A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday Lent, March 19, 2017. This is the third in a series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans called “Justice, Generosity and Joy.”
How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or don’t you know that all we who have been baptized into messiah Joshua were baptized into his death? We were buried with him therefore by baptism into death, so that as [the] messiah was raised from the dead for the sake of [on account of] the shining forth of the father, so also we might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united in the likeness of his death, we shall certainly be united in the resurrection. We know that our old human[ity] was jointly crucified in order that the body of sin might be rendered inoperative, so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
For the one who has died has been made just from sin. But if we have died with messiah, we are confident that we shall also live with him. For we know that messiah, having been raised from the dead, no longer dies; death no longer rules over him. Having died into sin, he died once and for all, but living, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in messiah Joshua.
Translation by Theodore Jennings
Death makes all things equal. Omnia mors aequat.
We often think about Jesus’ death as conquering death, and Jesus’ resurrection as promising life after death, for those who believe. Certainly, our Easter hymns are full of such language.
In this equation, no matter how powerful or weak we are, no matter how much or how little money we have, no matter how influential or insignificant we may be viewed by society – belief is the great equalizer, ensuring to all who believe in Jesus, life after death.
The egalitarian nature of death – met by the egalitarian nature of belief in Jesus is often the way we read Paul’s letters. We are reassured that all of us are important and that all of us can be saved, can access eternal life.
While this idea of dying to death and rising to new life brings comfort and can have an equalizing effect, ensuring everyone in the faith community knows that he or she is equally valuable in God’s eyes – a reassuring thing especially when our society says otherwise — in this Letter to the Romans Paul is doing something more.
It’s important for us to remember that when Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, the cross wasn’t yet a symbol of faith. It wasn’t something that people wore around their necks or got tattooed onto the inside of their wrist. It was an instrument of dehumanization and death. And there wasn’t just one cross that Jesus carried and upon which he was crucified. Crosses were ubiquitous. Crucifixion was used as “the ‘supreme penalty’ in notorious cases of high treason,” and was frequently used “as a means of suppressing rebellious subjects in the provinces.” This often resulted in hundreds, sometimes thousands, of crosses being erected at a time at ‘cross-roads’ where rebellious subjects, including children, were crucified.
But the cross was also regularly employed as a punishment for slaves in cities throughout the Roman Empire.
Paul wrote to the Romans during the reign of Nero, what one scholar has called “the ‘midnight’ of the first century.” The consolidation of political and cultural power around the figure of the emperor created on ongoing crisis in which “politics perished.” Power was maintained by imposing various degrees of dependence on the population and, in the last instance, by terror. “The wealth of the emperor and his syndicate depended upon the vigorous exploitation of the resources of the provinces and upon the enslavement of a significant portion of the population – the latter institution maintained by the cruelty of crucifixion.”
The cross was a punishment meted out to the poor who stood up to Rome through outright rebellion, through banditry, or who simply refused to be enslaved. According to Larry Welborn, professor of New Testament just down the road at Fordham University, just “how deeply slaves lived in the shadow of the cross is illustrated by episodes from satires and novels [of the time.]”
Horace criticizes a master who crucified his slave for finishing off a half-eaten plate of fish which he had been told to remove from the table. In his novel, Petronius tells how one of Trimalchio’s slaves was crucified for having cursed the soul of Caligula; the notice of his death is read out by a clerk from a long list of things that happened that day on Trimalchio’s estate, such as the harvesting of wheat, and the breaking-in of oxen. The novelist Chariton, who was probably writing in the middle of the first century CE, gives a grim depiction of the crucifixion of sixteen slaves who were working on a chain gang in Caria. Shut up in a dark hut, under miserable conditions, the slaves broke their chains in the night and tried to escape, but failed because the dogs’ barking gave them away. Chariton relates the outcome: ‘Without even seeing them or hearing their defense, the master at once ordered the crucifixion of the sixteen men. They were brought out of the hut chained together at foot and neck, each carrying his cross’. Juvenal describes a Roman matron blithely sending a slave to the cross, merely because she is of a humor to do so; when her husband asks what offense the slave has committed worthy of death, the lady replies that she has no reason, but, after all, a slave is not really a man.
So crucifixion played an ordering role in the Roman Empire – the terror of being crucified was always present and it kept people compliant. And if your neighbor was hauled off wrongly for crucifixion, if you were smart, you kept your head down, lest you be crucified next.
In fact, crucifixion was so common, it was even outsourced.
“Just outside the Esquiline Gate at Rome, on the road to Tibur, was a horrific place where crosses were routinely set up for the punishment of slaves. There a torture and execution service was operated by a group of funeral contractors who were open to business from private citizens and public authorities alike. Their slaves were flogged and crucified at a charge to their masters of sesterces per person.”
So the cross was not only about death, it was a form of terrorism in the hands of the state and powerful individuals.
