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Salt, Light, and the Sundering of Israel: Reflections in Election Week

One of the most dramatic Old Testament stories is how the Kingdom of Israel rips itself in two.[1]  It’s told in 1 Kings 9-13.  Mostly, what I want to do today is retell it.
To set the stage: the ascendancy of King David unites the Israelite tribes and begins a season of triumph over Israel’s historical adversaries like the Philistines.  Despite seasons of The Sopranos-esque conflict within the royal family, the Kingdom of Israel survives David’s reign intact and reaches the apogee of its power under David’s son, Solomon.  This is when the real trouble starts.
Solomon is renowned for his wisdom and for accomplishing great feats of expansion, like building the Temple in Jerusalem.  But despite his gifts and accomplishments, Solomon is a hard ruler (9:15-22), and he is tempted by the many gods of his many romantic interests (11:1-8).  His ego and philandering will eventually be the end of the kingdom as one kingdom.
Solomon’s personal failings instigate the sundering of Israel, and these are inseparable from what we moderns might call his policies (11:9-13).  Solomon’s heart is the problem (9:4, 11:9), the cause of both his own bad actions and much of the sickness in the kingdom.  It’s also important to note that the sundering of Israel doesn’t happen in Solomon’s own lifetime, but in the generation following him.  The damage is done, but the real fracture happens later.
When Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam succeeds him (11:41-12:1).  Rehoboam is an unmitigated disaster.  He hears the counsel of wiser and more experienced men who tell him that the people of Israel will follow him faithfully if he will be the people’s servant and speak good words to them (12:7).  But Rehoboam rejects their counsel, preferring instead to surround himself with sycophants (12:8-11).  In the crudest of locker room talk, they tell Rehoboam that the only way to outdo his dad Solomon is to be an even harsher task-master, to give his own ego even freer rein than did Solomon. 
Notice what has happened: Solomon’s character sets the standard for what kingship looks like in the eyes of the younger generation.  When Rehoboam becomes king, his way of surpassing his father is simply to out-Solomon Solomon, only Rehoboam lacks Solomon’s virtues.  Rehoboam says to the Israelites, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (12:14). 
This won’t do.  The people reject Rehoboam’s leadership, crying, “What share do we have in David?  We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse” (12:16).  In other words, there is no evidence in Rehoboam’s attitude that he wants to be a servant for the whole of Israel.  He has made himself the adversary of too many people, and they respond in kind.
The kingdom splits: the northern tribes run Rehoboam out of town and follow a new king named Jeroboam.  (Yes, in a classic dose of biblical confusion, the two leaders’ names rhyme: Rehoboam and Jeroboam.  I recommend thinking of them as simply R and J.[2])  Rehoboam rules in the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is, and Jeroboam rules the majority of tribes in the northern kingdom, what is sometimes called Ephraim, where places like Bethel and Dan are.
Rehoboam thinks about going to war against the north, but a prophet says, “Look, God thinks that is a really bad idea.  You were a jerk, so take your licks and let them be” (12:21-24, paraphrasing).  For once, Rehoboam listens to reason.
At this point, things could have died down and the two kingdoms could’ve shared a measure of peace.  But it wasn’t to be.  Jeroboam sets up shop in the northern territories, but he notices that his citizens continue to travel south to Jerusalem to participate in rituals at the Temple there.  This is the grand Temple Solomon built, and it’s one that God clearly favors (9:1-5).
But Jeroboam is insecure about his citizens’ continuing to trek south into Rehoboam’s kingdom of Judah for all their important religious and cultural observances.  So Jeroboam does the one thing every Israelite should know not to do: he makes two golden calves; builds shrines for them in Dan and Bethel so they’re convenient for everybody to get to; and then tells his citizens, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (12:28).  Insert face-palm emoji.
Here again, we see that a king’s personal failings and his policies are not easily separated.  The construction of shrines and boosting the statuses of two cities are policy moves, maybe, but they are connected to Jeroboam’s own insecurities.  Jeroboam seems not to trust his own citizens, living in fear of what they might do if they continue to worship the Lord in Jerusalem (12:27).  Thus, golden-calf policies.
I’ve always wondered if Jeroboam would actually have preferred it if his southern rival had mustered Judah and marched north for war.  It is always simpler to lead when you can point your people towards an enemy.  Fear of an enemy prevents scrutiny of your own side.  An enemy threat prevents leaders from having to separate their own egos from the roles they fill.  But being against something is never enough to sustain a community for the long haul.  It is always harder and messier to trust your people to identify and pursue corporate goods alongside you, but this work is always necessary.
One final scene is worth relating.  A prophet comes up from Judah to visit Jeroboam where he is standing by the idolatrous altar he has made in Bethel.  The prophet condemns Jeroboam’s using kingly power to make idolatrous golden calves.  Jeroboam flies into a rage and points at the man, crying “Seize him!”  But Jeroboam’s outstretched hand withers on the spot as proof that God is against him (13:1-5).
That one moment is symbolic of the whole saga.  A king’s outstretched hand is a symbol of authority, an iconic exercise of power.  This is doubly so when the king is standing in front of a religious site, as Jeroboam was.  But when power is not exercised in accordance with God’s intentions for it, which is to say when power is not exercised on behalf of the good of the people leaders are called to serve, that power will inevitably turn back on the wielder.  The hand of Jeroboam withers. 
Good kings in the bible are not afraid of the truth; they are faithful shepherds like David (1 Sam. 16:11-13, for example).  Solomon, Rehoboam, Jeroboam—they were not shepherds.
I intend no allegory in narrating this bit of scripture on election week.  Neither President Trump nor Joe Biden nor any other candidate up for election can be mapped simply onto any one of these characters.  But the narrative of Israel’s sundering is instructive for us.  The questions it asks are our own
Is the United States one country or two?  Will we continue to perpetuate the lie that it is possible, or even desirable, to isolate a leader’s stated policies from his or her demonstrated character (and vise versa)?  Are we willing to follow the people we elect into the shrine of a golden calf, or will we continue to make our pilgrimage to Jerusalem?  And perhaps most distressing of all: would we actually prefer to defend ourselves—rhetorically or literally—against our ideological enemies rather than repent of our own sins and undertake the fitful, messy work of creating a more flourishing society?
There is a reason that Jesus instructs his followers to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).  Salt preserves what is good from spoiling.  Light from a city on a hill is a guide to others and a bright, visible statement of hospitality in the midst of darkness.  Without salt, a society’s virtues spoil over time.  Israel devolves from the shepherd’s rule of King David[3] to the wise but vainglorious Solomon, to the ego and cowardice of Rehoboam and Jeroboam.  Wherever we are on this spectrum as a country, it’s clear we need more shepherds and more salt.  We need fewer royal hands withering with vainglory, ego, and cowardice. 
We also need more light, but frankly it’s not clear that the United States deserves to be called a city on a hill right now, despite our self-image.  Or perhaps it is fairer to say that what light God has entrusted to us has been dimmed under our stewardship in recent decades.  If light is about hospitality and guidance, maybe God is illuminating for us questions about whether we are actually hospitable.  Are we guided by something higher than ourselves and the strongmen onto whom we project our shadows writ large?  If not, then what hill are we standing on?
As I am writing this, we have no idea how the Electoral College is going to go.  Who knows where it’ll be when you read this.  I am no more neutral about the election than you are.  Following Jesus has never invited neutrality, and I trust you feel the same.  However you voted, I hope your choices were informed by the faith we share. 
Our shared temptation in all this, however, is to ascribe too much significance to the decision we’re trying to make as a country, to think that once somebody gets to 270 electoral votes we will have rendered some final moral verdict. 
We will have done no such thing.  Remember 1 Kings: a society moves through sickness and health over generations.  Any one leader may reflect that sickness or health back to us, and he or she has a measure of power to improve or worsen it.  This is doubly true for us who elect our leaders every few years instead of watching kings and their descendants ascend to the throne indefinitely.  We therefore have no Rehoboam or Jeroboam at whose feet we can easily lay America’s ills or successes.  Our leaders’ sins are always ours, at least in part.  As are their virtues.  We are, in a word, responsible.  
We are responsible for our neighbor’s suffering, and we share in her flourishing.  We are responsible for the example set by the public figures our children and grandchildren grow up seeing on television; it is never inevitable that they come to influence.  We are responsible for the fact that so many of our fellow citizens feel that their country cares so little about them, and that their votes are so meaningless, that Kanye West received over 3,600 votes in Idaho and over 10,000 in Tennessee.  I find it hard to believe there were thousands of Americans who honestly felt Yeezy 2020 was a compelling ticket.
We are responsible.  Americans don’t like to talk about responsibility; we prefer to talk about freedom.  We like to fly the flag of I’m gonna do what I want, and so long as we use the word “rights,” we call it good.  But this is not how Christians understand freedom.  
One of the very first things God says of humanity is that it is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18).   By definition, then, our flourishing is a flourishing-in-community.  The ethic of I’m gonna do what I want might work well in a world where human existence was intrinsically solitary.  That would certainly be a world in which we would want our leaders to model that behavior for us.  But whatever else we could say about that world, it simply isn’t the one God made.  I can therefore only assume a do what I want attitude in a world made not by God, but by me.  To supplant God as world-maker in this way, either explicitly or functionally, is idolatrous.  It’s also exhausting.  Creating and sustaining a world is work only God can do.
What if Christians in the United States repented of our vapid rhetoric about freedom and chose instead a substantial rhetoric of responsibility—God-willing, even of care?  What if we led a cultural shift that rejected condescension, disdain, cruelty, and the raw assertion of self in favor of the Christian values of peace, care for the weak, careful attention to the good of the whole, and playfulness?   What if Christians in the United States were salt and light within our own borders?  Would this not be truer freedom? 
I believe that it would, and in the short-term, this truer freedom would give us rest.  We are exhausted with voting against someone, with having our attentions fought for and piqued on social media, of having our emotions leveraged.  We are weary with being told again and again that we are fighting for the soul of our country, as if this were a game of capture-the-flag with the soul of America suspended in the middle.  A soul is not something possessed, but who and what one is at the most essential level.  The soul of the United States is therefore not the possession of one group at the expense of another.  Instead, the soul of the United States is whatever we most essentially are together.
Right now, it seems to me that the soul of America is pretty damn tired.  The good news is that the way of salt and light is the way of rest.
Salt and light do what they do by their very nature; there is no great effort involved.  Salt simply is salty; it preserves naturally.  Light simply is the act of shining; it illuminates and guides naturally.  There is a restfulness about doing what is proper to one’s nature.  It allows for wholeheartedness without anxiety.  Think of the fearful, angry energy Rehoboam and Jeroboam expend—there is no rest there.  Is anyone really free who cannot rest?
Your nature is the image of God.  Your nature is fundamentally ordered towards the benefit of your neighbor and delight in her sheer otherness.  This is love, your saltiness and your shining.  It is also rest for those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, as I imagine many of you are.
God’s Peace,
[1] This narrative arc is (roughly) in 1 Kings 9-13.  All citations in this article are from 1 Kings unless otherwise noted.
[2] R’s kingdom = the south, contains the city of Jerusalem, usually called “Judah.”  R’s kingdom includes the tribe of Judah and likely Benjamin.  J’s kingdom = the north, contains the cities of Bethel and Dan and Shiloh, usually called “Ephraim” or “Israel.”  J’s kingdom includes the other ten tribes.  Both kingdoms are full of God’s people.
[3] It is a mistake to overly idealize King David, who was also a notorious sinner.  Still, in the corporate imagination of the scriptural narrative, his example of fidelity to God is the rule by which other kings are judged.

