September 3, 2017 Romans 12: 9-21
Prayer: Dear God, We welcome you into this worship service. Please go with us into the study of your Word, and let it speak to us anew. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Vince has a favorite cousin, Cathy, who is almost like a sister to him. Over the years, we have vacationed at the beach with Cathy and her husband, Al. We’ve met up with them at family reunions and weddings and funerals.
We even visited them for two weeks when they lived in Paris 20 years ago. They found the only nightclub in the entire city that featured a Motown band playing “Mustang Sally.”
Cathy and Al are now retired and living outside Detroit. Since it’s so cold there in the winter, they spend 10 weeks in south Florida.
This past winter, they were hurrying to get to the airport for their trip. They usually get to the airport with two hours to spare, but on this day they were running late. Cathy was still trying to dry her hair, when Al came in and said they ought to hide her few pieces of good jewelry.
Cathy told him she didn’t have time to mess with it, but he could do what he wanted. He suggested putting the pieces in the safe. But their safe can be picked up and carried out, so she said, no, don’t do that.
Then he suggested a purse in her closet, but she was afraid that might be an obvious target for thieves.
Still kind of rushed and distracted, they discussed several hiding places. They finally chose their daughter Erin’s closet. Erin is grown and
out of the house.
So Al hid the jewelry and told Cathy to text Erin and let her know where it was in case anything happened to them. Cathy said, I don’t have time now, but I can do it at the airport.
Then they took off. When they got to the airport, Cathy forgot to text Erin.
And when they arrived in Florida, they hit the beach and never thought about that jewelry again.
Ten weeks later, in early spring, they returned home. They went to retrieve the jewelry and couldn’t remember where Al had hidden it.
They remembered they had meant to text Erin, so they thought it had to do with her room. They searched her room. Cathy even searched Erin’s closet three times, but she was looking for the box the jewelry had always been in. She didn’t find it.
So they searched the rest of the house. They spent hours and then more hours looking.
Cathy blamed Al for not remembering where he put it. Al blamed Cathy for not texting Erin the location. They were beginning to get angry with each other. And so they searched some more.
Finally, Al went to a hypnotherapist to see if she could retrieve a memory of him hiding the jewelry. But after three sessions, he hadn’t recovered anything.
And so Cathy and Al sat down and decided, We can’t find the jewelry. What we have to decide now is, Are we are going to let this affect our relationship?
And they consciously decided No. Our relationship is more important than any jewelry, any stuff. We’ve got to let this go. And they did.
(If that sounds like an unfinished story, you’re going to have to stay awake until the end of the sermon.)
Our Scripture passage today comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The book of Romans is probably Paul’s most theologically advanced letter, a sophisticated argument that often sounds like Paul is in a law court.
But when all is said and done, he does what he does near the end of all his letters. He tells his readers how to live, how to behave, how to strip down their self-centeredness to focus on the important things – as Cathy and Al did.
If you’d like to turn in your Bibles, I’ll be reading from Romans 12: 9-21.
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’
20No, ‘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.’
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
If you were to step into American history unaware for the first time today, you might think that Christianity means heaping burning coals on their heads. You could be forgiven for not recognizing anything else in this passage.
I think what disturbs me most in the incivility that has overtaken our political discourse is how Christianity, Christian language, has been usurped. People claiming to be Christian have resisted extending hospitality to strangers.
Have resisted associating with the lowly.
Have resisted everything Paul instructs here, and instead, have embraced haughtiness and claimed wisdom.
Have glorified wealth and power above all else.
Our radical gospel has been used as a cloak to cover untrue and offensive things that are the very opposite of the gospel message.
My study Bible headlines these instructions from Paul this way: Marks of the True Christian. And this way of living that he prescribes is an innate part of my understanding for how a true Christian behaves.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil….
“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves…. ”
I’ve mentioned before that people have asked me to speak out against those who deny women the right to preach. I have always responded, “I’d rather live out the gospel among people who accept my place in it than shout about it to people who never will.”
My vision for Triune has always been to do what is right and merciful, rather than to scream about people who may not do so.
But in today’s climate, I’m not sure we have the luxury of keeping our heads down as I would like – no matter how pure our motives, no matter how closely we adhere to Paul’s admonition to be patient in suffering, persevering in prayer.
Because five times in this passage, Paul uses the term “evil.”
“ Hate what is evil.”
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil….”
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Paul is well aware that there is evil in the world. And when there is evil, where there is evil, we must oppose it. Not in kind. Not by driving a car into a crowd of white supremacists. Not by marching beneath the Christian flag.
But with whatever good we can conjure.
Whatever good we can conjure.
There is actually a new book club in town called Do Good Greenville. It meets at the downtown bookstore, M. Judson. It was founded by Michelle Shain and former Triune board member Diane Smock expressly to study books about important social issues.
The September book is Bryan Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy.”