Let’s go back now and think about what it might mean to hear these words of Paul imagining not that he was simply talking about Jesus putting an end to “death” but Jesus death putting an end to state sponsored terror.
First, any poor person or slave who heard these words — anyone who had been subjugated by Rome, anyone whose family had been terrorized from the time when the Romans raped and burned and slaughtered their way through Galilee to subdue that province and then did the same to Judea to bring them under Roman rule – any poor person, any slave who heard Jesus was crucified, would have understood one thing: he’s one of us. Jesus knew the terror, the threat of crucifixion as they did and he was brutally killed on a cross like so many thousands of others had been. When poor people, conquered people, and slaves heard Jesus was crucified, they knew: he’s one of us. They also knew that this meant that he and his teachings ran counter to Roman expectation and obedience. And as followers of him, that was what they too would have to confront.
Jesus’ death on the cross meant for them, that God, understood and shared their experience of terror and death AND that the cross — this instrument that inspired such terror, such fear — no longer had that same power over them.
For in dying with Christ believers die to individual terror and rise to new life as one courageous community, capable of facing real and present dangers with confidence, together. While it is an individual who is baptized, that individual is incorporated through baptism into the faith community. While one dies alone, one rises into community. Now this was not a starry-eyed vision. There were plenty of crucifixions after Jesus’. The Roman Empire held sway for a very long time. The reality on the ground – the daily terror unleashed on the people — continued.
But what did change was their sense that they could face this terror square on and that they did not face it alone. Jesus faced it with them and so did every member of the community of faith.
Through baptism, followers of Jesus died to the terror-filled life they had been leading. They no longer allowed fear to be used to control them. And so they lived with freedom; they lived new life here and now. It still meant many went to their deaths. We should not try and paper that over. And baptism doesn’t somehow rescue those deaths at the hands of Rome from being horrible, wrong, grievous losses. The crucifixions continued – but they no longer had the power to terrify the followers of Jesus in the same way they had before.
Right now many people are living in terror because of executive orders and policies of the Trump Administration; from transgender teens who fear to use the public bathroom to refugees in a state of limbo, uncertain if they’ll be returned to their hostile countries. From undocumented workers and their children who recede further into the shadows – afraid to send their children to school, to go to the doctors, to go to work, to even go out – to people whose very survival is dependent on the Affordable Care Act, or Meals on Wheels, or school lunches.
This message of being baptized into Christ’s death and the promise of rising with him into new life, is especially meant for you. It is not “nice words” that are really “cold comfort.” For with it comes a promise. You are not alone. Jesus is with you. And so is the community of baptized Christians in this place. It doesn’t mean we can change all of those realities – we will work hard to do that of course – but we must also be honest for real lives are at stake. We can’t and shouldn’t promise things that we can’t deliver. We can’t make everybody safe. We just can’t. But what we can do, what being baptized means we’re called to do as followers of Christ, is to be sure that no one walks alone. That no one has to face this current terror alone. That we as a community will face it with you. We will walk with you even should it risk our own well-being. For just as we have all been baptized into Christ’s death, we have all risen with him to new life together.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is a letter for our time and for our place. It does not provide cheap comfort. In fact in invites every believer to be ready to risk all that we have for one another as faithful followers of Christ. Several weeks ago I came across a desperate line that Bonhoeffer wrote as he watched even his colleagues in the Confessing Church pledge themselves to the Third Reich, “the perseverance of the few is overwhelmed by the acquiescence of the many.”
Baptism involves both God’s call to us to persevere and our responding pledge to persevere. In each age, in each generation, God’s call comes. We must decide how we will respond. After we sing our hymn, I am going to invite any who wish to renew their baptismal vows to come forward. And together let us profess our faith:
Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
James Russell Lowell
Abolitionist Poet, Prophet, and Critic
 Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul. (Stanford, 2013).
 L.L. Welborn, Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life: Political Theology and the Coming Awakening. (Columbia, 2015) p. xii
 All citations, ibid. p. xii
 Welborn, “’Extraction form the Mortal Site’: Badiou on the Resurrection in Paul.” NTS 55, pp.295-314.
 “In contrast to the method of historicism, which seeks, by forgetting the subsequent course of history, to lay hold of the eternal meaning of a work, and in contrast to the popular, liberal assumption that a work is susceptible of a variety of legitimate interpretations, depending upon the interpreter’s perspective, [Walter] Benjamin proposes that a work – a text such as Romans – contains a temporal index that connects it to a specific epoch, and that it comes forth to full legibility only for a person who is singled out by history at a moment of danger, a perilous moment like the one in which the work was composed.” Welborn, Paul’s Summons. p. xiii.
I’m pretty sure it was a month ago that I began my Sabbath post with something like, “Forgive me, friends, it has been a month since my last Sabbath post.” Well, here I am again, four weeks later repeating myself.
