“I.O.U.” Romans 13:8-14 (September 7, 2014)


Henry, who was very elderly, was unhappy
because he had lost his favorite hat. Instead of buying a new one,
he decided he would go to the local church and
steal one out of the coat rack when the worshippers
were busy praying.

When Henry arrived at the church however
an usher intercepted him at the door and showed him to a pew
where he had to sit and listen to the entire sermon
on ‘The Ten Commandments.’

After the service, Henry met the Pastor in the doorway,
shook his hand vigorously, and told him,
‘I want to thank you Pastor for saving my soul today.
I came to church to steal a hat and after hearing
your sermon on the 10 Commandments, I decided against it.’

The Pastor answered,
‘You mean the commandment ‘ Thou shall not steal’
changed your mind?’
‘No, ‘retorted Henry,
‘the one about adultery did.
As soon as you said that, I remembered where I left my old hat.’

All kidding aside The Ten Commandments are a pretty big deal.
Thousands of years after they were written,
we are still using them as a moral compass and
we even fight with passion to have them displayed in our
courthouses across the country.

Usually, when we are thinking about the Law of Moses,
what comes to mind are the Ten Commandments.
We either don’t know about or don’t care about
the other 603 commandments that Moses
brought down from Mt. Sinai.

When we do start to study and get into the particulars of the
613 commandments, we tend to think that
God is being a bit too demanding
a bit too interested in the nitty gritty workings
of our day to day lives.
Beyond the top ten, we also get laws about what to wear
and what not to eat and how to wash
and other commandments that come across as a bit of overkill.

The rules are overwhelming, confusing,
and to our modern ears especially
out of touch, barbaric, and unnecessary.

Often we look at the Law and the Prophets,
the Old Testament as we call it,
and we see a completely different picture of God
than the one Jesus shows us in the New Testament.

It’s like something happened in the intervening years
between the Old and New Testaments that caused God
to go from being obsessively meddlesome,
wrath-filled and blood-thirsty to being forgiving,
full of true love and true light.

It is disconcerting, and it is because of this apparent discrepancy
that many preachers tend to stay away
from the Old Testament in their preaching.
The God of the Old Testament
is grouchy and demanding and embarrassing;
the God of the Old Testament is just not like the God of the New,
and we like the God of the New because that God sent Jesus.

Maybe you’ve heard that reasoning before.
But what we often forget, what we fail to consider is
how the world worked prior to Moses laying down the law.

For instance, Moses tells the Israelites,
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
In our world that seems barbaric and mean,
but understood within the context of the previous system,
this eye-for-an-eye law is bold, progressive, and merciful.

Before the Law of Moses, vengeance was the name of the game.
If one person killed another,
the family of the deceased would seek to kill the murderer
and his or her family, and his or her servants,
and seize their livestock and land.

The idea was, Don’t just get mad
but get even and then some.

It’s a feeling we’ve all had at one time or another.
If I take a moment to really think about what would happen
if someone punched me in the face,
I can guarantee you that my first impulse would be to return fire
only harder and with added blows.

As a Christian I hope, of course, that I would be able to deny that
impulse and turn the other cheek,
but the point is, as human beings,
our gut reactions tend towards not merely vengeance or justice
but escalation.

So when we read laws like “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,”
we find that, in many respects, the law of Moses was not intended
to condone violence but was rather an act of mercy,
to restrain them from seeking
too much vengeance from escalating in their retaliation.

All of the laws in the Old Testament have a purpose.
Sometimes that purpose will seem ridiculous or barbaric
or sexist to us. And, compared to where we are now,
many of them are.
But in the context in which they were written,
they were a piece of mercy.

The laws of God given through Moses
were not given because blind obedience to them
would somehow make us holy.
This was not the plan or the goal in these commandments.

In the commandments was the desire of God
for humanity to begin to climb out of the muck and mire of violence
and vengeance and idolatry.
In them was the hope of God for us to grow as a people
to the point where we would understand
the truth that binds the universe together,
the truth that was demonstrated in the life, death,
and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That truth of the law of love.

As we read through the gospel of Matthew,
we find Jesus tweaking his listeners’
interpretations of the law of Moses.
During the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus repeats time and again,
“You have heard that it was said,” followed by, “But I tell you.”

In these teachings Jesus doesn’t get rid of the laws per se,
but he tries to help his listeners see beyond the laws
to the intention behind them:
it’s not about meticulously following rules,
but it’s about mercy and love.

For instance, Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye,
and a tooth for a tooth”.
Remember, when this was given it was in mercy and love
to keep retaliation from going too far.