I re-read “Just Mercy” in anticipation of the book club meeting. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard Law-educated attorney who runs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He has gotten lots of wrongly convicted people off Death Row, and the stories he tell are stunning and disturbing. You could believe they happened in 1930, but not in 1990 or 2000 or 2010.
At one point, he visited a prison in rural Alabama to meet a man whom he suspected was mentally ill at the time he was convicted of murder. He’d been in the same prison many times before, and had been able to walk in pretty easily as lawyers do.
This time, however, there was a truck in the parking lot covered in Confederate flags and decals and white supremacist bumper stickers. Mr. Stevenson is African American, and the truck made him uneasy.
When he entered the prison, a brand new correctional officer met him. The officer was white, and told him he had to be searched before going in.
Mr. Stevenson had sometimes been asked to remove his shoes – like we do at the airport – and started to do so. No, the officer told him. He had to strip naked in the bathroom.
Mr. Stevenson was shocked. “Lawyers don’t have to get strip searched,” he said. But the officer said he wasn’t coming into the prison otherwise.
Mr. Stevenson argued for awhile, but he’d driven hours to the rural prison and realized he wasn’t going to get in. So he submitted to a strip search at the hands of this officer. The officer then leaned in and told him the not surprising news that he was the owner of the truck outside.
After the search, Mr. Stevenson visited another African American man, Avery Jenkins, on Death Row. Mr. Jenkins showed signs of schizophrenia, intellectual disability, seizures and psychotic episodes. He was on Death Row because when he was 20, he’d wandered into a stranger’s house, thinking he was being pursued by demons. He stabbed to death a man inside whom he thought was a demon.
That day and every subsequent time that Mr. Stevenson met with him, Avery Jenkins could hardly focus on his appeal because he wanted a chocolate milkshake. He always talked about that milkshake. But the lawyer had no way of getting one to him.
Months later, it was time for the post-conviction hearing in a courthouse three hours away. The officer who had strip searched Bryan Stevenson drove the prisoner.
Mr. Stevenson’s legal team focused on Avery Jenkins’ sad childhood. His father was murdered before he was born; his mother died of a drug overdose when he was 2. He lived in 19 different foster homes before he was 8 years old.
When he was 10, his foster parents locked him in a closet, denied him food and beat him. Then his foster mother took him into the woods and tied him to a tree. Hunters found him three days later. He was turned over to the authorities and put back into foster care.
At 13, he got on drugs. At 15, he began experiencing seizures and psychotic episodes. At 17, he was homeless, leading up to his murderous psychotic break at 20.
Some of his former foster parents testified that they’d not know how to handle Avery’s mental problems. Others had been subsequently jailed for sexually abusing the children in their charge.
Sometime after the hearing, Mr. Stevenson drove back to the prison to visit Avery Jenkins. The same officer met him, but his voice and demeanor were entirely different. Mr. Stevenson didn’t know what to think, and offered to step into the bathroom for the dreaded strip search.
The officer said, “You don’t have to worry about that. I know you’re OK.”
Mr. Stevenson was confused and a little distrustful by the complete change in attitude. And then the officer said he wanted to tell him something: He’d grown up in foster care, too.
“Man, I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me,” he said. “… I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse.”
On the drive back from the courthouse to the prison, the officer confided, he’d stopped to get Avery Jenkins a chocolate milkshake.
What was it Paul said? “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”
So very difficult, I know. And there is nothing fair about it.
As we attempt to “overcome evil with good,” there are as many representations of good as there are good people.
Some people in this congregation are heading local efforts for public transportation and affordable housing.
Some are organizing a rally this Tuesday for young immigrants brought to this country as children who are now in danger of being deported or not being allowed to work.
Some are involved in eliminating hunger on a national policy level.
Some are seeking to rescue women from the sex trade.
Some are involved with the incarcerated population, quite literally following Jesus’s instructions to visit the imprisoned.
“Let love be genuine,” Paul writes. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good….”
In today’s divisive and divided world, I think we must do both: Stand up to the evil we are instructed to hate, even as we hold to fast to what is good.
So … I’ve left you hanging twice now. Bryan Stevenson eventually won a new trial for Avery Jenkins. He was moved off Death Row and into a facility where he’s receiving mental health treatment.
Meanwhile, back home outside Detroit, cousin Cathy needed something from her daughter Erin’s closet. After months of searching for misplaced jewelry, after Al’s failed hypnosis, after coming to terms that they weren’t going to let “stuff” affect their marriage, Cathy pushed aside some purses and saw a velvet bag, the kind that holds jewelry.
She pushed aside more stuff and saw several bags. They held all the jewelry she thought she had lost.
Al thought he had hidden them in that closet. What he hadn’t remembered is that he had taken the velvet bags out of the jewelry box. The box is what Cathy had been looking for.
Cathy was glad enough to have her jewelry back. But she was more glad that they’d decided not to let it fester, to let that jewelry go if that’s what it took to preserve the relationship.
“Let love be genuine,” urges Paul.
That pretty much says it all.