The short explanation is that my Sabbath days continue to be a mid-winter routine of coffee and reading, with an afternoon visit to the nature center and the usual family stuff. Not much to write about. (My month of reading has been inspiring, though more on that another time.)
This last month, however, has also involved several “flex days” in which I have done many hours of work on my Sabbath days to accommodate flexible hours during the rest of the week (parent-teacher conferences, a snow day, car-sharing, pastoral emergencies). It kinda messes up the very idea of Sabbath – the time set aside from regular routine for rest and re-creation. This ‘flex-schedule’ is unusual, and I’m working on it.
Noelle and I have had more-than-the-usual amount of time to talk this last two weeks, which has been a joy. She’s out the next two nights, and I’ll be home with August, so today was spent researching my sermon for Sunday. (All day. I even bent August’s ear while at the nature center about St. Paul, messianic time, death personified, andRoman slavery.) I’ll flex this time tomorrow, I promise, by coming home early to make the corned beef and cabbage.
Yesterday was the Ides of March, the day on which despotic Julius Caesar was murdered and the Roman Republic died. The immediate result was civil war, but eventually the consolidation of the Empire. When young Octavian emerged victorious, he became Augustus, the first emperor, and ruled through what came to be known (by his sycophants) as the Golden Age of Rome. The chaos that followed, the Silver Age, was the crisis through which both Jesus and Paul lived and which forms the background of their movements. State power, personal power, legal exemptions from the law, terror, fear, violent conquest and exploitation on one side; resistance, community, economic mutualism, ethnic solidarity and hope on the other. (You guessed it. This is what I’ve been reading all day.)
The 15th of March is also the anniversary of The Battle of Pelennor Fields. In honor, I am ending my day reading Tolkein’s The Children of Hurin.
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday Lent , March 12, 2017. This is the second in a series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans called “Justice, Generosity and Joy.” Above, a victory photo from the Sri Lankan women’s land struggle (referenced in the sermon below), which was brought to a successful conclusion earlier this week. Their land occupation began on January 31 and ended March 2 when the government returned the lands that the navy had taken from the people during the civil war more than 8 years prior.
Scripture: Romans 5:1-11
Therefore, since through faithfulness we become just, we have peace with God through our leader Joshua messiah, through whom we have access by faithfulness to this generosity in which we stand and exult in hope of the shining forth of God. And not only exulting in the hope of the glory of God, but also exulting in affliction, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not shame us because divine love has been poured in our hearts through holy spirit given to us.
For while we were weak, at the right time messiah died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a just person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners, messiah died on our account. Much more surely then, now that we have been made just in his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of God’s son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved in his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our leader Joshua messiah, through whom we have now received the reconciliation as a gift.
Translation by Theodore Jennings
Novelist Elmore Leonard, well known as the author of Get Shorty and Swag among other works, is equally famous for penning the Ten Rules for Writing he would give to aspiring authors. Rule number one is “Never open with the weather.” As in:
In was a typically mild day in the spring of 56 as Paul and Phoebe paced the upper room of Gaius’ house, where Paul was staying. They were working out the ideas that would become Paul’s Letter to the Congregations in Rome. The sky was clear, the sun was bright, with not a sign of rain – a welcome change after the long, wet winter. The moist air of the Aegean Sea was blowing in, mixing with the briny smell of salted fish and the sounds of trade – a reminder that Corinth was a port city, open to all the world.
Elmore Leonard’s Rule Number Two is, “Avoid Prologues,” as in
Paul had spent previous two years encouraging the gentile congregations to take up a financial collection to support the impoverished Jewish communities of Palestine. If accepted by the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, the offering would be a sign that they approved of Paul’s mission among the gentiles. It would mean non-Jewish followers of Jesus were equal partners in the community of faith, their only requirement being that they practiced the self-sacrificial love and generosity of Jesus.
Rule Number Ten is, try to leave out the part that readers skip!
Last week, author Marc Laidlaw offered an 11th rule to supplement Leonard’s commandments. Laidlaw tweeted this hilariously provocative suggestion: “The first line of almost any story can be improved by making sure the second line is, ‘And then the murders began.’” Almost instantly it became an Internet meme, with Laidlaw’s comment receiving more than 5000 re-tweets in just three days, and the Internet was filled with examples from Harry Potter to Jane Austen, and Hemingway to Winnie the Pooh. (“I wonder what Piglet is doing?” thought Pooh. And then the murders began.)
Paul decided to force the hand of the Jerusalem leaders to decide the question, were gentiles equals in faithfulness or not, by leading a procession of gentiles into Jerusalem to deliver the generous financial collection. And then the murders began. Or at least one murder was planned. Paul’s action led to a public riot, after which forty men swore an oath never to eat or drink again until Paul was killed. (see Acts 23:12-15)
You see, it works because you automatically want to ask all the right questions: Who is committing the murders? Who’s being killed? Why? Who’s next?
