First Congregational Church
August 30, 2020
13th Sunday after Pentecost
“When No One Is Looking”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Apparently it is Punday Sunday today. Or at least in the leading of my heart for all your hearts. To that point, people never believe me when I tell them that I got my incredibly detailed tattoo in Spain. Nobody expects the Spanish ink precision. He was the one knight nobody expected to meet on the battlefield that day, Sir Prise. What do you call someone with no body and no nose? Nobody knows.
True story: I was speaking with, let’s say, Olga, the other day, and we were talking about parenting and raising children, because with no children of my own, I can so objectively comment on the efforts of those with children - she said with tongue in cheek. And Olga and her daughter, let’s say, Julia, were shopping in Traverse City earlier in the week.
Since this was Olga’s second long day in the big city in a row, when they were done in Bed, Bath and Beyond, and Olga was really tired after unloading the cart into the car, so tired, that she sort of pushed the cart off to the side, like we are all sometimes tempted to do when there is no cart corral. Olga and Julia get in the car, and just before they are to drive off, Julia says to her mother, “I’ll just go and take the cart back” as she unbuckled her belt again.
Now Olga raised Julia well, and to do the good things we should do in life, including taking back carts when there’s no cart corral. But like it can happen to all of us, Olga was “done,” even though pushing the cart off to the side wasn’t what she normally did. Olga said that the end of that incident was her apology to her daughter for raising her so well - she said tongue in cheek.
I would never suggest that this sort of slipping of character happens with any one of you - regardless of how you are listening to these words. But should the shoe ever fit, know that you are not alone in your plight.
When the apostle Paul wrote his great letter to the Roman Christian community, he had never visited them, never interacted with them to any degree. In fact, part of the reason for his fifteen chapter letter served as an introduction to the Roman Christians, since he was planning to stop for a bit while on his way to Spain. Since he had no prior connection to them, the letter wasn’t written to correct any particular issues, but to let them know a little bit of who he was, so maybe they would sponsor him financially as he made his way west.
Romans 12:9-21 Love in Action
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
If I dared to do such a thing, it would be interesting to use this passage as a sermon - only these designated verses and nothing else. The first sentence could be read, followed by a full minute of silent meditation to think about it before going on to the next one. Perhaps someday….
There is so much good in this passage, but near the end, where it says, “in offering food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, we are heaping coals on the other person’s head, well, doesn’t that have a hint of self-serving revenge in it? “I’ll get my revenge. I’ll show them. Here - take this sandwich. And take this bottle of juice, too, while you’re at it - she also said, dripping with sarcasm. And yes, I think sarcasm is the correct term, because sarcasm is anger dipped in humor. So I wonder if Paul’s intent was the idea of “fake it til you make it - love on them till you love them.
It has been an interesting week with some pieces that have stuck around for a little longer than usual. Those of you new to this church family, I hope you understand that I don’t try to pit one group of people against another group. So in that sense, I try to sense what God needs us to gnaw on, and part of the message this week is not about real specifics, but more about the bigger picture.
In that vein, I can’t tell you where I found the comment, whether it was a news thing or a Facebook thing or a Dr. Seuss thing. But a media reporter was trying to get this person - I don’t even know his name - to plant his flag on one side or the other of whatever topic was being discussed. Maybe some of you will recall it, but that wasn’t the important part. It was the turn of phrase and the grace in it that caught my ear and heart. The person interviewed said, “Let me just extend appreciation for your effort to get my response and I respectfully defer to the next question.”
What a great, inspired - no doubt - phrase! “Let me just extend appreciation for your effort to get my response and I respectfully defer to the next question,” acknowledges the interviewer’s job as important and honorable, while at the same time, lets the reporter know that he is deliberately not answering the question, in as tactful and respectful manner as possible. The interviewed individual could have become hot and bothered, but chose to go with good and sincere and honorable. And then I wonder, if we can find in ourselves to be good and sincere and honorable more often, then might the world actually become better and honorable while still being real?
In another conversation, just yesterday, an individual repeated a question that she had heard in a different conversation. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like, “What if athletics are the leaders to bring peace and healing to this world?” and to narrow it a little - peace and healing to this nation?
