Patronus of Love
Indianapolis First Friends
September 10, 2017
Pastor Bob Henry
8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Our text for this morning is a major shift in thinking for early followers of Christ and for the average citizen in the Roman world. Often I find the Roman world not much different than our own - in this case, I can’t read the text for this morning without first getting an understanding of the backstory.
Why would Paul be talking about running up debts?
It seems like it would be similar to someone saying today, Stop using your credit cards or going shopping and pour it all into your love for one another. But there is more to this discourse than we first glean because we see with 21st century eyes.
Morgon Guyton in his commentary on this text gives great insight to exactly what Paul was addressing. Just listen to what he says,
“In the ancient Roman times when the apostle Paul was writing, social debt was a lot more overtly recognized. Roman society was organized according to what is called a patronage system. The way to gain political power was to do favors for powerful people so they would be indebted to you. You could throw parties for them if you had the money, or if you couldn’t afford to throw parties, you could at least throw rotten fruit at the chariots of their enemies [It sounds familiar doesn’t it...not much is different in our political system still today in America, just our “rotten fruit” comes in the form of Tweets]. Some “debts” were acknowledged and compensated; others weren’t. The art to moving up the social ladder was to figure out how to make your generosity stick to somebody more powerful...Roman civilization very openly acknowledged that everyone except the emperor was indebted to somebody. Debt didn’t mean fiscal irresponsibility; it was inherent to every relationship. So when Paul writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another” in a letter to first-century Romans, he is making a radically counter-cultural statement that repudiates the basic building block of the entire Roman social pyramid.
This really sheds some light on how politically infused the message of early Christianity was and why it cost the early Christians often their livelihood or even lives. Paul, as much as Jesus, pushed back on the political system in not so subtle ways. Just the idea of Paul - most likely a fairly well-off religious leader of his time - fighting the system of patronage was a radical and activist-like approach.
As an artist, I have had a positive spin on patronage most of my life. You may have heard in the history of art the term “arts patronage” which by definition refers to the support that kings, popes, and the wealthy have provided to artists such as musicians, painters, and sculptors. If it wasn’t for “arts patronage” we would not have the beautiful museums, architectural sites, and natural areas of beauty in this country and the world.
The problem is that Patronage has been closely linked to status in our world, today. It is the wealthy that are patrons. When wealth and power and money combine we can have two different outcomes - it can be either extremely beneficial - or it can become abuse of privilege.
What Paul is addressing in his day [and very appropriately in our day] is patronage that has taken the wrong turn - that has gone from support, encouragement, and financial aid bestowed on others - to a system that has become about power, privilege, and upward mobility.
It is still evident in the church today, it is what we call having a “prosperity gospel.” Benjamin Corey describes it this way.
● It associates the rich with being “blessed” instead of the poor. The very opposite of what Jesus taught.
● It claims the idea that obeying God results in a “good life” by worldly standards.
● It can’t explain why bad things happen to faithful people - because that messes with the premise of it all. [For example: A megachurchpastor in Houston (which most people know) told hurricane victims that they should “take it (the hurricane) as a compliment” as if losing your house is somehow a sign of coming favor of God.]
● It creates people and religious ministers who are detached from their neighbors - who live in religious bubbles and do not know the needs of their neighbors.
● It teaches people to put their hopes in the wrong place.
This is almost exactly what Paul is addressing in our text for today.
So how do we not get sucked in by this religious and social culture prevalent in Paul’s day and in our world today?
I will phrase it this way, we need to become patrons of your neighbors.
Instead of creating a patronage system that is focused on us and our gain - Paul as well as Jesus taught that we need to be patrons of our neighbors -- that means the poor, the downcast, the widows, the orphans, the people imprisoned, addicted, less fortunate - those different than us, and those who have been minimized, marginalized, abused, unwanted and forgotten. I believe every person in this meetinghouse today can relate to one or more of these.
What does it mean to be a patron of our neighbors. Let’s start with the word “patron”...
To be a patron of our neighbors we will need to give benefits of LOVE to our neighbors.
Now, if you are a Harry Potter fan, like me, you might have heard something else - You may have just thought, “Did Bob just say that “patron” derives from the latin “patronus”?” And that may lead you to wonder as I did about that famous charm that those young wizards and witches of Hogwarts learned from Professor Lupin - the Patronus Charm.
I have thought often that JK Rowling was a literary marvel to get children and adults back into books (and not little books, but big-ol-books 500-700 pages long) with the draw of technology and social media being so strong.
And at times I have found the Harry Potter books prophetic metaphors for culture, religion, and even political and societal constructs. In this moment, I went to the JK Rowling’s Pottermore website to look into the Patronus Charm - or what we remember the characters holding out their wands and yelling “EXPECTO PATRONUM.” On her sight it says this...
The Patronus Charm (Expecto Patronum) is the most famous and one of the most powerful defensive charms known to wizardkind. It is an immensely complicated and extremely difficult spell that evokes a partially-tangible positive energy force known as a Patronus (pl. Patronuses) or spirit guardian. It is the primary protection against Dementors and Lethifolds, against which there are no other defence.
If you remember the scene where Harry and Hermione have used the Time-Turner and went back to save Sirus Black from being taken by the dementors, Harry and Hermione are watching the scene from across the lake awaiting what Harry thinks is his father’s patronus coming to bring protection. All of a sudden, Harry realizes that what he saw was not his father’s patronus but rather his own. It is a moment of personal insight for Harry. He realizes in that moment he must evoke his own positive energy - the stag of inner light - the spirit guardian within himself. And with those words, “Expecto Patronum” Harry conjures up a light that wipes out all the dementors and darkness and saves the life of his godfather Sirus Black.
What a beautiful metaphor for us as Quakers. We all have a “Patronus” - a powerful inner light. That positive-energy-light needs to be lived out, activated, evoked out of us to be “Spirit Guardians” for our neighbors, our family, and our loved ones.
The patronage is not for our own personal gain, but for the sake of our neighbors. Just listen one more time to what Paul wrote to the Romans...in a more modern translation.
Romans 13:8-10 (MSG)
8-10 Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.
That is our call from last week’s Labor of Love gathering and that is our call as Quakers as we say, “Our guiding principle is LOVE.” Will you join me in evoking our inner Patronuses and living out that positive energy and light as spiritual guardians of our neighbors? Instead of Amen - I think it is more appropriate to conclude this sermon with…