When Paul writes to the church in Rome, asking for their prayers that he might be delivered from the unbelievers in Jerusalem (15:30ff), this is what he’s talking about. The whole letter carries his anxiety that Jerusalem will reject the very people he has come to love, God-fearing gentiles following the generous way of Jesus (as gentiles) in a hostile and brutal world.
Romans is not a philosophical treatise, or doctrine. It is not a recipe for what to do to “get right with God.” It is a heartfelt and, at times, heart wrenching communication about the challenges facing the first century movement of Christ followers. It discusses the bitter divisions within the movement. And proposes the vision Paul believes God has for the young, dispersed church. Paul has already put that vision into practices by encouraging the gentile congregations in different cities to collect the offering. Divine justice, for Paul, is not an abstract concept – it has to do with the concrete distribution of money and goods among Christ followers. Paul’s letter is intimately connected to the collection and delivery of this offering for Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. The letter pairs theological themes with an examination of community practices. Paul understands God’s vision for the world to be something that is meant to be implemented, not just imagined. That God’s vision for the world becomes real not by thinking about it but by daring new ways of cooperation and mutual aid. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul’s words weave the expanding movement of Christ followers, scattered throughout various cities in the Empire, together in a way that strengthens their own ability to create resistant and resilient ways of life amid oppression.
In Brief: Paul is asking the community to do materially, what God has done for the world spiritually. Which is to give of themselves for others. Redeeming the world, for Paul, entails courage, risk, and commitment. Because for Paul, grace is not focused on individual salvation but collective well-being.
So Paul was planning to personally deliver this offering from gentile congregations to the congregations in Jerusalem. Palestine had experienced a major famine, but this offering was about more than offer of relief. It was about poor people who had gathered themselves in Macedonia, Galatia, Asia and Achaia – gathered themselves around living in Christ’s way – it was about poor people who themselves struggled to survive, taking from the little they had to share with the newly poor leaders in Jerusalem.
I want to be clear that this is not charity or even generosity in the way we usually think of it in twenty-first century America; it is redistribution from poor communities to a newly poor community. Further, remember that the money that was collected came from congregations comprised of gentiles; by which I mean non-Jewish peoples of different ethnicities, all of whose nations or cities had been subjugated by Rome’s power.
So this offering was about poor people supporting poor people because everyone knew what it took to survive. But the twist was that it was money coming to a predominantly Jewish community of Christ followers from people who that community was not sure Jesus intended to be a part of his followers. Paul’s mission to “the gentiles” – those conquered people from many nations residing in cities across the Roman Empire – was not a mission that was supported by all the leaders of the Christ-following community in Jerusalem, at least not in the way Paul was doing it. In fact, it was greatly opposed.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul is writing the equivalent of the “why we march” statements that peoples’ movements worldwide write prior to a significant public action. Whether it’s the Sri Lankan women’s declaration that they will occupy the land their government stole from them until it is returned, whether it’s the manifesto published before the women’s march held in January of this year, whether it’s the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ “why boycott Wendy’s” epistle as they prepare to travel to corporate headquarters this month, it is the rationale behind the action. In this letter, Paul is writing to explain the stakes in the delivery and the acceptance of the offering by Christ-followers leading predominantly Jewish congregations in Jerusalem.
Now, especially in this climate where violence and threats have been unleashed in a wave of hatred toward our Jewish neighbors, please hear me when I say this conflict which forms the background for our ancient scripture reading today is an intra-Jewish dispute about the expansion of what was a Jewish covenant renewal movement led by Jesus. Remember Jesus was Jewish. And so is Paul. Paul, however, decided to push the boundaries of this Jewish renewal movement into uncharted territory – so uncharted that some of the central covenant practices that were defined by the Torah for life together, were put into question, among them circumcision and keeping kashrut, what we’d call kosher. There were genuine disagreements between the leaders in Jerusalem and Paul, who worked principally with the gentile congregations he had helped to found. These were not trivial matters, but rather went to the heart of what it meant to live faithfully together to renew and redeem the world.
So the letter to the Romans is a declaration of sorts. It provides a window into Paul and Phoebe’s thinking as Paul prepared to march with hundreds of gentiles into the temple in Jerusalem to deliver the offering from gentile congregations, and as Phoebe prepared to travel with Paul’s message to the congregations in Rome.
In that ancient time, Paul argues in this letter that God has a vision of us as one just community, supporting one another across our differences and for common well-being. His opponents in Jerusalem weren’t horrible, short-sighted bigots. His opponents were adherents to the covenant tradition that had defined them and their ancestors for generations. For this tradition many had died and were prepared to die. Paul hoped to convince them to enlarge that tradition. Honestly, the fears that the Jerusalem Jesus followers undoubtedly must have had, showed themselves to be true a generation later, as Jews and Christ followers started a painful parting of the ways, and as Constantine still later declared Christianity the official religion of the newly “Christianized” Roman Empire and marked Jews for second class status.
