Month: September 2008

This attitude toward small churches doesn’t help

I started to let this go. First, because you can’t comment on everything you read in blogs; and, secondly, I could not believe I was actually reading it.  But, I can’t let this go.  Here’s why:  Small churches deserve better than Bill Easum’s recent response to Tony Jones at Emergent Village.  

Easum critiques the emerging church community because most of its churches are small.  Tony Jones asks Easum to explain why he is critical of small churches, and here’s part of his response:

“You have to put this in the context of my experiences with small churches and my understanding of evangelism. Small churches are usually small because of their small, petty attitude. That attitude can be negative, it can be elitist, it can be mean-spirited, or it can be just plain content with the status quo. But I have never found a small church that has been small for many years to be a healthy environment.”

Ouch and wow!  Okay, I’ll try to keep this rational and courteous, but for the life of me I can’t imagine why anyone, much less a leading church consultant, would make that statement.  Almost 90% of the churches in America are small churches.  Are all those churches “negative….elitist….mean-spirited..content with the status quo”?  The answer clearly is a resounding No!  

But, Easum quotes scripture, or at least refers to it, to make his point…

“My experience has been if the church is faithful to the Gospel it grows—period. I could say the same thing about a house church or small group. I base this on the Book of Acts—it is about the growth of Christianity and suggests to me that God wants the church to grow and spread. Read the story—it goes progressively from addition, to multitudes, to myriads of growth.”

Of course, if Easum had read Rodney Starke’s book, Cities of God, he would know that Christianity actually grew at about 3.4% per year for the first 300 years.  So, Easum overstates the growth of Christianity, and fails to note that many of the gatherings of Christians in the book of Acts were small gatherings.  

But, more disturbing is Easum’s contention that there is something wrong with small churches by virtue of their smallness.  In The Way We Will Be, John Zogby, of the global polling firm Zogby International, writes…

“The church of the future will be a bungalow on Maple Street, not a megastructure in a sea of parking spaces.  It’s intimacy of experience people long for, not production values.” -p 215.

Small churches thrive with the attributes that many people seek — intimacy, hands-on ministry, an opportunity to participate, and the ability to know other members.  It is the kingdom of God whose growth we seek, and for God’s kingdom to grow each community of faith plays a different and vital role.  I’ve seen more church pathology in churches who value growth at any cost than I have in the small churches I’ve encountered.  

Easum owes small churches, small church pastors, and members of small churches an apology.  Or at least the opportunity to hear our stories, walk in our shoes, and witness first-hand the effectiveness of ministry in America’s small churches.  What do you think?  Am I wrong, or do you have a different perspective?

Three E’s Converge

 courtesy BBC

I wrote about the impending crises in the three E’s — energy, environment, and economy — several weeks ago. This weekend we saw all three converge, vying for media coverage with each other.  Hurricane Ike hit Texas and the Gulf Coast; gas prices spiked with gas rationed in some areas; and, the financial markets are taking a hit today.  Lessons we are learning include:

 

  • The price of oil per barrel is not the only thing driving gas prices higher.
  • The broader financial crisis is not over, and more bad news is coming.
  • The environment — including natural disasters — impacts us in a number of ways.
  • All of the 3-E’s provide opportunities for outreach and ministry.
Christine Sine has a great post on our response as Christians to these events.  In part Christine says —
I really have been wondering about this as I have followed the path of Hurricanes Gustave and Ike and then watched the stock markets crash all over the world this morning.  Yet of the numerous Christian blogs I have followed over the weekend only one has had a post with a prayer and a thought for those whose lives have been devastated by these tragedies.  I feel that most of my blogging friends are living in a glass shell where the world and all that happens in it does not really exist. 
The 3-E’s are issues that affect our churches, our communities, and our world.  We need to think about how the changing future alters our current plans.  Let me know what your church is thinking in light of the 3-E’s. 

Sermon: Accountable to God, Respectful of Others

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, September 14, 2008.  I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow.  

Accountable to God, Respectful of Others

Romans 14:1-12
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.4Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
 
 5One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
 9For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.11It is written: 

   ” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, 
   ’every knee will bow before me; 
      every tongue will confess to God.’ “ 12So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Two Ways To Start An Argument

You’re familiar with the old adage, “Don’t talk about religion or politics.”  Now, I must tell you that most old sayings come about because someone learned something and passed it on.  I can imagine the person who came up with this line.  They had probably been invited to a friend’s house for dinner where some other guests, unknown to this person, were also invited.  As the group settles in and is getting to know one another, our unlucky subject says something like, “Well, what do you think of that Sarah Palin?”  You can imagine the responses.  And then, someone mentions “lipstick” and chaos ensues.  