Jesus continues, “But I say to you…
if anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also”.

So what we have here is a progression:
from open, unrestrained, retaliation
to a merciful form of vengeance
to sacrificial love in the face of hurt and offense.

In our reading this morning the Apostle Paul
summarizes well what Jesus was teaching.
The entire law is summed up in Love.
Love your neighbor as yourself. If you do this, you will fulfill the law.

And this is where even I start to roll my eyes and think,
“How many times is this guy going to tell me to love my neighbor?
I get it already.” Right?
Well, for the most part I live by the old adage
of a dear friend of mine: “Say it ’til it sticks.”
But loving our neighbors is not our full focus here this morning.

There is part of this passage that often gets glossed over.

Love your neighbor… AS YOURSELF!
AS YOURSELF – two words packed with problems for us.

For some people the difficulty comes in that we love ourselves A LOT.
There are some people who believe the Lexus commercials
that say, “Treat yourself. You deserve it.”
For that type of person,
to love neighbor as self is an expensive,
and probably impossible proposition.

I would wager for most of us today we have the opposite problem.
I think possibly in Paul’s day the problem may have been similar.

We don’t love ourselves enough,
or rather we just don’t love ourselves properly.
We become our own worst critics.
We develop low opinions of ourselves.
Or we believe that we are not worthy of love,
even from ourselves.
We only begin to love ourselves, even a little bit,
on the good hair days and the good mood days
and on all the days in between,
we beat ourselves up for every little thing.

When we try to love our neighbors as ourselves in that state,
it comes across as something less than love
or perhaps a form of love that is tainted
with self loathing and reeking of joyless obligation.

Paul writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”
Love is a debt that we all have,
and one that we need to be continually paying forward.
But before we can do that, before we can love our neighbor,
we have to love ourselves.

Maybe that begins with forgiving ourselves.
Can you think of something you need to forgive yourself for?
Have you been beating yourself up about a mistake at work?
or over a misspoken word to a loved one?
Whatever it may be it is okay to forgive yourself.
Let go of the guilt and the pain.
God has forgiven you. You need to forgive you.

Or has something in your past caused you to believe
that you are no good, that you are unworthy of love,
even love from yourself?
You want to love others and connect with God,
but every relationship is stunted because
you do not think you are worthy of anyone’s love,
especially God’s.

Friend, if that is where you are, hear me:
Love is not about being worthy.
Love is an act of the will decided by the one
who is doing to loving.
God’s love for us does not depend on anything we do or have done.
God’s love is God’s choice.

I like to compare it to how we love babies.
We don’t love babies because they have earned our love
or because they deserve it.
Babies are selfish little beasts.
They only care about their own needs being met
and being met exactly when they need them.
But we love them anyway.
We love them because we love them.
It is a choice we make.
God’s love for us is a choice that God has made.

Loving yourself is a choice you make.
Not in a narcissistic sort of way but in a what that says,
“I will not beat myself up over the past.
I will not push others away because
I think I am unworthy of love and relationship.”
You may have to work hard to ignore the ghosts of the past
that shout at you and make you think you are unworthy.
But give yourself the same kind of grace
you would give a close friend:
you don’t have to be perfect; you are worthy of love,
just the way you are, just the way God made you.

When we chose to love ourselves,
to care for ourselves, we are opening the door to accepting
that God loves us,
and there is nothing anyone or anything can do about it.

Whatever the reason for our love deficit towards ourselves,
we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to get it sorted out,
because the longer that we avoid loving ourselves,
the longer we are caught up in our own messes,
the longer that we are busy criticizing ourselves,
the longer it will be before our neighbors
will be able to see Christ’s love in us.

We get to see Christ’s love. Here, today. In the bread and the cup.
We get to see what love looks like:
a decision made to love humanity, to love us no matter the cost.

We get to see Jesus,
sitting at the table with his closest friends.
The very same friends who would, before long,
let him down, deny him, and betray him.
Still he breaks the bread, still he shares the cup,
offering love, and connection. That my friends is grace.

God came, in the flesh, to demonstrate the law of love.
Christ made it visible in his life, his teachings,
his care for stranger and neighbor and friend alike.
He showed us God’s love in the breaking of the bread
and the sharing of the cup.
He showed us God’s love in his death and in his resurrection.
And now, Christ seeks to show God’s love through us,
through our love of friend, and stranger, and neighbor.

But it all starts here.
In this place and at this table.
With a decision to love ourselves,
so we can love others, and by doing so, truly love our God.
Amen? Amen.

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