In our current political situation, Paul’s letter to the church at Rome reads with new significance. It calls us to ask how we live with our neighbors who are different from ourselves as equals, with mutual respect, and with mutual support in a climate where some among us are being made ever more vulnerable. Paul’s letter is not about our being weak and God rushing in to make up the difference. Instead, it is a message of strength and power. God needs our hands, our feet, our voices to make God’s vision of justice, of life together, a reality. It is a message that you are acceptable to God; just as you are. That any brokenness you feel within – from shame, from grief, from guilt – can be healed by stretching out, with all your courage and generosity to others. As Paul said, “Through faithfulness we become just.” Because all of us have hurt and been hurt. And all of us have helped and been helped. God’s grace doesn’t make up the difference for our inadequacies. God’s grace changes the very equation itself. It is love that grows amidst brokenness. It is love that defies barriers. It is love that sees that by seeking the welfare of others, we will meet our own deepest needs.
So I ask you today, what are you prepared to do to concretely demonstrate that grace that we have all received? How might God be calling you and might be calling us, this congregation, to live out God’s vision of justice for our world?
 Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul. (Stanford, 2013).
 How this works is detailed by L.L. Welborn in his Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life: Political Theology and the Coming Awakening. (Columbia, 2015). He describes how Paul’s injunction in Romans 13:11, “owe no one anything,” encourages these communities of “unplug from the patronage system” by which to Empire operates, and instead practice “economic mutualism as a survival strategy among his messianic assemblies.”
 See Richard Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Changed the World. (Grosset/Putnam, 1997).
 See Neil Elliot, The Arrogance of the Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. Paul in Critical Contexts. (Fortress Press, 2008).
 I thank The Rev. Noelle Damico for this brilliant formulation of “why we march,” which I find absolutely compelling. For a case that Paul’s anxiety about the offering shaped this letter, see Herman C. Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Deconstruction of the Law. (Sheffield, 2016). Especially pp. 7-11. (By the way, the Sri Lankan women won their struggle earlier this week.)
 Carefully unpacked by Stanley K. Stowers in A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, & Gentiles. (Yale, 1994).
 See my earlier sermon in which I try to move us beyond the Protestant doctrine of “justification by grace through faith.”: https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/lent-ii-a-shift-in-perspective/
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The First Sunday Lent / Celebrate the Gifts of Women, March 5, 2017. This is the first of a five-part series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, called “Justice, Generosity and Joy.”
Romans 1:1-17 and 15:14 – 16:2
I have just come back from a two-day retreat at our Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center in Holmes New York. My colleagues were ordained ministers, commissioned lay pastors, and ruling elders who serve on the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. Our committee helps people discern God’s call to ordained or commissioned ministry.
In today’s passage from Romans, we meet Phoebe, a minister of the church in Cenchreae, a city on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean near Corinth. Take that in for a moment. Phoebe was a minister in the early church. She is called a diakonos in Greek, a word that is always translated as minister or missionary when describing a man, but as deacon, deaconess, servant or even ‘helper’ when describing women. One translation completely erases her ministry and simply calls her a “dear Christian woman.” Ugh. She was a minister!
So I want to take a moment right here and ask you, especially those of you who are women, if you have ever felt God urging you into ministry. Perhaps a friend has suggested it to you or during a time of prayer you’ve felt God nudging you. If so, please know my office door is open and I would like to talk with you and help you discern next steps.
Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans in the spring of 58 while he was on a three-month visit to Corinth. He composed it just before leaving for Jerusalem. And he sent Phoebe on ahead of him to Rome, where he hoped to visit next. Phoebe was present when the letter was composed, and may have helped shape the contents. She undoubtedly, though, shaped its reception, for it was Phoebe who was entrusted to orally present the letter to the house churches.
Chapter sixteen tells us that Phoebe was not only a minister; she was the financial benefactor of Paul’s mission and probably planned to bankroll his proposed mission to Spain. In fact, she was likely in Rome to raise funds for Paul’s mission to Spain.
I’ve taken the title of my sermon this morning from a new book by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, who taught at Princeton when I was there and now teaches at Baylor. I never had a class with her, but her husband Bill was my supervisor at Somerset Medical Center while I was pursuing clinical pastoral education. Her new book, When in Romans is an invitation to linger with the gospel according to Paul. (I have posted an interview with Professor Gaventa on the church Facebook page.)
The title, of course, alludes to the aphorism, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This actually goes all the way back to Saint Augustine who said
When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here in Milan I do not. You should also follow the custom of whatever church you attend, if you do not want to give or receive scandal.
But that very attitude raises questions of its own, doesn’t it? It begs the question of what is essential to faith and what is a matter of custom. Yet we could also read it as an invitation to immerse ourselves in the worldview, the society, the economics and politics of the city of Rome 50 years after the birth of Jesus. To imagine how people living in this capitol city of the Empire might have heard and interpreted Paul’s message to them. And that is what I’d like to invite us to do. To imagine; shepherded by what we know of history, language, and culture.
