Romans 12 (The Message)
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy people; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.
I shared a message on this very passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans this past spring, and today, it’s come back around in the lectionary. I considered leaving this text alone, since I’ve preach on it so recently, but as I thought about it further, I came to realize that the words of Paul, as interpreted by Eugene Peterson, could still be mined for more wisdom for these troubling times and as we approach a contentious election season.
Paul begins with the words, “Love from the center of who you are” and concludes his thought with, “discover beauty in everyone.” And in between, …in between, the meat of the sandwich if you will, is this invitation to think of the other before self.
And this is where I will focus our energy today. As the election draws near, there will be an ever-increasing tension in the air. I dare say that supporters of the president and his detractors, that Democrats and Republicans, couldn’t be further apart in their platforms, their ideology, or their perspective on the best course for the future of our nation. However, no matter which side of the isle you’re on, the challenge for us all is to be a blessing. We are called to be a blessing not only to those with whom we agree, but to those with whom we disagree.
Now, I know in the political climate that’s a big ask. So, to help us along I’ve ordered signs to put in front of our churches. They are intended to look like political yard signs, but instead of endorsing a candidate, that offer the following invitation. “BE A BLESSING. Pray often, be kind, have courage, lead with love, practice peace, be the light, work for justice, encourage others, and be joyful.”
Now, I’m struck, as I read these “acts of blessing” out loud, by how similar they are to Paul’s message to the Romans. Paul’s words and our list of blessings give us pause and permission to think and then act beyond ourselves. These beautiful words begin to form the foundation of what it means to be a community of faith, a church. Remember, the church isn’t a building. Our buildings can be, and should be, closed during something like a pandemic. But the church, our communities of faith, they’re something more.
And that “something more” the meat of Paul’s sandwich, describes his vision of what it means to be a “blessing-centered” kind of church. He says things like be genuine, choose to do good things over bad things, be humble and be a good friend. He admonishes us to hang in there, stay passionate for justice, a passion that’s realized in prayer, outreach to the needy, and this is interesting, he wants us to be “inventive in hospitality.” We should love our enemies (both political and otherwise); laugh together in times of joy and weep together in times of sorrow. And finally, we should get along with each other and whenever possible and live in peace with everyone. (even those on the other side of the isle)
You know, When I spoke about this text last, I referred to an interesting book with a somewhat different take on the Christian faith. It’s called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. In this book the author uses insights from his study of Buddhism to re-frame Christian community and this re-framing, I believe, is similar to what we’ve seen in Paul’s “blessing-centered” vision.
Take for example the Buddhist greeting, “Namasté.” Namasté has the unique connotation of acknowledging that everyone we meet has all the same goodness within them that we believe we have within ourselves. All humanity, according to this teaching, has the capacity for goodness. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion.[i]
So, considering this bit of re-framing, how do we then respond to those with whom we might disagree? I mean, if we’re challenged to see the good in everyone, how do we treat someone who’s not-so-good in our opinion. Well, I would say, in the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, could lead to real and lasting redemption. He was calling his disciples to follow a pattern of non-violent resistance by embracing those who were different, or those opposed them, with mercy and kindness and forgiveness.
It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. It’s the way Gandhi responded to his detractor and oppressors. It’s the way Dr. King and those with him during the civil rights movement withstood the brutality, and the firehoses, and the dogs. And it’s the way Jesus responded to being spit upon and flogged, beaten, and executed. Non-violent resistance; over-coming hatred with good, over-coming shouts of vengeance and chaos with whispers of peace, over-coming the partisan name-calling by naming our common humanity. That’s the common thread running through all of these instances and it’s the common thread running through our list of blessings and Paul’s center of loving kindness.
My friends, these examples are meant to inspire us, as communities of faith, to find our center in love, even in the midst of suffering, even when we’re under oppression. These historical moments, and Paul’s invitation, invite us to begin to discover deeper, hidden blessings in every single person, even the person with whom we disagree. Because here’s the thing. We can only truly find peace, inner peace and a peace that expands across this nation, if we can embrace the other with compassion.[ii]
So, my friends, as we continue to be and become community in these unusual and often frightening times, please remember to Be a Blessing, and to live-into Paul’s vision to “Love from the center of who you are and discover the beauty in everyone.” If we can do that, it will enable us to take a step back during those difficult moments and gaze upon a wider landscape. These words will allow all of us, as a community, to turn our focus outward, advocating for justice for the most vulnerable and peace among nations. This is our higher calling. This is what it means to be a community who finds it’s center in love and by becoming a blessing to all.
May it be so. Amen & Amen
[i] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (One World Publications) 2009
[ii] ibid. Knitter, Without Buddha, 188, where he cautions that even the act of calling others “evildoers” can preclude our ability to respond to them in a way that creates justice and peace and freedom.