Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon: Glory and Uncertainty

Note: this was one of those weeks in which the course of the sermon changed dramatically a little after midweek.  I'm not entirely sure the whole sermon caught up with the course correction.  But, as they say, it is what it is.  These things happen sometimes.

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
October 19, 2014, Ordinary 29A
Exodus 33:12-23; I Corinthians 13:9-12

Glory and Uncertainty

In the movie When Harry Met Sally, there are over the course of the film a number of scenes, separate from the plot, in which couples, mostly couples who have apparently been married for some time, tell the stories of how they came together and fell in love.  One of the stories stands out from the others because this couple, unlike the others, was brought together in an arranged marriage. 
In telling their story, he (she never spoke) described how he had never seen his future bride at the time their marriage was arranged.  He did not complain about a marriage being forced upon him (it was part of his culture), but he was distressed at not knowing what his bride looked like.  Finally he describes how he snuck out one evening and made his way to her village to see her; once he had, he was very happy to go through the wedding.  But his earnest insistence – “I had to know;” “I had to see her” – stood out among those happy couples.
Silly as it might seem, that movie clip is a pretty good summation of how we human beings react in the face of uncertainty, the stressful and unpleasant business of not knowing.  It’s the unknowability and unpredictability that gives a sporting event its particular tension; can my team score one more run, sink one more basket?  In other situations it’s not such a benefit to our enjoyment of life.
It’s one thing in a movie.  In real life, I have to admit I’d have been pretty stressed if I had never met my wife before our wedding day.  There are situations, though, in which our human urgency to know, to be sure, leads us astray.  We feel compelled – we feel entitled, even – to know exactly how things are, what they mean, or what comes next.
In today’s lesson from Exodus we see one example of how that urge for certainty works, and sometimes causes us humans to ask things of God that simply are not ours to have.  The story at this point follows one of the lowest points of the whole Exodus narrative: when Moses took longer than expected to come down from the mountain, the people prevailed upon Aaron to gather up all the gold from among the Israelites and fashion a golden calf, a tangible image to stand in for the God who always remained just out of sight.  You might remember that one of those commandments God had given to Moses forbade exactly that kind of thing – no graven images, remember? 
The fearfulness of the people – their uncertainty in the absence of Moses and the unknowability of God – led them to demand an image they could see and touch.  No longer able or willing to maintain faith in God, they resort to the kind of idols and statues they had no doubt seen many times back in Egypt. 
Fear.  Fear is a powerful force against faith.  In fact, fear and faith, some say, don’t really coexist well together; the former tends to drive out the latter when it is not addressed.  In the case of the Israelites it certainly seems to have overcome their trust in God and Moses.
Given the horrific sin of the golden calf, God (who does this kind of thing in Exodus) is ready to be done with the Israelites once and for all, to wipe them away and start over, making a new nation from Moses as God had done with Abraham many generations before.  It is left to Moses to intercede for the Israelites, and he does so forcefully.  First he demands to know that God will go with the Israelites, not only not wiping them out but continuing to be with them directly as God has done so far.  Moses and God engage in some hair-splitting as to whether it is sufficient for God to be with Moses, or if God must be with all the Israelites.  Even when God seems to acquiesce in Moses’s demands, Moses keeps pressing for more, and God keeps consenting more. 
To be fair, Moses is in a difficult position.  He can no longer trust the people.  Not only have they committed the grave sin of the golden calf, they have shown themselves to be profoundly unreliable and willing to turn against Moses at the drop of a hat.  However, he also knows that if God disposes of the Israelites, or if God abandons them on their journey, they don’t stand a chance.  Moses pleads with God, not just for his own sake, but also for the sake of the people.  But again, there is fear involved.  Moses fears for the people, but Moses also fears for himself and even for God. 
And again, fear provokes Moses to go too far.
Earlier in Exodus Moses is described as speaking to God face-to-face, but this seems not to line up properly with how other parts of the book describe their encounters.  In most cases, such as in the delivery of the Ten Commandments, God is described as speaking to Moses directly, but not visibly—God is usually obscured in clouds or otherwise concealed from Moses.   For Moses to ask God directly to “show me your glory” as in verse 18 is to ask for the clouds and obscuring to be wiped away, and to see God in a literal face-to-face way.
God’s response to Moses is instructive, in a way that Christians of all times have tended to forget or ignore. 
Think for a moment of how one sees God portrayed in, say, paintings or movies.  Dazzling, even blinding light; all in white, of course, perhaps with a halo or aura of some sort.  And in a movie, God is given a deep, commanding voice, like Morgan Freeman’s for example.
Now think of visual portrayals of Jesus.  Even paintings of Jesus’s earthly time tend to want to “glorify” him in some way.  A halo again, possibly, or impossibly white robes despite being out on a dusty Judean highway.  The oh-so-perfect face, dazzling hair, the bluest possible eyes (despite the fact that for a citizen of that region of the Mediterranean is pretty severely unlikely to have blue eyes!).  The image is “glorified.”
Despite it being a basic tenet of our theology, we aren’t always comfortable with the idea of a human Jesus, doing human things.  It’s as if we have this subconscious notion that a human Jesus is not a holy Jesus.  A Jesus who eats or spits or scratches his head or any number of other peculiar human things somehow seems irreconcilable with the Son of God.  We tend to want to keep Jesus obviously holy, even distantly holy, in our visualizations.
Moses is pushing for something similar here, in a way.  By asking to see God’s glory (the word for “glory” is excruciatingly similar to the word for “face” in Hebrew, by the way), Moses is asking for the privilege of seeing God in the most God-like way possible.  Dazzling, glorious, unmistakably God. 
And God says no.
God will not show Moses glory; God will only show Moses goodness. 
God will show goodness.  God will show Moses that God is the Lord.  God will show Moses what it is to show mercy and to be gracious.  But God will not show Moses that face, that elusive glory.
You would think we would have gotten the message somewhere along the way.  What God wants us to see, what God wants to know of God, is goodness, mercy, grace.  These are the things God wanted Moses to see.  Those are the traits Jesus showed in his ministry on earth.  Goodness, mercy, grace.
And yet we keep asking for glory.
How best to put this?  It is not our calling to bask in the glory of God, direct or reflected or any other way.  Our calling is to live out God’s goodness towards one another and to God’s good world.  Our calling is to extend God’s mercy to those who – like us – fall short, who keep ending up in sin no matter how much we claim God’s redemption.  Our calling is to abide in God’s grace, and to extend that grace to the people and the world around us. 
And yet we keep asking for glory.
While putting up roadblocks to God’s grace, and being as unmerciful as we can to those we disdain or disagree with, while living as far away from God’s goodness as we can, we dare to presume upon God’s glory. 
At least the Israelites had the decency to be afraid after they built their golden calf.  We prop up all manner of images and idols for our adoration and don’t even bat an eye about it.  I don’t need to run through the list, do I?  Wealth, fame, power, youth – that just scratches the surface of the ways we practice forms of idolatry in routine, everyday ways.  And even in the midst of our adoration of these graven images, we dare to presume upon God’s glory. 
What God wants from God’s people, primarily, has been framed many different ways.  “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God,” says the prophet Micah.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus in the gospels.  “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” says Paul, “so that you may know the will of God.” 
This is what God wants fearful, angry Moses to see.  This is what God wants the mistrustful, weak Israelites to see.  This is what God wants us to see: what it looks like to live in God, what it is to live in the way that God calls us to live.  While we keep demanding glorious dazzling light and constant stroking of our fearful egos, God wants us out there living grace and mercy to one another and to the world. 
For a God who shows us goodness when we ask for glory, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: To God Be the Glory (363), He Hideth My Soul (120), The Solid Rock (92 -- numbers from Hymns For the Family of God) 