Our hapless friend, trying to change the subject, tries again.  ”Wow, didn’t the Pope look really great in that new outfit he had on the other day!” All of a sudden, 600 years of Catholic-Protestant conflict erupts again, and you would think you were in Northern Ireland.  So, we’ve learned not to talk about religion and politics because everybody has an opinion, which is not necessarily the one we share.  

The only time I have successfully negotiated both subjects in the same night was when I was in Shanghai.  I was the honored guest of the factory president, and my Chinese hosts had taken me to a very special restaurant where the only item on the menu was snake.  And, fried snake does taste a lot like chicken, only with less meat.  That night, my hosts asked me both about politics (Bill Clinton had just been caught in the Monica Lewinsky affair and this was very amusing to the Chinese); and, religion.  They were equally interested in both subjects, and it proved to be a very interesting evening.  

And, not only do people avoid talking politics and religion, but we even avoid talking about religion among religious people.  Why?  Because we don’t agree.  I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, and there is a large denomination there that believes baptism is essential to salvation.  Baptists don’t believe that, and so you can imagine the conversations that cut across neighborhoods and families.  Debbie’s mother reminded us this week that one of Debbie’s great aunts was a member of the baptism-is-essential denomination.  Her husband was Baptist.  Every Sunday Uncle Arthur would drop Aunt Ruby at her church on the way to his.  They never agreed, but they cobbled out a congenial standoff even in their different beliefs.

More Than Agreeing to Disagree

Bob Dylan has a famous line in his song, The Times They Are A Changing.  Dylan sings, “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.”  And, so we have adopted an “agree to disagree” status that seems to say, “Okay, you can believe what you want to, and I’ll believe what I want to and it’s all good.”  But, that’s not what Paul is saying here.  

Paul is talking, first of all, to Christians.  He isn’t addressing the pluralistic society that was the Roman empire.  He’s talking to Christians, specifically to Christians in Rome.  And he says, “Welcome someone weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of arguing with them over unimportant matters.”  So, let’s look at this more closely.  

We need to understand what he means by “weak.”  Now we might think that Paul means new Christians who don’t know a lot about Christianity yet.  But, that’s not it.  Or, we might think that Paul means those whose faith is not strong — they can’t stand up to ridicule or peer pressure or temptation.  But, that’s not what Paul means by “weak” either.  

By “weak” Paul means Christians who are still struggling with issues of how do I live out my Christian faith.  He gives two good examples.  The first example is about food.  He says the strong Christians eat meat, and weak Christians might eat only vegetables.  Now, this kind of hits home because Debbie and I don’t eat much meat.  As a matter of fact, we don’t buy meat when we’re eating at home.  We eat mostly vegetables and grains, and have been trying to do this for over 10-years.  Sometimes with more success than others.  

Now, the whole vegetarian thing is really interesting to some people, but we started on this practice after reading several of Dr. John McDougall’s books.  I used to weigh about 40-lbs more than I do now, had high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and needed to do something different.  Dr. McDougall’s research among Hawaiians found that the older generation which ate mostly vegetables was much healthier than the younger generations that ate the modern American diet of burgers and fries.  Anyway, to make a long story very short, 40-lbs later both my blood pressure and cholesterol are in great shape.  I could lose a few more pounds, but Dr. McDougall doesn’t live in Chatham where everyone is a great cook, so I’m doing the best I can.  

But, that’s not really Paul’s point.  The problem in Paul’s day wasn’t a health issue.  As a matter of fact, Paul says the “strong” Christian is the meat eater, and the weak Christian is the vegetarian.  For Paul, this dietary choice was not a matter of health, but of theology.  In first century Rome, meat was sold in the butcher shops of pagan temples.  Worshipers would offer a slab of beef or pork to their god, leaving it on the altar of the pagan temple.  The temple priests would take the meat as an offering, but then sell it in their butcher shop as a way to raise money.  The only problem was that the practices of many pagan temples involved immoral acts as official parts of worship.  I won’t get too graphic here, but the behavior was abhorrent to Christians, many of whom had left the worship of pagan gods when they came to Christ.