Communion this Sunday: What You Need to Know

This Sunday is the Feast of All Saints, the 34th Sunday of Coronatide, and our first celebration of Holy Eucharist since March 8.  Woohoo! 
Today, just the facts:
*Worship @ 10am on the front lawn.  Masks and social distancing are required at all times.  Bulletins will be available via email, as per usual. 
*You may participate in-person, participate from inside your own vehicle, or participate via live stream at home.  If you plan to sit on the lawn, park in the main lot so Tilley Lane spaces are available for folks who prefer to remain in cars.
*If you plan to participate via live stream from home and would like to receive communion, consecrated communion bread will be available for you to pick up at the church from 9am-noon this Saturday, Oct 31st and from 8:15am-9:30am this Sunday, Nov 1.   Come pick it up, save it for online worship, and then simply break and eat it at the appropriate time during the live streamed service.
*If you are unable to drive and need consecrated bread brought to your home between now and Sunday, email me ASAP at danielstelizabeth@gmail.com   We are 100% committed to going out of our way to make sure everyone who desires can receive communion.
*If you are present in-person, communion will be distributed at the appropriate time to households wherever you are seated on the lawn or in your cars.  We will not line up.  We’ll do this ‘feeding of the five thousand style’ and we’ll come to you.  Each household’s bread will be individually sealed.  I will touch the basket containing the envelopes during the Eucharistic Prayer and a thoroughly hand-washed minister will distribute the envelopes, but only you will physically touch your communion bread.
*We will receive communion in one kind only (bread).  We will have a ritual amount of wine for use at the altar but will not share the cup.  Folks in-person are welcome to cross their arms over their chest and receive a (distanced) blessing.
*If weather is bad (really cold, rainy, etc.) we’ll live stream but will punt the in-person gathering.  Weather updates go out via text.  Text STLIZ to 71441 to make sure you’re in the loop.
*You are welcome to bring a cross decorated in honor of a loved one.  After worship, each household who desires will have an opportunity to lay their cross at the high altar in our sanctuary.  Households will go one at a time; Wanda will be playing music; and this will take as long as it takes.  If you’d like to decorate a new cross, they are available on the church porch.
Whew!  Lots of details, but I look forward to our All Saints celebration on Sunday.
God’s Peace,

