Hard Choices

Sep 3, 2017 by

Sermon for Sept 3 2017 by Garry Blinch

Romans 12:9-21

12:11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

12:12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

12:13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

12:16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

12:17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

12:18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

12:20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Taken on its own, the Epistle passage I just read sounds like a “laundry list” of imperatives; a whole bunch of things you and I “should” or “must” do. Maybe like a check list held up by a fridge magnet in the kitchen: “Let’s see, Have I rejoiced with those who rejoice today and wept with those who weep…?”

The important thing, I think, is to get a sense of how we are to live in this world as Christians; how we are to be “yeast”, as the parable describes us; slowly working our way through the whole “lump” of creation and effecting change by the way we treat each other in the church and in the world.

The apostle begins with, “Let love be genuine”- sincere, without hypocrisy. For this to be true, it behooves us to treat all people the same, whether you have a good relationship with them or a distressing one. A tall order. A hard choice. Like Jesus saying in our gospel reading, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.

To the first readers of these words they would be radical, as was Jesus whole life and teaching. It’s easy to forget that when we have been familiar with these words for many years. But the manner of living and relating they call us to is no less radical now than then. Our world is full of violence and injustice, both locally and globally. Many a favorite action movie glorifies the destruction of the “bad guy” and his/her cronies; they get what they deserve, they are punished in equal or greater measure to what they gave out.

The whole point of the gospel is that we don’t get what we deserve; we get grace. We are loved and forgiven while still at enmity with God. And when we respond to this love, our calling is to demonstrate it to a world still seeking an eye for an eye.

While all of the imperatives in this reading are about how we relate to fellow human beings everywhere and anywhere, there are four types of relationships that appear here: the first three directives appear to be about life in the Christian community; a second, closely connected area regards “the saints”-  that is, the Christian community beyond one’s own local community, and  strangers; the third is one’s enemies; and fourthly, interactions with everyone.

 

The Christian Community

 

12:9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

12:10 Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

 

It would be easy to conclude- as some people have- that within the church the Christian is to be loving and caring, but is to be rejecting and disdainful of those outside because “the world is evil”.

The word used here in the Greek is not talking about evil people but about evil in the sense of what is injurious or that which produces destruction or woe; what is hurtful to people and what is destroying their lives and spreading misery, THAT’S what we are to hate. Like Jesus clearing the Temple; he wasn’t seeking to “make the bad guys pay” but to confront a cruel system that was victimizing the poor and make a stand that it was wrong; it was evil, hurtful to people and increasing suffering. We are not called to disappear into the safety of a church sanctuary but to engage the world to alleviate suffering.

“Hold fast”; like oneness in marriage, we are exhorted to cleave to good so there is no room, no place for other-than-good; an exclusive relationship.

 

“The Saints” & Those Needing Hospitality

 

Romans 12:13 exhorts, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Use your resources- what you have- to help others within the church and to care for those who are unknown- strangers- regardless of their faith stance.

Hospitality was and is an important element of society in the eastern world. In Bible times, your life could quite literally depend on someone , a stranger to you, opening their home and taking you in for a night, providing food for you and your animals. I can only speculate that Paul envisioned the community of faith becoming so inwardly focused that those outside were ignored or shunned.

 

Enemies

 

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Jesus had said something almost identical: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28; cf. Matthew 5:44).

To describe what he meant, Jesus pointed to God sending rain upon both the just and the unjust. To be children of such a God is to love not only the people who love us, but to love even those who mean us harm.

Alan Brehm, a pastor who was originally Baptist and now is Presbyterian- (we’ll have to forgive him for that!)- wrote a post  about a book called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter. Alan focused on how the Buddhist way is to acknowledge that everyone we meet has all the same goodness in them that is in us. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion. If we can recognize that others have all the goodness we have, we also have to recognize that we have the same capacity for evil as those whose actions we abhor.

He goes on to relate a story from the life of the author, Paul Knitter:

In the 1980’s, Paul and his wife were very active in the efforts to end the violence in Central America and to promote justice and peace in several countries. He tells the story about how he took a retreat with a Zen teacher in preparation for a trip to El Salvador in 1987. He told the teacher he wanted to do his part to stop the death squads, but he also felt the need for meditation. And the Zen master responded, “they are both absolutely necessary. You have to sit (in meditation). You have to stop the death squads. But you won’t be able to stop the death squads until you realize your oneness with them.”