So, the dilemma for the new Christian was — “Can I eat meat or not?”  Christians who were Jews had a further problem — their meat had to be what we call “kosher” — prepared under strict practices and the supervision of a rabbi.  In Rome, that was hard to come by.  So, Paul characterizes these Christians who don’t know what to do about this pagan, non-Kosher meat as “weak.”  Strong Christians like Paul realize that all foods are clean, that meat offered to an idol is still from God’s hand, and that everything belongs to and comes from God.  So, for the strong Christian this is an issue they have moved beyond.  Weak Christians are still struggling with this.

Now, to be clear, Paul says we do have an obligation not to offend weaker Christians.  In I Corinthians, Paul says that it doesn’t matter to him where the meat comes from, but that if his eating meat offered to idols offends weaker Christians, he will not eat it.  And by offend, Paul doesn’t just mean they are critical of him, but that his eating meat actually could cause them to lose their faith.  

Paul also uses the idea of special days.  We know that Jews celebrated special feast days, but Gentile Christians would not be aware of or understand the significance of those days.  Also, Gentile Christians would eventually reinvent some pagan holidays, infusing them with new Christian meaning.  The most significant of these reinvented holidays is Christmas, with its origins in the Roman holiday, Saturnalia.  

A Lesson in Respect and Relationship

Paul’s point in all of this is that we shouldn’t criticize fellow Christians if they practice differently than we do.  John Wesley had a saying I like.  Wesley founded a movement in which there was great diversity, and yet great commonality as well.  Wesley’s philosophy was “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”  Apparently, this was not original with Wesley, but is attributed to Rupertus Meldinius, a 17th century German Lutheran theologian, slightly ahead of Wesley in time.  Whoever said it first, the idea is the same — agree on the basics, allow liberty of thought on the peripheral issues, and do both in love.  

Which is great advice, but there is a theological reason for what Paul is saying here.  Paul reminds us that whatever our discussion, we are not just talking to each other.  We are not just accountable to one another.  The strong cannot overrule the weak in the Christian community, no matter how sure or mature the strong might think they are.

When our girls were in elementary school, it was interesting to hear the phrases they brought home.    One day Laurie was attempting to get Amy to do something Laurie thought she ought to do.  Laurie is three-and-a-half years older than Amy, and of course, thought she was always right.  Well, that worked pretty well until Amy started to school, too.  One day as Laurie was telling Amy what to do, Amy turned to her and said, “You’re not the boss of me.”  Now that wasn’t a phrase we used at home, so she had learned it at school.  Asserting her own ability to choose, Amy staked out a new position, no longer the compliant little sister.  

Of course, the history of the Christian church doesn’t exactly line up with what Paul is saying here.  The church got pretty touchy about differences of opinion, and so you have little things like the Spanish Inquisition, where people were actually tortured until they recanted their alleged heresy.  Interestingly, the Spanish Inquisition was started by Ferdinand and Isabella (yes, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed a guy named Christopher Columbus).  They took over religious persecution from the church itself.  And, this wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last, inquisition.  Books were banned, errant Christians were tortured, and some were killed.  All in the name of preserving Christianity.   This is not what Paul had in mind.

Our respect for others in the faith comes because we are all accountable, not to each other, but to God.  We are God’s servants, and whatever we do — eating or observing holidays — we do as unto God.  

Paul says, if we live or if we die, if we eat or don’t eat, if we observe special days or don’t, we are doing all of this to the Lord.  Why?  Because we are God’s new people — Jew, Gentile, meat-eater, vegetarian — we are God’s new people.  We are a race that now transcends culture and custom, we are living the new kingdom of God, anticipating God’s rule and reign in God’s creation.  

We Are Accountable to God

Paul echoes Isaiah and will repeat this message in Philippians — “As I live says the Lord, Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

We are accountable only to God.  Not to each other, not the weak to the strong, not the simple to the clever.  We are accountable to God, whether we live or die, whether we eat meat or not, whether we observe sacred days or not, we are accountable to God.  That is why, Paul says, that Jesus died and came back to life – to be Lord of the living and the dead.  In other words — everyone for all time and eternity.  

So, what would this look like, this mutual respect for other believers?  For one, all denominations would disappear.  Denominationalism is simply the emphasis of one or more theological points over another.  So, Baptists baptize by immersion, Presbyterians sprinkle, and Methodists do both.  But, we all agree on Jesus.  We all agree on his life, death, burial, and resurrection.  We all agree that he is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.  That’s the essential.  

