Proper 17A

August 25, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 16:21-28

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 3:1-15

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 26:1-8

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 12:9-21

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

               I had been meditating on Romans 12 for some time and I simply couldn’t get excited about all these little sound bites of advice.  Then, as I mused, I noticed a tiny red bug scurrying across the yellow pad on which I was making notes. He zigged and he zagged; he doubled back, walked the edge of the paper; he went in circles.  It was clear that he had no idea where he was going or how to get there.  His journey was entirely random and meaningless.

    I thought, that’s how life is for many people these days.  That’s when I saw these sound bites in a whole new light.  The Word of God answers the big questions: why are we here, where are we going, and how do we get there.  In these simple words of Romans 12:9-21, God give us some detailed directions on how to live along the way.  Specifically, Paul tells us how to live with those who are favorably inclined toward us and with those who are inclined to make life hard for us.  As they put it in the military, verses 9-16 are about the “friendlies” and verses 17-21 are about the “hostiles.”

    The section that covers our duties to those who are friendly toward us seems like a hail of disconnected duties with no pattern to help us remember them, sort of like a shotgun blast of commands.  But I can discern two loose clusters of ideas.  Some commands are about our relationships, while others are about our general attitude toward life.

    It’s not surprising that the first word about relationships here is love.  All Christians know that our first duty toward both friend and foe is love.  We know that perfectly well, but we don’t do it perfectly well.  That’s why the command is “love must be sincere.”  The word “sincere” in Greek is taken from the theater.  It is the word from which our word hypocrite comes.  It referred to someone who wore a mask on stage.  Don’t love theatrically, on stage, so that others will see and applaud you.  Love authentically, from the heart.

    What does that mean?  Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, ”How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  That’s what Paul shows us here—the many ways of love toward the “friendlies” in your life.  He begins with, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.”  As Christians, we are brothers and sisters, but, of course, family members don’t always get along.  It takes work to make families work.  That’s why Paul uses the word “devoted.”  Brotherly love doesn’t come naturally, so we’ll have to be intentional and concentrated in our efforts to love the friendlies.

    Here are more ways to love.  “Honor each other above/before yourselves.”  We all crave honor, but love demands that we put the honor others before our own.  Similarly, we must “share with God’s people who are in need,” even showing them hospitality.  I say “even,” because hospitality is more than inviting someone over for the occasional lunch.  It means making room in your life for someone else, sharing your life with them.  In an age of privacy and individualism, it takes real sacrifice to love someone enough to actually let them into your life.

    Paul reminds us that there is an emotional component to sincere love.  Verses 15 and 16 tell us that sincere love rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn.  No matter what song others are singing, whether a happy little ditty or a funeral dirge, we are to be in harmony with them.  Similarly, love allows the “different” into our lives, whether they are higher or, especially, lower on the social register.  Here is an important counter-cultural word for our day.  Society around us is increasingly stratified, divided into all kinds of classes and cliques.  No matter where we are on that social scale, says the preacher of love, we should not get the idea that we are above anyone.  Sincere love means that we are willing to associate with people of low position.  Love is willing to get involved in situations that make us uncomfortable.

    Scattered through these commands about our relationships are words about our attitudes toward life in general, implying that the way we live in relationship is greatly impacted by the way we look at life.  Verse 9 sums up the overall attitude that will help us to be better lovers.  “Hate what is evil, cling to what is good.”  That’s a direct reversal of what seems to be the attitude of much of our world, which appears to love what is evil and hate what is good.  Think of the content and tone of the most popular TV shows, like “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and the recently departed “Breaking Bad.”  Paul calls for a new attitude that loves good.

    The only way to maintain such an attitude is to do what he says in verses 11 and 12.  “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor.”  It’s easy to get lazy about our spiritual life and lose our fervor, so Paul urges us to stay on fire for the things of God.  That fervor will show itself in two ways.  First, we will be joyful, because we believe there is always hope.  And second we will be patient in affliction, because we know God has a good plan.  In order to maintain such attitudes, we need a strong lifeline to God.  That’s what prayer provides us—not a way to get what we want, but a constant communion with God.  Prayer is the basis for a life filled with positive attitudes.  If we have that lifeline, we will see all of these commands as part of our willing service. All of these duties will overwhelm us with a huge burden of guilt, unless we see them as “serving the Lord” in gratitude for his mercy.

    Such love for those who love us is hard enough, but now Paul turns to loving those who are hostile to us.  Verses 17-21 are particularly relevant in this age of hostility.  From our highways to our high schools, in the inner city and out in the suburbs, we are living in the age of rage.  Even though we Christians know better, we are easily sucked into the vortex of fury that spins through our culture.  So we need to hear the Good News Paul proclaims in this list of hard commands.  I call it Good News because it is based on the fact that we are now part of the Kingdom of Light, not the Kingdom of Darkness.  Therefore, we must live in a different way, and we can.  We are free to respond in a new way to evil that is visited upon us by the hostiles in our lives.

