Sermon preached August 28, 2011
Text: Romans 12:1-21
Groucho Marx: Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it is too dark to read.
When reading a book, it makes sense to begin at the beginning, to begin with chapter one. Some books are known for their memorable beginnings:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (Moby Dick)
In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn…. Call me Stingo, which was the nickname I was known by in those days, if I was called anything at all. (Sophie’s Choice)
In the beginning (Genesis 1:1)
Yet, while the beginning of a book can be memorable, if we want to get to the heart of a book, we often find that later. While The Great Gatsby begins adequately enough: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” – – – it’s heart is found later, at its end. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…. and one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. In some way we might say that the last chapter of Gatsby is first in importance – chapter one for the meaning of the book.
The Bible is a unique book. It is unique in that it isn’t really a single book at all but a collection of writings. Yet we believe this book is also unique in the way it communicates God’s character and the nature of God’s love for the world. We believe that it has been inspired by the Spirit in a special way and therefore requires some special attention.
Awhile back I read a book compiled by New Testament scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg – Jesus and Buddha: the parallel sayings. The book is what it says it is in its title, sayings of Jesus and sayings of the Buddha side by side. Borg both wants to show some of the commonalities in these two teachers and to make the case that Jesus was a wisdom teacher. Sometimes in the history of the church we have neglected the teaching of Jesus, and Borg wanted to shift our attention. An introduction to the book was offered by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield and there he offers these words: If we could read, listen to, take to heart and enact even one verse from these teachings, it would have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives.
So one teaching might have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives. I think he may be right, but which verse, which chapter should be chapter one in our reading of the Bible. Where do we find the heart of the Bible’s teaching, teaching that illumines, transforms frees?
There are a number of wonderful candidates for a “chapter one” for the Bible. John 3:16 is often considered the heart of the Bible: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Others might choose the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) or the parable of the prodigal (Luke 15). Some might turn to Micah 6:8: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I am not going to argue against any of these possibilities as containing the genuine heart of the Bible. What I would like to do is lift up for our attention another candidate for that chapter one in importance – Romans 12. I think Romans 12 is worthy of our attention, study, action, and if we attend to it I believe there is power here to illuminate our lives, free us, transform us. Take a look with me.
Romans 12 begins with grace, begins with mercy, begins with God. There have been attempts to try and construct a Christian faith “without God.” While some of these have been creative and intellectually interesting, I don’t think there is a Christian faith without God. We can legitimately debate the more exact nature of God, but God is central to Christian faith. And the God who is central to the Bible and Christian faith is a God of mercy, grace and love. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God.” God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s love are central. I appreciate how Eugene Peterson renders an early part of Romans 12. “Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” Christian faith doesn’t begin with a list of dos and don’ts it begins with the goodness of God in creating and loving that which is created. That we are is grace. That there is beauty is grace. That people love us before we can speak or feed ourselves or dress ourselves or walk is grace. Christian faith begins with God’s love and grace, and only then our response.
And this grace, this knowing that we are loved ultimately by God is powerful. It is transforming. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect.” There is this beautiful saying from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers “Grow, grow”. Knowing that God roots us in love and roots for us to grow, that makes a difference in how we see our lives and how we live our lives. Again, I appreciate Eugene Peterson in The Message: “Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
As we respond to God’s love for us, grow in grace and love, develop well-formed maturity, we may find that we are “counter-cultural.” “Do not be conformed to this world.” Peterson: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit in without even thinking.” I admit, this is complicated stuff. Culture is not monolithic. What part of our culture should we counter? There are those who argue that the church should be counter-cultural in standing against greater acceptance of GLBT persons. That’s not my sense of being lovingly counter-cultural. How about being people who find ways to cooperate with those who are different from us, disagree with us? Might this be a constructive Christian counter-culturalism? What if we say that not everything fits neatly into sports models of winning and losing – so that not every political event or bill before congress should be seen as which party wins or loses? Not every personal disagreement should be a matter of keeping score. Might this be a constructive Christian counter-culturalism? Paul offers us fair warning. As we are being changed by God’s grace, we may not always fit in with the surrounding culture. We are left to discern what that looks like in our day and time.
One way that we are counter-cultural, though, is our emphasis on community. We belong together as Christians. One of the ways God’s love continues to transform our lives is that God brings us together in the name of Jesus into these communities called churches. It is as we are together that we begin to see how God’s love works in our lives. We don’t choose all those who Jesus brings into our lives in the church. There will be people in our church community we disagree with. Here we learn to appreciate differing gifts. There are people whose background is different from us. Here we see the gift of difference. In the church we are meant to understand common good, and thus we stand counter to an individualism that often runs amok in our culture. We are one body, with many members, and each of us has gifts to develop, share, give – kind of back to grace again!
“Let love be genuine.” Peterson: “Love from the center of who you are.” This verse returns me to Jack Kornfield’s words: If we could read, listen to, take to heart and enact even one verse from these teachings, it would have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives. This is such a verse. Love. Let love be genuine. Love from the center of who you are. But what if our center is not as loving as we would like it to be? Two things – return to the first part of the chapter about Christian faith beginning with God’s grace, mercy and love. We grow in love as we know we are loved. Two: remember that love can grow from the outside in, too. Sometimes we need to act lovingly, even when our feelings are a little shaky, our hearts a little empty. This isn’t faking it, it is one way of growing into our giftedness. At our center is not just who we are now, but who we would like to be. “Let love be genuine…. Love one another with mutual affection.”
Paul goes on to offer some ideas about what love means. “Outdo one another in showing honor.” When I hear that I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (“The Drum Major Instinct”). I am delighted that there is now a national monument to Dr. King, the dedication of which was delayed by Hurricane Irene, but it is coming. Love expresses itself in service to others, in doing good for others. “Contribute to the needs of the saints.”
Where love can challenge us most deeply is that we are not only to care for those who are part of us – “the saints,” but also to “extend hospitality to strangers.” As children we are taught a healthy concern for people we don’t know who may approach us. As people maturing in Christian faith, strangers are persons to whom we extend hospitality, and this expression of love challenges us in our church community and in our national community.
Love means “live peaceably with all.” Peterson renders this thought “discover beauty in everyone.” The work of love is also the work of peace and justice.
Love also means this – “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Christians are not the only ones to recognize this work of love. There is a Buddhist Scripture that reads: In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is an ancient, inexhaustible truth, an eternal truth. (Dhammapada, 5) Respond to evil with good. Respond to hatred with love. Love from the center of who you are, and if you are not as loving in your center as your would like – dip more deeply into God’s grace.
Paul acknowledges our need to be renewed and recharged in God’s grace and love. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit… rejoice in hope… persevere in prayer.” Again, Peterson helps me get a handle on this. “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.” The Christian life is grace and work, joy and occasional heartbreak. Standing against the prevailing culture takes energy. Responding to evil with good may be an eternal law, but it has been broken more times than the laws against speeding. We need prayer, time to reconnect more deeply with the God of Jesus Christ whose love is inexhaustible. Worship is a special form of prayer, where we gather together even when praying may be hard for us – there are others here on the journey.
If we could read, listen to, take to heart and enact even one chapter from the Bible, it would have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives. Romans 12 has that power, if we let it. I invite you, encourage you, dare you, to read this chapter often. Meet God’s grace through it in new ways and be transformed by the renewing of your minds by the Spirit and your hearts in love. Amen.
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,
5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;
7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;
8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
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.