An Update on Worship for November

For the month of November, we will continue to live stream our worship services each Sunday morning at 10am.  Additionally, we will have outdoor, in-person worship services at 10am on the following Sundays:
                        November 1 (Feast of All Saints)
                        November 15 (Stewardship in-gathering)
                        November 29 (Advent 1)
We plan to celebrate Holy Eucharist on these Sundays and are committed to going above and beyond to ensure that everyone, at home and in-person, is able to participate as fully as possible.  The Sundays of November 8 and 22 will be Morning Prayer (what we’ve been doing), which is more fitting for an online-only format.
A letter went out this week with more info on what our focused financial stewardship season will be like this fall, and more info on the Feast of All Saints on Nov 1 is in this article below.  For now, I want to remind us of why we’re proceeding with worship as we are.  (If you’re not concerned about that, just scroll down to the All Saints details!)
My primary concern has been and continues to be the holistic well-being of our congregation.  Unfortunately, in a pandemic, this involves attending extra carefully to our physical safety.  It remains the case that the coronavirus is dangerous; it remains the case that we can be harmful to each other by way of transmission; it remains the case that wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and keeping church outside as much as possible are best practices to keep us physically safe.  Our bodies are sacred, made in God’s image, and I intend for us to continue treating them with the care they deserve.
It is also true that we are not only our physical bodies.  Our hearts and minds need care, too.  Each of us is more than a potential transmitter of a virus.  To this end we continue to make worship available online and to provide opportunities for prayer, fellowship, and the reading of scripture via Zoom (as admittedly unsatisfying as that platform can be).  I’m also trying to write things that are timely and interesting in these newsletters.
We have also begun gathering for in-person services outside.  While it was hot out, we gathered early.  But this past Sunday God gave us some beautiful weather, and we gathered at a more reasonable time.  Because this outdoor, in-person service went so well, your Bishop’s Committee and I have decided we should gather outdoors more often than we have been doing.  Thus, our every other week schedule in November.  Fall tends to be pleasant around here, so let’s enjoy it.  (Again, weather updates are best communicated via text.  Tet STLIZ to 71441 to subscribe!)  The two-week window also gives us plenty of time to make adjustments to worship and technology, as well as giving a healthy buffer in regards to the potential need for contact tracing.
There were 50-55 people physically present this past Sunday, most in the open air but some in cars.  Some of those folks would’ve shown up regardless of how we were gathering.  But others were there precisely because we were outside rather than inside, or because they were able to remain in their cars, or because they’re able to trust that their brothers and sisters in Christ will respect their need for bodily space and our collective need to wear masks.  During a time as anxious as this, these precautious, as onerous as they feel to some of us, are not only ways of maintaining physical safety, but are also ways of caring for each other’s hearts and minds.  There is no ‘zero risk’ option right now, and some of us are more vulnerable than others.  We need to be safe and also feel safe.  Being outside and distant and masked greatly address all these.  Additionally, it is not possible to get that many people safely inside our worship space right now.  Outside just addresses a lot of concerns.
Many of you may be wondering what we’ll do in December, or when it gets cold.  The honest answer is that we don’t know yet.  We are trying to take the steps that we can, when we can.  We will revisit this at our next BC meeting on Monday, November 23 at 7pm via Zoom.
Something I have learned from my colleagues across the diocese is that the single hardest thing churches have experienced collectively is reopening and then having to close down again, which was a painfully common experience this summer.  Your leadership and I intend to spare us that if we can.  Rather than trying to take one major step forward which we may have to un-take, it has seemed wise to me and to your Bishop’s Committee to take incremental steps in a homeward direction.  This remains the case. 
If you would like to talk more, either with me or with members of your BC, please don’t hesitate to reach out.  Thank you for your continued flexibility and patience, with each other and with me, as we navigate the wilderness.  Now, on to All Saints.
Info for All Saints, Nov 1:
A lot of details here, so bear with me.
Communion: While we will have a ritual amount of wine for use on the altar, we will receive communion in one kind only: bread.  We’ll be observing extra precautions for on-site persons.  Folks on-site may receive communion without leaving their cars.  Folks on-site may also elect not to receive, as would be an option on a regular Sunday. 
If you plan to participate via live stream at home, there are two options: you are welcome simply to watch and listen to the service without receiving bread.  A second option is for you to come to the church beforehand to pick up consecrated communion bread.  This way you will have it ready to break and eat at the appropriate time as you watch the live stream.
If you plan to participate from home, consecrated communion bread will be available for you to pick up at the church from 9am-noon on Saturday, Oct 31 or from 8:15am-9:30am on Sunday, Nov 1. 
If you are unable to drive and need communion bread brought to you beforehand so that you can participate, please email me at danielstelizabeth@gmail.com and I will arrange for someone to bring you bread in the days before.
It is not considered a sacrament of the Church, and is not permitted by our Bishop as a means of participation in worship, for you to substitute unconsecrated bread from home and simply eat it during communion.
All Saints Crosses: It is our custom on All Saints to celebrate the wider communion of saints, including our deceased loved ones, by decorating a cross in their honor and presenting it before the high altar  We will do that again this year, albeit a bit differently.
After worship on Sunday, November 1, each household who desires will be able to enter the sanctuary and place a cross before the altar.  We will wear masks, and households will enter one at a time for a few moments of prayer together.  The altar will be set for All Saints, with fresh flowers, candles, and Wanda’s music playing in the background.  We’ll have ushers helping to direct traffic.  This will take as long as it needs to take.
Many of you have made crosses in honor of loved ones in years past.  You are welcome to bring one of those with you on November 1.  If you would like to make a new one, crosses are available in a basket on the church porch.  Decorate it however you wish and include your loved one’s name. 
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Details for In Person Worship October 18

Outdoor, in-person worship at 10am in the front yard of the church.  Masks and social distancing are required.  (As a reminder: social distancing is 6 feet between households, not 6 inches you rascals.)  You are welcome to sit on the lawn or remain in your cars to listen via radio.  If you sit on the lawn, please park in the main lot so that spots on Tilley nearest the main church are available for those who prefer to remain in cars.  We're also going to try allowing cars to pull onto one section of the grass.  Ushers will help you find seats.  We will be live streaming this service...so please feel free to make a sign or something to say hello to someone you know will be watching at home!