Just go ahead and chomp.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sermon: A Table With Enough For Everyone

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
October 12, 2014, Ordinary 28A
Ruth 1:22-2:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-22

A Table With Enough For Everyone

A few weeks ago, after my last visit to this congregation, my wife and I made a stop at a small stand selling fruits and vegetables, a few miles north of here on Highway 360.  We came away with several apples, mostly eaten by my wife; some peaches, several of which ended up in a peach crisp for dessert; and a goodly sized tomato that found its way into two very tasty BLT sandwiches that week.  Oh, and a jar of honey.
Living in an area where such goods can be found almost by accident, it’s easy to get spoiled.  Even in Richmond proper, the number of farmer’s markets dotted around the metro area over the course of a week can be challenging to keep up with. 
Those farmer’s markets, though, don’t cover the whole city.  Additionally, the large supermarket chains that so carefully preserve their dominance of the market in a city like Richmond are absent from many of those same neighborhoods.  If you happen to live in such a neighborhood, it can be profoundly challenging to find quality food for one’s family, especially if one relies on the circuitous bus routes of the city’s transit system for one’s primary transportation. 
So it is that, in close proximity to one another, one can find neighborhoods that qualify as “food deserts” – reflecting the lack of options for finding good, healthy food nearby – and neighborhoods with a glut of healthy and accessible food options.  Because one must not interfere with market forces, or because poverty is near inescapable once one is caught in it, no matter how hard one works, these inequalities of access persist over time, and indeed even grow more pronounced as well as persistent.
This phenomenon is only one of many that illustrates the complicated and difficult role that food plays in the modern, technologically advanced world.  In an age in which farms are capable of producing truly unbelievable amounts of food, the number of people across the world, and across this country, who go without food at some point in their daily lives continues to grow.  The food scarcity noted above is hardly restricted to Richmond, nor even to cities as large as Richmond – as this church evidently recognizes, based on the fact of the collected food I see when I come to preach.
Today marks the beginning of the Food Week of Action, sponsored by the Presbyterian Hunger Program, an agency of PC(USA) under the supervision of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.  The Presbyterian Hunger Program, or PHP, works to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes, responding with compassion and justice to poor and hungry people in local communities in the United States and internationally.  It is supported by the One Great Hour of Sharing offering and by regular gifts to the Hunger Fund to support ministries of direct food relief, development assistance, public policy advocacy, education, and lifestyle integrity. The PHP seeks to fulfill its mission through strategic grantmaking, print and web educational and worship materials, partnership collaborations, and participatory programs that allow us to recognize and love especially the most vulnerable of our neighbors next door and across the planet. 
I suspect most Christians don’t need to be told that we are to care for and help provide for those who do not have enough to eat.  I wonder, though, how many would be surprised to realize just how much our scriptures have to say about food and how God’s children are meant to share it.  The scriptures read today only scratch the surface of the Bible’s content on the subject of food, stories that stretch from the many beautiful fruits of the Garden of Eden to the twelve kinds of fruits on the Tree of Life in the last chapter of Revelation.  On many occasions the gospels speak of Jesus’ ministry in relation to the sharing of meals, whether within the four thousand or five thousand fed from a few loaves to the turning of water into wine, to bread and wine broken and poured at one last meal with his disciples.
What we do have in these two stories, though, does illustrate two extremes in which the people of God have existed in terms of providing for one another.  In one story we see those with plenty taking care that those without do not remain without, while in the other no such care is evident.
Perhaps the book of Ruth is not wildly familiar to many people, or even many longtime Christians.  Today’s scripture picks up with Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth returning to the city of Bethlehem.  Naomi and her husband had left Bethlehem years before to escape a famine, taking up residence in the region called Moab.  Their two sons had married local women there, Orpah and Ruth.  First Naomi’s husband died, and about ten years later the two sons died as well, leaving Naomi with her two Moabite daughters-in-law.  Having heard that the famine had passed in Bethlehem, she resolved to return.  Orpah was persuaded to remain in her home country and return to her family, but Ruth would not be dissuaded from following Naomi to Bethlehem.
