Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

When books of fiction or real-life stories are adapted for movies, that’s part of what’s known as screenwriting. Those engaged in it have to do a lot of editing, have to cut out large parts of a book. It’s not uncommon—when people who have read the original work go see the film—to be somewhat disappointed. Has that ever happened to you? And you said, “Why they cut out the scene about so-and-so doing this or that or the other thing,” or, “They totally left out one of my favorite characters?” But sometimes it’s necessary, so the story can fit into a two-hour viewing time.

Well, one of today’s passages—the 12th chapter of Romans—is a bit like a small book. Paul is writing mainly about a particular characteristic—a particular mark of a Christian—and that is the mark of love. But he seems to spell it out too much. For him, love is first of all…

·         Showing mutual affection.

·         But it’s also bestowing honor on others.

·         And serving God with great zeal.

·         And it’s hope and patience and generosity and hospitality.

·         And blessing our enemies.

·         And practicing empathy and humility and forgiveness.

·         And, finally, living peaceably with others.

A frequent job preachers have is like that of a screenwriter: We have to condense or pare down what is packed into a Sunday-morning text. That’s especially true of something like all the virtues Paul mentions in this passage, any one of which could be the theme for a sermon.

Of course, that’s never stopped some from trying to include everything. For example, the former president of my seminary—who’s probably now in his 90s—once told a story about when he was a boy, and his father, a minister, had just taken a call to a church. After his first service there, he was greeting worshippers on their way out. One of them, an older man, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Pastor, in calling you, we expect you to really preach the Gospel—not just a few, spindly words, but something substantial.” The length of that sermon? Anyone want to guess? 45 minutes!...Don’t worry. I won’t preach that long this morning—not even half that long. Fortunately, since the general, the overarching theme in Romans is love, I will keep that in mind while looking at other virtues incorporated into it.

First of all, Paul says: “Let love be genuine.” In other words, don’t put it on as if it’s a mask—as if we’re characters in a play. God calls us to be loving both on the inside and the outside. I, for one, haven’t always been that way, and that’s not how it should be. If I’m helping someone, but don’t have the right attitude about it—if the good that I do isn’t matched by a similar goodness in my heart—it just doesn’t count as much.

That’s something any number of us could be more mindful of—to cultivate that frame of mind. Doing good grudgingly or out of a sense of duty—that’s not quite the same as love. Our speech also comes into it: to speak well of others in public, while criticizing them in private is just plain phony—even thinking it is insincere. As one commentator says: “…if Christ does not live in [our] innermost thoughts, if the most [we] can do is fake a Christian attitude toward other[s], then something is fundamentally [wrong].”[i]

On the other hand, when our love is genuine, so are the expressions of it—like the affection Paul writes about, and bestowing honor on one another. We don’t do them just because they’re expected or might make us look good, but it’s like what we read in another version of the Bible, in the New Living Bible: “Don’t just pretend that you love others. Really love them”[ii]….Again, not always an easy thing.

The next words of Paul: “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…” I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the word “zeal,” I get a little nervous. That’s because it can be taken in two ways. In the first, it’s something we really get into—something we’re very interested in, something that we’re passionate about. It’s like many people are when it comes to athletic events—either as members of a team or as fans sitting in the bleachers. That old school spirit comes alive!

But then I am reminded of something else when hearing that word—zeal. And that’s when people get so wrapped up in something they’re in danger of turning that virtue into a vice. I imagine someone who becomes overzealous—acting in a rash way, becoming so obsessed w/something that nothing else seems to matter anymore. That’s when a person becomes a fanatic.

So I prefer another term that Paul uses: “be ardent in spirit.” That’s a word we don’t hear very often, is it? I mean, when was the last time you heard someone say, “You know old so-and so? What I really like about her is that she’s such an ardent person”…Well, here are some definitions of it:

·         warm or intense in feeling

·         intensely enthusiastic or devoted

·         glowing; radiant

·         burning; aflame.”

Hmm…I don’t know about that last one. But to me the rest resonate a lot more than an image of someone who is zealous. An ardent person engages in ministry with both feeling and commitment—but not to the point where it can go in a completely different direction—like when school spirit turns into mean-sounding words, even behavior, toward the opposing side.

Third, Paul says: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” In other words, the virtue of empathy, of compassion. Although some people have a natural gift for it, I certainly don’t believe that’s true for everyone. Often enough, it requires a kind of cultivation, an intentional effort to put oneself into the shoes of others. It can require some intuition, an ability to read others well, and learning to listen carefully for the emotions that lie behind and under the words that others speak.

