When We Bear the Fruit of Humility, We Receive Freedom and Joy!

 

Philippians 2:1-13     Lectionary 26     September 28, 2014

 

As we practice the faith, God the Holy Spirit bears fruit within us.  When we bear the fruit of humility, we receive freedom and joy!

Listen again to St. Paul’s teaching about humility. He writes this to the Jesus people in the ancient city of Philippi: If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

How do you respond to these words?

The first thing to say is that these could be some of the most dangerous teachings in the Bible! [B]e of the same mind, we read, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Well, what about when we disagree with each other?  Are we being sinful when we disagree with each other?  In fact, that has caused serious conflict in churches, countless times!  We’re supposed to be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind, and so, we think, we can’t have differences of opinion. So we suppress our disagreements when they are small (which is when we can deal with them).  But how often have small disagreements festered, becoming resentments too big to ignore any longer – which is when people begin fighting with each other?  What does it means to be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind? Certainly, this means: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. But isn’t it dangerous to think that we must agree about every little thing?

The next verses are dangerous, too: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Well, what about when we are needing to take care of ourselves?  Is that selfish?  Isn’t this teaching us not to take care of ourselves, but to attend to the interests of others?

Think of how dangerous that can become! How many do you know who have become burnt out at church, who don’t even show up any more, because they gave and gave and gave – way beyond the point of joyful generosity; when, instead, they came to feel trapped by a resentful sense of duty?  (Perhaps you have gone through such a period of resentment and burn out.)

Here is what I would suggest. Since Jesus declared two commandments to sum up all that is in God’s holy law (One is to love God with all our being.  The other is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”), let us read all ethical teachings in the Bible through these lenses.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There’s good boundary-setting  balance in those words, isn’t there?  It doesn’t say, “You shall love your neighbor and not yourself.”  It certainly doesn’t say, “You shall love your neighbor and neglect yourself so that you burn yourself out and feel angry and resentful.”

Isn’t God using Paul’s words to call us to a healthy humility?  If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Our model is Jesus.

St. Paul continues, quoting what might have actually been a hymn in use among ancient congregations of Jesus people:  

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

As we practice the faith, God the Holy Spirit bears fruit within us.  When we bear the fruit of humility, what a counter cultural life we lead!  Think of this.  When we are acting out of a healthy humility, we don’t have to immediately get upset about something that people are screaming about on FOX news and MSNBC.  We don’t have to immediately express our reactions on facebook.  In healthy humility, we can be thoughtful and considerate – considering that, perhaps, we don’t have all the information we need, and that, perhaps, we can be patient and compassionate.  I wonder what our culture would be like if more imitated us, in our witness to Christ, as we bear the fruit of humility?  Wouldn’t our culture would be much less angry?

As we practice the faith, God the Holy Spirit bears fruit within us.  When we bear the fruit of humility, we receive freedom and joy!  What freedom it is, not to immediately have to rush to judgment!  What freedom there is when we can resist the sin of pride, which is the opposite of humility.

Whenever you and I are hard on ourselves because we’re not accomplishing enough, that is the sin of pride – because, in our pride, we think it all depends on us.  Whenever you and I are feeling overwhelmed by how much we have to do, that is the sin of pride – because, in our pride, we think it all depends on us.

In a healthy humility, we simply give ourselves to God.  And then we give ourselves to the work God has given us to do.

In a healthy humility, we know we cannot cause results to happen. We can simply do the work.  We trust God.  We trust that God will do with our work what God wants to do.        What freedom there is in that!  What joy there is in following the model of our Lord, who embodied the love of God in his humble service, in his compassion to all he encountered, all who were in spiritual and emotional and physical need.

That is the model of our Lord who calls us to follow; he who practiced a healthy humility, who engaged in humble service.  He simply did the work.  The results were up to God.  St. Paul writes:

Therefore, God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

In all Fairness

Matthew 20:1-16    Lectionary 25     September 21, 2014

“It’s not fair!” How many times have you heard that, especially if you are a parent? “She’s got more than me! It’s not fair!” I was here first! It’s not fair!” “I wanted to be the one to shave the dog! It’s not fair!” How many times have you thought, if not said out loud, “It’s not fair!”? Have you had the experience of a colleague receiving credit for your work, or worked with someone who passes off your brilliant idea as her own? Maybe, like the late afternoon workers in our parable, you’ve worked longer and harder than someone else, and yet he got the promotion and pay increase instead of you. Unfair situations in our lives and in the world happen every day. Justice can seem either unattainable or arbitrary. Our reading would seem to confirm this.

