scripture: Romans 12:9-21
“What’s next?” was the question I asked myself on Tuesday August 26, 2014 as I sat at my desk at the beginning of the day. The question was prompted by several events and incidents in my life both behind and before me. We were just back from our vacation week, where we launched Andy into his academic year at Wilmington College. As I looked at the calendar, I anticipated a couple of dates in the early part of September; Dennis’ birthday is the 7th and our anniversary is the 10th. I also noticed a number of meetings, events and appointments that relate to the seasonal resumption of things here at Adirondack Friends. Sometimes it seems like autumn is more of a significant transition time for me, when things start up or begin again, than the start of our calendar year in January.
So anyway, as I considered the “what next” query, I began to clean my desk and plan for the days and weeks ahead, I came across the scripture we read this morning from Romans 12. While that is not necessarily especially coincidental because Romans IS one of the texts that the lectionary covers this fall, I DID think that it was at least a bit serendipitous, because the words in this passage seemed to directly answer my question. Just for fun… ask yourself that question “What’s next?” and then hear that passage again in response to it.
“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.” 2No, “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.”
Pretty thought provoking, isn’t it? Well, as I’ve continued to ponder this as God’s response to my somewhat glib and careless question, it has become more and more meaningful. It has also become quite pertinent to the responses I think we might give as a faith community; as WE consider what’s next for us…
As I dug a little deeper, I discovered 3 more questions that would help reveal the nuts and bolts of any specific answer to “What Next?” They are “Who am I?”, “What am I to be doing?”, “Where should I be doing it?” And, I could see or discern parts of this Romans text that articulated a Divine, pragmatic plan or direction that led to replies for these 3 pieces of the “what next?” puzzle.
First; who am I? Well, That can be answered in any number of ways; I am a family member, a spouse, a pastor, –but most primarily I am a person of CHRISTIAN FAITH. Thus, my life should be about living into the life I have in Christ; in following his teachings, in being redeemed by his sacrifice.
Who are we as a faith community? Again a number of answers that identify our particular perspective—we are Quakers, we are a part of South Glens Falls, and so on…But again most primarily we are a group that has been given life as a result of our faith. This part of Paul’s letter to the Romans is primarily concerned with the establishment of a community that lives out Christ’s way OVER AGAINST the secular powers that be. A community that is to be counter-cultural, not conforming to the status quo; a witness to the world—a showcase of ethics that are anchored in grace, rather than wealth, success or power. I think it is a wake up call to us to remember that as we become more accepting of or conformed by present day social conventions, conveniences, and practices that we place ourselves in, that we lose our identity as an radical alternative community, with important, vital practices that can transform us and those with whom we have relationships.
Next; “what are we to be doing?” The bulk of this Romans passage offers specific practices and perspectives that apply directly to both individuals and communities.
From the very start, it’s clear that ALL actions are to be based in LOVE. This isn’t the hearts and roses of romance, but rather Agape love. As one commentator explains “ to love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being… One translation of this text makes the verb in the first verse to be indicative rather than an imperative. This makes all the clauses that follow to define what genuine love means. It would then read like this: “Genuine love is: abhorring the evil; clinging to the good. being affectionate to one another in brotherly love. outdoing one another in honor not lagging in diligence, being afire in the Spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, persevering in affliction, being devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, pursuing hospitality.”
As an individual who is celebrating 32 years with my spouse, I can say that this kind of love more accurately reflects the hard work of meaningful relationship. As a member of this faith community here, it reminds me that love is hard, important work that honors all others all the time, preserving, weeping, rejoicing, blessing even those who persecute us, praying, and showing hospitality.
“Hospitality” specifically caught my eye as we start a multi-week period when we are intentionally inviting people into our worship services. From one commentator, I learned that, “Hospitality does not mean simply welcoming newcomers into our congregations and doing charitable acts, important as they are. We must move beyond hospitality as charity to hospitality as an act of justice. Hospitality as charity offers crumbs from our tables; hospitality as justice offers a place at the table. In the context of our predatory global market, hospitality involves transformation of the system that is inhospitable to many.”
Perhaps sometime in the future I will follow the advice of several commentators and do a series on each phrase of this particular scripture. Each one is important and exhibits a vital activity–a vital part of a faith community who is living in God’s love.
Finally, where should I be doing all this faith based loving? In one of the articles I studied on this passage, the author understood Paul’s advice to relate to 4 different circles of relationships in an individual’s or community’s life. It is important that we understand that these to continue to be the primary arenas for the life and work of believers—in other words, US. The first circle of Paul’s relationship model is drawn around those who we are in closest contact—our own Christian community. Just beyond this core, are those who are connected in faith and are unknown to us—fellow believers; saints Paul calls them. Next are our enemies and finally the circle extends to include the rest of the world. It is clear that Paul expects believers then and now to live peaceably with ALL, EVERYWHERE. It is also clear that Paul is aware that this is NOT EASY work. Extending love constantly and consistently to those whom we do or don’t know, who might well be our enemies, without judgment is difficult but vital for allowing God to expose and deal with evil; for enabling God to transform the world THROUGH US. Even as I say that, I shudder. This is SO big, SO important. Again, I find myself asking WHAT NEXT?!
However, each time I read through this passage, I can see places where I or we can BE INVOLVED in this divine transformation…a little at a time. By inviting a person to worship, or by working with someone with whom we don’t normally get along. By visiting with those who grieve, who are ill or who are troubled in our neighborhood or community. By visiting with or making friends with a person of another faith. By advocating for safety and justice in our neighborhoods. By speaking out as a person of faith who will not tolerate racism or poverty or violence. By meeting face to face with someone who you identify as your enemy. Each and every little bit—tiny steps– MATTER. If you listen to Paul here closely and long enough, you realize that this is the way God wants to work in our world. Slowly and steadily transformation inches into our reality.
And so, I challenge us all: read this passage EVERY DAY THIS WEEK. Let its message be planted inside yourself, and in this faith community. Let love grow a little each day through our daily actions and activities. Let evil be replaced by peace in those dark places we know of.
Let us transform our homes and neighborhoods; our meetings and our lives by asking and living into the answers of WHAT NEXT?!