Our Next Adult Formation Class

Our next midweek adult formation class will begin this Tuesday at 7pm via Zoom.  We’ll gather every Tuesday evening through November (with the exception of Oct 20). 
Like the Romans study we just completed, this class will focus on scripture.  However, unlike the Romans class, this one will be reflective rather than academic, and our primary concern won’t be questions like, “What did Paul mean in his historical context?”  Instead, our primary concern will be, “How is my life like this?  What might God be saying to me?” 
In other words, if our Romans study was a bit like learning the recipe for how a particular kind of bread gets made, this class will just be about eating the bread.
Each class will begin with prayer and a story from the bible.  We’ll read it slowly, multiple times.  I’ll guide us through some reflection questions on the story, and then there will be an opportunity for everyone to share briefly from their own life experience.   Sharing is not required: all may, some should, but none must.
Each week will focus on a different passage, so each class will be able to stand on its own.  If you miss one week, you can come next week and will not have missed any content that you need to know.  This is all about bread for the journey.
I recommend having an NRSV bible handy, but any translation you like will be fine.  If you journal, having that handy might be helpful, too.  Because this class is reflective in nature, being on time will be important.  Our end time will likely vary a bit depending on the number of participants and who decides to share, but I think an hour or so should do it.
I look forward to our time together.  Find the Zoom link in the weekly e-mail.
God’s Peace,

A Pastoral Letter to Law Enforcement Officers

I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, which means that like you, I wear a uniform.  Mine is a black shirt with a little white tab in it.  Pretty simple, really.  No badge, no belt with lots of equipment, no car with sirens and lights.  But I do know a little of what it’s like to wear a uniform.  I, too, am a walking symbol.
Like you, my day can change with a single phone call.  A morning spent handling mostly inconsequential matters can, without warning, turn into an afternoon in which I lay my hands on a dead or dying person, and then talk to their loved ones.   I have been asked to help when a homeless man shouts angrily at a nurse, or at the manager of a gas station, or at a person I am unable to see.  I am someone people give their anxiety to when they are not sure what to do with it.
I know that you are, too.
Sometimes I have to make a conscious decision to put my own feelings aside in order to be calm, confident, and helpful in the midst of whatever situation I’m in.  It can feel like my own humanity recedes into the background a little so that I can be something somebody else needs me to be.  I bet you know what that feels like.  People always need the uniform you’re wearing, but they don’t always want there to be a you there wearing it.
Like you, my uniform makes me privy to stories and other kinds of information not everyone hears.  Some resonate with me.  Some touch my heart.  Some are frankly hilarious.  Some I hope to forget.    
People thank me for things I haven’t done.  Once a college student bought my lunch for no reason, and then shook my hand and thanked me for my work.  She was almost teary, but I’d never met her before.  This cuts the other way, too, though.  A drunk guy once chewed me out for half an hour because, apparently, I hate gay people.  I had never met him.
That last bit is about the worst that’s happened to me because of my uniform, though.  I know it’s different to wear yours.  I’ve never had to worry someone might shoot me while I’m sitting in my car drinking coffee.  People dressed like me don’t get targeted like that.  Not in the United States, anyway.  There are limits to the similarities here.
Still, it’s hard to be a symbol.  Our uniforms, in their different ways, signify something that is impossible for us to be fully.  We represent what is more trustworthy and reliable than we ourselves are.  Our presence gestures to something that is powerful and that is worthy and that is not exactly us, even on our best days.
Or that’s the hope, at least.  Symbols gather to them potencies and significations we’d rather not carry.  Even ones we deliberately reject.  Control, oppression, the raw will to power.
On the best of days, I get high fives from kids because uniforms can be very interesting to children.  Their parents smile when a high five happens because this affirms that their children are growing up in a world whose foundations are secure, a world that is safe and where people with power—people like us—want what is best for them.  Uniforms like the ones you and I wear both represent and help create that security.  We walk around communicating, “The center will hold, the center will hold, the center will hold.” 
Again, that’s the hope.  On the best days, that’s how it is.
I know that there have not been many days like that for you in recent months.  George Floyd died in police custody—a man whose death was mourned and condemned by quite literally every police officer I know—and since that happened, you have tried to do your jobs in towns and cities that do not seem to want you in them anymore.  The very people whose security you have sworn to ensure, the very people whose center you are trying to hold—they are protesting you, and they are doing it as you are trying to protect their very ability to protest.
Some of you likely feel betrayed.  Some may be haunted by the question of whether or to what extent the protestors are right.  This is all very bitter.
One of the worst parts of being a symbol is that sometimes it seems like our job is to be the object of someone else’s anger.  Symbols give people a location to put their passions, a black box into which their anger can go.  This is why people burn flags.  It’s why angry citizens scream into your faces.  It is, in a different way, the reason people tell me their sins and their sufferings.  People need a way to engage with whatever it is we represent.  So we suit up.
I imagine the angry citizens in the streets right now don’t really want to hear how you feel about any of this.  You’re the uniform, after all.  Just the face of that thing they need to make sure hears them.  You don’t get to say what’s on your mind.  You are not equals.  One of you must always act in the other’s best interest, and that is oftentimes a one-way street.
But take it from one who knows: you are not your uniform.  Your uniform is not made in God’s image; you are.  God did not send His only begotten Son into the world because He loved your uniform, but because He loves you.  The Word did not become a police uniform or a priest’s black shirt and tab or a nurse’s scrubs or fatigues or any other suit; the Word became human flesh and dwelt among us.  Like you and like me, this Word has a name and not just an official capacity.  His name is Jesus of Nazareth.
When God looks at you, he does not ask you to recede into the background so that the symbol you have taken on can fulfill a role.  When God looks at you, he does not ask that you set aside your own feelings or your own anxiety so that you can be calm and confident and in control.  God knows that sometimes you keep your uniform on even when you’ve taken the literal one off because it makes you feel calm and confident and in control, too.  God knows that choosing this job costs you.
God knows that you are not the source of security upon which the world stands.  God is the one who made the earth so sure that it cannot be moved.  The center holds because of Him.  At the end of the day, He doesn’t need you to handle this.
There is grace here, and there is freedom.  There is a crowd of angry people screaming at you, yes, but there is a face among them in which there is no hatred.  There is a face among them who knows that you are actually hurting right now.
It is the face of Jesus, and in it there is love and peace and forgiveness, even of sins we are unable to name.  This is the face of a man who knows what it is like to be George Floyd and who knows what it is like to be where you are now—that is, scorned by people who’ve never actually bothered to speak to you.  He, too, has prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I don’t know what specifically needs to happen in the cities of our country.  I do know, however, a little of what God’s kingdom is like.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I know a little of what the road to it is like.  In my experience, it boils down to three things.  One is to repent of what is mine to repent of and to amend my life accordingly.  Another is to love actively and speak truthfully within the communities of which I am a part.  And a third is to pray. 
That last one covers a lot of ground.  Sometimes it’s a lot of prayer in the usual sense: “Almighty God…” and “Lord Jesus…” and “Our Father….”  Sometimes I let the psalms do the talking, or just reach into my memory for something from the Book of Common Prayer.  Sometimes I just weep.  Or just listen.  Or just say I’m sorry.  Sometimes I feel like cussing, so I talk to St. Elizabeth instead and ask her to sort it out with God on my behalf.  (As our congregation’s patron, she is sort of like my big sister.  I call her Liz.  This arrangement works for us.)  I recommend all of these.
I wish I had more to offer.  All I really want you to hear is that I know that you do your job because you believe it is good and necessary that you do it.  I know, too, that who you are as God’s child and who you are when you’re in uniform are neither entirely the same person nor entirely different people.  Finally, I know that for a lot of you your uniform feels like the cross you’ve been nailed to all summer.
As you struggle with all this, remember that the experience of the cross is where real power is.  The crucifixions we experience do not have to end in bitterness, with our willfully holding closed the doors of the tomb.  By the power of God they can and do lead to resurrection.  New life, new hope, new freedom.  But the dying always comes first.  We are buried with Christ so that we might be raised with Him.  This is not how the world is supposed to work, but it is the world we have made.  On Good Friday, God, in the severest of mercies, revealed to us just how broken of a place this is.
Thankfully, in His freedom, God responds to the crucifixions we inflict on each other today in the same way He did on the first Easter: by raising us from the grave, by appearing miraculously with us inside all of our locked and fearful doors, by turning wounds we have both suffered and inflicted into the scars of a living and abiding testimony to His love.  This is how we are remade into more perfect images of Him.  And slowly, slowly, this is how God remakes the world into a place where crucifixions no longer happen to anyone.  God is relentless in this.
I look forward to the Last Great Day when jobs like yours and jobs like mine are no longer necessary.  When that Day comes, I think it will be nice to change clothes for good.  To leave our uniforms hanging in the closet at the end of the age.
Until then, I am grateful that you continue to suit up.  I continue to suit up for you, too. 
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

