Sunday, 10 September 2017

Do not be overcome by evil

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
10 September 2017

Romans 12.9-21
Amos 5.14-15; Proverbs 10.11-12; 12.15-20; 25.21-22
Do you have a motto for life?
            You know, one of those phrases or mantras
                        that you find yourself repeating, over and over,
                        despite the fact that you already know it?

Winston Churchill’s was famously abbreviated to ‘KBO’,
            which I’ll leave you to look up for yourself
            because I don’t want to get into trouble on a Sunday morning. Again.

But there are lots of other options to choose from.

When I was at school, I was frequently told that,
            ‘You can’t win if you don’t play the game’,
which as a Rugby-hating pupil I swiftly amended,
            to the much more pragmatic and enduring personal mantra
            of ‘If you can’t win, don’t play the game’.

And then there’s the calls to perseverance, such as,
            ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’;
which sits nicely alongside,
            ‘Don’t let the whatsits grind you down’;
which I’m modifying, in accordance with that other personal favourite of mine,
            ‘Don’t get into trouble on a Sunday morning. Again.’

And so I could go on with any number of further mottos
            that inspire us to ‘keep putting one foot in front of another’, as the saying goes.

But there’s a downside to this as well:
            some of us here will have taken deep into ourselves
                        far more destructive messages,
            which surface in our psyches with monotonous regularity.
                        ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘I’m so useless’;
                        ‘They don’t like me’; ‘Nobody loves me’; ‘Everybody hates me’.

Sometimes, the voice in our head does us no favours,
            dressing up lies as truth and tormenting us from within.

Well, one of the most destructive mantras of our society,
            which permeates all of our lives one way or another,
is the assertion that we have an absolute right to revenge.

Often dressed up as talk of justice,
            the deep desire to have our wrongs righted
            lies at the heart of so much of our communal narrative.

We live for, we long for, the outworking
            of what seems like a universal and unquestionable truth:
            that ‘Someone, somewhere, must be made to pay’.

From the criminal justice system,
            to the witch hunt and the lynch mob,
the mantra that, ‘someone must be made to pay’,
            has become the bedrock of so much that we hold dear.

And it is against this that I want to draw our attention
            to Paul’s words in the last verse of our reading this morning
                        from his letter to the Romans.
            ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (v.21).

Interestingly, for a passage which doesn’t actually mention Jesus,
            these few verses from Romans 12 are one of the closest places Paul gets
            to referencing the words of Jesus as we know them from the Gospels.
The parallels with the sermon on the mount are striking,
            and this final verse could pretty much stand alone
            as a one-sentence summary of the life and teaching of Jesus.

‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’

This is radical stuff,
            and it was every bit as counter-cultural in the first century
                        as it is in the twenty-first.
Humans are well practiced at trying to overcome evil with evil,
            and we are very good at convincing ourselves
            that, contrary to the popular saying, two wrongs do indeed make a right.

The ideology of, ‘You’ve hurt me, so you must pay’, is very compelling,
            and determines everything from our interpersonal relationships
                        to our international politics.
Meeting evil with good is perceived as weakness and foolishness.

At school, we’re told that,
            ‘The bullies only understand one language: their own’,
and so in self-defence we learn to speak their language well,
            but then we carry that conviction into our adult lives,
                        and so we vote for a nuclear deterrent,
                        and for a strong defensive military capability,
                        and for proactive strikes on rogue nations
                                    who rattle their sabres a bit too loudly.

Well, if we are to listen to Paul on this one,
            we might need a re-think.
‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.

Of course, Paul isn’t speaking in a vacuum here,
            and neither was Jesus, when he suggested to his disciples
                        that those who are merciful peacemakers
                        are those blessed by God (Mt 5.7,9).

The Jewish wisdom tradition had a long history
            of wrestling with the futility of violence,
            and of trying to work out what the appropriate response to aggression should be;
and Paul, highly educated Pharisee that he was,
            consciously echoes that Jewish tradition
            in the way he shapes the passage we’re looking at this morning.

