I love my dog, Duchess. She brings a lot of joy to our lives. And yet: Duchess is an odd labrador. She’s the only lab I know who can’t retrieve. Duchess gets excited when I tempt her with a toy; her tail starts wagging and I can see the energy ripple through her. But as soon as the toy gets thrown, she looks at me with disbelief and she says with her furrowed eyebrows, “I thought we were going to play?”
I’ve tried taking away a toy she already has to toss for her to retrieve. Then she gets an even more pained look, as if she’d done something wrong, “I thought I could play with that but I guess not.”
Jay says we don’t have a labrador retriever but a labrador relaxer. But I think: we have a dog who loves to eat but can’t play sports. Basically, Duchess is me with fur.
It doesn’t really matter whether or not Duchess can retrieve. It’s not like we’re turning her into a duck hunting dog. But her difficulty retrieving helps me understand our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, for Paul writes of the challenge of Christians to be true to their name, a challenge as real as Duchess’ challenge to be a retriever.
When Paul wrote to the congregation in Rome, he was writing a community that didn’t know him. He’d never been there. The letter was his introduction of himself to the community, sent in advance of his trip to the imperial city. As such, Paul wrote to explain his spiritual beliefs, the theological equivalent of a cover letter and resume. And yet, Paul didn’t just promote himself theologically but instead wrote persuasively of all the kind of struggles we’ve all experienced; it’s both a very theological and a very human letter.
Throughout the letter Paul evokes the great stories of the Old Testament: the creation of Adam and Eve and the amazing journey of the Exodus. These stories were ingrained in the consciousness of the Christians in Rome. Authors and artists do this all the time. It’s like the way The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry evokes Pilgrim’s Progress.
In our reading today Paul had the Exodus in mind. In the Exodus, the Jews traveled from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. To leave Egypt, they had to cross the Red Sea. But that left them on the Sinai Peninsula, where they wandered for forty years before crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. During those four decades in the desert the Jews were neither fully out of Egypt nor fully into the Promised Land; during that time they struggled to leave behind the habits and mindset of slavery and to embrace the new life of freedom.
Paul used that basic outline to understand our human life. In my favorite verse of the passage, Paul spoke of God leading us from death to life. He imagined us moving from slavery in the kingdom of death to freedom in the kingdom of life just as the Jews moved from Egypt to the Promised Land.
I’m a visual person, so I needed to draw an image for myself to understand this. The venn diagram in the bulletin shows what Paul was talking about - a kingdom of death and a kingdom of life which overlap.
The Jews began to leave Egypt when they crossed the Red Sea. Paul saw Baptism as our equivalent moment, the moment when we begin a new life. But Paul’s realistic. Baptism doesn’t solve all our problems. We’re citizens of the kingdom of life but we’re not fully free of the power of death. The Exodus ended when the Jews crossed over the River Jordan; according to Paul we fully move into the kingdom of life only after our physical death.
Now I realize much of this sounds dense. But what Paul cared about was the in-between moment, that colored in moment on the venn diagram, that time of struggle when we’re neither fully free nor completely enslaved.
That’s where we are now and we know how hard it can be in that desert. That’s when we speak like the Psalmist:
In the day of my trouble I seek God;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul is not comforted.
In this in-between time we try to figure out how to fully live like a citizen of the kingdom of life even though we’re not fully in it. I see this play out in people’s lives, once dramatically with a youth from Pathfinders. It’s a story I often think about. We traveled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was this youth’s first time out of Milwaukee. Lots of children grow up in Milwaukee not traveling far at all; some don’t even get to the lakefront. This teen was going so much farther. Our trip to Pine Ridge was part of dramatic changes he was making in his life: in one more month he’d start at MATC, the first in his family to get a degree beyond high school.
Towards the end of our trip he got an emergency call from home to tell him his brother was beaten to death. This devastating news was compounded by the accusation: if you were here to protect him he would not have died. The call crushed him with guilt. But then over the next 36-hours the story from home changed. The brother wasn’t dead but in the hospital; the brother wasn’t in the hospital but missing; the brother wasn’t missing but just hanging out at his girlfriend’s house.
I saw in that moment the dysfunction of this youth’s family; the manipulation and control. The youth was being punished for trying something new, for going out into the world. The family couldn’t let him go. And in the aftermath of this traumatic event the youth decided not to go to MATC.
