“Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near.” Those plaintive lyrics are from an old Beatle’s song, “Eleanor Rigby,” and as far as I know the only commentary offered by the Fab Four on preaching. They came to mind this week as I was struggling with motivation to write an entry for this blog. “Does anybody out there really even reading what I write?” I wondered. “Will anybody notice if I take a week off?” I must confess that even as technologically challenged as I am, my techie son-in-law helped me figure out how to check the stats on the WordPress blog program last week, and I had one of those Sally Field moments when I discovered that a lot of people are actually viewing my posts! (If you are too young to remember Sally Field’s “you really like me” speech at the Academy Awards, you can Google it I’m sure.)
But as nice as those anonymous statistics are, I was still about to take a sabbatical and skip my weekly lectionary musing – until I got an email from a former student thanking me for last week’s post that helped him with his sermon preparation. Instant motivation.
Funny how the presence of others affects our attitude and behavior isn’t it? Our church had a very informal golf league this summer, and on two occasions I had the good fortune to play in a group that included a remarkable 9-year old girl who has a very special place in my heart. Having Madeline in my foursome didn’t improve my golf game at all. In fact, having her outdrive me on several holes probably made my threatened male ego swing harder, which, if you have ever tired that you know is a guaranteed formula for one of several results, none of which are good. But what the presence of an innocent, impressionable child did do for me was help me refrain from uttering those very irreverent words that all too often proceed form my lips when my golf ball disappear into water, weeds or water. (Someone cleverer than I once suggested that golf clubs should be called “profanity sticks.”)
Romans 13 urges us to “put on the armor of light” and “live honorably as in the day.” That’s often easier for me when someone else is watching. (See “obeying traffic laws when cops are present,” “not eating junk food when spouse is not present,” or “when the cats away, the mice will play.”)
Paul begins this passage from Romans with a discussion of rules and regulations, as in God’s Top Ten Commandments. He lists three examples that cover a wide range of sins: adultery, murder, and coveting. I’m sure those three were not chosen at random. They stretch from what we might consider the most serious to the least, and I doubt that any of us can honestly say we haven’t done at least one of those three. And if you can, I covet your morality. But then Paul shifts from the negative to the positive. He says, quoting Jesus, all the commandments are “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (vs. 9-10)
It took me far too long in life to appreciate that rules and laws are for the most part meant to protect us – mostly from ourselves. As a rebellious adolescent for 30 years or so, I resented the limitations rules put on me and had to learn the hard way why they were there. I blame it on my first grade teacher who cast me as Peter Pan in my very first dramatic role. Remember Peter is that boy who refuses to grow up? Paul is telling the first century Roman church that it’s time to grow up and live in honorable ways, and 2000 years later, it’s still time for mature Christ-like living, just as it has been in every generation.
Paul repeats the negative/positive formula in verses 13-14. He describes the immature life of darkness as one that includes “reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness,” and then concludes with one that jumped out at me given the current polarization in our political and economic system. He says those who put on the armor of light are not those who live “in quarreling and jealousy.” As we saw a couple of weeks ago in the Exodus story, cooperation and collaboration, not quarreling and jealousy, are essential qualities for those who want to achieve great things and solve complex interpersonal or social problems. (My August 9 blog post, “Wanted: More Collaborators, Romans 12:1-8, Exodus 1:8-2:10)
Given the way quarreling and jealousy have pushed our economy and political way of life to the brink of disaster, the urgency of putting on the armor of light is real. Paul zeros in on urgency when he says “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep (nightmare?). For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” (vs. 11-12) “Salvation is nearer to us now…” It’s tempting to read that as a threat, just as we sometimes interpret rules and regulations as threats to our freedom. Too often Christians have interpreted such urgent pleas for obedience as a warning that the end is near, Jesus is coming in on the next flight from the North Pole and he knows who’s been naughty and nice. Oh, sorry, wrong guy, but you get the point. Threats of punishment be they from Santa or Satan or some other source are all well-intended attempts to scare the hell out of us.
We can debate the effectiveness of that kind of moral motivation. (See “how we drive when cops are not present,” “when the cats away…” etc.). The point is that being accountable to an external authority works extremely well when that authority is present to observe our behavior. But when we are suddenly on our own, like a new pilot making her first solo flight without benefit of an instructor in the co-pilot’s seat, or young adults living on their own for the first time, their being well grounded and responsible for our own values and behavior is a far better way to go. That’s what putting on the armor of light means—walking with Christ so he helps guide our behavior when the siren song of our own selfish desires pulls us in directions that may seem like fun in the short-run but lead to long-term pain and suffering for ourselves and others.
Notice what verse 11 says – “salvation is nearer…” It doesn’t say judgment or damnation is breathing down our necks. It isn’t a threat but a promise. Salvation is a good thing. Being saved from a threat or a danger is cause for celebration, not fear or resentment. Theologians call that present tense salvation “realized eschatology.” Eschatology is the study of end times, the end of the world, the second coming of Christ. Those are scary thoughts that some Christians try to use to control others or to predict things that Jesus says not even he knows, only God. (Mark 13:32, Matthew 24:36) But realized eschatology is all about the fact that salvation is at hand here and now. You don’t have to die to get it. Paul says in another of his letters (II Cor. 6:2), “On a day of salvation I have helped you. See now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
My point is that eternity, by definition, isn’t something that will begin at some future date. It is eternal, beyond the limits of time, with no beginning and no end. So the Christian assurance of eternal life is both a promise for the future AND a present reality for those who “put on the armor of light and live honorably as in the day.” When we do that we no longer have any need to hide under cover of darkness or to take on a different identity to conceal parts of our lives that embarrass or threaten us. I was first angered and then saddened to read an email last week about a staffer for Congressman Darrell Issa of California. It seems that this staffer, Peter Simonyi, was until recently known as Peter Haller. There are conflicting stories about why Mr. Haller changed his name, but what makes the story interesting and controversial is that Congressman Issa, Mr. Simonyi’s boss, is the Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee which is responsible for regulating and overseeing companies like Mr. Haller/Simonyi’s former employer, Goldman Sachs. Could there be a conflict of interest here that just might not stand up to the scrutiny of the light?
The more important question is, do you and I behave any differently when we are out of town or someplace unlike the famous TV bar, “Cheers,” where nobody knows our name? Are we tempted to do things that we would never think of doing if our mothers or children were watching? What might we do in the hours of darkness that we would never do in the sober noon day sun? That is not an invitation, by the way, to start packing for a guilt trip. Guilt trips usually only lead us deeper into the darkness. Instead, it is a summons to rejoice and be exceeding glad, for “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”
As forgiven and redeemed children of God, we can live transparent lives in the spotlight of God’s son, and that is freedom and peace that passes all human understanding.