At first he didn’t understand this. But it sank in over the following years as he carried out his convictions in working for peace and justice, and he saw the smugness of the activists, their anger over the wrongs, their hatred of the death squads, and their contempt toward governments and others who seemed to respond ineffectually. And he realized that all of those attitudes were in themselves forms of violence. They were seeking to end the violence in Central America, but they were going about it with violence in their own hearts!

When we oppose those who do evil in our world with anger, we are more likely to perpetuate the evil they do. So how then do we respond to evil? In the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, can redeem evil. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said those who want to follow him would have to take up their cross (Matt. 16:24).[5] He was calling us all to follow his pattern of responding to evil by not retaliating, but by embracing those who do evil with mercy and kindness and forgiveness. It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. That’s what it means to overcome evil with good! We can only truly overcome evil if we can embrace the “evildoers” with compassion.

Verse 20, with its reference to heaping burning coals on the head of one’s enemy, requires comment. The wording comes directly from Proverbs 25:21-22, and here it is in the context of advice about doing good to one’s enemy. When we look at the life of Christ, I  think we can safely assume that there is no maliciousness intended here; that is, Paul is not saying, “treat your enemy really well and then you will have the joy of watching them suffer!” In context with the words and actions of Jesus, we see the times his enemies were embarrassed and stopped in their tracks by his words and actions. This is an understanding of “burning coals on the head” that is consistent with the gospel.

 

All People

 

The circle of those to whom Christians relate in genuine love expands finally to include everyone in verse 18. One of the most common outcomes of defining a group over against others in its environment is that insiders to the group receive particular benefits, while outsiders are left out. Frequent flyers are upgraded to business class. Employees of the month get better parking spots. “Members” get special discounts, and on and on.

Yet such distinctions are absent in the ethic Paul describes. The Christian ethic of Romans 12 results, finally, in relationships marked by humble, generous love, and peacemaking, no matter the character or status of those to whom Christians relate.

“For how else can we cast out evil? Satan cannot cast out Satan. No one can clean a room with a filthy duster. The surgeon cannot cut out the disease if his instruments are defiled. While he removed one ill-growth he would sow the seed of another. It must be health which fights disease. It will demand a good temper to overcome the bad temper in my brother.

-John Henry Jowett

 

In the midst of the hate-filled, divisive rhetoric in which we continue to find ourselves, is there anything that can be considered noble or good in the sight of all people? How might Christians, called not to be silent, but rather to respond to hatred with goodness, promote this kind of love and harmony?

One German city was faced with exactly that problem.

A viral post on Twitter from Cleve Jones shares the story of Wunsiedel in northeast Bavaria, which has been a neo-Nazi destination since it was once home to the grave of Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.

But in 2014, sponsors agreed to donate money for each step marched by the neo-Nazis, with the cash going to programs that fight Nazis, the Guardian reported at the time.

It was billed as Germany’s most involuntary walkathon.

Instead of greeting the group with protests, they put up banners welcoming them to the “Nazis Against Nazis” walkathon, according to a video on a YouTube channel run by the organization that promoted it.

Mocking signs throughout the route encouraged them to keep walking to raise more money, and organizers put out a table of bananas to help them keep up their energy so they could keep walking ― and keep raising money.

They even painted numbers in the ground so the neo-Nazi marchers would be forced to see how much money they’d collected at every milestone.

And at the end, they passed out certificates reminding them of how much many they raised to fight Nazis: 10,000 euros, or close to $12,000, going to EXIT Deutschland, a group that helps neo-Nazis to defect from the movement.

Not exactly in the spirit of love but so much better than the violence of Charlottesville.

 

Conclusion

 

” An Eye for an Eye Will Make the Whole World Blind” (M. Ghandi?). We have all offended someone, somewhere, someway. Chr. are called to be like Christ in the world; it is the only way things will change. If we only love those inside the church, how are we different? More importantly, how can we effect meaningful and lasting change?

Some want to stay within the walls of the church, as Peter wanted to stay on the mountain; “It is good to be here!” But that isn’t love; it’s self-centred.

Ours is a religion that “gets its hands dirty”; we are called not to absent ourselves from the world or shun it but to be in it but to experience the evil and the good, the joy and the suffering, and to seek to make the lot of fellow sufferers better by the way we relate, especially in difficult circumstances.

 

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