September 17, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
We’re still in that part near the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans where Paul is giving very practical instructions to the church. He had spent 11 chapters with some lofty theological truths, but then he brings it back down to earth. But that doesn’t keep him from stopping now and then to make a theological point using an interesting metaphor. “You know what time it is!” he says, spinning a metaphor for the Christians in Rome, and for us, that gets our attention by talking about something we all experience.
What Paul describes in this text is something we do to ourselves in our minds and our spirits, often late at night. Late at night, when the shadows have grown as big as they are going to, when it is cold and it is silent, it is easy when we lie wide awake to feel compelled to gratify our self-pity and self-doubt. In those hours, we invite our fears and our loneliness in for a cup of tea and a little chat. In those hours, we feel a welling up of our frustrations and our disappointments and our fantasies about how the world does not measure up to the standards we think it ought to have.
Paul talks about those late-night binges of self-centeredness in a little bit different terms; he talks about “reveling and drunkenness…[and] debauchery and licentiousness.” But I think those are the same things, just expressed in different ways. In some seasons of our lives, those self-centered, lonely, fearful feelings might lead us partying and drinking and hooking up and whatever else we do to push away those feelings. In other seasons, we might try to hold them off by becoming workaholics, or by escaping through mindless entertainment. Other times, we might simply lie awake in bed feeling helpless, confused, anxious, and depressed. Altogether, these are the habits and the addictions and the self-centeredness that belongs to the night, Paul says.
We know all too well how these wee-hour sessions of overwhelming thoughts and feelings work in the lives of individuals, literally lying awake in the cold and silent hours of the night. But I wonder if the same thing happens to whole churches, too. I wonder if a whole church can get into a midnight season of self-pity and self-doubt: we don’t have what we used to have, either in terms of people or money or respect and power and importance in our community. I wonder if a whole church can find itself entertaining the voices of fear and loneliness: no one understands us, no one likes us, no one will help us, and maybe even no one needs us. I wonder if a whole church can find itself driven mostly by frustration and disappointment and fantasies about the way things used to be: people never used to talk about politics in church, or everyone used to just subscribe to an unspoken agreement that some people belong here and some people do not. Just like Paul’s “reveling and drunkenness…[and] debauchery and licentiousness,” I wonder if a whole church can go through seasons of self-gratification, working for the comfort of the members and neglecting its mission to contribute to the salvation of the world. I wonder if a whole church can go through times of escaping into mindless entertainment which makes the Gospel a fantasy that never challenges our prejudices or confronts our self-righteousness. I wonder if a whole church can go through a season when it allows the voices among it to loop endlessly with helplessness, confusion, anxiety, and depression.
I think Paul might have been addressing such a church in his letter to the Romans. We know from earlier in the letter that some of the members of the church were trying to tell some other people they didn’t belong. They were trying to say that there are conditions placed on God’s promise of salvation: certain behaviors they had to engage in and certain behaviors which could get them thrown out. They were trying to forget that everyone sins, that everyone should be condemned, that apart from the grace-filled witness and work of Jesus Christ, no one would be worthy. They were trying to forget that all of them had to die to sin and be raised to new life, and they were trying to forget that nothing in all creation can separate any of them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
But, Paul told those church members, God wants us to wake up now. All of that desire to gratify our self-centered desires, fears, loneliness, and depression comes to us in the middle of the night; there is not much we can do to prevent that. But when we have something more important pressing on us, we need to do whatever we can to set it all aside. We need to recognize what we are doing to ourselves as we rehearse the looping messages of fear and self-pity: we are reinforcing our sense of helplessness and encouraging our depression. We need to do whatever we need to do to stop that looping; we need to get up, get a drink of water or a glass of milk, have a moment of meditation or prayer, take a hot shower, get a little exercise, or do whatever else might work to get us ready to get back in bed and go back to sleep all the way until the sun comes up.
And then we need to wake up in the morning and commit ourselves again to that renewed sense of our purpose. The salvation of the world is nearer now than it ever has been before. The best news anyone has ever heard is waiting to be shared with a world full of people who live every day in fear, in poverty, in self-hatred, and in violence. The vision of a time of peace, of freedom, of joy, of beauty, of welcome and restoration, of wholeness and gratitude and life and light is just waiting to be realized. The night is almost gone; the day is fast approaching!
And the genius of what Paul says to those Roman Christians here, and what I think God has to say to our White Bluff Presbyterian Christians now, is that it really is not difficult to wrap your minds around what it looks like to live in the day and not in the cold, silent, lonely, and fearful shadows of the night. It’s simple, really, Paul said: love one another. Love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t do and say anything that is hurtful to your neighbor. Love your neighbor. Moses said it, although the tablets he was reading from used a whole lot more words. Jesus said it, and when he said it, he linked it with what it means to show love to God. It’s the best way to sum up all the commandments: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I wonder what it would take to wake a church up so that it can lay aside those tools of the shadows and instead take up the armor of the good news of Jesus Christ, which are the tools of hope and trust and freedom and light. I wonder if a whole church can shift its thinking from the nighttime of self-pity and self-doubt to the works of the daytime, which are simply to love our neighbors. I wonder if that could mean shifting from thinking that no one can help with all of the projects that need to be done to asking what resources in the church and community are not being tapped. I wonder if that could mean telling anyone who will listen that there is a place where they can worship and serve where they will be welcomed for who they are: whatever their age, their race, their gender, their class background and ethnic background, their orientations and their identities, and not only will they be welcomed, but they will be included in all the work of the church as each one is called. There aren’t many places where that is true, and even many churches will put restrictions and limits on how some people can participate or what gifts they can exercise because of their gender or their orientations or other aspects of who they are.
I wonder if a whole church can come to believe that salvation is near, that we have good reason to hope and to trust, that freedom and light are at hand, that there is a vision of a time of peace, of freedom, of joy, of beauty, of welcome and restoration, of wholeness and gratitude and life and light which can guide our lives and our work in the world. I wonder if every member of a church can put the hope and the beauty of God’s new daybreak into their own words, and then tell it to our families and our friends and our neighbors and even those people who seem to want to work against us. I wonder if that whole church could then share it on Facebook and get some flyers to pass out in our own neighborhoods around our homes and forward it in an e-mail to the people we know just to spread the word that there is something great happening. I wonder if we each can find ways to talk about it which have integrity with our gifts, even if it is not what we have always done and even if we have not talked about it before.
I wonder. And I pray. My prayer this morning is that we will wake up. My prayer this morning is that we will put the long night of self-pity, self-doubt, fear, loneliness, frustration, and disappointment behind us. My prayer is that we will wake up to the truth that salvation is nearer now than it has ever been before, and my prayer is that we will love our neighbors, which is the only way to fulfill God’s commandments. My prayer is that God will guide us and compel us to share the good news that salvation is nearer now than it has ever been before, with the vision of light and life which will overcome the shadows of the night.