What else would be different?  Churches wouldn’t split or have controversies.  We would find ways to work out our differences, or hold them respectfully clinging to the things that do unite us.  We would not criticize each other, but seek the best for one another.  We would seek to advance God’s kingdom and not our own agendas.  We would find common ground to unite us, rather than old arguments that divide us.  We would work together for common cause, regardless of who got the credit as long as God got the glory.  We would be the body of Christ, healthy and functioning as God intended for us to be.

And, the world?  Oh, the world would see Jesus.  Not Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics — the world would see our Lord, our Savior, our King.  The world would see a new way to live, a new kingdom to replace the old empire, a new ethic, a new generosity, a new love one for another.  Listen to what N. T. Wright says –

“Final judgment matters because God is committed to putting the whole world to rights; God will judge through Jesus the Messiah, calling each of us to account….We do not liver to ourselves; we do not die to ourselves.  It isn’t up to us what we do or don’t do.  It is up to the Lord, the master whom we serve and who will one day require an account.”  – N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part Two, pg 103.

 

Outreach Webinar Thursday, 2 PM EDT

You can catch me on a webinar tomorrow, Thursday, 2 PM ET/11 AM PT, where I’ll preview my NOC2008 workshop, Small Churches Make Good Neighbors.  I’ll be on with Mark DeYmaz, author of Building A Healthy Multi-Ethic Church.  I’m looking forward to what Mark has to say, and I believe you’ll find the webinar helpful.  And, if you haven’t registered for NOC2008, do it today!  It’s a great convention geared totally toward outreach and the line-up of speakers, musicians, resources, and inspiration is amazing.  Check it out!

Cluster bombs, landmines target people

 Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.”  As followers of Christ, we need to be praying and working for peace.  In the midst of a world in which war is often the first resort, we have an obligation to humanity.  While we may not be able to bring peace fully and finally, we can work to minimize the destructive inhumanity of war.

In the recent conflict in Georgia, Russia dropped cluster bombs.  Cluster bombs are arrayed to scatter destruction like a shotgun blast.  Their only purpose is to kill people.  Cluster bombs are not the weaponry of choice to take down bridges, buildings, or blow up bunkers.  They are people-killers, plain and simple.  Turn off your “safe search” and google “cluster bombs” for images that will horrify you — children with legs and arms blown off, corpses reduced to smoldering lumps of flesh.  The effect is nauseating.  

Amazingly, 107 countries have signed a treaty banning cluster bombs.  China, Russian, and the United States are among the leading nations that have not signed the treaty.  Click here for a global map identifying countries that have signed the treaty.  

What can you do?  Learn about the devastation caused by cluster bombs.  Several sites provide information.  One compelling organization is called Survivor Corps, founded by Jerry White whose leg was blown off by a landmine in 1984.  Jerry White is a survivor and has rallied other survivors of landmines and cluster bombs to speak out against their use.  Amazingly, the US is not a signatory to even banning landmines.  Jerry White was a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, and speaks with authority and passion on this subject.  His book, I Will Not Be Broken, is must-reading for those interested in being peacemakers in a world where life is cheap, and war is easy.  You may be new to this idea of peacemaking on an international scale, but there are steps we can take to make the voice of peace heard across the globe.  I hope you’ll take time to click the links, learn about these dangerous, destructive weapons, and add your voice and prayers to the growing call for peace.

God is still making all things new

Read Joe Eszterhas’s article in the Washington Post today.  Joe wrote the screenplay for Basic Instinct and Showgirls, neither of which I would recommend. Now Joe gives a compelling testimony of how God saved him.  I mean literally saved him from death.  Read it, it’s an amazing story.

“Physicists like to scare the pants off people”

 Okay, the truth is out.  Physicist Michio Kaku says, “Occasionally, physicists like to scare the pants off people.”  I am not making this up.  So, the big joke for today is the Large Hadron Collider, which many feel will create black holes and suck the entire earth into some other dimension.  Hence the name of my post on Monday, “World Ends This Wednesday?”.  