To place this parable in its Biblical context, Peter had just told Jesus that he and the disciples had left everything to follow him, and then he asked, “What’s our reward going to be?” Jesus finished their discussion with the same concluding words as our reading this morning, saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

To place our story in historical context, our gospel writer, Matthew, was writing to a community in which there were converts from Judaism, people who had been recipients of God’s promises all along. Now there were new converts who had come. Was it fair, was it just, to include people who weren’t part of the original promises, people who were not there from the beginning? This was the issue that sparked our parable. God’s generosity and fairness shown in welcoming all people wasn’t embraced by everyone. I am remembering a bumper sticker that I had seen–“Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.”

If you were to place yourself in this story, which character would you be? First, imagine yourself to be one of the people employed near the end of the day. Maybe some had been up all night with a sick child, or had to take their mother to the doctor in the morning. Or maybe their car had broken down, and so they walked 15 miles to get to the place where bosses came looking for laborers. Whatever the reason, they had not succeeded in being able to contract for a full day’s work. They were surprised and delighted when the vineyard owner came in the afternoon and told them to come with him. The business owner promised to pay them “what was right.” However much money that would be, they could only trust and be thankful. They weren’t expecting a lot, but whatever money they received would be more than they had hoped for when they started their day. When it was quitting time, they were shocked when the owner handed them their pay. It was a fair wage for a full day’s work, and for a partial day of work, it was very generous!

Now imagine yourself as one of the first workers hired. They had been up before the sun peeked up over the horizon. As was the custom, stood together outside waiting for someone to come to give them work to do. They had to put food on the table, and so were grateful for a job. The owner of the vineyard had told them how much they would be paid, and the amount was a fair day’s wage. At the end of the day, they were both worn out and proud of the work they had done.  Watching the part-time workers receive their pay, they were overjoyed! They could only imagine how much more they would get! But when they held out their hands, it wasn’t more. They had worked more hours and gotten the same wages. Sure, they got what was promised to them, what they agreed to, but per hour wage they were making less than half of some of the others. It wasn’t fair! You could see the redness of righteous indignation creeping up their face. Envy became more important than what they received.

Now put yourself in the place of the owner of the vineyard.  He had gone out in the early morning to find workers. He promised them a fair wage for their labor. We aren’t told if the owner had found enough workers the first time, if he even needed more people, but we do know that the vineyard owner went out again, and again, and again. Each time, he brought more people to work on his land. By our standards, the vineyard owner was fair to the early morning workers. He paid them in accordance with his promise. To those hired later, and later, and later, he was generous, and more generous, and even more generous.

We have been both the recipient and the giver of generosity, and we have been both the recipient and the giver of human justice. David Lose points out the choices we make everyday in this regard:

[When we] forget all the times a colleague has been helpful and obsess about a perceived slight. Or when we overlook all those who drive their cars quite reasonably but instead get driven to distraction by the one guy who cuts us off. Or when we overlook the thousand kindnesses a partner or friend has performed on our behalf but nurse a grudge about the one thing they did to hurt our feelings. At each of these turns, we can choose: will we call for justice, or will we live out of generosity….[1]

In the time of Jesus, extreme generosity was an invitation to a more permanent relationship. “In the ancient patronage system, giving more than the usual wage spoke of a relationship that invited those who were waiting for work into a long term patron relationship with the one who was generous to them.[2]”

Is God’s idea of what is just and what is fair different than ours? What if the aim of God’s justice is not for punishment, but to achieve something more? Pastor Debbie Blue observes:

For us, bringing someone to justice means they suffer the consequences of their crime or they are rewarded for their achievements. For God, bringing someone to justice means they are brought back into the circle of God’s embrace. That’s not the opposite of mercy. Justice is to reinstate the connection of the covenant that God has established. It is to restore us in love to each other and God. And maybe the way to get there, at least it seems to be the case in the Bible, in the story of Jesus, is not all sweetness and candy, but that’s where God’s going in God’s justice and in God’s mercy.