I thought about that question, not really the specifics of it, but about the “other” groups that have tried to do it and have failed - which I would broadly paint as religion/Christianity. There have been moments, over the course of history, where culture and differences have made some bridges, but by and large - some two thousand years of Christianity, nearly 1,400 years of Islam and Buddhism and millions of combined years of other faiths have not accomplished what we have been commissioned to do. And maybe it is too tall an order - to bring peace and healing. Except that it’s not. And we all sort of know it.
Doug Bratt, from Calvin Seminary, made an astute observation. He said, “When my family travelled in Asia we saw nearly countless products that were imitation brands. One of our favorites was “Poma” (not Puma) athletic shoes. Those knock-offs, in fact, looked quite a bit like the real thing. But they were actually low-quality counterfeits.
Low-quality counterfeits is an interesting phrase, and it is interesting how we are drawn to good deals, that really aren’t good deals. I discovered long ago that getting cheap printer ink cartridges was actually more expensive in time and frustration than getting the OEM - original equipment manufacturer versions. And yet, the cheaper the paper towel, the better to wash windows. Go figure.
When Paul invites his readers to “love,” he’s not talking about a knock-off brand of love, but the top-shelf stuff, the genuine stuff that God shows to all God’s people - the unlovable as well as the adorables, those who seem deserving and those who seem to be undeserving in our eyes, God showers everyone with the same grace, the same joy, the same love, the same mercy. Yet the real beauty of this abundance is revealed when no one is looking.
I don’t know about anyone else, but sometimes, over the last months, I’ve wondered about God spreading so much good stuff - the good stuff being all the joy and mercy and love into one basket. I’ve wondered about how we can determine what is evil and should we really hate it - because isn’t there enough hate in the world already. And I’ve wondered about clinging to what is good, because I know there are millions and millions of people trying to do that very thing, and yet, sometimes if feels like one shoe is nailed to the floor and we just spin in circles.
Then again, I don’t know about you, but it seems that when I get to all that wondering, God sends along a scripture like this one from Romans. Most all of us may struggle with hating anything - whether we really do hate or we hate hating - but we can more easily get our arms around being devoted to one another in love.
In this church family, there are so many opposites, but - I think in realizing that - we get the idea that we are the better for having the person who used to sit in the second to the back pew on the choir side, and the one who used to sit in the third row back from the pulpit side. They’re still alive, but we miss them, for all sorts of different reasons, but when we think of those who bring a smile to our face, that’s when we understand being devoted to one another in love - a little better.
Mr. Bratt also pointed out that Paul calls his audience to resist the urge to ration their love on the basis of peoples’ ability to “repay.” That’s an interesting insight when paired with honoring one another above ourselves - your self - my self. When we honor others ahead of ourselves - when no one is looking - that’s when it’s really about you and God. And when that sort of honoring comes from the heart, there really isn’t a need to let others know about it, although you can, because we know when we are true to ourselves and God, and that is an understanding that cannot be bought or bartered in any other way.
So let us not think about it later, or when we have a minute, but right now, let us step into the chamber of what is good and right and peaceful and healing as we pray.
Way, Truth, Light, may our love be genuine. May we let go of what is evil in us and open us to what is good. By your Spirit in us, may we truly love other: not just to tolerate them, but to honor them. Give us your zeal, your energy, the true desire to serve you. Give us the faith to rejoice with hope, to be patient in suffering and to persevere in prayer. Help us take the opportunities we will have this day and this week to contribute to the needs of those around us, to extend hospitality to strangers, to bless those who may oppose us, to bless them and not curse them. May we be mindful of those who rejoice and may we rejoice with them. May we be mindful of those who weep, and may we weep with them. May we be present for them this day.
Give us your grace to live this day in harmony with others. We do not need to pretend we are wiser than we are. Help us not to be haughty but to know that the lowly are our peers. Give us the grace to not repay evil for evil, but to focus on what is good for the sake of all. Give each of us grace to live peaceably with all. And give us your grace to feed the hungry, even if they oppose us, and to give drink to the thirsty even if we do not like them. May we overcome evil with good by the grace of your love in us. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.