Well, if nobody gained anything from the sermon yesterday, I know at least a few people got in some quality nap time :) I guess that's what happens when you preach that words without action are meaningless.
August 31, 2008
It’s football time in Tennessee! Our own Wildcats had their home opener Friday night. The Titans have played several pre-season games now. The Volunteers play tomorrow night. And if God was bold enough to make you a Vanderbilt fan, then you know that the Commodores enjoyed a victory on Thursday night.
I was not lucky enough to play high school sports but in almost any sport, and maybe even for me in marching band and before opening night of a play, there is such a thing as locker-room pep talk. If you have ever played sports or participated in a group activity then you know what I mean. The pep-talk is the speech the coach gives in the locker room. The speech meant to pump everybody up before the big game. The pep-talk is the speech that inspires you to go out there and do your best. The one the coach gave to the Commodores the other night obviously worked. I hope the same will be true for my beloved Kansas City Chiefs!
Some people say that our scripture this morning is a pep-talk for the Christian life. If you look closely it has all the signs of a true pep-talk. The words are beautiful, even in their translation. As soon as we hear them, we know in our hearts that they are the right thing to do. Maybe you even felt motivated as I read them this morning by phrases like, “do not repay evil for evil; cling to what is good; never be lacking in zeal, but keep up your spiritual fervor.” Fervor? Zeal? These are the words of a pep-talk. Did anyone feel inspired to be a better person after hearing these words?
Romans is the first letter that we have in our Bible from Paul to the New Testament churches. As I studied these words this week I wondered to myself, is this passage of scripture a pep-talk? For sure the very new Christians Paul is writing to would need some encouragement for the Christian life. Is our scripture a list of rules? People like rules. We set limits for children, we tell them the behavior we expect and this in turn makes them feel safe and happy. Rules bring order out of chaos, set boundaries, and help us know how to act. So, yes, maybe this is simply a list of rules for Christian living.
At the beginning of chapter 12 Paul talks about us presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice to God- holy and pleasing to God. Maybe verses 9-21 are simply about telling us what exactly it means to be a living sacrifice. Are these words comforting to you? Motivating? Or almost depressing because of how challenging they are? I can see a person having any number of reactions to Paul’s words here.
We do know that Paul was writing to a community of Christians in Rome, and we do know that this community was diverse, in that it contained followers of Jesus who came from the Jewish tradition, and followers who came from a non-Jewish or Gentile perspective. They agreed together that they believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God- but beyond that, as we read Paul’s letters, we can make an educated guess that there were many other things on which they disagreed. Paul is writing this letter before he arrives to visit the church, and in this part of the letter he is offering a message of unity, how to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ. His words are instructions on how they should act as individuals, but not only that. Perhaps more importantly, these words speak to how the Roman- Christians should as a community of believers, and how they should interact with a world of non-believers. All that Paul proclaims here is based on the love shown by Jesus to the world.
Paul starts in verse nine by talking about love- I have a feeling this is the heart of the Gospel as far as Paul is concerned. He tells the audience to hate what is evil, and cling to what is good, to be devoted to one another, and to be humble- honor the other over the self. Never be lacking in zeal he says, and have fervor in serving the Lord. He tells them to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer and to share with God’s people in need.
If the message stopped there, with these instructions for how we should live in Christian community, that would be enough of a challenge, don’t you think? But Paul turns from talking about how we should treat each other, to talking about how we should treat people outside the faith. How should we treat people outside our group who are possibly going to be hostile toward us and toward the message of Jesus? Paul says that we should not repay anyone evil for evil, but do what is right. Also interjected here is perhaps my favorite line of this scripture, “so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” So far as it depends on me, live peaceably. What beautiful words, what a challenge!
