August 30, 2020 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Romans 12:9-21 (NRSV)
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 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. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.” 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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning in early July—clear skies, gentle breeze, warm sun. I was standing on the wide side-porch of Hyde Hall Mansion at Glimmerglass State Park, looking over Otsego Lake, all the way to Cooperstown at the far end. In front of me, socially distanced, were two wonderful friends that I did not know knew each other until they called me and asked me to officiate at their wedding. What a beautiful joy! As we approached the time to share their vows, a mutual friend, further down the wide porch, opened his bible and read some beautiful and familiar words of scripture:
“If I speak in the tongues of angels and of mortals, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol…”
I am sure many of you know the passage!
“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…”
And this poetic chapter ends:
“Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
The Apostle Paul’s famous, cherished love chapter from his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. It occurred to me as I read our Romans passage for this week multiple times, that no one chooses Romans 12 for their weddings. Why is that? When I consult with couples in preparation for their ceremony, I give them a short list of suggested scripture readings that are lovely for weddings. Romans 12 always makes the list. Pastor Debbie pointed out last week as she preached on the first half of this chapter, verses 1-8, that this section correlates strongly with 1 Corinthians 12—the passage regarding the Body of Christ being composed of many diverse parts but remaining one body. This second half of chapter 12 of Romans that we have before us today connects beautifully with 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter. In fact, Romans 12:9-21 could be said to be the Love reading for Romans as 1 Corinthians 13 is the Love reading for Corinthians. So why not choose Romans 12 for a wedding instead of 1 Corinthians? Is it just because Corinthians flows so beautifully off of the tongue? There is a reason for that.
You see, in 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing his own people, as a father would speak to his children. Paul formed the church in Corinth. He is the one who introduced them to the good news of Jesus Christ and called them into relationship with Jesus and one another. He knows the Corinthians well. In his travels, Paul had heard that, as can happen in families, his Corinthian children are not getting along very well. The wealthy children are not being considerate and compassionate with the poorer children. Some with certain spiritual gifts believe their gifts are far superior to others with different gifts. There is squabbling and power plays and in-fighting…a lot of not-so-Christ-like behavior. Paul dictates this letter to the Corinthians in anger and frustration, to chastise and to correct, because of his great love for them and his belief in the potential they hold. However, in his frustration, Paul calls the Corinthian Christians babies; infants not ready for ‘solid food,’ and declares that he will go back to nourishing them with milk. Paul will bottle-feed his Corinthian children the heart of Jesus’ message: radical, all-encompassing love. And so, Paul composes for them a love song, something to sing in worship, something to sing to one another whenever arguments arise, when tempers flare. Paul puts these words on their lips:
“Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…”
He reminds them in this vibrant poem:
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
Paul’s letter to the Romans is very different. The Roman Christians are, of course, Paul’s siblings in Christ, but Paul did not found the Roman Church. He does not know them the way he does the Corinthians. He has heard that the Roman Church also have their internal conflicts. Under Emperor Claudius all Jewish citizens of Roman were exiled for bad behavior, including Jewish Christians. This left the Gentile Christians in charge of the infant church. Now that Claudius has died, all Jewish residents have returned. The Jewish Christians are present once again in the Roman Church and tensions have arisen. The Jewish and Gentile Christians come to the Christian community from very different cultural backgrounds. However, the Roman Christians have tensions and troubles now arising for them outside of the church, more so than their Corinthian counterparts. After all, the Romans live and worship in the heart of the mighty empire. And the vacancy on the throne left by Claudius has now been filled by Emperor Nero, the great persecutor of the early church. Though the horrors of Nero’s persecutions won’t get fully underway for a few more years, things are beginning to move in that direction. Tensions are high. Trouble is rising. Danger is in the streets and fear is in the air. The Roman Christians have a terrifying world around them. They need more than a liquid diet. They need some carbs, something substantial to fuel their witness and bring them solidly together in the midst of the coming struggle.
Therefore, as with the Corinthians, Paul speaks of the radical and all-encompassing love of God revealed in Jesus. However, Paul does not compose an ode to love, something easy to digest. Paul sends to the Roman Christians a string of commands, like a coach at the gym, to get them in shape for the road ahead—a whole list of guidelines all built on that radical love. “Let love be genuine,” he begins in verse 9. “Let love be true!” Or as Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, says: “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.” Don’t fake it! Lives are on the line, maybe even yours!
What does true love look like? True love is goodness, affection, showing honor, being zealous. True love is embodied in service and joy. True love is found in patience, perseverance, generosity, hospitality. True love blesses those who persecute, blesses and does not curse! True love is found in harmony and nobility and living in peace. True love breathes compassion, even for your enemies…especially for your enemies. “Do not be overcome by evil! Overcome evil with good.” When they go love, we go high! (Michelle Obama)
Perhaps we can identify a bit with those Roman Christians to whom Paul writes. The world is a scary place. Jacob Blake…Jacob Blake’s name is added to the list of those harmed or killed by racism, namely racism in the police force. Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and now Jacob Blake…say their names. We witnessed this week a 17-year-old boy armed with a rifle kill protestors in the street, Heaven help us! Fear is in the air. Along with this racial violence that leaves us heartbroken and filled with rage at the same time, the Coronavirus rages in our nation. As of August 28, there have been 5,845,876 confirmed cases in the US. As of Friday, 180,165 people have died in our country from the virus…180,165!! Just these week there have been almost 300,000 new confirmed cases. We fear for our schools; elementary, middle, high school, colleges. We fear for our teachers and staff, our essential workers, who find themselves in a tense and dangerous environment. People are lashing out in violence over mask-wearing and restrictions. The stress the virus is taking on our economy, on our culture, on our own emotional well-being is wearing us down. And our Mother Earth is in crisis. Wildfires rage in California, Colorado, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The Earth cries out in pain. The details of the devastation from Hurricane Laura are horrifying. Within our own community we grieve the loss of Kirby Edmunds, Alice McCune, Bob Nafis, Eunice Tabor and so many more. Oh yes! We can identify with the fearful and struggling followers of Jesus in the city of Rome.
And so, from halfway around the world and across two millennia, Paul shouts out encouragement to us! “Don’t be overcome by evil! Overcome evil with good!” We know ‘good.’
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…and God saw that it was good.”
In Hebrew, ‘Tov.’ “Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with GOOD!” Good…Tov! Let us make Romans 12:9-21 our daily litany! Let it be a banquet of nourishment, a strong and hearty guide in these turbulent days. Let’s put this reading as the screensaver or wallpaper on our devices, as a sign on our bathroom mirrors. Let’s read it every morning over breakfast and pray it every night as we lay down to sleep. May Romans 12:9-21 be how we live each day in this Holy Temple of God’s creation. In the face of the world’s evil and injustice and violence and death, let Romans 12 be what we embody. So let us hear it again today, from the Common English Bible translation.
Let this be our vows to one another… our vows to the world…our vows to God.
9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer.
13 Contribute to (participate in-literal translation) the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying.
16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.
20 Instead, (INSTEAD) If your enemy is hungry, feed them; if your enemy is thirsty, give them a drink. You know, by doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon their heads.
21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.