In chaplaincy training during my school years, I took part in a practice known as verbatim reporting. Basically, it was writing up as accurately and as detailed as possible selected conversations with people who were hospitalized. Its purpose was to help us students identify what was going on emotionally and spiritually with them, helping them articulate, express their fears about their illnesses and their hopes for recovery--and how that all fits into their relationships with others, including God. Later, when we students got together with our supervisor, we would then read our reports, receiving feedback from one another.

My particular challenge was overcoming a tendency to gather too many facts about others before focusing on their feelings. I thought the more facts I had about them, the better I could respond to them, help them. It took me forever to figure out that trying to get more information actually kept me from learning about their spiritual needs. That is, I wasn’t paying enough attention to how they were telling me about something. I wasn’t paying attention to their body language. I had a certain tone-deafness towards much of that. So, for some of us, empathy is an art to develop, an art that takes practice.

In doing that, we learn better how to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. One time the first of those that was difficult for me had to do with a peer, a colleague in ministry. She had achieved something I had hoped that I would. Knowing that, she called me to tell me her good news. She didn’t want me to hear it first from someone else. And it did surprise me. It upset me. But, at the time, I did my best to rejoice with her, the next day dropping in the mail a note of congratulations.

Sometimes it’s the same when people become distraught, demoralized. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, most others, if not exactly weeping with all the victims, still feel for them, imagine what they’re going through, and want to help. At the same time, news stories have already come out about how people should know better than to live and work in places that are prone to severe flooding—like many parts of Houston. Now, it is true there have been some underlying reasons, chief among them that it’s the only large city in the U.S. with no zoning codes. So residential neighborhoods and skyscrapers can go up just about anytime, anywhere. But right now isn’t the time to cast blame—on city government, building contractors, or other groups. For now and a long time to come, feeling the pain of the victims and lending a helping hand are the things that are needed.

In today’s reading, the virtue of love is perhaps expressed in no stronger and difficult way than in how we respond to evil—and to our enemies.Just listen to these verses:

·         Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

·         Do not repay anyone evil for evil…

·         Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.

·         …if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;

·         And last: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Of all the virtues related to love, this, by far, must be the most difficult one to live by. Depending on our individual circumstances, we tend towards one of two responses: to react to our hurt by running off somewhere to lick our wounds; or, by striking back. Either of those is plain, old human nature. What is not is blessing our enemies—like feeding them when they’re hungry or giving them something to drink when they’re thirsty. Treating them in such a way may prick their conscience or at least confuse them. And, for some, it will simply be regarded as a sign of weakness, encouraging them to commit even more evil. For us, their reactions are not the most important thing. Our own response is what really counts—that we conform not to the ways of the world, but rise above them.

Coming to mind is an example from the protest last month of the white supremacists in Charlottesville. The counter-protesters certainly hated the evil in the hearts of the marchers. But more than that, many in the second group also hated them—or at least seemed to express that in their shouting and in some of their actions. Even though we ourselves only saw the neo-Nazis, KKK, and others on the screens of our televisions and smart phones, we may have been guilty of the same—hating both the sin and the sinner. Yet St. Paul, and Jesus, remind usto be different—that, at the very least, we should pity people who are filled with such hatred.

If anyone would be justified in striking out at those people, it would be the mother of Heather Meyer, the young woman run over and killed by that sick young man—who was an admirer of Adolf Hitler. If in the place of that mother, would “we [not] think first…of our own pain [and desire to see justice be done, sooner rather than later]?” Yet, even in her pain, she still managed to [show] concern for the other mother—the parent of [that] young man. His mother, in a much different way, that day also lost her child.[iii]

In the beginning of this message, I described that this passage in Romans has so much packed into it that it needed to be cut down to a manageable size, as a screenwriter might heavily edit a novel in order to turn it into a film. Maybe a better image is this: Think about love, as the greatest virtue, serving as the center of all the others. Like a concentric circle, in which mutual affection and bestowing honor on others make up the second ring, and zeal the third, followed by hope, patience, hospitality, and finally forgiveness for our enemies. Love shines throughout all of them, and the darkness evil does not overcome it. For us as Christians, Jesus, the Incarnation of love, stands at the center of all those circles. He radiates outward, penetrating our hearts and, through us, the rest of the world.

 

[i] Scott Hoezee, Lectionary Epistle—Romans 12:9-21, in http://calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-17a/?type+lectionary_epistle.

 

[ii]The Living New Testament with Psalms & Proverbs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1971).

 

[iii]Kathryn Matthews, “Reflections on Romans 12:9-21, in http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_3_2017.