With no husband to either woman, Naomi and Ruth were left to the mercies of their kin in the region around Bethlehem.  One kinsman to Naomi’s husband, Boaz, had large fields nearby.  Ruth proposed to go gleaning—gathering up the grain left over after Boaz’s workers had first gathered all the grain they could.  In this time such was a custom that allowed for those without food to get food.  Boaz, though, could have placed restrictions on Ruth, or even forbidden her to glean in the fields.  Instead, Boaz not only allows for her to continue gleaning, but instructs his workers to protect her as she works, provides a little extra barley for her, and allows her to eat with Boaz’s own workers. 
Of course, if you do remember the story, Ruth ends up marrying Boaz, with a little machination from Naomi, and ends up becoming the great-grandmother of King David.  Still, this segment of the story is instructive of how Israelite society was structured in such a way that those without were not left without.  Even a stranger like Ruth was not set aside because of her foreignness, but was able to provide for her mother-in-law.  To be sure, Israelite society didn’t always work this well, but the law given way back in Moses’s time had evolved and been interpreted so that the Israelites knew that part of their covenant with God was the instruction to take care of the poor among them, whether they be native or stranger. 
The world in which we live is dramatically different than the world of Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.  Still, I wonder if we can, from our own daily experience, bring to mind those who – like Ruth and Naomi – live in a situation, or a system, in which their ability to provide for themselves is compromised.  They are unable to work, perhaps, and have no family to provide for them.  Or maybe they do work, maybe more than one job, but still cannot make enough to avoid having to choose between feeding family and paying rent.  They are out there, whether in the big city or a rural county, and they are who God calls us not to overlook like the rest of society does. 
We in the church, though, are not always ready to follow here.  Too often, the voice of the church is more prone to condemn than to show compassion – telling that one already working two jobs to “get a job” or blaming him or her for not working hard enough.  The church too easily looks for excuses to judge rather than seeking to find ways to show God’s grace to the ones in need.  Israelites like Boaz, out of the pages of Hebrew Scripture, judge our modern coldness and failure to live up to the standards God has set for us.
The passage from 1 Corinthians is regrettably a bit more reflective of the ways we are not always so prone to fellowship around the table.  Were I to have continued from the end of that passage, you would recognize the words of verse 23 and beyond as the Words of Institution spoken as part of the liturgy around the Lord’s Supper.  Our passage today, though, requires a quick explanation of the context in which the early church observed that sacrament, still a new and evolving practice at the time.
In the earliest days of the church the re-enactment of the Last Supper Christ had with his disciples, with the breaking of bread and pouring of wine that have become the core of the modern Lord’s Supper, took place within the context of a full meal with all of the community gathered together.  Meal practices of the time, drawing upon Greek traditions and Roman adaptations of those traditions, involved a sequence of different courses to the meal. 
Adapting these Greco-Roman practices to the particular interest of the Christian church involved negotiating several problematic features of those Greco-Roman traditions; among them the preference of more “important” guests of the dinner to be seated in places of honor.  This is also the background to Jesus’s teaching in Luke 14, where he instructs his disciples not to seek out places of honor at the table.  This wasn’t really compatible with the teachings of Christ, obviously, but sometimes the church had trouble remembering this. 
Apparently the church at Corinth was such a church.  As Paul describes what he has been told about the goings-on there, some families or groups were arriving early and gobbling up all the food, while the more needy in the congregation were left with nothing to eat.  Furthermore, the excessive behavior led to incidents of drunkenness and ill behavior disruptive enough to be reported to Paul.
Food is, when you get right down to it, a particularly strong example of God’s providence.  It sustains us.  As an added bonus, it’s enjoyable.  And yet we are too easily led to abuse that good gift one way or another, whether in taking too much for ourselves, or hoarding the good and leaving only poor-quality food for the poor, or abusing the labor of those who do hard, back-breaking work to provide the food we eat; or some other way in which we make something painful and elusive out of God’s good gift. 
May it never be so with us.  Sharing a meal with our sisters and brothers in Christ is not only emulating the model offered so many times in scripture, but is also one of the greatest pleasures we can enjoy.  When we share God’s good gift with one another; when we give respect and honor to those who take upon themselves the work of planting, nurturing, harvesting what we eat; when we give thanks to God for that labor and care, and for what we eat itself; we are living, in a microcosmic way, the fellowship of Christ in the family of God. 
For the good gifts of God’s creation, Thanks be to God.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (PH 482)
When We Gather At the Table (tune: REGENT SQUARE)
All Things Bright and Beautiful (PH 267)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon: As One