Then we are told what exactly to do when someone wrongs us, and you can tell as well as I that Paul’s commands are quite opposite of our basic human instinct. Paul says that we should not seek out vengeance for anyone that wrongs us; instead we should let God worry about all that. Instead, we should be working to feed and satisfy our enemies, to make sure that their basic needs are met. In attending to their needs, and leaving the score-settling to God, we gain our justice with our enemies. To close this section of his letter, Paul uses a phrase that might remind you a little of the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Instructions on how to love, instructions on how to be living sacrifice instructions on how to live in Christian community; Paul’s words are beautiful. As I struggled with this scripture this week my fear was that they are too beautiful. Sometimes words that are well stated, that are beautiful and flowing; words that are repeated over and over again lose meaning. Remember the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?” What a powerful phrase, what a wonderful standard to live by; however, the more you heard it, and saw it on a t-shirt and wore it around your wrist- the less power it had. “What would Jesus do?” almost became a pop-culture phenomenon rather than a phrase that had any real staying power as instructions for living. I’m afraid that is what happens when we hear these words of Paul’s, we can all agree that they are nice. Maybe even that they are comforting and encouraging and inspiring- but do they have any meaning for us?
I think Paul’s words should scare us a little. I think we should be taken aback by how strong they are, how powerful they are, and how hard they are to actually live in the world. One of my first thoughts about this scripture was- “oh, I should make a poster or plaque for my office with that line about living in peace with everybody- that is so nice.” Well, I can guarantee that is not what God intended for us to do with these words. These words are not here simply to inspire us or leave us feeling pepped up- if that is all that happens with these words then they are meaningless. We have to burn these words on our hearts so that we can live them out with our whole selves. If we don’t get busy taking action on what we hear in these words- then what good are they? If there is no action behind our Christian commitments, then what is the point? It’s all just a bunch of nice words! And that’s not good enough. A community of believers who enjoy hearing nice words- that is not what God expects. Jesus called people to action, he called a group of disciples, and he calls us today to be disciples and not to be simply “hearers” of the Word, but “doers” as well.
I want to share a story with you this morning of faith in action, of a man who lives out the lines of Romans 12, instead of just hearing them. A minister friend of mine in California shared this story with me, “I have a friend who goes three mornings out of the week to the county jail. He meets the guys who are released at 4:00 AM with a pack of Marlboro's, Egg McMuffins, and a cup of coffee. He welcomes them out of the darkness into the light. He meets them where they are. Somebody complained to him, “Why do you bring cigarettes?” He responded, "That is what they want." He meets them not to get them right but to invite them on a journey. I think that is what it means. "Bless those who persecute, love the lowly, and not repaying evil with evil." He is the first one who gets to listen them, not their homies or the system of gang bangers and cops who put them there. But the light of God. He says a final blessing to them as he leaves, "I hope not to see you walk out those doors again. Go in peace."
I think sometimes we get a little paralyzed by all that is expected of us in the Christian life, and I would agree that the words of Romans are no small order. But I can tell you that we can make strides toward this kind of community living that Paul describes. We can be more sincere in love; perhaps by listening more intently when a child needs our attention. We can hate evil, in all its many forms and work to change systems that we find unjust. We can have more joy, more zeal, and more fervor in serving God. And I know we can be more faithful in prayer.
What can we do as a church to bless those who persecute us? Could we maybe go down to the Good Samaritan Center and stand next to another person with whom we don’t agree about many issues related to God and church and together could we put together boxes of food for those in need? Could we work to know our neighbors better? I’ll have to admit I’m ashamed of myself when it comes to the neighbors that share a yard with David and I. I know them by first name only. They have been over to our house twice, once at Christmas to bring over a homemade fruit cake, and once this summer to bring us veggies from their garden. I don’t know them. I’ve never taken the time to go over and sit down and share stories. David and I have never taken them a cake, or some flowers just to say, “I’m glad we’re neighbors.” I’m not so sure that living peaceably doesn’t mean maybe taking the time to cross the yard and share a word with my neighbors, regardless of where they go to church.
What can you do this very day as you leave here to follow Paul’s words? Could you maybe leave behind your feelings of anger and retribution toward someone? Could you make a pledge to live more peaceably with a family member or neighbor? Could we as a church pray more fervently, even for our enemies? Can we be more humble in who we are and what we’ve got and work harder to alleviate the suffering of others? I think we can. I think we can take baby steps toward becoming the kind of Christian Paul describes in Romans. I hope that you hear Paul’s words as a challenge, and a call to action. Maybe you hear them moving in you in a more meaningful way than a simple pep-talk. I pray that we would work with our whole hearts to serve God as Paul describes in Romans 12.