Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"Now What?"

Sermon Notes for September 3, 2017

Our passage this morning continues with where we left off last week in Paul's letter to the Romans. First he told this early church that they have to come together as one community, as one body, even though they are very different people with many different gifts. This week he tells them how they are supposed to behave when they come together.

Paul tells them that they must begin with love. The root of the church is a community that loves like Jesus showed us how to love.

Now, the love the Paul is calling us to isn't the emotional sort of love. Theologian Frederick Buechner puts it like this
"In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as easily produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus' terms, we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends."

We are called to be happy with those who are being happy and to be sad with those who are sad. To offer welcome to strangers and to not boast ourselves higher than others. To care of one another when we need it, offering food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty.

The community that manages that is following in the ways of Christ.

But it's not always so simple, is it? Anyone who has had a sibling, or a spouse, or a child or a parent, knows that it is really hard to respond to them with love all of the time. Sometimes even the person you love most will drive you up a wall. Maybe even especially the person you love most. Responding with humility and love every single time seems like a task that is beyond us.

And these verses call on us not only to address the cares, concerns, and challenges of people like us, who we already know and love, and who already know and love us. Nor do they limit the horizon of our concern to our extended family, to existing members of our community, or to people who actively support us and never threaten us. The verses challenge us to care for people in need, regardless of how they fit into various religious, social, or political categories. We are explicitly told to do good even for the people we really, really don't like.

This is not the first place in the Bible where we are told to love our enemies, nor will it be the last

So the job of the Christian community, the job of the body of Christ is to love everyone. Even the stranger. Even the unloveable. We don't have to like them, but we do have to love them. President Carter once made a statement that seems to capture the essence of today's text. He wrote,
"To me faith is not only a noun, but also a verb." 
How we live out our faith matters.

And so we are called to love everyone. This is probably the most daunting task God lays at our feet. And we all know that we are going to get it wrong sometimes.

Who hasn't been smacked in the cheek, assaulted with a nasty comment, or been betrayed in some way and not been tempted to exact some kind of revenge? Even the sweetest and gentlest of people have been known to turn ferocious if they run up against some serious pain or anguish caused by another person's cruelty. Fighting back and responding in-kind seem to be basic human impulses when we are mistreated.

There will be moments when the selfish human side wins out, when we react with selfishness instead of grace. Which is why we come together on Sunday mornings to confess the times we got it wrong. And we try to do better next time. Because attacking evil with evil doesn't actually work. It just creates more anger and resentment and frustration for next time.

Author and pastor Barbara Brown Taylor comments in this way on evil inflicted upon us,
"The only way to conquer evil is to absorb it. Take it into yourself and disarm it. Neutralize its acids. Serve as a charcoal filter for its smog. Suck it up, put a straitjacket on it and turn it over to God, so that when you breathe out again the air is pure." 

Because that's how we embody the gospel of our God in Christ. The last verse tells us not to overcome evil with evil but to overcome evil with good. That's not simply high-sounding advice, it serves equally well as a description of exactly what Jesus did in his ministry and, ultimately, in his death. Jesus met the evil of this world head on but he countered it with love and grace, not balled-up fists and merciless judgment. Living in love and harmony with this world’s difficult and evil people is simply part of what it means to be caught up in the rhythms of the gospel.

Why do we do this? Because God first loved us. The chapters before this in this letter were all about the grace of God, and how much God has done for us. And how much God has given to us. Now, Paul is telling us the only possible response for such a gift: to go and love others in return.

Grace inspires grace – God's grace to us takes us as we are and then inspires us to become people of graceful stature and hospitality. Paul invites his listeners to self-awareness and intentionality. Our commitment to certain behaviors transforms our behavior and also our character. In a world of polarization, we are to perform acts of kindness and unity.

I want to close by reading a paraphrase of this passage from Eugene Peterson's book The Message.
"Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody. Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. 'I'll do the judging', says God. 'I'll take care of it.' Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he's thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good."

That is our job description as the church That is how the Christians are called to live with each other.

Go forth and love.