This is the beginning a five-part sermon series called “Justice, Generosity and Joy,” based on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Romans is notoriously difficult to read. We don’t share Paul’s worldview any more. We don’t share his rhetorical style or form of argumentation. We don’t know exactly to whom he was writing; scholars still argue about this. In 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation by discovering what he believed was Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Romans. But then 60 years ago Krister Stendahl published an important book that showed us that we don’t have to and actually shouldn’t read Romans through Martin Luther – as important a figure in the Reformation as he was. First of all Paul is writing about communities and their life together, not about individuals. Romans is hard to read not only because of its structure but because we already think we know what it’s about before we open the Bible. That’s why Roman’s is notoriously difficult to read. We have to lay aside our preconceptions and imagine our way back into the setting where Paul composed a letter that was orally delivered by a minister, Phoebe, to small house churches scattered throughout the city of Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire.
A Word on Translation: Throughout Lent, we want to try and hear the Apostle Paul’s words to the house churches in Rome in a fresh way. The translation we will be using is drawn largely from the work of Ted Jennings, a professor of constructive theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, a Methodist preacher, and a philosopher. It adheres closely to the Greek, but attempts always to capture the apostle’s meaning while avoiding certain words that are so burdened with meanings drawn from other sources (other scriptures, historical use in liturgy and song, theological and devotional writing) as to mean something quite different than what the apostle meant. For example, in the Ancient World the word gospel generally means the announcement of a Roman military victory, a triumph for Caesar, Lord and Savior of the Empire and “bringer of peace.” Since, to our religious ears, gospel automatically refers to the stories about Jesus, Prof. Jennings translates the word for gospel as “glad announcement” “good news,” or “triumph.” The familiar word Lord is rendered Leader; grace may be translated as generosity or favor; faith is sometimes fidelity, loyalty, or faithfulness, depending on the context; justice is used instead of righteousness. It’s close to the text to translate it in this way. Finally, the name and title “Jesus Christ” will be heard as Joshua Messiah, both Hebrew originals for the Greek substitute, Jesus Christ, we have carried over into English. Please listen to the letter as it is read each week. Do not follow along in your pew Bible. For after all, no house-church member would have had a copy of Paul’s letter.
Today what I want you to do is listen. Listen anew to these words spoken by the minister Phoebe who shaped not only their content but their delivery. Imagine you are living under the rule of the Roman Empire. Some of you citizens, others slaves. Most of you poor, a very few of you artisans. Even less of you are wealthy. Imagine you are sitting with your household, listening to Phoebe. Children are present. Some animals are present. You have probably eaten something together before Phoebe begins. At certain points, you may interrupt her or press back. Imagine this as more interactive presentation rather than one-way communication. You are the one, though, who has to fill in the gaps.
Today not only begins the Season of Lent, but Women’s History Month and is observed in the Presbyterian Church as “Celebrate the Gifts of Women” Sunday. We are going to hear Paul’s Letter to the Romans in one woman’s voice throughout Lent. Sharon Callender has agreed to play the role of Phoebe, to give voice to Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome.
Phoebe Greets the House-Church
Before I read the letter and discuss it, let me say first: Greetings to the churches of Rome! I also bring you greetings from the believers in Cenchreae. They commend me to your care and pray often for their brothers and sisters in Rome. – I am honored to be entrusted with Paul’s message to you. He longs to be with you and indeed is with you now in spirit, as he makes the arduous journey to Jerusalem. – Today I will read only Paul’s opening and closing remarks in his letter, and his greetings to all of you who share our living hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me begin.
The Jennings Translation of Romans (with a few small changes by Pastor Jeff)
Paul’s Opening Remarks
Paul, a slave of Joshua Messiah, called to be an apostle, set apart for the glad announcement of God (which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy writings), the good news about God’s Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh but designated Son of God in power according to a spirit of holiness through a resurrection of the dead, Joshua Messiah, our Leader, on whose account we have received favor and apostleship in order to provoke the adherence of loyalty on account of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to Joshua Messiah.
To all in Rome, beloved of God, called holy:
Generosity to you and peace from God our Father and our Leader, Joshua Messiah.
First, I thank my God through Joshua Messiah on account of all of you, because your faithfulness is being spoken about in all the world. For my witness is the God whom I serve in my spirit in the good news of his son, that I always continually refer to you in my prayer, asking that by God’s will I may at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you so that I may impart some spirited gift to strengthen you, or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged through one another’s faithfulness, both yours and mine.
I want you to know, comrades, that I have often intended to come to you but have been hindered until the present, so that I may reap some harvest among you as indeed among the remaining nations. I am under obligation to Greeks and barbarians, to the wise and also the foolish, so that as far as I am able I am eager to announce the good news also to you, those who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the glad announcement; it is divine power for salvation for all the faithful, to the Judean first and the Greek. For in it divine justice is disclosed from faithfulness to faithfulness, for as it has been written: the just live through faithfulness.