The little miscellany of verses we heard earlier from Amos and Proverbs
            give us an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about,
and so we hear the precursors to Paul’s own motto,
            in statements like: ‘Seek good and not evil, that you may live’ (Amos 5.14);
                        ‘Hate evil and love good’ (Amos 5.15);
            ‘Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses’ (Prov. 10.12);
                        ‘Fools show their anger at once, but the fools ignore an insult’ (Prov. 12.16);
            ‘Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil,
                        but those who counsel peace have joy’ (Prov. 12.20).

This is an ancient call to another way of living,
            where the narratives of retributive violence are challenged and rejected,
                        where the right to revenge is forgone,
                        and where payment for wrongdoing is released.

So my challenge for us this morning is deceptively simple,
            because it is incredibly demanding.
It is for us to commit ourselves, individually and communally,
            to living our lives by Paul’s series of statements, mottos, and aphorisms;
and to allow the Spirit of Christ
            to bring those words of life to life in our lives.

And it starts, of course, with love.
            ‘Let love be genuine… love one another with mutual affection’ (12.9-10)
Paul begins his great call to a new way of living
            by grounding himself in the one force on earth
            capable of instigating the kind of transformation he has in mind:
                        Genuine love which extends beyond the self to embrace the other.

Just as Jesus paired love of God with love of neighbour,
            so Paul pairs the genuineness of love,
                        with genuine affection and honour for the other.

It isn’t until we internalize the truth that God loves all his children equally
            that we are able to begin to loosen our grip
                        on the inner conviction that there is something unique or special
                        about our own place in the heart of the divine;
            but once we dispel the myth that God loves ‘us’ more than ‘them’,
                        the path is opened for the radical reorientation of behavior that is to come.

But Paul knows that, even with genuine love in our hearts,
            this will not be an easy path,
so in a biblical precursor to Churchill’s famous injunction
            to ‘Keep Buggering On’ (oops!),
Paul tells his readers to be zealous, ardent, patient, and perseverant.

This is the task we are called to, but as my father often says to me,
            ‘Simon, no-one said it was going to be easy!’

Remaining hopeful in the face of suffering;
            being zealous in serving others,
            and persevering in ardent prayer, are not easy tasks.

And neither is the topic Paul addresses next: financial generosity.
            It takes a conscious decision
                        to review our giving to the community of God’s people,
            but Paul is clear that we have a responsibility before God
                        to contribute to, as he calls it, ‘the needs of the saints’.

In a church like Bloomsbury, the need is always before us;
            from the homeless and the vulnerable that we welcome day-by-day,
            to the more structural needs that are met through this place,
if we do not share between us the responsibility
            of keeping the project going, it’ll fail.

But of course it’s not just about money,
            because Paul pairs money with hospitality.
If money is the mechanism, hospitality is the method.

Whether it is welcoming people into our own homes,
            or to the meal table downstairs in the Friendship Centre,
whether at a Sunday lunch, a Tuesday lunch,
            the Evening Centre, the Night Shelter, or whatever…
our commitment to hospitality is a spiritual discipline
            and a sacrificial calling every bit as demanding
            as the call to ardent prayer or financial giving.

One of our issues that we’re facing with our Sunday lunches
            is that the number of people attending from the church community is declining:
to the extent that on some Sundays,
            those who have been given a free ticket
            make up the majority of those who attend.

And I do get it, I really do.
            I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to a nearby restaurant
                        with their close friends for a nice meal after church on a Sunday?
            Who wouldn’t rather get on with their day,
                        already carved out of a busy life with too many pressures and not enough time.
            And I do get it that the food isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea.

But I don’t think these are the point.
            If we are to offer hospitality that welcomes the stranger
                        and speaks to them of their inherent value as dearly loved children of God,
                        then that involves actually extending hospitality;
            which is more than just paying for them to have a meal,
                        and it’s more than just cooking them a meal.

I mean, we wouldn’t invite someone to dinner at our house,
            serve them their food, and then leave them to it while we went elsewhere.
That’s not hospitality.
            It might be charity, but as I argued in my series of sermons
                        on Toxic Charity earlier this summer,
            we’re not called to charity, we’re called to sacrificial hospitality.