It’s hard to be in the in-between land, hard to be between the Red Sea and the River Jordan, between death and life. The youth I knew couldn’t make the journey quickly; it might take forty years. The journey will involve a movement from dysfunctional relationships to healthy relationships. I pray that the youth can make that journey with family but that can’t always happen.
We all have to make journeys in our lives. The Jews traveled from slavery to freedom, the youth from dysfunction to health; what do you travel from and where are you going?
Our closing hymn captures some of the ways we might name our journey:
from death to love,
from falsehood to truth,
from despair to hope,
from fear to trust,
from hate to love.
Paul wrote of Baptism as the truth which sustains us through those journeys. In Paul’s mind Baptism irrevocably united us with God; after Baptism “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” In this way, Baptism was for Paul like the moment when people become citizens. Through Baptism Paul felt people got their citizenship papers in the kingdom of life. It didn’t matter where they resided, they’d always be citizens of the kingdom of life.
We understand Baptism in ways that Paul did not. In our congregation we say, “Through baptism we celebrate publicly what is always true: God loves every person, God treasures every life, God rejoices over our nearest relative and the most distant person.” To us Baptism is not a moment of transaction - in which someone goes from bad to good - but a moment of revelation - in which someone realizes they are loved.
The moment of revelation may come in church but it can also come in many ways; in fact in anyway that helps us know we’re loved by God. It’s that moment when a youth raised in a dysfunctional family says, “I don’t have to live this way.” It’s that moment when an addict says, “I am powerless over alcohol.” It’s that moment when a person filled with despair says, “I will call to mind the deeds of God,” and begins to hope. The moment of revelation comes whenever we realize we’re a citizen of the kingdom of life.
Baptism and all moments which reveal God’s love is an antidote to the kingdom of death. We see the power of that kingdom to demean, demoralize, and disfigure in the unfolding refugee crisis emanating out of Syria.
The civil war began when the regime of Bashar Assad seized several teenagers and tortured them to death. A kingdom of death literally destroying life. Thousands, millions were caught in that imploding kingdom, sent in their struggle for life to seek sanctuary aboard. In so many places, they found more trouble as BBC journalist Jonny Dymond captured in his audio postcard from the Island of Lesbos.
But amid the horror Dymond described came that moment of connection, that affirmation passed silently between Dymond and the boy he observed: I see your humanity.
Baptism counters the kingdom of death, but it doesn’t mean all the hard work is over. Paul sarcastically asked, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” In other words: the truth of God’s profound love does not give us a licence to act badly. It’s not like God paid off our credit card debt and now we can spend without a limit. No: knowing how deeply we’re loved, Paul calls us to live out that love in our lives; to carry ourselves as citizens of the kingdom of love. And so we strive for healthy relationships, work towards recovery, and nurture hope in our hearts.
But to fully appreciate Paul, and in particular this passage, we need to step back into the very real experience of the Christians in Rome. The first Christians in Rome belonged to Jewish synagogues. Some synagogues embraced Christianity, some didn’t; conflict arose. The Emperor at that time - Claudius - responded by expelling all the Jews and Jewish-Christians out of Rome, 50,000 people suddenly homeless, refugees declared enemies of the state. Those refugees could only return five years later when a new Emperor reversed Claudius’ order of expulsion.
Paul wrote to a church which knew what it meant to be a refugee, knew what it meant to be a citizen without a country, knew what it meant to live in a gray zone between death and life. Two thousand years ago it was the Jews and Jewish Christians of Rome who wandered Europe as refugees.
He didn’t call them to find safety for themselves; he didn’t hold up the vision of their own comfort. Instead of any of those messages, Paul told the one-time-refugees of Rome to become “instruments of righteousness.” Instruments get things done; tools do work. Paul didn’t want the Romans to rest in the safety of their assured love but instead to become tools of God’s redeeming love, instruments of revealing that love to others, agents of the kingdom of life.
Refugees in Europe. Vulnerable youth in our city. Friends dealing with addiction and despair. There are so many caught in a kingdom of death. Our challenge is to become instruments of righteousness, creating moments of revelation when people realize their worth and feel hope, helping everyone navigate that valley from death to life.
May we be instruments of righteousness on the journey from death to life. Alleluia and Amen.