Rennie Memorial Presbyterian Church
September 28, 2014; Ordinary 26A
Exodus 17:1-7
Philippians 2:1-13

As One

I’m a sports fan.
I don’t actually watch football anymore due to the issues of long-term brain trauma among its former players, but otherwise I’m either a fan of many sports or at least curious about them.
I’ve been a big baseball fan ever since Hank Aaron was on the verge of breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record.  I lived in Lawrence, Kansas, for four years, and college basketball is huge there, like nowhere else.  I confess I’ve never quite understood hockey, but I do enjoy sports like tennis and golf.
The newest sport to come under my fan inquisitiveness is soccer – you know, what the rest of the world calls “football.”  It’s not as if I’ve been unaware of it before, but aside from the occasional World Cup I, like many Americans, didn’t pay a whole lot of attention.  That changed a little over three years ago, when I went to a match in Kansas City, in a brand new stadium for that city’s team in Major League Soccer.  The fancy new setting, the crowd, the rising and falling tension of the match itself, all of these worked together to get me hooked.  Since then I’ve attended a few games of the local side in Richmond, that plays in a lower-level league, and I have tickets to a major-league match in DC this weekend.  So I’m following it pretty closely for someone who’s only been into the game for a few years.
I’m still learning the game itself, but I have picked up on a few things.  One of those is that for the most part, soccer embodies the whole concept of “teamwork” in a way that few other sports do.  Yes, all sports of that sort make some claim on “teamwork,” and many times such sports justify their existence (particularly among youth) on the skills of “teamwork” that they are supposed to teach.
In fact, though, many “team” sports are a series of individual matchups at heart.  The batter and pitcher are a classic example of such an individual contest within a team contest, but football relies on such matchups too – lineman blocking lineman, wide receiver against defensive back, and so on.  Basketball comes closer to that kind of widespread teamwork, but it’s a much smaller sport – only five to a side, versus the eleven per side on the soccer pitch. 
While occasionally an individual player will make a stirring dash down the pitch with the ball, sliding in and out of defenders and thrilling the crowd with a miraculous strike, in most cases it takes a remarkably coordinated effort of those eleven players to advance the ball against the defense.  Players are crossing, sprinting out to the wings, dropping back or sprinting forward.  The ball swings from side to side, sometimes struck into the middle for an attempt to split the defense, or crossed from one corner in front of the goal for a teammate to intercept and strike – with feet, head, hip, anything but hands – into the goal. 
For the defense as well, overall team coordination is a must.  If one player gets too far out of position in trying to intercept a cross or steal the ball from the other team, a hole is opened that the rest of the team has to try to plug before an opportunistic opponent sends the ball into the back of the net. 
I can’t help but think that the Apostle Paul, not above athletic references and metaphors himself, would find something to appreciate about the intensity of coordination required in this sport.  This is a man who, after all, has quite an interest – an obsession, some of his readers probably thought – with the whole idea of unity of purpose and coordination of effort and energy that he saw as the necessary, irreplaceable requirement for the still-developing church to survive and function in a world that ranged from indifferent to hostile. 
In some of his letters he compared the church to a body – an instrument that requires intensive and continuing unity of effort and coordination to function at all.  If one member of the body suffered, in Paul’s view, all of the members of the body suffered with it.  The body could not be whole, could not move and work and function as a whole, if any one part was hindered or wounded. 
Here in Philippians, Paul’s tack is slightly different.  Following an extended discussion of the nature of Christ and of life in Christ, Paul instructs his hearers in Philippi on the idea of unity.  The language he uses echoes his instruction in other letters such as the Corinthian correspondence and the (later) letter to the Romans without being exactly the same.  Here Paul speaks of the followers of Christ as “be(ing) of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” 
Now a naïve reading of a passage like this can cause us modern readers to be discouraged, quite frankly.  It doesn’t take much of a look around to see that there is not much evidence that we are of the same mind or have the same love.  Wars and rumors of wars multiply faster than we can count.  Our political sphere is thoroughly polluted with contentiousness.  We don’t even have to look outside our own denomination to see disagreement , but if we do we will see that no corner of the church seems immune to disunity and aggressive hatred instead of love. 
Furthermore, scripture itself shows us that the people of God don’t have a whole lot of history of oneness and love.  Today’s Exodus reading offers a rather stark example of the people of God – in this case, the Hebrew people freshly delivered from enslavement in Egypt – falling into disunity and quarreling rather quickly.  So severe was the rancor that some of those people were rhapsodizing about how much better off they’d be in Egypt, apparently forgetting that they were living in bondage there.  To be blunt, it seems as if Paul is living a pipe dream in the passage from Philippians to suggest the kind of unity he describes. 