God is shameless and tireless in God’s pursuit of us, and everybody. God just keeps going back and going back and going back again. And most of the time people aren’t even looking to be hired[3].

What if relationship is God’s priority? What if it was for us, too? What if treating each other with respect and love was more important than being right? What if envy were less important than what we receive?

~ The Reverend Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Lose, David. …In the Meantime, September 15, 2014. Web.

[2] Malina, Bruce. A Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003. P. 125. Print.

[3] Blue, Debbie. Sensual Orthodoxy. Saint Paul: Cathedral Hill Press. 1989. p. 85. Print.

 

Faith Formation: Salvation, Condemnation, Forgiveness, Judgment

 

Matthew 18:21-35     Lectionary 24     September 14, 2014

 

            There is law, and there is gospel.[1]  There is law (what God expects of us), and that condemns us.  The gospel is what saves us.  There is God’s law – that God expects us to love God above all else, and to love others as we do ourselves.  The law condemns each one of us, without exception, because we fall short nearly every time.  And there is the gospel, the good news of what saves us: God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, which we receive, purely, as a gift!

Some of you may remember how Paul explains this, because we read these verses every year on Reformation Sunday: Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. In other words, no human being can save himself by trying to do what God’s law requires.  The only result is fear of God’s judgment because we know how often we fall short.

But now! But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,…   (Romans 3:19-24)

There is no distinction. All fall short of what God expects!  We cannot measure up.

This is so hard to believe! This is so counter-cultural!  We are formed by our culture to think we can keep things even, we can stay out of debt and obligation – if we write thank-you cards each and every time; if we have every person over for dinner who have had us over to their houses;  if we pay people back for every instance of generosity.  So – can’t we keep things even with God?  We are formed by our culture to believe that we are rewarded according to how hard we work, and that we get what we deserve.  So – can’t we be good enough to please God, to earn salvation from God?

We are called to repentance. We are called to turn away from that cultural formation which leads to fear and insecurity and, instead, to allow God the Holy Spirit to work faith formation.

There is law, and there is gospel. Luther begins the Small Catechism with law.  He explains each of the 10 Commandments by taking them to their logical conclusions, which makes it clear that we stand condemned, each one of us, without exception, according to God’s holy law.

“You are to have no other gods” means, “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.”[2]  So, for instance, who do you trust more: your financial advisor, or God?  Does the law condemn you?

“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” means “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s Word, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” So, if gathering for worship is necessary for salvation, does the law condemn those who allow other activities to take precedence?

Luther’s explanations of the Commandments get even worse! Some of the Commandments are impossible to fulfill!  “You are not to kill” means not only that “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors,” it also means that we must “instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”  What?! All of life’s needs?! All of our neighbors?!  Is there a single one of us who can do that?  Does the law condemn us?

Here’s another one. “You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor” not only means “that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations,” but it also means this: that “we are to come to their defense speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”  Who here has been able to do that, every time, without exception?

Do we stand condemned under the law? How does God respond to our failure?

It is as if there was a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.  Ten thousand talents!  A typical worker in Jesus’ culture earned one denarii a day, on days when he could get work.  Just onetalent equals 6,000 denarii!  Six thousands days of work!  Ten thousands talents equals 60 million denarii!  How long would it take to repay that debt?  It would take thousands and thousands of working lives to repay!  No one could do that!  But the man in Jesus’ parable is just like us: he thinks he can do enough to please the king!  So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  Do you remember what the king does?  The debtor’s abject misery moves the king.  And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  Released him!  The king forgave the debt!  That was more than the debtor was even asking for!

The story continues.  But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”   But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.That is such an injustice that this is what happens:When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.  You remember the rest.  Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.   Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  Then we read this:So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Could this be true? Could it be that we lose our own forgiveness when we do not respond with forgiveness towards others?  The idea of a final judgment is so inconvenient to keep in mind, isn’t it?  The reality of judgment causes us to fear God.

But there is law and there is gospel. Actually, first, before the law, there is salvation.  Then there is law (condemnation).  Then there is gospel (forgiveness).  Finally, there is the judgment.

First, God has saved us. God has done that through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  God did that, first, as pure gift! Now,  God moves among us as Holy Spirit, forming our faith that is rooted in that security.  Faith formation means freedom from the idea that we need to save ourselves by how hard we work to please God.