Paul’s Closing Remarks (without the list of greetings)
I myself have been persuaded about you, comrades, that you yourselves are full of goodness, having been filled with all knowledge, and so are able to instruct one another. But on some points I have been bold as a reminder to you through the favor given me from God to be a public servant of messiah Joshua to the nations, the glad-making proclamation of God, so that the offering of the gentiles may be acceptable, made holy by holy spirit.
In messiah Joshua therefore I have pride in the things of God, although I will not speak of anything but what messiah worked through me for the adherence of the nations, by word and deed, by power of signs and wonders, by power of holy spirit, so that from Jerusalem around to Illyricum I have filled up with the good news of the messiah.
I am, therefore, eagerly striving to announce the good news, not where the name of the messiah is already heard, so that I don’t build on a foundation that belongs to another, but as it is written (in prophet Isaiah): They shall see who have never been told of Him, and they shall understand who have never heard of Him.
Since I have long yearned for so many years to visit you, I hope in traveling on to Spain to see you and be sent on by you if it may be possible and to be refreshed by you. But now I am going to Jerusalem to serve the saints: Macedonia and Greece thought it good to make some contribution for the poor saints in Jerusalem. They were happy to do it and are indebted to them, for if the nations have come to share in their spirited things, then they should also be of service to them in fleshly things. When, therefore, I will have competed this and sealed to them this fruit, I will be on my way through you to Spain. And I know that when I come I will come to you in the fullness of messianic blessing.
I beg you comrades, through our leader Joshua messiah and through the love of the spirit, to strive together with me in prayer to God for my sake, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints so that in joy I may come to you through the will of God and find rest with you. The God of peace be with you all.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a minister of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the way of our leader, with a hospitality fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.
 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul. (Baker Academic, 2016).
 Luther is hard to shake, though. His reading has become a cultural product that is continually read back into Paul’s letter.
 Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul. (Stanford, 2013). This book is a line-by-line commentary to accompany his Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice (Cultural Memory in the Present). (Stanford, 2005).
 A marvelous introduction to imagining the house-church is Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level, (Fortress, 2009). Oakes utilizes the archeological remains of Pompeii to bring to life five individuals that would also have been typical of congregations in Rome: Sabina the stoneworker, Holconius the cabinet-maker, Iris the barmaid, Primus the bath-stoker, a model craft-maker, and the household of Menander.
 This introduction comes from Reta Halteman Finger, Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups. (Eerdmans, 2007). Finger provides character background, scripts, and questions to recreate a house-church conversation about Romans for study groups.
 For copyright reasons I will not be reproducing this text each week, but highly recommend Jennings books on Paul. I provide the translation this week to give a flavor of our experience. Sharon did a beautiful job bringing Phoebe to life for us.
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday, February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-8 (Transfiguration) 2 Peter 17:16-20 (Eyewitness)
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Thanks be you, O God, for this your Holy Word, and to your name let there always be praise. Amen.
Many of you know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken and mountains I have climbed. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being about in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.
Hiking outdoors is for me a spiritual practice – something I do repeatedly, over time, made meaningful by reflection and connecting me with others who have done the same and with the earth. The desert fathers and mothers sought out the wilderness. John Calvin called creation “the theater of God’s glory.” Many of the great saints were hikers and climbers. The more contemporary literature of walking, from Rousseau and Nietzsche to Thoreau, Muir and Proust, reminds us of a way of living all but lost to us today. Health and heart, body and soul, I know I am at my best when I stay connected to the world God made at the pace God intended.
Being outdoors also has many health benefits. I’ve recently read, for example, that a ninety minute walk in nature can significantly reduce rumination – the negative or obsessive thoughts so many of us experience, which take us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. Walking outdoors can reduce activity in the part of the brain associated with mental illness and is shown to significantly increase creativity and problem solving.
Since this past week was both so beautiful, with unseasonable temperatures in the 60s, as well as school vacation, I took my son out after worship last Sunday for a traipse along the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut. Traipse in a great word for a particular kind of walking. We parked our car beside the Housatonic River (the name means “river of the mountain place” in Mohican) and scrambled hand over hand up St. John’s Ledges and hiked over to Caleb’s Peak with majestic views of the Taconic Mountain range. We followed animal tracks, identified the cries of raptors, and observed various kinds of scat. As we walked we reflected on the Biblical stories behind the names of landscape we were tracing – Caleb the scout who spied out the promised land, and John – and we thought of John the Baptist who baptized in the Jordan River, John the disciple of Jesus who climbed Mt. Tabor and witnessed his transfiguration, and John the writer of Revelation, bearer of the vision of ‘a new heaven and new earth’ that concludes our Bible. We spoke of today’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration, noting that it took place after a day of rigorous mountain climbing which ended with Jesus enjoying the company of Moses and Elijah at the peak’s summit noting both Moses and Elijah themselves were accustomed to ascending and descending mountains in their search for God. And, as we always do, August and I remembered other hikes we have taken together, of lessons we have learned, and people we have met. The great joy of hiking as a spiritual practice means that our day together on the mountain was not just a single event but part of our growing relationship with one another, our world and its maker/creator. We are conscious of being a part of something larger than ourselves.
