“Give us the wisdom to teach our children to love, to respect and to be kind to one another that we may grow with peace in mind.” This wisdom comes to us from a traditional Native American prayer. As we gather today, and once again consider Paul’s ideas concerning transforming our relationships with each other and with God, I think this prayer speaks volumes. It challenges us to look inward and consider how we interact with others. But it also calls us to look outward and apply this “self-reflection” to our everyday actions. “Give us the wisdom to teach our children to love, to respect and to be kind to one another that we may grow with peace in mind.”[I]
This prayer is not unlike Romans 12. As I said last week, Paul was writing to a church in Rome that was struggling with its purpose for being and its practice of faith. And in the epistle, we have before us today, Paul offers three “points of light” as it were; three points of light that offer direction not only to the Romans, but to us as well. Remember Jesus told us not to hide our light under a bushel basket, but rather to display it on a lampstand for all to see. And with this understanding in mind, let’s consider Paul’s three points of light: Identity, Attitude, and Inclusion.
First identity. Paul writes, “Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other.” And he goes on to add 5 imperatives; 5 important ways to show our love without pretending, “Be happy in your hope,” the apostle says, “stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home.”
Now, showing love without pretending, hating evil, and living out these 5 imperatives constitute the framework of social justice. These are foundational, Biblical principles, that sparked the social justice in the 1920’s and continues to drive it still today. And these 5 imperatives contribute to our self-identity as a faith community and as a part of the United Church of Christ.
But, even as I say these words, I would like to temper them with a note of caution. I sometimes worry that we put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we’re advocating for the wrong things or that our hearts are not in the right place; rather, it’s that we sometimes forget why we do and say what we do.
I mean, I’m glad that more and more churches are becoming inclusive of Lesbian, Gay, and Transgendered people and inviting them, as we have, into full participation and leadership within the congregation. But I want us to talk about why our Christian convictions are compelling us to do so.
I give thanks for Christians who stand up for refugees and the rights of immigrants. But it’s important for us to be able to articulate why these are Christ-centered positions. I would like us to remember that Jesus, as a young child, was a refugee in Egypt and how that story still speaks to us today. I want us to be able to talk about what the crucified Christ taught us about the value of human life.
I respect every Christian who stands out in the rain holding a sign to raise awareness about the devastating effects of climate change. But I wish I would hear more about how God created the world, called it good, and then assigned humanity the responsibility to care for the earth. And that’s why we can’t be silent on this issue.[ii]
Do you see what I’m driving at here? Our social justice stances arise from Scripture and are nurtured by a strong, well-thought-out theology. Are there different ways of viewing these issues that are equally based in Scripture? Of course. Christianity is a diverse and wonderful patchwork of thoughts and ideas, and yes, a variety of identities. Our challenges, I think, currently, is to realize this diversity and allow it to strengthen the faithful rather than pull us apart.
Which brings us to Paul’s second point: attitude. “Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic,” he says, “be on fire in the Spirit as you serve.” Or to put it into our context, “Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic about your faith and this faith community. Be on fire in the Spirit as you demonstrate the love of God through your service to others.” In our congregation, we are blessed with a strong sense of identity. We are a church attempting to live-into the ways of Christ by reaching out to others; the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. And if we own this attitude, if we project who we are by serving all of God’s people with humility and compassion, if we practice social justice and offer kinder words, even in difficult situations, then, others will see and want to join us on this journey we call faith. You see, the greatest evangelistic tool we possess is our attitude about our faith community.
Now, I know, I know, I said the dreaded e-word. Evangelism. But I use it here not in the sense of beating people over the head with the bible or propagating shame or playing upon people’s fear, as unfortunately, we see and hear far too often. Instead, it’s like my grandma always used to say, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” And that’s what I’m advocating for; a kind of evangelism that invites individuals to become a part of something that is so compelling, so joyous, so fulfilling, that they want to come and check us out.
Now, that’s not to say that the goal of evangelism is to fill the church, but rather, the end goal of evangelism is to share the love of God with as many people as possible. But, if we’re consistent in that sharing, then something that’s unusual these days begins to happen; the church grows in both Spirit and numbers. “It’s the organic byproduct of rooting ourselves in what Paul Tillich call the ‘ground of our being.’ Which is God and God’s love[iii] for all humanity and all creation
The best example I can think of to demonstrate this “inclusive” understanding of evangelism is Rotary International. Which, by the way, speaks directly Paul’s third and final point of light. Now, Rotary, as far as I’m aware, never advertises for new members. And yet, there are 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide. How can this be? Well, a Chicago attorney named Paul Harris started Rotary as a service organization whose stated purpose is to bring together business and professional leaders to provide global humanitarian services, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and to advance goodwill and peace around the world.[iv] And Rotary’s success in recruiting new members comes from its identity, attitude, and because it’s very inclusive. Rotary welcomes people of all races, national origins, genders, orientations, political ideologies, and walks of life.
Now, this wasn’t always the case. A one point in time Rotary had an identity problem. They were very exclusive. Basically, only rich white men were welcome into the club. Over the course of time, however, Rotary changed its perspective. And because of this change, they discovered that a diversity of thought and people lead them to not only to achieve a greater number of members, but that the quality of the membership and the new-found variety of perspectives made them a much stronger organization.
The point here is that when Rotary became more inclusive, they were in a much better position to continue and greatly expand their work of reaching out across the world with humanitarian aid and the promotion of peace.
And again, this inclusive point of view is reflected in Paul’s writings. He said, “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. And don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.”
One final thought this morning. Eugene Peterson has a wonderful interpretation of this passage. But two the phrases he chose stand out to me as being the core of this passage and perhaps, his entire letter to the Romans.
Peterson writes, “Love from the center of who you are [and] discover beauty in everyone.”[v] These words really get to the heart and soul of social justice; they get to the heart and soul of our faith. My prayer for all of us, as we go forth today and go about the week ahead, is that we might internalize these words and put them into action in both our words and our deeds. May we indeed, find the wisdom to teach our children, in fact, all people: to love, to respect, and to be kind to one another so that we all may grow in peace.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] From a traditional Native American prayer (worldhealingprayers.com) 2017
[ii] Rev. Emily C. Heath. Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. (Pilgrim Press) 2016
[v] Eugene Peterson. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress Publishing) 2002