Faith formation means that we know we stand condemned, because of the law. We cannot save ourselves!  What a release that is!  God the Holy Spirit is continually moving to form our faith in God’s salvation, so that we will give up the attempt to save ourselves, because we cannot do that!  God the Holy Spirit is continually moving to form our faith so that, instead of trying to save ourselves by how hard we are working, we will  throw ourselves on God’s grace, the gospel, the good news, the gift of God’s salvation!

That gospel necessarily calls for response, or else it becomes cheap grace.[3]  Do you remember one example of the response we are called to make?  Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”   Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  An infinity of times!  Can any of us do this?  Aren’t we condemned by the law?

You see what the law does to us. St. Paul is right!  Through the law comes (only) knowledge of our sin.

The gospel necessarily calls for response, or else it becomes cheap grace. Not a single one of us can measure up to what God expects of us.  In the face of judgment, thank God for what God has done in Jesus the Christ, to save us!

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] This is a classic Lutheran formulation of what God’s Word contains.

[2] This is drawing on Luther’s explanation of the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism.

[3] To use Bonhoeffer’s phrase, from his book, Discipleship.

God’s Work Our Hands

Ezekiel 33:7-11, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

Pentecost 13 September 7, 2014

There is a common thread running through our texts for today. The prophet Ezekiel speaks, on behalf of God, messages of both condemnation and restoration. We hear God speak through Ezekiel to the people of Israel. God has heard the Israelites say, “’Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’” This question is our underlying theme this morning in all of our readings.

God gives this charge to Ezekiel: “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; wherever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them a warning from me.” He was to warn the wicked to turn from their ways. In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells the people that the commandments can be “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives instruction to the church on how to address differences and complaints within the community. All of these texts, as Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out, “are about responsibility within and for our social world….Obedience to God, these texts suggest, cannot take place in isolation from social structures; faith in the living God demands not only love of neighbor, but also a response to the social order.[1]”

Johnson’s observations lead me to ask, who is in our social world? Who is my neighbor? We have learned, especially in our age of instant global communication, that our neighbors include those who are beyond our personal social circles. Neighbors are all people in all the world. In light of this, what does obedience of faith require? Asking the question that the Israelites asked, and knowing that we bear responsibility for our neighbors, how then can we live? Our faith-full response requires us to put our faith into action.

Matthew talks about church polity and procedures to help churches not get caught up in internal politics so that they can focus on putting their faith into action. He knew that when we are not focused on ourselves and our own survival, there is energy for mission. Matthew lays out how to deal with conflict because when a church is not embroiled in internal conflict, the people can be church for the world. When we are not fighting over the purchase of a new baptismal candle, we have time to focus on feeding the hungry. When we still speak to and value each other even though we disagree over what to do with 608 Jamestown Road, we can come together to ensure Roggy, our Godparents’ for Tanzania student, is well cared for.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church has designated today as the second annual “God’s Work Our Hands” Sunday. It is a day when “nearly 10,000 congregations of this church gather to serve communities in ways that share the love of God with all of God’s people.[2]”Our national bishop, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, observes, “When one congregation or a group of congregations gather for service in their local communities, they are the church in that place, taking care of that part of God’s vineyard. But this is all work that we do together. When one congregation works to feed people who are hungry, that is also the entire church coming together. ‘God’s work. Our hands.’ Sunday reminds us that we are church together for the sake of the world. Our lives have been changed by our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and it’s that encounter with Jesus that frees us to make a difference.[3]

St. Stephen does make a difference. We do impact lives in meaningful ways. Sandy Peterkin, our parish administrator and a faithful volunteer, has looked at our ministry from the perspective of those whose lives we have helped. I give thanks for these stories that she has shared, stories that reflect our ministry:

Joan was a teacher in the public school system in Newport News. She had moved from Florida to teach in Newport News. But shortly thereafter, the economy began to suffer, and the school budget got tight. It was deemed necessary to cut teachers and staff. Joan was the last one hired and so was the first one to get laid off. She lost her apartment, and had to find shelter on the streets. Joan was grateful for the Community of Faith Shelter last winter. There she was able to get three meals each day, sleep in a warm place, and try to pull her life back together. She met folks from area churches who fed her each day, and she learned about opportunities for work. Through staying in the shelter, she was able to save money for another apartment.

