September 3, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
Whew! Paul gives us a long list of do’s and don’ts here. Depending on how you count them, there are at least 23 separate commands that he speaks in this one little section of his letter. In our pew Bibles, it is divided into two paragraphs, but in the original Greek, there are no paragraph separations at all. So, it really reads like one great big long list of imperatives: do this, and don’t do that, one right after another.
There is some rich stuff here. “Let love be genuine,” is how it starts out. That is good advice, and we could spend a whole sermon on those four words alone. But Paul doesn’t linger: “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.” And on and on and on. It is a long list of commands. I found myself this week settling, though, on the two related commands of the very last verse of the whole long list. Paul wraps it all up by exhorting the Roman Christians, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I think that is what speaks to us today.
There is plenty out there that feels like it will overcome us. We watch the news come pouring in about rain that has literally overwhelmed the coast of Texas. And just like every time a natural disaster has done so much damage and hurt so many lives, there are the reports that play ping-pong with our feelings and fears: pictures of communities coming together to help each other alongside stories of disabled senior citizens abandoned in waist-high water at a nursing home; photo ops of leaders who share determination and encourage generosity alongside records of years and years of public policy which has weakened infrastructure, made immigrants and minorities afraid of law enforcement agents, and allowed development in places that have always flooded. And alongside our compassion and concern for the people of Texas, we recognize a fear in ourselves that something like that could happen here at any time.
But the natural disaster is not the only story that feels so powerful that it will overcome us. Anyone who had contrived in their mind that racism was dead and other kinds of hatred were long gone has awakened in the last month to see that is just not true. World leaders keep lobbing missiles as a way to make themselves look bigger and more powerful than they really are. Other world leaders handle such moves badly, lobbing their own incendiary words. Altogether, all that lobbing serves to escalate the tension and return evil with evil, rather than offering solutions which might help everyone calm down. Churches throw words around, too; this past week, a group of leaders among some churches put out a statement. That statement from our evangelical brothers and sisters labels as false our notions of the fundamental equality of men and women. But that is not all; it also questions the generous welcome to all people which is central to Christ’s command and scripture’s witness. And it refuses to engage in the mutual forbearance which puts the unity of the Christ’s followers ahead of the stances we take on issues which are far from clear or simple.
Our own bodies tell us stories, too, of limitations and decline. We are overcome by aches and pains. We are fearful of what it means when we forget details and misplace items. We are humbled by schedules which are either too full for us to find needed rest or so empty we wonder if we are still useful and valuable to our families, communities, and faith. We are scared that those feelings of anxiety and depression will come creeping back up and stick around for a long time again.
In the middle of all these stories and concerns about global disasters, human-made divisions, and bodily decline, Paul’s words clang out boldly: “Do not be overcome by evil.” It all starts to feel kind of evil, doesn’t it? It feels like these are cosmic forces working against us. It feels like there is some kind of devil at war with God, someone who might even have the power to overtake God. We feel helpless; it feels like all we can do is sit on the sidelines and watch the wrestling match unfold, fearful that our team will not win. That is illogical, of course; God is the creator of everything and more powerful than any force in heaven or on earth, and scripture is clear that, in the end, God will win. Any time we start to talk about evil, we have to stop ourselves from those images of cosmic battle and think instead about human sin, which is really what evil looks like in our world.
By this point in the letter to the Romans, Paul had already spilled a quite a bit of ink talking about sin. The church was facing some pressures from the outside, it is true. Things were not terribly comfortable for anyone who created any disruption to the social order, especially for those who would not participate in the worship of the emperor, who claimed to be a son of the gods. But the problems Paul addressed in Romans were more internal to the church. Folks were disagreeing about who was supposed to be welcomed in the church. Is the church a club for Jews only, who were not only born into their identity as God’s chosen people, but who had made lifestyle choices throughout their whole lives which conform to the rules of the Jewish scriptures? Or is the church open to all people, no matter what groups they identified with, what background they come from, and what choices they had made? Paul was very clear in the way he waded into these arguments: no one can claim to be more deserving of God’s love and the church’s welcome than anyone else; as he said in chapter 3, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God’s grace alone is the only claim we can make to show that we deserve to be a part of God’s people; in chapter 5 he said, “while we were [all] sinners, Christ died for us.” Therefore, through our baptism into Christ’s death, we are dead to the effects of sin, and we are raised to new life with him. And, as we remind each other each and every Sunday in our own worship service here at White Bluff Presbyterian Church, nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is a direct quote from the eighth chapter of Romans.
After all of this talk of human sin, of God’s grace, of new life, and of the pattern of reconciliation which God has initiated in Jesus Christ, then here in chapter 12, Paul starts offering practical advice for the Roman church. And we get this laundry list of commandments, winding to a climax in the verse that stuck with me this week. “Do not be overcome with evil,” Paul said. Don’t let these silly animosities between the parties in your community get to you. Don’t let the limits of your knowledge or of your experience or even just of your aching knees and your sore backs and your balance that seems to be a little out of whack get to you. Don’t let the tragedies of the world, the stubbornness of the ruling class, and the hatred some people can’t seem to stop showing get to you. Don’t let the feelings of distrust, of cynicism, of fear, and of hopelessness get to you. “Do not be overcome with evil.” It is a real possibility that you could be overcome; do not let that happen to you.
Instead, he said, set your mind on better things. “Overcome evil with good.” Make a decision that you will not be dragged down by all the signs of evil and sin around you, no matter how much they might try to overwhelm you. Stand your ground with goodness. And what does that mean? For that, we can look at some of the imperatives Paul had given them in that long list. For instance, he said, “live in harmony with one another” and “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” But still, that’s a bit abstract; what does it look like to live in harmony and live peaceably with others?
Other advice is more specific. He encourages sympathy: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” He admonishes generosity: “Contribute to the needs of the saints [and] extend hospitality to strangers.” He pushes humility: “do not claim to be wiser than you are;” “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” He commands respect for yourself and others: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” He urges us to do what might not come naturally: “Bless those who persecute you…and do not curse them.” When all else fails, he tells us to take it to the Lord: “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” And he quotes a Proverb from the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament, just to make sure Paul’s point is clear to everyone: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to eat.” We hate to think about having enemies, but when we are dealing with the evils which feel like they might overcome us, and the human sin which is behind much of those evil things, then standing our ground with goodness sometimes simply means giving a bit of food to anyone who is hungry and water to anyone who is thirsty, no matter who they are.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Maybe that is the best thing we can do in our own lives right now. Maybe our best course would be to meet the world’s tragedies, with all of their confusion, with goodness. Maybe we can meet the world’s hatred and racism, missiles and threats, false distinctions and exclusive barriers with goodness. Maybe we can meet the battles that seem to be raging inside our own bodies and minds with as much goodness as we can muster. Maybe we can stand our ground against evils using the tools of sympathy, of generosity, of humility, of self-respect and respect of others, of blessing, of prayer, and of all the rest. For many years when I was younger, this set of instructions hung on the bulletin board in my bedroom in my parents’ house, left there from when I was an idealistic college student trying to figure out the best way to be in the world. Maybe it’s time to hang this list up again. Maybe it’s the only way to survive.
And so my prayer this morning is that we will hear Paul’s command: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” My prayer is that we will not let the tragedies, the divisions, the racism and hatred, the aches and pains, overwhelm us. And my prayer is that we will live that command: with sympathy, with generosity, with humility, with respect, and with all the rest.