As the passage continues, though, what Paul is up to becomes clear.  This talk of love and oneness, we see, is not cut off by itself.  Our unity, our oneness is motivated by much more than a unified effort to score a goal or win a match.  All of that talk depends on one thing: only Jesus Christ. 
From these initial instructions Paul moves on to speak to the virtue of humility as a principal attitude towards the world.  Paul would have his readers not think too highly of themselves, and even that one should think of others more highly than one thinks of oneself, looking out for their interests before one’s own.  Seriously, what can he possibly be thinking?  Of course, Paul is thinking of Christ. 
Finally, he brings it home to about the only way that any of this talk can even begin to make sense.  And he does so in the words of what appears to be a hymn.  The extended passage in verses six to eleven appears to be a hymn of the very earliest Christians, one which Paul borrows and quotes as his way of – first of all – appealing to the Philippians through a hymn they already know and – secondly – encapsulating the mind of Christ as best as human words can possibly do. 
It is a beautiful bit of poetry, to be sure.  Even in English the words are of tremendous power and eloquence.  Even more so they are words that bring to light the unbelievable, unspeakable, unthinkable model that Christ has lived:
n      being equal to God, being God, but not clutching to that equality with God, but rather emptying himself – Godself – and taking on the form of a servant – a slave – born in the body of a mere human being;
n      being in that human form – remember, this is one equal to God we are speaking of – being so humble as to submit to such a radical obedience to the will of God as to bring death upon himself – and not just any death, but the most humiliating and excruciating means of death known to the Roman Empire at the time;
This self-emptying, self-humbling Jesus was then, as the hymn continues, exalted above all names in heaven and on earth. 
This, then, is how we are able – the only way we are able to live at all as Paul implores the Philippians to do: not merely to try to imitate Christ, but to be inhabited by the mind of Christ.  Our own efforts will never get there.  It is God who is working in us even to make us want to do it, much less to actually do so. 
Now there are a couple of cautions that need to be emphasized about all of this instruction that Paul has laid out here.  For one thing, Paul’s instruction in verses three through five has been rather badly abused historically.  Rather than being taken as an instruction that even the powerful are mandated to live in humility and to seek out the welfare of others before their own, it has been a club with which the wealthy and powerful have bludgeoned the poor and oppressed even further into humiliation and despair.  This is an abomination unto God, no matter whether it is done by a feudal lord over his serfs, a nineteenth-century slave owner over his slaves, or a modern corporate oligarch over his employees.  Look to your own humility before God. Those who would use this passage to oppress others have no part of the mind of Christ.
Second, and perhaps paradoxically, this instruction only works as issued to the whole body of Christ; Paul is not prescribing any kind of individual self-improvement program here.  It is instruction to the whole body of Christ, not a prescription for any one believer.  We humble ourselves to each other, and are in turn built up by one another.  We, all together, work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to use Paul’s curious phrase in verse twelve. 
Evidently Kierkegaard liked that phrase.
Finally, one more caution: to take this counsel, to be truly inhabited with the mind of Christ, to live in the radical unity that comes of being in the mind of Christ, will set you apart.  It will probably draw attention to you.  Some of that attention may not be pleasant.  To live in radical submission to one another, truly inhabited by the mind of Christ, won’t be popular with everybody out there.  But there is that instruction, to live in the same love, to be in the same mind, the mind that was in Christ Jesus, and that is what being the church, the body of Christ, is all about.
For the mind of Christ, thanks be to God.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sermon: Don't sweat the small stuff

Browns Presbyterian Church
September 14, 2014, Ordinary 24A
Romans 14:1-17

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

I remember a strange experience from early in my college days.  I was at a picnic dinner on campus, sponsored by the school’s campus ministry office, with a nice spread of all sorts of good food.  Plenty of fried chicken, a grill putting out hamburgers and hot dogs as fast as possible, a station to make whatever kind of sandwich you could imagine, and my first introduction to what the server called a “low country boil.”  I looked in the pot and saw mostly shrimp and potatoes – of course there was other stuff too, but shrimp and potatoes looked just fine to me.  In the spirit of trying new things I took a bowl of the stuff and was pleasantly rewarded. 

Oh, yeah, corn and sausage too.

