(This sermon was delivered Sunday, August 28, 2011)
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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." 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." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
What does it mean to be a Christian? It’s a question that people have been asking for the last two thousand years, and it’s being asked today, perhaps more than ever. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, it was a new church, made up of converts, gentiles, people who were drawn to this new religion, this new way of worshipping God and being in the world, but who didn’t necessarily know how to be Christians. So, Paul writes.
He writes rules and guidelines, gives snippets of theology along with admonishments about behavior. He’s trying to shape a new church, a new community, to give them some guidance even though he’s far away, and when we read it, we see how much he has to say, how he’s trying to fit everything in, explaining the concepts while encouraging his people.
The passage we read last week explained that we must think of our bodies as holy and acceptable to God, appreciating each others’ gifts and our own as all being essential to the Body of Christ. This week, Paul goes on to give us all sorts of instructions about how to live a Christian life, how to act and be in the world, understanding that we set the example of what a Christian is.
One important thing about this set of instructions is that Paul is not just telling the members of the Roman church how to behave with one another, but also how to behave with outsiders. He says, “Love one another with mutual affection.” OK, that’s easy enough, we’re a church, we’re a family, we can love each other. But then he says, “contribute to the needs of the saints.” When Paul uses that term, it generally means other Christians around his world. People that the folks in Rome would perhaps never meet. In much the same way as we do today for so many people we’ll never meet, Paul was raising money for church members in need.
Then he says, “extend hospitality to strangers.” And this is where it starts getting hard. It’s pretty easy for most of us to be hospitable to our friends. We come to church, we greet and hug and chat with them…but it can be pretty hard for some of us to reach out to the stranger sitting in the back row. How do we extend hospitality to strangers here? One way is by making them stand and introduce themselves, not as an act of ritual humiliation for first-timers, but as a way for the congregation to notice them, to open our eyes, see and hear that someone new has joined us, and deserves as much hospitality as possible.
Finally, Paul gets to the hardest part of these instructions…”if your enemies are hungry, feed them…” He goes back to a core teaching from Jesus, that we should love our enemies. Not just turn the other cheek, but care for them, feed them. Paul basically says that caring for your enemies is the best revenge, but it also may be the best way to change them.
He insists, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Now, I was watching Oprah the other day, and she was talking about a show she had done in the late 80’s about skinheads. She invited four white supremacist young men to her show where they proceeded to spout their hateful messages and refuse to dialogue at all. At one point they all walked out as a sign of disrespect.
Oprah was clearly sorry she had ever invited them, and vowed to never again give hate a public platform like that. She thought it was a wasted effort, but on this show the other day, twenty years later, two of the men were back, much older, and both in tears. Each had changed his ways, and had come to apologize for their younger selves.
One of the men told how he had gone to prison and was put on a chain gang where he happened to be the only white man. He said that even though he was covered with racist tattoos and was obviously a skinhead, all the black men on his chain gang treated him like anyone else. They worked with him, and showed him compassion. That was the moment when he started to change his mind. Think about that for a minute; the kindness shown to a skinhead by the members of his prison chain gang changed his life, helped to turn him towards a path of love and right action.
As I listened to that story, I found myself thinking about those chain gang members, those men who showed compassion and radical acceptance to an enemy, and in so doing helped him and made the world a slightly better place. I wondered where they were now, if they were still in prison, and if a lifetime of punishment had broken their spirits.
I was thinking of men like these when I read that despite being in the path of Hurricane Irene, and built on landfill that is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, the prisoners on Riker’s Island in New York would not be evacuated, despite evacuation orders having been given to all other residents of vulnerable areas of the city. This, after horrific stories from Hurricane Katrina, where men, women and children were left in jail in New Orleans with no food or water for days, some standing in filthy flood water up to their chests.
There are ten facilities on Riker’s Island, housing over 12,000 men, women, and juvenile offenders. Some are guilty, some are innocent, and some are mentally ill. While it looks like Hurricane Irene may be weakening as it nears New York City, the fact that there was no attempt to safeguard these people from potential disaster is deeply disturbing. We often think of those who are incarcerated as our enemies—enemies of good, law-abiding citizens. Because of their choices or mistakes, we often abandon them to a prison system that is deeply flawed. Instead of overcoming evil with good, we as a society respond with more evil.
However, there are glimmers of hope. Here at FCC, we have a Jail Ministry team. Members of this church visit, support, and pray with prisoners in our county jails and Juvenile Hall. Instead of washing our hands of these people, judging them for what they may or may not have done to get where they are, people from this community show them compassion. This is just one part of what it means to be a Christian—to follow the teachings of Jesus—but oh, it’s an important one.
I don’t know about you, but I interact with people every day who assume that all Christians are judgmental, small-minded hypocrites. If I’m lucky, I have a chance to try and change their minds, to show them that Christians are just as diverse in our thoughts and actions as anyone else, and that actually, our religion teaches us love and acceptance. Other times, though, people have been too wounded, too hurt by people claiming to be Christians that they cannot bear to hear an alternate view.
This situation is not made any easier by the media, who report on the antics of fundamentalists as if they spoke for all of us, or by politicians who use the language of our religion to sugarcoat their quest for power and greed. Remaining faithful, hopeful and balanced in the face of such frustrating circumstances is not easy. Sometimes it’s exhausting. Paul’s advice is not easy, either.
The love he talks about is not flowery, romantic, warm and fuzzy love. It is messy, hard, painful love; Love that requires us to put aside our judgments, our egos, our comforts…love that stands in the face of persecution and prejudice. This love is not for the faint of heart.
“Let love be genuine…Live in harmony…Live peaceably with all…” These things are so much more easily said than done! But that is why we are here; to practice…To learn and pray and worship God and in so doing, to become better and better at loving genuinely, living in harmony, and overcoming evil with good.
The English writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”
For all the things that Paul wrote that we may disagree with, the concepts in this passage, the advice to love and care for each other, other Christians, strangers and even enemies, is something to hold on to. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.” This is a roadmap about what it means to be a Christian and how to survive and thrive while doing it. If we truly understand what it means to be a Christian, we understand that it is difficult. But we owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to God, to try. AMEN.