But, it gets worse.  Professor Kaku says that there is this bizarre theory (if it’s so bizarre, why is he telling us about it?…the truth is out there…) that the LHC will produce strangelets.  These are not the same as people who attend your church, although there may be some resemblance.  Strangelets are weird hunks of matter that are, well, strange.  And, if you touch it, you become a strangelet yourself.  Which is just what some people will do.  I can hear it now — “Really?  This little thing?  I’ll just touch it once.”  (See what I mean.)  Anyway, this sounds a lot like the apple in the Garden of Eden thing all over again.  We didn’t do so well on that test the first time around, who’s to say we’ll do any better this time.  

So, the next time you’re looking for some rollicking entertainment for your next Halloween party, call a physicist.  After all, they like to scare the pants off people.

World ends this Wednesday?

 Okay, Hal Lindsay missed it when he predicted it, too.  But, on Wednesday, September 10, the Large Hadron Collider will collide its first particles.  Of course, CERN, the group that has waited 20-years for this event, says it’s safe.  Which is also what the US government told us about nuclear energy, but hey, who knew?  Anyway, a lot of folks are really nervous that the collider will create the first manmade black hole and we’ll all be sucked into it.  However, I wouldn’t plan to call in sick in Wednesday, just in case this doesn’t happen.  Of course, if it does there will be no need to call in…  Anyway, enjoy your week!

Churches that move from surviving to thriving

We’re in a transition in our church some 4 years after my arrival as pastor.  Our congregation is aging, and younger families have left the church, primarily because we didn’t offer the programs that larger churches in our area offer for children and youth.   We recognize that we can survive with the members we have.  But, surviving is not our goal.  We want to thrive as a congregation.  So, here are some things I’ve told our church leadership about how we can move from surviving to thriving.  

  1. Focus on our community, not our church.  That means we have to engage the community in various ways.  We have made a beginning in doing this, but we have a long way to go.  Old patterns still attempt to draw us back in. 
  2. Unite rather than divide.  I’m really interested in intergenerational ministry.  The biggest success we’ve had in this area is the first year we overhauled Vacation Bible School to include parents and children in the same groups.  Everyone had a great time, and parents got to participate with their children.  If families are so important to us, why do we keep dividing them up at church? 
  3. Do more, talk less.  Churches tend to have too many classes on what to do.  We need to spend more time on doing ministry, rather than just talking about it.  
  4. Lower barriers, expand participation.   Everyone will not join your church, but lots of folks will help you in specific ministry projects.  We collaborate with others on VBS, our senior adult ministry, our community music school, the teen open mic night we help sponsor, and other events.
  5. Let some things die.  We will try to spend more time keeping relationships alive, than in keeping programs alive.  Events and programs are not eternal.  Some have run their course and need to go.   
  6. Take the long view.  We didn’t get where we are overnight.  We won’t effect change overnight either.  We are not desperate or in a panic, but we are committed.  We moving toward our new future deliberately and together, which is a lot slower than any of us might like.   
I’ll keep you posted on how our transition progresses.  We have lots of work to do, but the possibilities to dream new dreams are endless!

Sermon: A New Debt for A New Day

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, September 7, 2008. I hope you have a wonderful day at your church.

A New Debt For A New Day

Romans 13:8-14

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

11 And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

A World in Debt

Sometime today, according to the Washington Post and other media organizations, the federal government will take over the two organizations chartered to underwrite the mortgages of millions of homes in the United States. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which sound like an eccentric aunt and uncle from the country, have fallen victim to the subprime mortgage mess. So, the federal government will take them over, fire their CEOs, and guarantee their loans. Both Barack Obama and John McCain agree this is a necessary step to shore up the sagging confidence in the US financial markets.

Our society operates on debt, and the action of the government indicates that confidence in the soundness of that debt is critical to our economic survival. For a long time, our nation was one of the few that had a successful debt economy. If you wanted a home or a car or a washing machine in most other countries, you had to pay cash. But, with our American ingenuity, we created the “debt society” telling each other and the world we no longer had to delay our grandest wishes, we could have them now, and pay for them later.

And other nations began to copy us. I read recently of the rise of automobile sales in China. Just a few years ago when I made regular trips to China, there were few dealerships, no financing, and only the very wealthy could afford an private automobile. Today all that has changed and increasingly affluent Chinese are buying their own cars on credit.