A fellow freshman, a girl I had met a time or two thus far, was passing by and stopped to look in my bowl.  I told her what the server had told me about and said that it was really good.  She looked again and said, “It does look really good, but I can’t eat shrimp.”
My first thought was, “Allergies?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t eat it for religious reasons.”
Now I was not the most worldly-wise young man at this point in my life.  I had a vague idea, though, that shrimp might be one thing that was considered not kosher.  Since the picnic was open to persons of all faiths, and I had noticed that there was a decent-sized Jewish student group on campus, I offered that guess next; “Oh, um, are you Jewish?”
Her response was “Oh, no, I’m Baptist, our church just doesn’t eat shrimp.  Or scallops.”  Which was lost on me, since then I didn’t even know what a scallop was.
But I was confused, and my face must have said so.  I was raised Southern Baptist, and all I could think was that I’d seen plenty of Southern Baptists eat plenty of shrimp in my lifetime.  But rather than press the question I let it go and stuffed a large chunk of potato in my mouth to stop myself from saying anything.   So she went on and explained that her church’s pastor taught that a true Christian actually ought to keep the dietary laws found in Leviticus and occasionally in other parts of the Torah.  I nodded and said “Huh?” a lot until the subject finally changed, but I didn’t stop with the low country boil.
This experience (and a couple of others later, when I had changed colleges and majors and ran into another Baptist church with similar leanings) always comes into my head when I encounter any of Paul’s writings on the subject of eating and differences in eating between what he unapologetically calls the “weak” and the “strong.”  He has to deal extensively with such questions in his letters to the Corinthians and also to the Galatians, and the subject comes up again in this letter to the church at Rome, chronologically the last of Paul’s letters.  What is, to be blunt, the big deal about what people eat and don’t eat?
In the cases of the churches Paul is teaching, more than we might expect.  In these cases disagreements over what is proper or not proper to eat reflect a deeper division in the churches, one that shows up more than once in Paul’s career.  You may remember from the book of Acts that in some churches there were Christians who believed that a Gentile convert had to become a Jew first before becoming a Christian, or at least go through circumcision – a stand which Paul opposed strongly.  Others did not necessarily argue that Gentiles had to go through a two-part conversion, but nonetheless believed that they should observe certain Jewish practices that some early believers had carried over into Christianity.  You might also remember a substantial discourse in 1 Corinthians about whether it was proper or acceptable for believers to eat meat that had been offered to idols, which was often re-purposed at the nearby market.  If you couldn’t know if the meat for sale had been offered to an idol before its sale, well, if that was a rule you held, then you didn’t eat meat. 
These are the background incidents to Paul’s instruction to the Romans.  Scholars disagree on whether this was a problem in the Roman congregation itself or whether Paul was simply recapitulating the issues that the Romans might have heard about from some of their members who were familiar with Paul’s missionary career.  Either way, Paul is at pains to make sure the Romans understood two things: (1) Paul himself had no dietary qualms at all – he did not refrain from eating meat or observe any such dietary restrictions, and even referred to those with such qualms as “weak”; and (2) getting bent out of shape with each other over such choices was flat-out wrong.
It’s easy to make light of a passage like this one, with its grave concerns over issues we moderns put behind us a long time ago … or have we?  It’s still possible for church members to get bent out of shape over food, and not just whether the pastor tried Aunt Louise’s world-famous potato salad at the potluck dinner.  Vegetarianism is about as popular these days as it has been in my lifetime, and one can find strained relationships among Christians (among ministers, even) over the question of eating or not eating meat, or over not eating meat or not eating any food product derived from an animal in any way.  Though it doesn’t necessarily happen often, disputes over whether or not to eat meat still have the power to create friction in the church or in the world more generally.
Still, Paul has bigger fish to fry, so to speak.  There are two big takeaways in Paul’s instruction to the Romans that have larger application than to just food disputes.  These quarrels in the church, in Paul’s view, lead to two major infractions on the part of one party or the other: passing judgment on one another (and thus usurping a role given only to God alone), and causing one another to stumble.
This passage makes it clear that Paul has no tolerance for judgment against the non-eaters, even if he considers them “weak”.  As early as verse 3 in this passage Paul puts forth the bluntest argument against such judgment; God has welcomed them.  You’re going to say God is wrong?  Of course, that usually isn’t how the one party views the other, is it?  One party somehow manages to convince themselves that God really doesn’t welcome the others.  They’re impure.  They’re wrong.  They’re evil.  And we need to throw them out. It’s amazing how many people are willing to do God’s job on God’s behalf. 
Paul goes on to point out in verse ten that God ultimately will do the judging.  He can’t be much clearer: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother and sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.  He then goes on to quote the prophet Isaiah, and reiterate that “each of us will be accountable to God.
We also see the problem with this kind of judgment as Paul continues; it is not only the sin of sitting in judgment on one another’s observance (as if usurping God’s role wasn’t bad enough), but to Paul, the truly offensive part seems to be “to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”  Here the burden really seems to be put on the “strong,” not to put a stumbling block in the way of the “weak” by, say, loading up on idol-offered meat in their presence. 
Now it’s a little odd to read this from Paul.  This is, after all, the same Paul who had some utterly devastating things to say to and about those in the early church who insisted, based on some of the same Jewish practices that served as foundation for abstaining, that new converts to Christianity should be required to be circumcised.  The things he says about them in his letter to the Galatians (and about the Galatians who fell for their spiel) were anything but polite or gentle.  They were, in some cases, quite vicious.  So what’s the difference?
In this case it’s not too hard to see.  Requiring circumcision of new converts was a way of putting a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of those converts, in this case a rather painful one.  In the case of the meat/non-meat factions, the stumbling block works a little differently.  For the “strong” to flaunt their particular practices before the “weak,” perhaps with a bit of ridicule included, was to pressure the “weak” to violate their consciences.  As Paul puts it in verse fourteen, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”  In Paul’s mind, anything that causes a brother or sister to stumble is not loving.  Love, which has been the main theme of the two chapters before this one, does not do wrong to a neighbor, even if that wrong isn’t “wrong” in your own conscience.  If Paul hasn’t made it clear enough yet, verse fifteen is unequivocal; “Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.
To be sure, this works the other way round.  The non-meat eaters have no business putting stumbling blocks in front of the meat-eaters in Paul’s estimation.  The “weak” don’t get to torture the conscience of the “strong” either.  In this case, the conflict can often be in the form of imposing rules or burdens on fellow believers that have nothing at all to do with the grace of God or the love of Christ.  William Loader, an Australian theologian, puts it this way:
Paul shifts the focus from honouring or dishonouring scruples, including those enshrined in scripture. Instead he puts Christ at the centre. Christ "rules" - to use a popular modern term. Christ is the point of unity. Paul's Christ is not standing there with a rule book ticking boxes, but with the marks of the cross and the mind of compassion. Love for people, valuing them, transcends differences on things like food and observance of days.

