led to individual and corporate greed, economic disparity between
the few who have too much and the many who have too little. Those who write the
laws sustain the inequality between the haves and have nots. It’s also the
cause of untold heart attacks, ulcers, divorces, and alcoholism. We are all
slaves to something. We all enslave something.
How do we hear the words of the Apostle Paul
and seek and serve righteousness and grace. Especially when those aren’t usually
the glamorous or easy options in the moment of self-preservation.
In Paul’s world, those who followed the law could
not see that there was another option. In God’s economy, the first are the
last, the poor are the rich, and the law gets overruled by grace. The law is good and necessary. There
is no question we need it to keep social order. Descending into chaos does not
create healthy systems anywhere. But that’s not the point. I think Paul is
saying to the people around him that they are clinging to the law so that they
can hold up a standard to identify themselves as good and someone else as bad. In
his day if you ate pork you were bad and therefore unclean and sinful, but if
you didn’t eat pork, you were a good and holy person and God would bless you. And
that posed a problem.
We still do this today. The law
becomes a slave driver that rules over us and leads us to create more
divisiveness and cruelty and more laws. We do this as individuals, groups, and
institutions. The Church is as guilty of this as anyone. Over the centuries we
have kept people away from the scriptures by keeping it in Latin or Greek when
no one could but a few could understand those languages. We did this for
centuries. It caused incredible unrest and upheaval when it finally switched over
so people could read in their own language, hear in their own language, seek
and serve God in their own language.
Today we keep the sacraments in the hands of the clergy only,
so it becomes an exclusive activity by a select few. That may be changing as we
bump up against how we do Communion.
Paul says this is opposed to the message of Jesus who offers
grace so freely that we really don’t quite know what to do with it. We are
afraid that if we make the law unimportant and the consequences of doing
something irrelevant, then evil will take over the world. That misses the
point. It seems to me that’s not a problem with evil. Evil has a life of its
own. We don’t have to do anything to make evil happen. And Bob Dylan’s words
come back to us. “You gotta serve somebody.”
The law doesn’t make us good. It never did
and never will. Not eating pork probably kept a lot of people from getting
sick. When that was no longer an issue, the law evolved into something that set
people apart from one another. The law doesn’t touch our hearts to break down
the laws that are cruel or divisive. The law establishes boundaries that, with
grace, our hearts can come to see as unhelpful and unnecessary or even unholy.
Likewise the law doesn’t call us to action or transformation. Enter Grace and
the somebody you might choose to serve. And Bob Dylan’s words come back to us. You
gotta serve somebody.
Jesus’ understanding of grace – and our
embracing it – opens the way to being truly loving and hospitable; to sharing
what we have with others – especially those who are unlike us.
Grace calls us to understand where we’ve gone
wrong with the law and the best way to correct it.
The hardest part about Grace is that it’s
free. We can’t buy it or earn it or barter for it. And most of all, we can’t
legalize it to make it be only for a privileged few. The law would regulate
Grace and dole it out like wages or payment for good behavior. In other words
you get what you pay for. If you mess up, you get what you deserve. The law
would say that we will earn our way to heaven. Nothing could be more wrong or
deadly. With Grace you get the gift of eternal life and it is always way beyond
anything we could ever wish for or dream of.
The Bible says you cannot serve two masters.
In these days when we are recognizing how the law has kept us divided, I would
ask that we spend some time this week seeking God’s grace. Ask for it! When you
wake up in the morning, ask for God’s blessings and grace. Ask God to show you
where the law has kept you from seeing this Grace. Explore ways that you can
share this grace with someone who may have been subjected to laws that have
demeaned or discredited or discriminated – or even held them back from being
made whole in our sight. They are already made whole in God’s sight, let us
give them that privilege in our society. It doesn’t take a law – it takes
And it’s free. Be filled with it, but don’t
take it for granted. It may be free, but it is also free to give away and to
challenge the laws that keep people from recognizing that that freedom belongs
to all of us.
Bless you! Be filled with Grace!
The Reverend Patty Baker, Vicar
St. Clare Episcopal Church