What’s Next for Worship

Our next in-person, outdoor services will be the Sundays of October 18th and November 1st (the Feast of All Saints).  I promise that neither of these outdoor, in-person services will be at 7:30am!  As per usual, masks and social distancing are required.  In the meantime, we will continue to live stream services at 10am every Sunday, including those just mentioned. 
Final details will be communicated in coming weeks, but below is an outline of what we hope to do—and I say hope not only because things can change with the pandemic (or weather), but also because these ideas present new issues for us to solve.  Having named those caveats, here’s what we hope to try:
Sunday, October 18th:  An outdoor, in-person Morning Prayer service at 10am in the front porch and yard area of the main church building.  Not only does this bring us physically closer to our actual worship space, but the easier, stronger internet access allows us to live stream the outdoor service itself.  Thus, folks physically present and folks at home could participate together.  Plus, it’ll be nice for live streamers to see everyone’s faces.  (Or at least the top halves of everyone’s faces!)  This would also let us try this venue out before the more involved All Saints service on Nov 1. (See below.)
While this adds much to our current worship experience, it does present three new challenges: first is sound, since being outside adds a lot of ambient noise to microphones.  We’ve started troubleshooting this already.  Second is the potentially increased distance between the visual focal point of worship and folks sitting in their cars and listening via radio.  We may make it possible for folks to park on the grass, or move the visual vocal point a good ways down the main sidewalk to be closer to cars parked on Tilley.  Finally, whereas the Mission Hall has a sizable porch, there’s no real back-up rain plan at the main building.  If the weather is bad that morning, we’ll just have to call it off for that Sunday.  Reminder: if you don’t get our text messages, text “STLIZ” to 71441.  It’s the best way for us to communicate last second weather updates.
Sunday, November 1st, Feast of All Saints:  An outdoor, in-person service of Holy Eucharist at 10am in the front porch and yard area of the main church building, which we will also live stream.  This is dependent upon our successfully navigating the ‘front porch’ challenges above.  The basic communion idea is this: each household who desires, both those physically present and those at home, will receive a consecrated priest host (one of the big wafers) and will break that into as many pieces as is needed.  We will have a ritual amount of wine for use on the altar but will not share the cup.  Since Christ is not divided, all the benefits of communion are received even when we take only bread and not the wine.
For folks who plan to participate online from home, consecrated communion bread will be made available ahead of time to pick-up within a designated timeframe.  (For those who cannot drive, we will deliver.)  Home-participants will watch the live stream, and when it’s time to break and consume the bread, they will do so at home. 
For folks who are physically present, each household will receive enough bread to share wherever they are seated, on the lawn or in cars.  We’re still working out the details of distribution, but there will not be a communion line.  We’ll remain spread out in cars and on the lawn.  I will observe additional precautions—hand sanitizer, covering the bread, etc.—for altar work and distribution.  And just as we would on a regular Sunday, if your household prefers not to receive, just cross your arms over your chest for a (distanced) blessing.  Finally, we are still discerning appropriate ways to celebrate and mark the Feast of All Saints as a principal feast of the Church year.  Stay tuned.
Again, all of the above is contingent upon a number of factors.  But I am hopeful and confident that God will continue to lead us through this wilderness time, sustaining us with His daily bread.  Even if the front porch venue proves untenable, we will still hold outdoor, in-person services on Oct 18 and Nov 1.
For my part, my primary concern continues to be the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of our congregation.  It seems to me that slowly, steadily adding in-person worship opportunities honors the realities of pandemic risk with which we still live, while also honoring our spiritual and emotional needs to gather, which so many of us feel keenly. 
I still remember the exhaustion of the spring and early summer, when again and again we got our hopes up for a potential end to precautions only to have those hopes dashed.  To the extent that I am able, I intend to prevent our experiencing that kind of disappointment.  Thus, adding responsible, outdoor opportunities to gather as ‘special occasions’ to what is otherwise a default practice of remaining distant seems to me to be more sustainable than prematurely trying to return to weekly in-person worship, given the unpredictable realities with which we live.  Lastly, many of our congregants continue to feel uncomfortable gathering in person, and I am wary of moving us too far, too quickly without all of us.
I remain grateful for your flexibility, your prayers, and your mutual love and support of each other as we continue the long sojourn of Coronatide.  If you have concerns or questions about any of the foregoing, I welcome the opportunity to talk more.
God’s Peace,