You would expect, with this kind of instruction, to find the “weak” and the “strong” to fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other in accommodating the other.  Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see that the church too easily falls short of such a goal, rather each side holding on to its “scruples” to the point of open war.  And these scruples can be over things of extremely small importance; the size or shape of a communion table, whether the pastor wears a white or black robe to preach, and even smaller trivialities.
Maybe the most damaging thing about this kind of petty quarreling is that when we get caught up in it, we fail to be aware of or to bear witness against the big stuff.  Look around the world.  Our headlines show us people – leaders, even – who parade their racism openly, even shamelessly.  The poor are blamed for their poverty, labeled as lazy or devious or criminal without regard to how many jobs they work to try to support a family on a minimum wage.  Christian leaders fall into these very same behaviors.  And we can’t get over the cloth on the communion table.
To the degree that we are so caught up in our minute scruples that we let raging injustices pass without a word of witness against them, we have separated ourselves from any kind of witness that connects to Christ.  We usurp God’s role as judge, we cause our sisters and brothers to stumble, and we let the abominations of the world go unchallenged while we bicker over miniscule things, the things that no less a figure than John Calvin would call “inessentials.”
Let us not be those people, sisters and brothers.  We have each other not to be scolds and nags and judges, but fellow members of the body of Christ.  We need to be joined together in love and grace to be a witness in a world that does not welcome our witness.  As Paul finally says of the kingdom of God, it is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” It is on us to lay aside those scruples that are a hindrance to our fellow followers of Christ, lest that righteousness and peace and joy pass us by while we’re arguing over the dinner table.
For righteousness, peace, and joy that transcend our judging, Thanks be to God. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sermon: Living in Love

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
September 7, 2014, Ordinary 23A
(Psalm 149) Romans 13:8-14

