Scripture: Romans 12:9-21
It was 2006 and the house we were living in had a small back porch. As spring turned into summer we were able to buy a bench on sale to put back there. It came from Wal-Mart, so it was a piece of flat box furniture, which means it comes in a fairly flat box and some assembly is required. For whatever reason we did not get to unpacking it and putting it together right away. A couple of weeks later the church I was serving at as youth minister had vacation bible school coming up and the VBS director mentioned they needed a bench for the sanctuary decorations. I volunteered our new one, but mentioned we had to assemble it. Someone else cheerfully volunteered that if I brought in she and her husband would assemble it.
On the first day of VBS, I saw the husband and thanked him for assembling our bench. He glared at me, and asked, “How long have you been married?” At the time it had been three years, so I told him. He gave a defeated sigh and said “You are welcome, because your marriage would not have survived putting that together.”
It sounds like that bench was especially frustrating, and he might have been right. I really, really dislike assembling flat box furniture. It is such a frustrating experience. It seems that the pre-drilled holes are never quite deep enough, there is never enough space to turn an Allen wrench like it is supposed to, the pieces that are supposed to line up just don’t quite seem together, or in order to hold everything in place to tighten it down requires like seven hands at once. I have always found trying to assemble flat box furniture to be an exercise in frustration. I know I am not the only one to feel this way. Ikea furniture especially has earned a reputation for how maddening it is to try and assemble. One of the things that makes it so frustrating is they come with instructions. They are step by step. Looking at the instructions it always feels like it should be a lot easier to assemble than it actually is. The idea of something being harder than it looks like it should be makes me think of this morning’s scripture.
In this scripture, which gets close to wrapping up the book of Romans, Paul goes through a rapid fire list of instructions for how followers of Jesus should live and act in their everyday lives. These seem fairly straight forward, but time has shown that collectively Christians do not always do the best job at following these instructions. They look a lot easier on paper than they are to live out in our lives. Following these instructions can be frustratingly hard. It often requires us to swallow our pride and to go against our initial impulses. However, for us to truly live as followers of Jesus who model a more godly way to live, then this is the way.
Broadly speaking the instructions given in this morning’s scripture can be divided into two major sections. The first major section is how we interact with one another. It is how the followers of Jesus treat each other. We see this spelled out plainly in verse 10, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourself.” In verses 9-13, Paul express how we do that. First and foremost is verse 9. “Love must be sincere.” We have to sincerely love the people we go to church with. Every church in the world prides themselves on being friendly, but we need to go a step further than that. We need to be friends. Now I suspect for many of you this sounds easy, because you can easily think of some people sitting in the pews around you who are you friends and that you greatly care for. However, as we dig into it we find there is space for our love to be greater. In their book Get Their Name Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, and Kay Kotan point out that people have an average of eight close relationships in church. They use an interesting analogy to explain this. The authors write, “We could think of those eight relationships as the eight knobs on a Lego building block. Once those eight are full, we tend to spend time mostly with those eight people.”
There is nothing wrong with having close friendships with a small group. In fact for love to be sincere we have to invest in each other. However, our faith community is larger than eight people. We need to always be willing to add a knob, and keep our personal circle open. Part of the instructions that Paul gives is to share with the Lord’s people who are in need and practice hospitality. If we become so insular in our own little small group, then when there is a member of our faith community who is need, who is in a moment of crisis and needs hospitality then they will not have anyone to turn to.
It should not be this way. It is heartbreaking to read stories of people who have had bad experiences with church, because the stories are so similar. Obviously the circumstances are different each time, but the cause is the same. The person needed someone to love them sincerely, when they looked for that support at church they found a lot of friendly faces but no friends willing to share life with them when they were in need. We can have and should maintain our close friendships we already have, but we also need to be ensure that our person building block is big enough to always have an extra knob open. We need to make the circle a little wider. We need to be willing to love each other sincerely, for this is the way.
The second major sections of instructions from this morning’s scripture deal with how we interact with other, especially with people who have wronged us. Paul’s instructions to goes against our basic instincts. Our basic instincts is to fight fire with fire. If someone throws mud at us, then we throw more back at them. If someone hits us, then we hit them back harder. That is exactly the opposite of what Paul writes. Someone seems to have it out for you then, Paul says “bless those who persecute you.” Someone does you wrong, then Paul says “do not repay evil for evil.” Someone betrays or takes advantage of you, then Paul says “do not take revenge.”