    Here is the Good News.  “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”  This is not a denial of evil.  There is plenty of evil out there, and sometimes it touches us.  Indeed, sometimes it is intentionally directed at us.  There are many things we can do in response.  But the one thing we must not do is repay evil for evil—retaliate, seek revenge, get them back.  That’s a blanket command, and as such it seems overly simplistic. How can we live by such simple words in such a complex world?

    Well, first of all, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody (verse 17).”  Paul is talking about prevention here.  Be sure that the way you live doesn’t stir up hostility.  The heart of prevention is doing what is right.  That doesn’t mean we have to be a hostage to everyone else’s whims.  Christians are not called to be doormats.  But doing the right thing will at least prevent justifiable hostility.  Of course, that is no guarantee that we’ll escape the rage of this age.  Indeed, doing the right thing will actually provoke opposition in some circles.

    So Paul’s next word is both realistic and helpful.  ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (verse 18).”  “Crotchety Christian” should be an oxymoron.  Go out of your way to live at peace with everyone.  That may not always be possible, and we should not seek peace at any cost.  Christ could have avoided death if he had simply stopped doing the will of God he was sent to do.  But he didn’t stop doing God’s will, because he was committed to saving us. So we must stick to our Christian principles, even if that causes trouble.  We can’t be at peace with sin and evil.  Love for others may lead us to rebuke them and disagree with them.  And that may well lead to conflict with them.

    That brings us to Paul’s next command.  When you’ve done the right thing, tried to live at peace, and have still become the object of someone’s evil hostility, what do you do?  Paul has a negative word and a positive one.  “Do not take revenge….”  Does that mean we have to let them get away with it?  That’s how it feels.  But Paul has an ominous response to our feelings of helplessness.  “Leave room for God’s wrath.”  Don’t you take revenge.  Let God do it.

    Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t seek justice.  It is perfectly legitimate to seek justice by using the law, by calling the police, for example, or taking someone to court.  And we may be called upon to serve in the military where we pursue justice by the use of force on some occasions.  But that’s a far cry from private citizens seeking vengeance on their own.  It is not the Christian way to let your anger move you to hurt someone.

    We can be sure of this.  “God will repay.”  God will.  That’s his job, not ours.  “It is mine to avenge.  Vengeance is mine.”  When humans seek vengeance, it leads only to the endless cycle of hurt and revenge and hurt and revenge that we see in wars around the world and in the drive by shootings in our inner cities.  We can’t win in the vengeance business and we shouldn’t try.  It is not our job.  It is God’s.

    Our job, says Paul, is to love even our enemy.  That doesn’t mean we have to like our enemy.  But we have to love our enemies, in the sense of doing good to them.  Verse 14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”  Further, says verse 20, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.  If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”  Speak blessing and show kindness to your enemy, for “in doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

    How do those last words fit with Paul’s warning about not seeking revenge?  The best explanation I’ve seen is this.  It has to do with shame and guilt. In showing such love to your enemy, you will move him to a burning sense of shame and guilt, which may in turn lead him to repent and make things right.  This, of course, is no guarantee that kindness will move every hostile to become a friend.  Paul simply tells us that our motive should always be love that seeks the best for another, even an enemy.  So, in the end, we will remain on the side of good, rather than getting dragged over the line into the Kingdom of Darkness.  That’s why Paul ends with, “Do not be overcome by evil.”  That’s exactly what will happen if we adopt the methods of evil.  It will suck us in and overcome us.  Instead, we must “overcome evil with good,” and so demonstrate that we are part of the Kingdom of Light.

    The question remains how we should preach this long list of ethical obligations that everyone knows perfectly well.  First, we must be sure to frame it all as the Good News it is.  All these commands are not a burden, but a blessing, a part of the good life we enjoy as members of the Kingdom that is not of this world.  Second, we should frankly acknowledge that we all know these things.  But given the pressure of our culture and drag of our own lingering sin, we need to be reminded of things we already know.  In fact, when I preached on these verses, I ended with these words.  “But then you already knew that.  I just wanted to remind you, because you won’t hear this anywhere else these days.”

    Illustration Idea

    One of the things that make Pope Francis so attractive to the world is his willingness, even delight, in associating with those of low degree.  His passion for the poor, his embrace of the grotesquely deformed, his washing of prisoners’ feet, his preference for a simple lifestyle, his disciplining of church officials who live like princes—all of this downward mobility has struck a chord with a world yearning to see sincere love in action.