Proper 17 Year A Matt. 16:21-27, Romans 12:9-21 Rev. Benton Quest
I was looking at the readings for today; trying to figure out which one I wanted to preach on. Did I want to preach about old Jeremiah complaining to God because things were not going so well? Did I want to preach about Paul calling us to that higher call of loving our neighbors and enemies? Or did I want to preach about Jesus calling Peter “Satan” and telling us all kinds of things about denying ourselves?
Humm… This is a tough one! With Hurricane Irene pummeling the East Coast, Politicians yelling and screaming at each other, and most of
feeling disenfranchised, I really don’t want to preach about how the world is falling apart. And did I want to preach about Jesus calling Peter “Satan?” We have people calling each other enough names. So after weighing all the options, I decided I would rather preach on love. I like preaching about love. So with that in mind, I decided to delve into the Romans reading. America
Actually, the first thing that went through my mind as I studying the reading from Romans was, “This should be on a parchment scroll somewhere.” I guess I must have thought that because it reminded me of The Desiderata. Now, I don’t know if you know The Desiderata or not, but it is one of those “nice” poems that people tend to send to each other over the internet or we see it written out in calligraphy surrounded by dried flowers. It starts out, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste…” And ends with: “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” The poem is full of all kinds of good things to remember. And usually, after reading it, most people will say, “Yes, that is good stuff to remember.” But then that is usually the end of it. The poem gets thrown into the drawer or gets deleted from the computer and we just go on with our lives.
Unfortunately, something very similar can happen to with our reading from Romans. We can read it and realize that there are some REALLY GOOD things being said, but then we close our Bible and go on with our daily lives, not letting the profundity of the message really sink in.
Today’s reading from Romans is really very simple; it is just a series of directives as to what we should and should not be doing as individuals and as a community of faith. There are various things that sound like they should be in a self-help book. And when we finish the reading, most of us would generally think, “Yes, that sounds reasonable.” But it is this kind of flip response that can get us into trouble. We often will just look at the reading with an “Uh Duh” kind of attitude and we don’t really think any more about it. But if we really were to take these directives to heart, they could, quite literally, change the world.
Let’s just look at the first line: “Let love be genuine” This one directive has the potential of being highly subversive. How many times do we use “love” as a means of manipulating people? How many times do we truly give out of total, unselfish love? How many times have we been AFRAID to accept someone’s kindness because we were unsure of the person’s intentions? How often are we worried about becoming indebted to someone who seems to be acting kind? Generally, in our world, love comes with some strings attached and these strings can become quite entangling. Paul is telling us to remove all of those strings, he is putting things quite simply, “Let love be genuine.”
Paul then goes on to flesh out what he means by “be genuine.” How simple is this? “…hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” With Paul’s definition, loving genuinely should not be difficult at all. It is right there, but we need to be reminded of this; we have to have Paul tell us once again. Although it sounds like it should be a no-brainer, often we do just the opposite. We hold onto the evil and cower from the good. It is just this kind of behavior that causes Jesus to ask in the gospel reading, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Gaining the whole world and forfeiting one’s own life is actually an example of what happens when we disregard the directive that Paul has given us.
When I hear the words, “Gain the whole world but forfeit their life,” I often think of the work-a-holic. Here is someone who spends hours making money so as to have all the pleasures of life. A big house, a nice car, a boat…you know what I mean. The person works hard to get the “things” of life. But, unfortunately, life itself has passed this person by. Suddenly the children are grown and the house is empty. Suddenly your spouse is just a person who shares the same house with you. The big house is just that, a house. It is not a home because the goodness of love is no longer there. We are told that all of these various things are going to bring us a good life; but in actuality, the good of family and friends goes flying out the window.
Well, there I did it: I was trying to not preach on the gospel reading and it just popped right in! Did you see that! The truth of Jesus’ words is difficult to avoid! And the fact that Paul had to reiterate what Jesus was saying is proof that Jesus’ words are not the most easy things to live out. And whether we like it or not, these are the ideals that, we, as Christians, are called to live. We are called to love our enemies, not seek revenge. We are called to give to the poor, not just hope someone else will do it. We are called to hate what is evil, not just rename it as something like “progress.”
Christ calls us to a higher life. When he says that those who lose their life for his sake will find it, what he means is those who are willing to lose their lower level of life for his sake, will find a higher level of life.
This reminds me of a story.
There once was a little girl who had a plastic string of pearls. The little girl would wear the pearls everywhere and every night, she would take them off and place them in the drawer of her nightstand.
Every night, the little girl’s father would tuck her in and ask her if she loved him. And every night the little girl would say, “Of course, Daddy, I love you more than anything!”
After that, the father would ask the little girl if she would give him her pearls. To which the little girl always responded, “Oh, please ask me for anything, but not my pearls!” After the little girl answered, the father would smile at her, give her a big hug and kiss, and go out of the room.
This continued for years until one night, something changed. The girl looked at her father and, with tears streaming down her eyes, responded, “Yes, I love my pearls, but I love and trust you more. So yes, I will give you my pearls.” And the girl took the pearls out of the drawer and handed them to her father.
Her father was overjoyed! He looked at her with tears streaming down his cheeks and pulled out a box and handed it to his daughter. It was a string of, not fake, but real pearls! He had wanted to give the real pearls to his daughter, but she had to be willing to give up the fake.
Christ is ready to give us true life, not something that is pretending to be life. Paul is showing us how to get the most out of the life we have here, now! But we are being asked to place our faith and our trust in Christ. All around us, we are being told to not reach out and just worry about ourselves; we are being told that we should revel in our “so called” self-made success while leaving others to suffer because “they” are lazy or somehow flawed. But Jesus is asking us to look after our enemies. Paul is asking us to work toward the greater good of all people, not just those who we happen to like.
This is not a plan to just feel good. What we are being asked actually takes some work! We have to work to follow the example that Jesus set. When Jesus told Peter to “get behind,” it was not that Jesus was trying to get rid of Peter. Jesus was reminding Peter of his proper spot. You cannot follow the savior if you are running out in front of him!
We are to follow in the path of Jesus and live as servant leaders. We are called to come together as a community and we are called to gather around the table. Now yes, this calling is to strengthen us, but this strength is not for us alone. We are strengthened to go out into the world and share the love of Christ that we ourselves have found. We are strengthened to love genuinely. We are strengthened to love our enemies. We are strengthened to live peaceably with all. Yes, we are strengthened to love our families and friends, but we are also strengthened to love the stranger and the outcast. We are strengthened to be a force in our neighborhoods and communities. We are strengthened through Christ’s body, blood, forgiveness, and love to touch those people the world would claim are untouchable.
So I challenge you to go back and reread today’s passage from Romans. But don’t just read it as a nice poem sent to you on e-mail, read it as a guide to living a full life, sent to you by the one who loves you more than you can ever understand. Read it that way, because that is exactly what it is.