Our first reaction might be one to scoff at this. Because it sounds like Paul is insisting that we be a doormat and let people walk all over us. But that is not what he is saying. Paul’s instructions are “do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” We all know the old saying, “two wrongs do not make a right.” When someone does wrong, we do right. They took the low road, so we show that grace comes from taking the high road. This does not mean people walk over us beause we are still taking action. It is just our action is one based in love and mercy. We embody the love, forgiveness, and grace of Christ. When we do this, we do not get revenge but instead we overcome their wrong with good.
There is a story that illustrates this perfectly. Ethel had passed away. She was a dear old saint of the church. She had done it all taught Sunday school, led VBS, directed the choir, visited the shut-ins, and anything else in the church that needed doing. She had also served as a mentor for a young man answered the call to ministry from his local church. It seemed so appropriate to have this young man conducting the funeral. But, for reasons untold, when the time came for the funeral to begin the young preacher was nowhere to be found, nor had word been sent to explain his tardiness. The crowd grew somewhat restless as the moments became minutes and threatened to become an hour.
As the restlessness grew, a middle-aged man in the congregation stood and addressed the crowd. “It seems the preacher is late. Until he arrives I feel as if I should share a special memory of Ethel. My greatest memory is the time that she brought me a cake, and it wasn’t even my birthday. I still do not know the reason that she chose to bring me the cake. But I will remember her for this.”
As he sat down, everyone turned their attention to a lady that rose to speak. This woman had a reputation as the church gossip. Whenever she spoke people tended to hold their collective breath, because they were never quite sure what she would say. “Funny that you should remember a cake, because I too received a cake from Ethel. In fact, I received several over the last few years.”
Amazingly, yet another man stood, claiming that he too had received a cake. However, the cake he was given a sour cream pound cake. This caused several a murmur to rise around the room. Ethel’s sour cream pound cake was legendary. Whenever the church had a pitch-in the attendance that Sunday would be among the highest for the year as people came to jockey in line just to get a piece of sour cream pound cake. The man concluded, “Ethel and I did not often see eye to eye, but she certainly did right by me.”
A few more people rose to give testimony to the cakes that this woman had baked and delivered over the years of her life. Some had gotten one. Others had received several. A couple of more people even stated, with some level of pride, that they had been fortunate enough to receive a sour cream pound cake.
Seated on the front row, out of the attention of the crowd, was Martha. Since childhood Martha and Ethel had been best friends. As people spoke of cakes they had received, Martha sat strangely quiet. You see, Martha had never once received a cake from Ethel. As the testimonies continued, Martha began to feel hurt in ways she could not explain.
About this time the door opened and in rushed a winded preacher. The frustration of delay showed clearly on his face. Going to the pulpit, he addressed the congregation, apologizing for his delay. The first speaker rose again and said, “It’s OK pastor. We have been passing times by sharing our memories of Ethel.”
The young preacher spoke again: “Since you have shared your memories, permit me to share mine. When I first answered the call to ministry I spent many hours talking with Ethel about a wide variety of matters. Once, we were discussing the way people, even good church people, cut and hurt one another with words and action. I asked her how she handled it when evil or meanness was spoken of her or directed towards her. The answer she gave has stuck in my mind to this day: ‘When people have spoken evil of me, I try not to respond in kind, but in kindness. When I learned who had spoken so cruelly, I would go to my kitchen and bake them a cake. I would deliver it to them and never mention their unkind words. Sometimes I had to bake several cakes. And if they were especially cruel, I would go and prepare my specialty, a sour cream pound cake. I learned that to repay this evil with kindness made the evil so much more bearable for me, and I hope that every bite of the cake would tell them that I love them, in spite of their actions.”
A stunned crowd left the funeral home that day, with one exception, a quiet lady who rose from the front row and left with a smile on her face remembering the cakes she never received from her dear friend.
Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good, for this is the way. The instructions that Paul gives in this morning scripture are deceptively hard to follow. However, I am reminded that with God all things are possible. On our own we will struggle mightily, but with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can love sincerely and we can repay evil with kindness. So may our love for one another be sincere. As far as it depends on us, may we live at peace with everyone. May we not repay others in kind but in kindness. Through how we love one another and how we treat those who have wronged us, may we show the world there is a better way to live. May we show them how following Jesus has changed our lives for the better. May we show them that this is the way.