On one visit to the Mexican town of Juarez, across the border from El Paso, I stood in front of the maquilladora factory of a large electronics manufacturer. A large truck, like a U-Haul, was parked in front of the factory entrance. The rear door of the truck was rolled up, and inside there was a washer, a refrigerator, a stove, some TVs, and other household appliances. I noticed men and women walking up to the truck, reaching into their pockets, to hand the man standing in the back of the truck a handful of money. I asked the sales rep with me to explain the scene. I thought these workers were buying new appliances. “No,” he said, “the appliances on this truck are models. These workers can buy appliances like these on credit, but they have to pay some each week.” And I realized that we had successfully exported not only our low skill jobs, but the American practice of buy now, pay later.

Paul’s Encouragement to the Church in Rome

Those examples bring us to our text today. Romans 13:8-14 begins, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” I have actually heard this text interpreted to mean “stay out of debt.” Which might be a very good idea, but Paul uses the idea of debt here to teach us another lesson.

Paul is saying, “Don’t owe anybody anything except the debt of love.” Now, it would really be much easier for us to talk about getting out of debt today. Dave Ramsey has a wonderful course he teaches under his Financial Peace University, that teaches folks how to become debt-free. Ramsey started on the radio in Nashville, where he lives and his financial counseling business is located, because he lost everything when the real estate market collapsed during the last financial scandal. But, that’s not Paul’s main point.

Paul is reminding the Christians in Rome that the debt they owe, and the only one they can never pay, is the debt of love. Rome was the Washington DC, Paris, London, Shanghai, and Riyadh of its day, all rolled into one. It was the home of the emperor, the seat of power, the stuff of legend. And Christians in Rome were in the insignificant minority. And yet, Paul says they owe a debt — the debt of love.

Paul reminds the Roman followers of Christ that love doesn’t take another person’s wife or husband, doesn’t take their possessions, doesn’t kill them, doesn’t even want what they have. Love is the fulfillment of the law, and Paul quotes both the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus when he reminds them to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

But who were their neighbors? They were the Roman authorities, the ruling classes, the pagan temple goers, the adulterous men, the sexually promiscuous Romans. Roman culture exuded a sexual flavor unlike many before it. The Roman theater was reserved for men only because the plays presented were so bawdy. The well-to-do Roman citizen kept not only a wife, but also one or more lovers at his disposal. Respectable women were required to stay at home, but respectable men could do anything they wished. It was a culture saturated with sex, power, and possessions.

Sound familiar? Well, we are not that far from Rome ourselves, as countless speechwriters, commentators, and preachers have pointed out over the years. But, Paul reminds Christians that in the midst of this pagan, licentious society, they are to live lives of love. But more than that — they owe a debt of love to those around them.

A Debt That Cannot Be Repaid, But That Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Try

Love, Paul implies, is a debt we owe that can never be repaid in full. When we moved from Atlanta to Fort Worth for me to attend seminary, we were pretty poor. The church I left paid me about $12,000 a year, and even in 1976 that wasn’t big money. So, when we moved, we took all the cash we thought we had out of our checking account, leaving just enough to close out the account and pay the service charges.

As you can imagine, we cut it too close. So, in a few weeks, we got a notice from the bank that we owed an overdraft charge. I dutifully wrote out the check, mailed it to the bank, and thought that was that. All taken care of. Well, apparently, the bank received my check just after the deadline for avoiding another service charge. So, a few weeks later, another notice arrived, for the same amount I had just paid. I sent another check, realizing what must have happened. And guess what? That’s right, the same thing happened again. I finally called the bank to explain my predicament. I explained that I kept sending in money, and they kept charging me, and would this ever end? The bank representative was very kind, waived the fee, and applied my last payment, closing out the account.

But our debt of love isn’t so easily resolved. It never goes away. There is never a moment at which we catch up, get a credit on the books, and can skip the next payment. Frustrating? Not really, and here’s why:

Paul says something wonderful is happening — the night is ending, the day is dawning, a new day is coming. Salvation is closer than when we believed! All the more reason to love with wild abandon.

A New Definition of Love

But, Paul redefines love for them and us. He reminds them that what Roman society calls love — wild parties, sexual immorality, the deeds of darkness — is not love at all. Paul challenges them to put on Christ — like you’d put on a new coat. Clothe yourself with Jesus, not the stuff that masquerades in the culture as love.

We may not have the Roman definition of love, but our society also has an inadequate understanding of love. We have glamorized love in all its romantic (which comes from the root word Rome) glory. Or, we have turned love into a sappy kind of sentimentality that is like a gigantic warm fuzzy. But, that’s not the love Paul is speaking of either.

