(Romans 12: 9-21)
Endings can often make the best of beginnings. Growing up at White Memorial Presbyterian in Raleigh, I heard my pastor give the same benediction every Sunday. That pastor, Dr. Pickard, was at White Memorial for 29 years. He was the one who baptized me; he was there throughout my college years until his retirement. And my family was one of those families that, barring us being out of town or severe illness (and I mean like “loss of limb” illness), we were in Church come Sunday morning. You throw in a few extra services like Christmas Eves and the services I attended when I was home from college, and I’ve calculated that I heard my pastor give this benediction some 800 times:
Go out into the world in peace, have courage;
Hold on to that which is good
Return no person evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak
Help the suffering, honor all people
Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It became so familiar to me, this benediction, that for years I’d mouth the words along with him as he spoke it, down to the very rhythm and cadence, so that it was not just his benediction but mine as well. It was the last words spoken at every service, but the more I experienced it, the more I began to understand that it was leading me forward into the week that was to come, going with me into whatever that week might bring, reminding me of who I was and whose I was. And that is why endings can often make the best of beginnings.
For years I assumed these words were Dr. Pickard’s. I had no reason to think otherwise. To me, his very voice from the pulpit was scripture come to life. It wasn’t until I was in seminary, studying to be a pastor myself, that I learned these words were based on Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome – specifically, the passage Rebecca just read. It’s not verbatim, but you certainly hear the echoes: Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Do not repay anyone for evil. Rejoice in hope.
Now there are sixteen chapters in Romans. Today’s passage comes in the twelfth. It follows eleven chapters of some of Paul’s greatest theological writing. It is masterful the way Paul lays out the case for justification by faith through grace, the bedrock of our reformed tradition all these years later. So much of what we believe as Christians comes from those eleven chapters.
Paul writes these eleven chapters for a specific reason. Unlike most of the other churches Paul writes to – churches in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi – Paul had never been to the churches in Rome. So Romans is more or less a kind of “cold call.” He doesn’t have a relationship with the churches there, but he would very much like to have one. And he hopes that, in telling them a little bit about himself, they might see fit to support him in his mission work. Which is part of the reason why Paul lays out that grand theological masterpiece in the first eleven chapters. Kind of like a pastor sharing their best sermon video with a search committee.
But there’s something else that is going on this letter. And it has to do with the fact that these churches are the churches in Rome. And Rome, as we all know, was the heart of the Roman empire, an empire founded a half-century before and in control of most of the known world. We also know that life in the Roman empire was a tenuous balance of order and chaos where those in power ruled in absolute power. The language of empire was violence. The governing principle of empire was domination and fear. The culture of empire, as one scholar puts it:
….did not permit any suggestion that the current order may not last forever, or that it was arranged with anything other than the best of intentions by the holders of power; and any breaches of this culture were met with a range of sanctions, up to and including the threat or practice of violence.
All of this combined into what was known as “Pax Romana” – Roman peace. Which of course was not a real “peace,” but a culture of maintaining order in a way that ensured the security and safety of those in power while threatening the well-being of those outside that power.
I try to imagine being the early church right in the heart of all that – the challenges that would inevitably arise; the relentless temptation to align with the Roman domination system for self-preservation and power. I try to think of what it was like walking the Roman streets lined with crosses; men hanging from them who had threatened that precious Pax Romana; including one man upon which an entire faith would be built….
Paul’s letter to the Roman churches was more than an ask for support. It was a survival guide, written to the people of God right in the belly of the empire, reminding them what they believed about God and why that mattered and how they needed to live in the midst of that. And so once again, this time from the Message translation, Paul implores them to:
Run from evil and hold on to good.
Do not quit in hard times.
Be inventive in hospitality.
Bless your enemies and don’t curse them under your breath.
Laugh with your friends when they’re happy; shed tears when they’re down.
Discover beauty in everyone.
Love from the center of who you are.
This is how the church survives and even thrives in empire – even though it was a dangerous and risky life Paul was calling these Roman Christians to, because it meant standing in defiance of Pax Romana and calling it out for the lie that it was.
You know, I read these words from Paul written thousands of years ago. Words that, in variation, I have been living with all of my life. I sense their power for the people of faith. I hear these words and think of the context they were birthed into in those Roman churches, and I wonder – I wonder what these words might have to say to us today….
A wise pastor friend once told me that our job as preachers is not to tell people what to think, but what to think about. I’ve found this understanding to be quite helpful, actually. That my job, Rebecca’s job, is not to tell you what to think, but what to think about.
So I would like to lay before you this morning a few things to think about. I want us to think about the pandemic we are living in that has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives in profound ways, from disruption of routines and schools to the loss of jobs to the hundreds of thousands around the world who have died. And we know this is not a short-term ordeal. We are hunkering in for the long haul. I want us to think about that.
I want us to think about the current state of things around us. A contentious fall election on the horizon. Climate change that makes powerful storms even more destructive. Conflicts that are deep and painful with more yelling than listening, more posturing than bridge-building. Think about that.
I want us to think about the racial divide in our country, a divide that’s been with us for 400 years but throughout our country’s history has had moments where that fissure cracks wide open in profound and frightening ways, and how we are in one of those moments now. Think about what it means that a black man in Wisconsin can be shot seven times by police for purportedly possessing a knife somewhere in his car, and as of this morning is paralyzed from the waist down and handcuffed to his hospital bed for charges he has not yet been informed of; and how three nights after the shooting a 17-year old kid who is white with an AR-15 rifle strapped across his chest can roam the streets in full view and support of authorities, and later shoot and kill two people and still drive home to sleep in his own bed that night. Think about that, and think about how we see that same inequity and injustice play itself out over and over and over and over again.
I want us to think about what we in the church are supposed to do with all of this. Because it is becoming clear that what ails our country in this moment, what is ripping us apart, cannot be summed up as just a societal problem or just an economic problem or just an environmental problem or just a political divide problem. At its heart what we are facing is a spiritual problem. a deep sickness of the soul; the same sickness that Paul had in mind when he wrote to churches living in empire, exposing the lie of Pax Romana that we now hear echoed in calls for “law and order.”
It is a spiritual sickness in that it seeks to undo what it means to be created in the image of God. Or, more to the point, it seeks to redefine who is created in that image and who is not. Who is worthy of human value and who is not. It is the white supremacy culture that we all are living in. And that at its core, my friends, is a spiritual sickness. A spiritual pandemic. And if our communities and our cities and our country and our planet are going to be healed, truly healed of this sickness, the people of God and the church have got to step up.
And so I want us to think about what it means in this moment to go out into the world in peace.
What it means in this moment to hold on to that which is good and return no one evil for evil.
What it means in this moment to strengthen the faint-hearted and support the weak.
What it means in this moment to help the suffering and honor all people.
Whatever that means for you, for the love of God, do it. For you, church, you are the doctors and nurses of this spiritual pandemic.
You are the front-line workers providing the essential services of advocacy for marginalized voices and leveraging your power for change.
You are the store owner confronting defiant patrons and compelling them to do not what benefits just them but what serves the common good of all.
You are the educators instructing us to call out instances of racism when we see them and the promulgation of lies and distortion of facts when we hear them.
You are the poll workers keeping check on our institutions and making sure things are done the right and just way.
You, church, are called in this spiritual pandemic to be front and center in God’s healing work.
You are the ones you’ve been waiting for.
So let us love from the center of who we are. Let’s get to work.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then And Now by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, pg. 101.
Featured image from https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0969/9128/products/25_0_512x512.jpeg?v=1452335634