VIII. The Privilege of Minimizing: Final Thoughts on Romans

A theme we return to again and again in our bible study is how Paul tries to generate unity amidst division in the Roman church.  The divisions are several: Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians most of all, but also slaves and freed persons, women and men, those with material resources and those without.  One of the ways Paul tries to help the Romans move towards unity in the Lord is by minimizing the extent to which their minor differences really matter.  This past Sunday’s passage (14:1-12), and our last lectionary week in Romans, was one such instance.
Two specific issues are food and calendar: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables,” Paul says, and “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike” (14:2 and 5).  The issue around food has to do with Torah observance, specifically maintaining a kosher diet which prohibited certain kinds of meat that were readily available in Rome.  (See this footnote for details if interested.[1])  The calendar issue is a little less clear, but may have a similar root in Jewish/Gentile cultures.  Some folks attributed extra importance to certain dates on the calendar, marking them with extra devotions, and others did not observe these rituals.
In both instances, Paul effectively says that these differences are minor.  Therefore, he is able to say, “Let everyone be fully convinced in their own minds,” and whatever you do, do so “in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God” (14:5b and 6b).  Paul accepts that vegetarianism may be a legitimate expression of one’s religious devotion, and forbids despising those who abstain from meat (14:3).  Likewise, those who abstain are to refrain from passing judgment on those who do eat meat (14:3).  He has similar instructions for calendar questions.  Don’t quarrel over matters of opinion, he says (14:1).  Observe special devotions on this day or not, eat meat or not, but whatever you do, do it in “honor of the Lord” (14:6).
All of this is essentially minor in Paul’s mind and, while the calendar and food issues can lead to real pastoral problems, and these in turn might require a change in behavior (14:15), in and of themselves the food and calendar debates are insubstantial for Paul’s context.  But these minor issues should not be confused with ones of substance. 
Romans, especially in later chapters, is packed with practical and ethical instructions of real weight: use your gifts for the whole community (12:4-8); show honor to everybody, especially the lowly (12:10 and 12:16); show hospitality to strangers and to traveling missionaries (12:13); bless those who persecute you (12:14); do not repay anyone evil for evil (12:17); live peaceably with all so long as it remains in your power to do so (12:18); do no wrong to your neighbor, for love fulfills the law (13:10).  These, it would seem, are not up for grabs. Refusing to honor the lowly, we might say, is mutually exclusive with honoring the Lord.  We don’t get to be convinced in our own mind one way or another.
Part of the Romans’ problem, then, is confusing minor things with major ones.  This is part of Christian discernment in our own day, too: discerning what is minor from what is substantial.  For me, this is part of what has made 2020 so hard: everything feels substantial.  The pandemic, race, riots, natural disasters, what to do for Thanksgiving.  Everything feels heavy.  Very little feels like the essentially minor food and calendar issues Paul describes.
One of my big takeaways from diving deep into Romans this year is how different my own context is from Paul’s.  One example is this distinction between minor issues and substantial ones.  For the Roman Church, a minor issue had unnecessarily grown to become a serious problem, even though they had more important things to worry about.  For our own context this summer, I think the reverse is frequently true.  We have so many substantial issues front and center right now that we begin to normalize them as a way of coping, which is to say we slowly begin to make them minor issues so they can fade into the background.  This is how we cope.  What else could we do?
But the fact remains that we are slowly getting accustomed to much that is urgent.  On the one hand, our ability to adapt and to carry on is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.  On the other hand, this is evidence that for many of us who might be reading this, issues like riots, race, changes to police budgets, and climate change simply do not touch us directly.  This is not true for all of us, and I hope we continue to remember that.  To put it another way: the pandemic is never real until it’s real for me.
I recently read something from a priest colleague elsewhere in the Church who was grieving all the divisions we have right now, in our country and in our different churches.  Political ideologies, wearing masks vs. not wearing masks, the examples abound.  At one point he tried to illustrate the madness of it all by recalling a story from years ago about a three-hour church meeting that was one big fight about what color to paint the walls of the parish hall.  He said the Lord moves us beyond all this, beyond “petty differences.”
I nodded appreciatively as I read, but as the day went on something wasn’t sitting right with me.  I realized that he—and I—had fallen into the trap of confusing what is minor with what is substantial: to liken the proliferation of violent political ideologies or disregard for precautions designed to safeguard public health with something like an argument over what color to paint a wall is absurd.  “Petty differences” are about eggshell or tope, but this—all of this—is not that.  That comparison can only be made from the top of an absolute mountain of privilege.  To make minor what is substantial is not something everyone can afford to do.  People’s lives and livelihoods are changing. 
Like you, I have struggled with how to carry all this heaviness without my usual supports. I’ve resorted to fits of denial, fits of work, fits of consuming too much news, fits of pathological commitment to Netflix, fits of being emotionally invested in the DuoLingo leaderboard. 
What has sustained me more than anything else, though, is a piece from Romans.  Romans 8:11-17, in particular.  In it Paul reminds us that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is among us, and that this Spirit adopts us as God’s children.  That raising-from-the-dead Spirit is ours now.  This Spirit cries to God, “Abba, Father” just as Jesus does (Mark14:36). 
But this is how that Romans passage ends:
It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
That short phrase if, in fact, we suffer with him changes so much.  I frankly hate that if.  I want to be adopted; I want to be an heir; I want to be glorified; I want the Spirit—but I don’t want the suffering, not for me or anyone else.  Not the way 2020 is offering it, anyway.  I don’t want the isolation. I don’t want the long uninterrupted silences or the claustrophobia.  I don’t want people I deeply care about to struggle as they are.  I don’t want the systemic trauma.  I don’t want the continued absence of regular Sunday mornings.  I don’t want your loved ones to go un-mourned and un-celebrated by proper funerals.  I don’t want your kids to have to glue themselves to a screen to see their friends and to hear about Jesus.  Or to hear about long division, for that matter.  We all have these litanies.
But here we are, taking risks with seemingly everything we do.  Will today be a day when it’s all just too much, or will today be a day when, well, it’s just not as bad as all that?  And which is the truth?
Abba, Father, let this cup pass from us, but thy will be done.  If, in fact, we suffer with him. 
If, in fact.
Maybe this is the road to glory after all.
God’s Peace,
[1] This would have meant refraining not only from pork, but from any meat that had been part of a sacrifice to an idol.  In a big, pagan city like Rome, this meant many kosher-observant folks simply became vegetarians.  It’s important that we keep that term “kosher-observant” as our designator, and not simply “Jews.”  It’s possible, and perhaps likely, that the kosher group of Christians in Rome were not only Jews.     While there was no formal process by which ancient Gentiles might convert to Judaism, there were Gentiles who, for whatever reason, had attached themselves to the religious life of Israel.  (See, for example, the Jewish-friendly centurion in Luke 7:1-10.)  These Gentiles were called “God-fearers,” and many of them may have kept a kosher diet as part of their religious piety.  Likewise, not all the meat-eaters in the Roman church would’ve been Gentiles.  It’s possible that some Jews—particularly if they were materially insecure—may have ceased being kosher after joining the Church and sought out the added nutrition of what meat was available.  We don’t know for sure.

