I Want To Take You Higher, part 2
Sermon preached August 31, 2014
Texts: Romans 12:9-21
Romans 12:9-21: New Revised Standard Version and The Message
Let love be genuine.
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.
Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.
Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good.
Love one another with mutual affection.
Be good friends who love deeply.
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Practice playing second fiddle.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Be cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Get along with each other, don’t be stuck up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.
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.”
Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
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.”
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, of if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
David Bowie, “Changes” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pl3vxEudif8
In last week’s sermon, I spoke, in part about the work of God in our lives and in our world as “transformation.” We read the first part of the twelfth chapter of Romans and zeroed in on the first part of verse 2. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12:2a). We considered some other renderings of this passage. Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within (Phillips). Do not become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out (The Message).
Ch-ch-ch-changes. That’s what God is about. Jesus wants to take us higher. The Spirit wants to transform our hearts, souls, lives. The Message version of Romans 12:2 uses yet another image. It begins, as noted, Do not become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit in without even thinking. It goes on: 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. Just this week in Time there was a brief piece on “narcissism,” with the sub-title “We’re all born to adore ourselves, but not all of us grow up.” There is a lot in our culture that drags us down to immaturity. Ch-ch-ch-changes – Jesus wants to take you higher. God wants to develop well-formed maturity in us.
Last week we considered one area in which we are to be transformed by the Spirit of God. We all have gifts to be celebrated and cultivated. It is not just those with extraordinary talents who have gifts, we all do. If Romans 12 is our guide, however, we all have gifts, but none of us has every gift, so we need each other in some important and fundamental way. That strikes at the very heart of why we need the church. We need the church because we need each other. And if Romans 12 is our guide, we are also to use our gifts for some larger good, not simply for our self-aggrandizement.
Continuing on in Romans 12, which is all about the kind of transformation the Spirit seeks to nurture in us, we see a shift. We begin with transformation. We focus on our gifts, our uniqueness. But then there is this change. Instead of continuing to speak about unique gifts, Paul writes about qualities that we should all be striving to nurture and cultivate in our lives. Here is what God is seeking to grow in you. Here is how Jesus wants to take you higher. Here is what the Spirit is up to in you. This is well-formed maturity. Then we get wave upon wave of images and ideas. It reminds me of a jazz musician taking a theme and developing it, playing it just a little different each time through. It reminds me of waves rolling upon the shore, transforming the shore line a little each time. It is almost as if Paul is embodying transformation in his writing about being transformed. You can feel it in the reading, and I hope you felt that a bit when Geoff and I read.
So how is God working in our lives? What does this transforming presence of the Spirit seek to do in us?
Let love be genuine – love from the center of who you are. You need to develop a solid center if you are going to love from it. Love one another with mutual affection – be good friends who love deeply.
Outdo one another in showing honor – practice playing second fiddle. Don’t be the great somebody. It is not always easy, walking that fine line between developing our center, celebrating our gifts, and not being the great somebody.
Keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Don’t quit in hard times.
Be cheerfully expectant. I love Wendell Berry here – “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Pray – and pray again, and pray again.
Contribute to the needs of the saints.
Extend hospitality to strangers – be inventive in hospitality. Make friends with nobodies.
Bless your enemies. If they are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.
Laugh with your friends when they are happy.
Share tears – weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with each other, even with those who may not be a great e-harmony match. It’s us, folks, we are who we need to be in harmony with.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil – don’t hit back. The lesson I remember learning was “don’t start the fight, but if someone else starts it, make sure you win.”
Discover beauty in everyone.
Live peaceably with all, so far as it depend upon you.
Don’t be overcome by evil, don’t let it get the best of you. Overcome evil with good. Hold on to dear life to the good and thereby overcome evil.
Wow. A bit overwhelming, isn’t it? That’s what God’s Spirit is doing in us. This is well-formed maturity. This is the way Jesus wants to take us higher. Ch-ch-ch-changes. Can our lives really look something like this? Well, we are not at this by ourselves. God is with us. We have each other.
And it is here among ourselves that these qualities of character are to become qualities of community. God’s transforming work is meant for our families, for our church community.
As this kind of transforming work is happening here, perhaps then we have a real gift to share with the world. If we can love genuinely, if we can practice playing second fiddle, if we can be inventive in hospitality – welcoming the stranger and blessing our enemies, if we can discover beauty in everyone, maybe we can be of more help in a world torn by violence, revenge, racial tension, sexual exploitation, injustice and oppression. Given what we have seen in Ferguson, Missouri, our world needs to find creative and kinder ways forward. Given what we see in Israel-Palestine, our world needs to find creative and kinder ways forward. I am not sure of the exact implications of this Scripture for that situation, but revenge upon revenge doesn’t seem to be getting us very far. Given what we see in Syria and Iraq, our world needs to find creative and kinder ways forward. Again, I am not sure what our text might mean for a situation where you have people willing to behead others. Sometimes evil has to be confronted forcefully, but not with vengeance as its primary motive, I think. The important point in all of this is that it is as we are being transformed, and as our community is being transformed, we have creative gifts to share that can perhaps also transform our world. We are at our best when we love other things together.
Ch-ch-ch-changes – God’s Spirit wants to transform you, transform us, transform our world. Ch-ch-ch-changes – Jesus wants to take you higher.
Two final thoughts. Marva Dawn is an insightful writer and theologian, and one of the places she has been insightful for me is in her work on Romans 12. She wrote a book about it which was originally entitled “The Hilarity of Community.” In Romans 12:8 Paul writes about acting compassionately with “cheerfulness.” The Greek word he uses is hilarotes, from which we derive our word hilarity. The word can carry the connotation of one’s heart laughing, or of one’s eyes dancing. God’s transforming work is serious business, but it is also to be filled with joy and hilarity. We are invited to a joyful journey of transformation.
A story (Anthony DeMillo, Taking Flight, 162). Once, in a village, there was a congregation whose rabbi would disappear each week on the eve of the Sabbath. The members suspected that the rabbi was stealing away to meet God in some secret place of prayer. They decided to have one of their members follow him. This is what the man saw: the rabbi disguised himself in peasant clothes and served a paralyzed Gentile woman in her cottage, cleaning out the room and preparing a Sabbath meal for her. When the congregational spy returned, the congregation asked him, “Where did the rabbi go? Did he ascend in to heaven?” “No,” the spy replied, “he went even higher.”
Let love be genuine – love from the center of who you are. Love one another with mutual affection – be good friends who love deeply. Bless your enemies. Be inventive in hospitality. Discover beauty in everyone. Overcome evil with good. Jesus wants to take you higher. Jesus wants to take us higher. Amen.