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program is a program for non-immigrants to work and study here. The Pineapple Inn, in addition to serving as a temporary shelter for some of Williamsburg’s homeless, has become a place of lodging for the J1 students who come to Williamsburg to work. This program of “cultural exchange” often places students in jobs with long hours, low pay, and no benefits. Tanya and her daughter were one of the families residing at the Pineapple Inn. Her paycheck enabled her to make it through most of the month, but near the end of the month, there wasn’t money left for food. “From His Hands Ministry,” one of our feeding ministries, delivers meals and food to the Inn. We helped Tanya and her daughter, and other adults, children and pets staying there, to eat hot meals. “From His Hands Ministry” also provided food for them so that they could cook in their rooms.

The fire that destroyed Bob and Lori’s house also took their sense of security. Sure there was insurance, but not nearly enough to cover the house and their belongings. They were referred to FISH, our community food pantry and clothing closet. Bob and Lori got food and clothes needed until they could recover from this tragedy.

Jim had been in the hospital for a while. During his time there, someone brought him a prayer shawl. The makers of the shawls pray constantly when they are knitting them, and he could see the love and prayerful work that went into its creation. He wrapped himself up in it, comforted by God’s love and prayers that surrounded him.

Janet and her two children lived in terror and fear of her husband. The abuse was not only frightening, but at times crippling. Janet found the strength to make the call to Avalon, Williamsburg’s women’s and children’s shelter. They provided safe shelter, and counseling for her and her children. She was able to find employment and start a new life, free from fear.

Each year, children from the Grove area of James City County worry about starting school wearing their worn out shoes. Our congregation provides them with new ones. Our middle schoolers gather cookie cutters, mixing bowls, pans and cookie mixes to make cooking-baking kits to distribute at the Grove Christian Outreach Center.

God’s Work, Our Hands, not just with food, sneakers, labor and finances, but with prayers and heart-felt love. We are the church for the sake of the world.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=728.

[2] http://www.elca.org/dayofservice

[3] Ibid.

A Community of Formation: Being Formed in Empathy

 

Romans 12:9-21      Lectionary 22     August 31, 2-14

 

            Have you been following the McDonnell trial?  Our former governor and his wife are facing 14 felony charges of corruption.  Testimony has gone on for weeks, and now we’re awaiting the jury’s verdict.  Were Bob and Maureen’s actions illegal when they accepted gifts from a smarmy businessman (who has testified under immunity, by the way)?  That’s the legal question.  But what’s added spice is the way the defense has made use of salacious details about Bob and Maureen’s marriage!  I don’t know about you, but each day, I have found myself needing to check the Richmond Times-Dispatch (print and web site!): What is the latest revelation to come out of the mouths  of the witnesses?

And, if I may, let me make a confession.  On too many days, I’ve been motivated by voyeurism, as embarrassing disclosure has followed embarrassing disclosure!  (Has that been the case for you, too?)  On several days, the testimony was like a reality television show, as the lawyers probed about the difficulties in the McDonnell’s marriage, and whether Maureen had a romantic interest in the sleazy scumbag who was giving them money.  But let me tell you what’s been true on my best days.  Looking at former Governor McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and their daughters, who have been at one or the other parent’s side each day, and who have even been called to testify, I have felt empathy.  I have tried to put myself in their positions, the daughters in particular.  What must it be like to go through such public humiliation?  How awful!

And how instructive, this morning, to read in chapter 12, in Paul’s letter to the Jesus people in Rome.  Last week we read the first part of this chapter.  Today we read the rest.  I think this is one of the most difficult chapters in the Bible, because Paul teaches that, when we’re centering on ourselves, we are conforming to the world.  The keynote verse is one we read last week, verse two: 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.  Paul is teaching: “Do not center on yourselves.  Center on God.”  This morning, we read the rest of the chapter.  It’s Paul’s invitation to live in radically counter-cultural ways that become possible when we’re centered in the blessings of God’s compassion and love and grace.

We could spend a month of Bible studies on this 12th chapter of Romans, and that still wouldn’t be enough time to talk about all that’s in there.  It’s certainly impossible to say much about the chapter justice in a short sermon.  But here’s what seems to be true, for me, as I read this chapter at this point on my journey: empathy is the theme, in all the specifics of how Paul invites us to live as followers of Jesus.

