Marks of the True ChristianRomans 12:9-21 (NRSV)
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.
Today we hear some simple advice, words to live by, simple ways to live to make the world a better place, and to feel good in return. In the world today, there are so many opinions and understandings. Everyone thinks and believes differently, and they see the world through their own unique lens, and that is not a bad thing. Because if we all thought, understood, and believed the same way, there would be no variety, creativity, or imagination in the world. To put it plainly, life would be pretty boring.
As you may or may not know, before becoming a minister, I was a preschool teacher. I have always loved working with children because kids have a natural curiosity, an innate sense of wonder, a brutal honesty, and a graceful ability to see the good in everything. They say what they think, not to hurt anyone else, but because honesty is what comes naturally. They learn through experience and love with a sense of unconditional grace.
To young children, the little things are the big things, and they do not stress and worry–at least not for long–because they are too busy learning even more about the world around them. As adults, we teach our children, and we bring them to pre-school, to learn: how to be kind and considerate, how to share and take turns, how to respect others and ourselves, how to listen, how to follow the rules, how to be patient, always waiting our turn and how to be polite.
I miss meeting with our kids on Sunday mornings, hearing their excitement about what they did during the week. I miss hearing about someone losing a tooth, celebrating a birthday, getting a goal at their soccer game, or looking forward to a family trip. That is not to say that everything was always joy-filled. There were also times when pet goldfish died, and grandmas were sick, and friends moved away. But we were able to talk about those moments understanding that it is okay to feel sad or mad or unsure sometimes. No matter what our discussion, there was always an innocent sense of positivity and love, which was always awarded a sacredness that could hold us in our joy, in our sorrow, and in our uncertainty, giving us a holy space to work through even some of the toughest things.
What I wonder is, why do most adults lose that ability? Why do we become so self-centered and opinionated that we become blind to one another? I find it strangely ironic that the lectionary presented today’s reading from the book of Romans on the heels of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. In the past week, these conventions were held, which have acted as “pep rallies” for the Democrats since 1832, and the Republicans since 1856, to excite their constituents and build their numbers for the coming election. And these conventions are considered to be “as American as apple pie,” as they say.
Now don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you how to vote or point out the positives and/or negatives of one party or the other. But rather, I want to reflect on both of them equally. Because my heart breaks for our world right now. Every time you turn on the television, you hear stories of hate and racism, unrest and struggle, harsh words, and revenge. And I am not saying that it is a Democratic or a Republican thing–it is a human race thing.
But what disappointed me so much this past week was the lack of common decency–the negativity, the turning brother against brother, the self-centeredness, the blindness to others, and the overall judgment that both conventions had. What broke my heart the most is that they had the opportunity to shine a light. They had the opportunity to give our nation hope. They had the opportunity to be a living example of goodness and honesty and kindness, but they both chose to judge, to point fingers, and to encourage hate.
Now I know that it is the Pollyanna in me that likes to see the good in things, but what if both conventions simply focused on the gifts and the passions that each candidate has to offer. After all, we are not made to be perfect, and not everyone can be good at everything. What if we all made our choices not for a particular party but for the honest good of our nation? What if, instead of talking about how religious we are and the strong morals that our nation was built on, we simply lived out our faith–whatever that faith may be–always striving to build one another up and treating each other with decency, respect, and kindness.
Friends, be assured that we are not the first ones to struggle with such things. In ancient Rome, people struggled with the same kinds of issues. That is why in the epistle, the letter to the Romans, Paul reminds the people of Rome how to act and live. He gives them advice and encourages them to think beyond themselves that they might build one another up.
He says, “Do not just pretend that you love others: really love them. Hate what is wrong and stand on the side of the good. Love each other with brotherly affection and take delight in honoring each other. Don’t be lazy in your work. Be patient in trouble, and prayerful always. When you see someone in need, help them. If someone mistreats you, don’t curse him; pray that God will bless him. When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow. Work together. Don’t try to act big. Don’t try to get in good with important people but enjoy the company of ordinary folks. And don’t think you know it all!”
Pretty simple, huh? But unfortunately, sometimes we get so overwhelmed by the things happening in the world around us that we forget the basics. We forget about the things that really matter. Sounds like we might all need a pre-school refresher. The truth is, we all need to work on loving and blessing and helping and serving our neighbors a little bit more, whoever our neighbors might be. But the part that I want to focus on for just a minute is what Paul says next because this is the underlying cause of much of our struggle.
Later in Paul’s letter, we hear: “My friends, don’t try to get even. ‘I am the One who judges people. I will pay them back,’ says the Lord. You do just the opposite. Don’t let evil overcome you. Overcome evil by doing good.”
Did you hear that? Do not let evil overcome you but overcome evil by doing good! Friends, what that means is that in everything that we do–from getting up in the morning to driving to work or to bring our kids to camp or scouts or school, from how we greet our coworkers and our neighbors and our family to how we respond to texts and email, and from how we treat that stranger in the grocery store to our reaction to something unexpected–it is our choice to get stressed out and to let evil overcome us or to smile and to love our neighbor, whoever our neighbor might be, overcoming evil by doing good.
The truth is, it takes practice, my friends. But the more you choose to do good and to love others, the more natural and second-nature it will become. And it is not difficult or expensive. It is just taking the time to remember what is important. It is not allowing yourself to get caught up in the drama. It’s remembering your faith, no matter what the people around you are doing, and rather than looking down your nose and judging others, it’s always choosing plain old simple love!
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your week ahead, I encourage you to be kind. Be a beacon of light in the darkness remembering that you are not called to judge anyone. But on the contrary, you are simply called to love them!
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!