Message: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Recently, I learned of a group of folks who having signed a contract agreement to occupy space found themselves in a position where they could no longer honor the contract. According to the agreement, they gave notice and took the necessary steps to vacate the premises. Sadly, the process was not amicable. Both sides felt violated and abused. Both sides found themselves angered and feeling hateful. These days, it seems we can be angry and feel hateful about so many things. Turn on the news, listen to the car radio, glance at the front page, blitz through the internet, just overhear a conversation in the line at Starbucks. We’re angry because someone has done us wrong; we’re not represented fairly; we’re threatened by outside forces. There is evil in the world. What are we to do?
In the letter to the Romans we hear from this morning the apostle Paul offers a laundry list of practical teachings for how we should pattern our lives. A good student himself of Jesus’ core values taught through the beatitudes, the apostle writes to the church in Rome with the belief that through God in Christ, we are, at the center of our being: good. We believe others are good as well. We believe the motives of others are good, even when it may not appear that way initially. Consequently, we’re to conform, not to the patterns of this world, but rather we’re to conform to the pattern of God’s will.
The apostle writes of a conduct that characterizes who we are in Christ. More so, the apostle writes of who we are in Christ with others. Love genuinely, hold goodness, show honor, rejoice, cling to hope, be hospitable, live in harmony, have peace, feed our enemies, show respect, don’t seek vengeance, be patient, persevere, do not be overcome by evil. Instead, overcome evil with good.
On Thursday of last week The Washington Post published another story on the horrors of Hurricane Harvey besieging the Southeast border of Texas and across the Louisiana gulf coast. With the death toll over three dozen and still counting; hundreds of thousands of people displaced and a one hundred billion dollar recovery effort in front of the storm damaged area for years ahead, some could actually construe that Hurricane Harvey is an act of evil. In fact, a University of Florida professor lost his job this past week implying that Hurricane Harvey was an act of evil against the majority of the voting population in Texas because they voted for President Trump. The controversial French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo’s (Hib – do) cover illustrated a pair of hands poking out of waves of waters while waving swastika flags with a caption that read: “God exists! He drowned all the neo-nazis of Texas!” Evil is alive and well in our world.
The Bible defines evil in Paul’s letter to the Romans as a moral sin. Evil is more than simply the absence of good. Evil is our violation of God’s will for us to do good. Evil is the human will to think, feel, and act wrongly and wickedly, inflict pain, and to maliciously harm. This definition of evil as a moral sin would not, therefore, conclude that Hurricane Harvey was evil. But, the actions of the University of Florida professor and the improprieties of Charlie Hebdo are most certainly considered evil by biblical definition.
No wonder we feel angry, and hateful. For the ancient church in Rome, it seems the church is feeling hateful as well as the community can’t seem to get along with folks outside of their immediate community. They’re choosing sides: who’s in, who’s out. As followers of Jesus Christ, we’re not about who’s in and who’s out. We’re simply about doing good: the kind of good that inspires others to embrace what is beautiful and praiseworthy. That means we do good selflessly, sacrificially, honorably and humbly.
First and foremost, of all God’s spiritual gifts, we’re to love. Love in the biblical sense is not a love of sentimentality. Love is an action. To love as followers of Christ is to care for others with sincerity, without hypocrisy, with an affection, an action that could be characterized as brotherly or sisterly with an honorable commitment that is not seen elsewhere.
With Jesus as our teacher, who in his love, dies for us that we will know the saving grace of God’s undying love we learn our basis for serving God in Christ: to love. Love is not without difficulty. But, love always wins and cannot be surpassed because of God in Christ’s sacrificial love for us. So, we love and we do so as we act humbly, honorably, in harmony, with zeal, rejoicing, patient, persevering, with hope; loving even our enemies. Paul exhorts, do not repay evil for evil. Rather, as we love we hold fast to what is good.
While the horrors or Hurricane Harvey remain as front page news, so too is God’s glorious goodness featured in the news. Every step of the way regardless of position in life, the color of your skin, the amount of money you make, whatever age you may be, your availability, your ability, your presence, near or far, your religious preference, humankind, once again, loving what is genuine, clinging to all that is just and true and right, is good. Police, fire fighters, medical experts and military personnel working well beyond their required shifts continue to dredge the flooded streets and highways of Texas rescuing people and animals carrying them to safety and wellness as the waters become harbors for disease and infection. Churches and mosques along with civic centers are opening their doors providing a temporary home for evacuees. One furniture store invited flood victims to come, sleep on the floor sample beds, find rest on sofas and chairs and put their feet up on brand new coffee tables on display. Through us God overcomes evil with good.
Our job now: keep working good. We’re good in a crisis. We do well when things fall apart. We pitch in. We join forces. We collaborate effectively and positively. God blesses us as Epiphany with great goodness as the core of our identity. We’re not phony in our loving. Jesus knows that. Jesus knows too that our real work of holding fast to what is good is the day to day. His entire ministry is highlighted with generous acts of goodness, day in and day out. How are we in our day to day overcoming evil with good?
The apostle Paul writes to a body of faithful people who live in an oppressive, even violent regime under the Roman Empire. Experts tell us that folks even with the best of intentions to do good can be indoctrinated into behaving in evil ways under tyrannical authorities. Isn’t that the result of the coercion of ISIS and the white supremacy groups we’ve seen most recently? The apostle, though calls for action that we will overcome evil with good. It may be the simplest notion: offering a meal, suggesting we pray for our enemies, reaching out in genuine, authentic love to strangers, honoring all with respect.
Loving with such goodness gets better as we practice. Maybe it is this week we simply borrow from Paul’s list of core values and form a list of our own: Romans 12:9-21. What steps will we take to overcome evil with goodness? Now, go, love and serve the Lord, and do good.