The Bible says a lot of different things at a lot of different places.  A Lutheran way to judge among all the conflicting things that are in the Bible is to read the Bible through Jesus.  That means, to read the Bible and to give weight to differing messages according to what Jesus reveals about God!  Helpfully, in this morning’s gospel story, Jesus is explicit about how he has saved us. [1]  It is through his own weakness and suffering.

Think about this.  Jesus saves you and me through his weakness and suffering.  Here’s more: Jesus is profoundly present with you and me in our own weakness and sufferings.  What mystery that is – isn’t it? – that God would save us in this way?  And so, Jesus tells us, you and I are to take up our crosses, if we are to be Jesus followers.  That means we are called to live as disciples right there, in the day-to-day experiences of our own lives, whether they be joyful or full of suffering.

Paul is inviting us into the life of imitating Christ.  And the key is empathy.

It looks like, in the first five verses, Paul is teaching us how to treat each other within the community of Jesus people.  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.

In the rest of the chapter Paul teaches us how to be actively involved “in the world,” outside of this community of Jesus people.  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.

Do you have trouble with that next to last verse, the one about “heap[ing] burning coals on their heads?”  Look for the quotation marks!  That’s part of a quotation.  That makes you want to see what Paul is quoting, right?  (See how important it is to read the Bible closely, before jumping to conclusions?)  As it turns out, Paul is quoting one of the Proverbs, in Proverbs 25:21-22, where the point is that an evil-doer is most likely to feel remorse when he is treated with kindness and compassion by the person he has wronged.  As Paul teaches in the final verse of this chapter, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Are any of the teachings in this chapter easy?  How hard it is to repent from our self-centeredness, and, instead, to act with empathy, with compassion, loving others as we love ourselves – because, in this way, we are loving God!

I’ve been reading a remarkable book by Leslie Jamison, called, The Empathy Exams.[2]   “Empathy,” she writes, “isn’t just remembering to say ‘that must really be hard’ – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.  Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.  Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.  Empathy requires knowing you know nothing….

“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges.  Trauma bleeds.  Out of wounds and across boundaries….”  (In other words, empathy means that we have to know someone’s story before we make judgments.)

Leslie Jamison holds up her boyfriend, Dave, as an example of how to be empathetic. She writes, “Dave doesn’t believe in feeling bad just because someone else does.  This isn’t his notion of support.  He believes in listening, and asking questions, and steering clear of assumptions.  He thinks imagining someone else’s pain with too much surety can be as damaging as failing to imagine it.  He believes in humility.  He believes in staying strong enough to stick around.”

Listen again to the life Paul invites us into, in imitation of Christ.  “Let love be genuine” (not self-serving; not loving only those who treat us well).  “Love one another with mutual affection.”  “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.”  “[D]o not claim to be wiser than you are.”  “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”  “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”  “[I]f your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Paul  is inviting us into a life of radical empathy, which is in imitation of Christ.  What is the trauma that a person is experiencing, which might be why she’s treating you so badly?  How might you respond with compassion?  In these ways, we witness to those who are not part of the community of Jesus people!  We are showing others what it is like to live in the way of Christ.  (This is the best “evangelism” program there is: to live in such a distinct, odd way that it provokes others to ask questions.  “Why are you acting that way?” they will ask.  “It’s because I am a follower of Jesus.  Want to learn more about this in the community I belong to, of other Jesus people?  Come and see!”)

Because, how can we possibly live this life of radical empathy?  Isn’t it is only possible with the encouragement of others in this community of weird Jesus people?  Doesn’t the Spirit constantly need to form and re-form us, as the events of our lives each day entice us to become “conformed to this world?”  Isn’t it true that the Spirit can form and re-form us in a community like this one named for St. Stephen, with our regular gatherings to receive nourishment  from God’s grace-filled salvation, so that we can resist being overcome by evil, but, instead, to overcome evil with good?

This is a community of formation.  God the Holy Spirit moves among us, forming us in the empathy of Christ, so we can see and listen and act in the same ways.

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] Read these verses – Matthew 16:21-28.  Actually, this passage is also “Part 2” of the gospel reading from last week – Matthew 16:13-20, so it’s important to read that first, since it provides the context for this morning’s dramatic story.

[2] Greywolf Press, 2014.

(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)