Reminders for September

Sunshine Mail:  If we want to send one letter to every resident of the assistant living facilities we’re supporting in Buda, we’d need 65 letters.  As of this writing, we have 12.  Team, we can do better than this.  Details for Sunshine Mail can be found here.  Just drop them in the mailbox on the church porch by Sunday!
Godly Play:  Godly Play starts this Sunday at 9am!  At the bottom of this newsletter, you’ll find a special Godly Play section.  In it you’ll find Zoom info for Sunday, a PDF of a Godly Play church calendar, Godly Play dates for the fall, and other info.  If you have any questions about Godly Play, please reach out to Ruth Anne Bloor at thebloors@gmail.com or (303) 803-4382.
Backpack Blessing:  This Sunday, September 13!  We’ll pray over backpacks, devices, brief cases, badges, and any other school or work items.  We will do this over Zoom so as to include everyone.  Also, after worship, from 11am-11:45am, we’ll have a ‘drive through’ backpack blessing where we’ll hand out stickers and keychains as our tangible reminders of God’s presence as we start a new school year.
Outdoor, In-Person Worship:  Next Sunday, September 20th at 7:30am!  All the “where, when, what to bring, etc.” details from our last outdoor can be found at this link.  Those details are the same as last time, with three exceptions:
*I’ll be preaching Exodus 16:2-15.
*As for numbers to expect, last time we had +/- 35 folks.
*Bring a rock from home.  You can do one per household, or one per person.  Our service will include a chance to add yours to a small cairn we’ll make to mark the day.
Bishop’s Committee:  Our next Bishop’s Committee meeting is Monday, September 21 at 8pm.  The BC is meeting over Zoom right now.  BC meetings are open to the congregation.  If you’d like to attend, email me (danielstelizabeth@gmail.com) and I will include you on the Zoom link.
God’s Peace,