Which means extending a loving welcome to those we find difficult.
            As Paul says, ‘do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly’ (v.16)

But Paul then goes even further than this.
            Loving the other means loving those who we would think of as our enemies.
                        ‘Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse’ (v.14),
                                    ‘live in harmony with one another’ (v.16),
                        ‘do not repay anyone evil for evil’ (v.18),
                                    ‘live peaceably with all’ (v.19).

This is where we start to find ourselves
            at that most difficult of Paul’s challenges in this passage:
            the call to nonviolence.

Sometimes people characterize nonviolence
            as the easy, passive, or even cowardly response to conflict.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
            Choosing to not ‘bite back’ is one of the most difficult choices we can make.
It is so utterly counter-intuitive
            to all that we think we know about how to live in human society.

We can only get to the point of proactive nonviolence
            once we have fully internalized all that has gone before.

We have to follow this passage through
            to get to the end with conviction.
Only once we have learned to love the other as we love ourselves,
            and learned to persevere in prayerful service of the other
                        through persecution and opposition,
            and learned to hold lightly to our money, time, and status;
only then are we ready to hear the command:
            ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,
            for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”’ (v.19)

And here I have my big problem, and it’s this:
            the vengeance of God doesn't look much like vengeance as I understand it
                        or as I want to see it.

Leaving room for the wrath of God is intensely problematic
            because God's wrath is not like my wrath,
            and he is not angry at the same things that attract my personal fury.

I want to take my revenge,
            but God takes the liberty of forgiveness.
I want to hate those who do evil,
            but God hates the effect that evil has,
                        not only on those to whom it is done,
                        but also on those who do it.

The great scandal of God's wrath and vengeance
            is that they end up looking a lot like forgiveness.

But nonetheless, Paul tell his readers very clearly,
            that revenge is not theirs to take.

This short passage is a one paragraph summons
            to an entirely alternative way of being human.

I find it very interesting that this is primarily a passage
            that emphasises orthopraxy, rather than orthodoxy.

For those whose Greek is a bit sketchy,
            orthopraxy is about right action,
            whereas orthodoxy is about right belief.
And the central message of this passage is not, ‘believe in Christ’;
            it is more practical than that, it is ‘live like Christ’

So as we close, I want to come back to the observation I made earlier
            that our passage from Romans doesn't actually mention Jesus.

I have a kind of rule of preaching,
            which is that a church sermon really ought to mention Jesus
                        at least somewhere along the line,
            which is probably why I feel the need to return to this again at the end.

I think that Jesus, both his life, and his teaching,
            firmly lie behind Paul's re-invention of the Jewish wisdom tradition.
There are echoes here of the sermon on the mount,
            and the life Paul is calling his readers to
            is one firmly patterned after that of Jesus.

But he doesn't need to spell this out.
            Here is a call to living Christianly,
                        which is accessible to all,
                        including those who don't consider themselves to be disciples of Jesus.

It's as if the person and example of Jesus
            has opened, for Paul, a doorway to a better way of being human
            which then transcends cultic and cultural boundaries.

So here's the thing, and don’t take this the wrong way:
            I don't really care what you believe.
Rather, it's what you do that matters.

As Jesus himself said in the sermon on the mount,
            a good tree will bear good fruit,
                        and a bad tree will bear bad fruit,
            and a good tree cannot bear bad fruit,
                        nor can a bad tree bear good fruit,
            and by your fruit you shall be known.

Little Christianity has spent far too long
            defending what people think and believe about the guy who started it all,
                        to the point where we have all too frequently lost sight
                        of the message he left us,
            which is that the door is now open to a different way of living,
                        a new way of being,
            which is good news for those who hear it
                        because it releases us from those ultimately destructive
                                    mantras, mottos, compulsions, and convictions
                        that drive us into patterns of violence and retribution.

The call is very clear, it is to live like Jesus,
            it is to not be overcome by evil,
            but to overcome evil with good.

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