The love Paul talks about is the love Jesus has for this world, and we are to have to others. It may have its sentimental moments, but mostly it’s about hard work, sweat, and inconvenience. It’s about putting others first, about giving of ourselves, about caring for others, about opening our eyes to what God has done for us, and living that before the world.

Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “We can do no great things, just small things with great love. It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” Okay, that’s great for Mother Teresa, after all she was a saint, or will be pretty soon. But, let me tell you a story about Mother Teresa herself.

I finished reading Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irrestible Revolution, this week. It’s about Shane’s journey to find his way as a lover of Jesus. On his journey, one of the things Shane did was to write Mother Teresa, asking if he could come to India to help with the work she was doing. He wrote and waited and waited. No reply. Finally, he contacted a nun here in the US, and asked for Mother Teresa’s telephone number. Amazingly, she gave it to him, and he called it. Shane said he expected someone to answer in a very professional manner, but instead, after the phone had rung several times, a woman with a raspy voice said “Hello.”

Shane explained he was calling for Mother Teresa. The raspy voice said, “This is Mother Teresa.” Being a smart-alec, Shane started to say, “Yeah and I’m the Pope.” But he restrained himself, only to realize he was really talking to Mother Teresa. He explained that he wanted to come to India for the summer. She said, “That’s a long time.” So, Shane said he could come for a month, or a couple of weeks or a couple of days. “No,” Momma T (as he calls her), said, “come.” And, so he did.

He arrived in India, tells wonderful stories of the experiences he had helping with the work of caring for the dying. But he noticed as they knelt to pray each morning, that Mother Teresa had terribly misshapen feet. He didn’t want to ask, but in talking with a nun one day, the subject came up. The nun asked if he had noticed Mother Teresa’s feet. Shane said he had, but didn’t want to ask what had happened to her. So the nun explained.

The Missionaries of Charity received lots of donations, she said. Often the donations were the cast-offs and included clothing, and occasionally shoes. She explained that Mother Teresa would search through the shipment of shoes, looking for the worst pair, which she took as her own. Years of wearing ill-fitting worn-out shoes had left her feet misshapen and painful. That’s the kind of love Paul is talking about.

Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic worker movement, said, “Love is a harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, but it is the only answer.”

St. Vincent de Paul said that when he gave bread to the beggars, he got on his knees to ask forgiveness from them. In the early Christian church, one of the signs of Pentecost was that there was no unmet need among them. Paul, writing to another church, the church in Corinth, talks about spiritual gifts. But he says —

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

If as many books had been written about Christian love as have been written about spiritual gifts, the church would behave differently, and the world would be a better place.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Love Is No Easy Road

Have you ever used one of those blood pressure machines at the drug store? When I go to a drugstore that has one, I usually try it out. You know how this works — you sit in the seat, put your arm into the stationary cuff, and punch the button. In a few minutes — if you didn’t move — the machine will display your blood pressure. Mine is usually good, so I’m usually pretty proud of myself.

But this week, I had the opportunity to check my “love pressure” and I didn’t come out so well. I can’t tell you the details, but I was trying to help someone here in our area. The situation didn’t work out, and I explained that to this individual. I expected a big “thank you for trying” email. Instead, I got a really good chewing out. Well, I was livid. I wanted that person to get straightened out, to see the light, to treat me better, to appreciate my efforts. And, I spent far more time on seeing that that happened than I should have. And it got me absolutely no where.

As I was rolling around in my anger and hurt, I thought about this sermon. I really hate it when that happens. And I realized that’s what Paul meant — Owe no one anything, except the continuing debt of love. It doesn’t matter how I was treated — I’m supposed to love. It doesn’t matter if I’m not appreciated — I’m supposed to love. It doesn’t matter if my best efforts are misunderstood — I’m supposed to love.

What amazed me was the anger and resentment, and even retribution, that burst into full bloom before I had any idea of what was really happening. So, this business of “the love debt” is no easy road.

In front of us today, on this communion table, is the graphic, tangible evidence of love — unconditional, unearned, unappreciated. Jesus loves us that way. So, this memorial is not just about death and blood and broken bodies. It’s about love. This scant meal of bread and wine is a reminder — a memorial — of love. That’s why we take it. To remind ourselves of the debt of love we owe, that we can never pay. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. “Owe no one anything, but love.”