The holiest of moments (the moment of wholeness, for us) took place on a snow covered forest floor nestled between two ridges where, “the world in solemn stillness lay” below the bright blue sky. We had escaped the busy world, for a while, and could hear not a sound about us. We simply stood, silent ourselves, and content together. When next we spoke, we were ready to head home.
We need practices of self-care that keep us connected to others and that immerse us in this world that God loves so much; practices that bring us regularly to places of health and wholeness and return us to lives of loving our neighbor.
We need the mountain places, both metaphorical and literal, that lift us above our work in the world, if only for a moment, to remind us of the God who watches over us and works through us – who was at work in Jesus and who is now at work in us – so that we may look again at this world and see it as the “theater of God’s Glory.” Second Peter calls this metaphorical mountain place the Majestic Glory of God at work to redeem all creation. Second Peter hopes that the memory of Jesus, the stories of Jesus, will be for us like a lamp shining in a dark place, building us up in hope until the day dawns “when justice is at home” among us and when this light rises “in our hearts.” The language of darkness and rising is the language of death and resurrection. Peter envisions an earthly future for the beloved community similar to the one described in John’s Revelation which we are to “wait for and work to hasten” (3:11), because it will be “in accordance with God’s promise, … ‘for a new heaven and a new earth where justice is at home.’” (3:13)
David Cortes-Fuentes, who serves with his wife Josey Saez-Acevado as a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Cuba, writes
For many people who witness the lack of justice and live as victims of injustice, this declaration [of a new heaven and new earth where justice is at home] summarizes the hope of the letter and their own hope. The current system that perpetuates injustice by destroying natural resources, exploiting people, and putting too many resources in the hands of the few while too many people live in poverty and need, cannot represent the final word of Scripture. This letter’s call to faithfulness and hope is grounded in the certainty that believers will live “where justice is at home.”
The hope expressed here for new heavens and new earth finds its echo in the hope of many immigrants who come to the United States searching for a better life. My own experience as a first generation Puerto Rican helps me understand this hope with a double perspective. First, I am keenly aware that not everyone experiences justice or enjoys the same opportunities to succeed. Second, I hear the message of the gospel as in invitation to continue the struggle for justice, and as an assurance that although there is still much to be done, God’s promise is secure and firm. This hope sustains our struggles and strengthens our solidarity as people of God, waiting and working for a better future.”
But waiting and hoping is not passive. In chapter 3, verse 11, Second Peter asks the question, “what kind of persons ought we to be” while we wait for and work to hasten this day?
I invite you to take a moment and reflect on this question, and then, when I chime the bell, to scoot near a neighbor in your pew or a neighboring pew and share “what kind of persons ought we to be” while we wait for and work to hasten the day of God’s justice?
I left here a time for reflections and sharing. At the end of this time the choir start singing the hymn “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” in harmony, as a way to bring everyone’s attention back. I had intended to have the congregation call out some their responses, but was conscious that we had still to ordain new leaders and that our Mardi Gras luncheon was waiting. Instead, I concluded by praying, “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God. Amen.”
 For a fascinating introduction to this far from simple letter, see George Aichele, The Letters of Jude and Second Peter: Paranoia and the Slaves of Christ (Phoenix Guides to the New Testament). (Sheffield Phoenix, 2012).
 See Belden Lane, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. (Oxford, 2015).
 One of many such books on my shelves is the beautifully written Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2000).
 Think about it. Before fossil fuels, and coal in particular, the fastest any human being moved was that of a running horse, and that not often. Coal, and steam engines, accelerated out lives, shrunk our world, and altered life forever. See Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (Eerdmans, 2013), especially Chapter 2, “Coal, Cosmos and Creation.”
 The NRSV translates this as “where righteousness is at home.” But this is needless religious language that mystifies and (too often) personalized what the New Testament writers are speaking about. Justice is the better translation.
 David Cortés-Fuentes, “Introduction of 2 Peter” in The People’s Bible NRSV (Fortress Press, 2009).
Forgive me friends, it has been a month since my last Sabbath post. (Please let this contribution to my Presbytery’s blog stand in).
Many of you in the Presbytery know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken and mountains I have climbed. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being about in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.
Hiking outdoors is for me a spiritual practice – something I do repeatedly, over time, made meaningful by reflection and connecting me with others who have done the same and with the earth. The desert fathers and mothers sought out the wilderness. John…
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