VII. Bearing the Sword in Romans 13: What It Can and Can’t Tell Us

This week’s Sunday lectionary will give us most of Romans 13 but will omit what are some of the most hotly debated verses in the New Testament, Romans 13:1-7.[1]  These verses contain Paul’s injunctions to “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God;” the governing authority “does not bear the sword in vain” because it is ordained by “God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:1 and 4).  This passage raises a number of topics for potential reflection and has been deployed in support of a variety of issues.  Today, however, I will pursue the more modest goal of showing one way this text cannot be used, i.e. to support capital punishment,[2] while also offering some context which will complicate any straightforward application of Romans 13:1-7 to our own volatile political climate. 
Paul makes strong claims in this passage: be subject to the governing authorities because they are instituted by God; the authorities are threatening to bad conduct, not to good conduct; and most important for us, “The authority does not bear the sword in vain,” executing “wrath on the wrongdoer.”  This talk about “swords” is not only symbolic.  In Paul’s day, swords were a fairly common piece of equipment used by civil guards and soldiers in a way analogous to the use of guns by police and soldiers in our own day.  And just as nowadays we have different words for different kinds of guns—sidearm, assault rifle, pistol, etc.—there were different words for different kinds of swords in Paul’s day.
In Romans 13, the word “sword” is makaira and in Greek it looks like this: μάχαιρα.  We might pronounce it “MAH-kai-ra.”  It was a short-sword, or maybe a dagger, worn on the belt and carried by a variety of guards: military police, civil guards, and most important, taxation enforcement officers.  This word is fairly common in the New Testament and, as far as swords go, seems to have been a common one.  For example, this is the kind of sword carried by Jesus’ follower who attacks the slave of the high priest; it is also the kind of sword carried by the crowd of folks who come to arrest Jesus (Mark14:47-48).
Given Paul’s context and the connection to the governing authorities, the sword Paul is talking about is the kind carried by a civil guard or taxation enforcement official.  It would be roughly equivalent to a police officer’s pistol in our own day.  Certainly it could exert lethal force, but this is not the lethal force of an execution pronounced as punishment for a crime. 
There was a different kind of sword used in an execution in the ancient Greco-Roman world, and it was connected not to soldiers and guards, but to magistrates who had the power to pronounce a death sentence.  The execution kind of sword is most likely a xiphos, which we might pronounce ZI-foss. (It looks like this in Greek: ξίφος.)  This word does not occur in the New Testament. [3]  Thus, it is unlikely that “the sword” in Romans 13 has anything to do with the death penalty.
So, when Paul says that the authority does not bear the sword in vain, he is talking about how governing authorities use force to keep the peace in the streets; he isn’t talking about a death sentence given as punishment for a crime.  In Paul’s own day, riots against Roman taxation were common, particularly amongst ancient Jews who had seen the worst of the Roman Empire.  Given that this passage includes injunctions to pay taxes to whom they are due (13:7), it may be that Paul is specifically encouraging the Roman Christians not to partake in violent anti-government tax riots.  If they do, Paul says, the tax enforcement authorities will show up with their makaira, and it’ll get ugly.  Paul is keeping his people safe.
There are numerous other reasons (practical, ethical, and theological) as to why capital punishment is a bad idea and inadmissible for Christians, but for the sake of staying with this particular text, we’ll save those for another day.  In what remains of this piece, we’ll take a fuller look at the language of “governing authorities” in Paul’s context and how it differs from our own.
When it comes to the relationship between Christianity and government, there are numerous and significant differences between Christians living in in Rome in the mid-50s CE and our own day.  This is so much the case that even if it were likely that the “sword” in this passage was the kind used for executions, it would not necessarily follow that Paul would condone capital punishment.  The main difference is this: it is beyond Paul’s imagination to think of a system of government that includes baptized Christians in high ranking public office, let alone a society like ours in which the overwhelming majority of public officials and citizens have been Christians (or influenced by Christianity) for generations.  For Paul, “Christians” and “governing authorities” are different groups of people.  For example, only a few verses before this, Paul enjoins the Church never to avenge themselves (12:19) and to bless those who persecute them (12:14).  This does not sound like a community he would encourage to “bear the sword” for any reason; bearing the sword is the kind of thing Roman tax enforcement officials do. 
There’s another context at work here, too: that of Paul’s other letters.  Despite the apparently favorable portrayal of authorities in Romans 13, Paul is no fan of the idolatrous pagan governments of his day.  This is obvious elsewhere in Romans itself.[4]  To Paul’s mind, an empire like Rome is a brute fact, a systematically sinful agent in a sinful world.  Thus, the rulers of his day are ignorant (1 Cor.2:6-8); at the end of days God will destroy them (1 Cor.15:24-26); and the “peace and security” proclaimed by Rome is a thin veneer over destruction (1 Thess. 5:3-11).  Thus, it is possible, and even likely, that Paul’s “be subject to the governing authorities” is not so much a full-throated endorsement of government’s use of force so much as it is a series of practical instructions designed to secure the survival of a vulnerable community (i.e. the Church). 
This last bit is important: Paul is a Christian writing to a vulnerable population of other Christians, and he’s writing as someone who has himself suffered at the hands of various non-Christian sword-bearing authorities.  He can appeal to his Roman audience on the basis of Christian love in witness to Jesus’ suffering on the cross: bless those who persecute you (12:14).  “Because this is our calling as Christians,” Paul says, “don’t get swept up into the anti-tax riots burning certain streets of Rome.”  It’s not that the anti-tax rioters are wrong about the injustice of Roman taxation; given Paul’s view of dominating pagan empires, he would agree that Roman taxation is unjust.  But for Paul Christian love goes beyond justice and does not include the violence erupting in Roman streets.  It does, however, include blessing those who persecute you.
In our own day, we’ve seen constant protests and nearly as constant rioting in American cities for months now, and this in turn has been in response to abusive sword-bearing of law enforcement (both in cases of actual abuse and those cases only perceived as such).  The turmoil in our cities has continued for so long now that for many, the issue of race is no longer at the forefront but has been replaced by concerns for public safety.  Regardless of whether this shift of focus is good, I think it is true.  So: what does Romans 13:1-7 have to say to us?  
I confess that I am just not sure, largely because of the magnitudes of contextual difference.  To recap: Paul’s injunctions to obedience are those of one Christian writing to other Christians, all of whom have suffered at the hands of sword-bearing authorities who are outside the Christian community.  But unlike Paul, many of us simply have not suffered and are not suffering, let alone at the hands of pagans who participate in a cult whose focus is the emperor.  Unlike Paul, for us, “Christians” and “governing authorities” are not separate categories of people.  Neither can we assume that “Christians” and “rioters” are distinct groups for that matter.  Furthermore, the notion of “peaceful protest” as we understand it, the right to which is actually protected by civil police like our own, would be a foreign concept to Paul.
Finally, and most difficult, the ancient world was one where governing authorities were almost always kings who ascended to power by way of inheritance or conquest or assassination.  These pagan kings with highly centralized power did not know God, but in Paul’s worldview God could nevertheless use them for His purposes.  This is the case with Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17) and the Persian King Cyrus (Isa. 45), for examples. 
But things are different in a democratic republic where governing authorities are elected and in which citizens hold a fundamental belief that government is “of the people by the people for the people.”[5]  Can we import Paul’s category of “governing authorities instituted by God” into our own context, and if so, how?  For Americans, would it be more consistent with Paul’s thinking to say that the governing authorities instituted by God are the folks currently in office in a given year, or would it be more consistent with Paul’s thinking to say that the governing authorities are “We the people: the citizenry who choose officials and to whom they are accountable?  The way we answer this question would seem to determine who it is who “does not bear the sword in vain.”  Either way, our answers are potentially troubling.
To put the matter differently: what would Paul have said to the colonial Christians who threw the Boston Tea Party?  Would he have said, “Bless those who persecute you and obey the governing authorities?”  Or would he observe that it is the people who are the real governing authorities in the modern West, and that these colonials are bearing the sword against wrongdoers as God intended?  What, if anything, does this example suggest about our own context?
The temptation is always to simplify: by making our own situation more like Paul’s than it really is, or by saying the myriad contextual differences render Paul’s thinking irrelevant.  We can do neither.  Roman Christians under Nero, Christian colonials under the thumb of Christian Britain, African-Americans under the historically racist policies of the United States: these are not identical situations, but neither are they unrelated.
For baptized people like us, what is constant is the call to Christian love.  The witness of a suffering, persecuted Christ on the cross is still our highest authority: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  I cannot say that I am a sufferer who blesses his persecutors, for I have none and am not really suffering anyway.  I also cannot say that I see myself as a persecutor, though I doubt the world’s persecutors ever see themselves as such.  But I do feel like someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.  That much, at least, is honest.
If that is true for you, too, then perhaps our next question is whether our ignorance of what to do is itself evidence of something.  Perhaps when we repent of simplifying and let go of our smallest angers, we realize that our present ignorance is just a symptom of love we’ve yet to realize. 
Maybe clarity comes after love and not before.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
[1] You may remember in June of 2018 when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions used these verses in his response to Christians who were expressing concern over US detainment practices with immigrants (especially kids) at our southern  border. I wrote a response in our weekly newsletter, including a second possibility of understanding Romans 13 in which Paul is being deliberately ironic.   While I still think this second, ironic reading is a legitimate possibility, I find it less convincing today when there is so much violence in our own cities.
[2] A recent book defending the death penalty has rekindled the debate, particularly in Roman Catholic circles.  See By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017).  Two of their most vocal detractors are theologians Paul Griffiths (himself a Roman Catholic) and David Bentley Hart.  See Hart’s criticism of the book here.  See also this rigorous response by Feser.  While I don’t find arguments in support of the death penalty at all convincing, Feser is right about some of the holes in Hart’s and Griffiths’ criticisms (and their condescending tones).  In what follows, I am indebted to Hart (cited above) for the analysis of what Paul means by “sword.”
[3] For an example of this word, Hart points to Philostarus’ Vitae Sophistarum
[4] See the list of sins attributed to pagan leaders like Caesar in 1:28-32. 
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