Living in Love

Paul’s letter to the Romans is, at the minimum, a challenging chunk of scripture from which to preach.  Not that it isn’t worth the challenge, but its length – the longest of Paul’s letters to be included in the New Testament – means that with a writer and thinker like Paul, there’s going to be some convoluted structure involved, and topics you thought had been dropped chapters ago suddenly crop up again in unexpected places and take on wholly unexpected meaning and significance.
Something like that is what happens here in this last portion of chapter 13.  It is a good idea to remember here that after a long stretch of wrestling with Jewish law and its inability to eliminate sin – indeed, its susceptibility to sin itself – and a seeming digression on the ultimate fate of Israel, Paul has finally turned to the practical application of all his discussion of sin and law and salvation.  That was where we picked up two Sundays ago, beginning with chapter 12 and its remarkable two-verse introduction:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We have followed that track the past two Sundays, as Paul spelled out for his Roman readers what it looks like when we live together as the Body of Christ, living sacrifices, transformed by our minds being renewed.  Maybe you remember some of those characteristics; not thinking too much (or too little) of yourself, all of us bringing our particular gifts to bear in being the Body of Christ and using those gifts together with one another.  Last week we picked up on how it looks when that Body relates to each other with the world watching (loving one another un-hypocritically, showing honor to one another, being ardent in spirit, rejoicing in hope and enduring suffering with patience, taking care of one another’s needs, showing hospitality to strangers) and how that body relates to the world itself (with a strong emphasis on not taking vengeance on those who do us wrong).
Now because I’m sticking with the lectionary for this trip through Romans I end up skipping the first portion of chapter 13.  This passage, in which Paul discusses the proper comportment of believers towards the civil authority under which they lived – that is, the Roman Empire – is omitted from the lectionary, most likely because preachers don’t like to deal with it (don’t let any preacher tell you otherwise; as a lot we’re scared of it).  There’s reason to be leery of these verses; they have been sorely abused and misused by tyrants to justify their tyranny and to intimidate believers in their midst to go along with it.  Make no mistake: this interpretation is an abomination against scripture.  I am obviously not preaching on that passage today, so you may count me among the cowards if you wish, but let me make this much clear; any interpretation of the first seven verses of chapter thirteen which runs counter to everything else Paul has said in Romans up to this point, especially what has come before in chapter twelve, is a flat out misreading, whether deliberate or not. 
At any rate, by verse eight Paul has pivoted again and is about to drop a powerful three-verse conclusion on his readers and listeners.  In this concluding point Paul pulls off not only a summation of the whole instructional passage he’s just written, he manages the neat trick of bringing back something that had been left behind many chapters ago, and actually doing so in a way that works! If you’ve ever had any kind of extended writing or teaching to do, you know that’s not easy.
I’m not going to ask you how much you remember from the sermon I preached the first time I was with you in this congregation.  No, I really don’t expect you to remember, since I myself had to look it up.  It was on July 6, and the reading was from Romans 7.  In particular the scripture included the lament Paul poured forth about how even though he loved the law, his own flesh – his own sin-bound human nature – continued to live in sin and to be bound to sin, such that even the law itself was used to keep Paul mired in sin.  The whole passage came to a head with the exclamation “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? 
What we have before us today, all these weeks and chapters later, is the moment when Paul finally returns to the law, and shows his readers and listeners what it looks like to fulfill the law – not merely in rote reading or checking off do’s and don’ts, but in fulfilling the law.  And the key that unlocks that door, Paul says, is love.
It looks like a strange formation at first, as Paul begins by instructing the Romans to “owe no one anything.”  This does seem odd until one sees that verse 7 has wrapped up that section on relating to government authorities with the instruction to pay those authorities what is due to them.  From that statement about what Paul says we owe those in authority, it becomes natural to pivot from there back to what we owe each other, which sounds like it’s going to be “nothing.” 
Paul isn’t through, though; the verse continues “owe no one anything, except to love one another,” which is one of those simple-sounding statements that only blows apart everything about the way we live.
How does that work?  Now, of all times, Paul goes back to the law.  His own history with the law, remember, was particularly colorful.  As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless” he told the Philippians.  Advanced in Judaism beyond many of my people of the same age … more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” he told the Galatians.  Don’t forget that in chapter 12 he told the Romans “not to lag in zeal.”  But Paul’s zeal led him to become “a persecutor of the church,” as he also told the Philippians, no doubt with much pain and grief at the memory.  
Now, though, when he brings up the law, he does so in connection with love, because love is the way the law gets fulfilled. 
The love of God for fallen, sinful humanity is why God would not allow that fallenness and sin to keep us from being restored.
The love of Jesus, expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, is what destroys death’s power over us, allowing us to be restored.
And the love of the Holy Spirit enables us to receive that love from God and in turn live in that love with and for one another.
Pastor and author Frederick Buechner puts it this way:

Wherever people love each other
And are true to each other
And take risks for each other,
God is with them and for them
And they are doing God’s will.

In this case Paul brings up four specific commandments of the Ten that form the core of old Hebrew law: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet” – and sums them up with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  If that last sounds familiar, it’s because it is; Paul is going to no less a source than Jesus himself, apparently, as recorded in Matthew 22: it’s what Jesus calls the second great commandment, after loving God with heart, soul, and mind.
It makes sense, after all.  The four commandments Paul quotes are involved with relationships, and Paul has been instructing the Romans on how the Body of Christ relates to one another and to the world.  Now with the words we first heard from Jesus, Paul brings the law into fulfillment in love in a brilliant stroke: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” 
But in this stroke Paul does something else fascinating and challenging: he re-writes the definition of “neighbor” to include every possible relationship partner he has discussed already – both our fellow members of the Body of Christ and those living in the world outside of the Body of Christ are now swept up in the overriding word “neighbor.”  Just as before, even Paul, zealous follower of the law, ended up in sin, now any follower of Christ – any member of the Body of Christ, living sacrifice, transformed by the renewing of his or her mind – fulfills the law living in love towards the “neighbor.”

Warning: loophole not found

You might recall one of the parables Jesus told, touched off by the question “Who is my neighbor?”  In that case, the difficult parable Jesus told left the questioner with no choice to acknowledge a Samaritan as the neighbor of the man set upon by thieves – even if the questioner couldn’t bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”  Now Paul has already instructed the Romans about blessing their enemies and not cursing them, and not taking vengeance on another, and Jesus’s parable makes it clear that hereditary enemies are still “neighbors.”  For Paul’s Roman hearers and readers, “neighbor” could include both members of the Body of Christ and others not followers of Christ.  A Roman citizen could suddenly find himself shifting uneasily as he considered the possibility that his slave was now to be thought of as his neighbor.  An anti-Roman zealot might be chastened to realize that his neighbor was the centurion against whom he struggled.  There were plenty of possibilities for such upsetting of the social order in these sweeping words from the apostle who himself had been transformed from enemy to neighbor, even if God had to slap him blind for a while to get him to understand.
So who is that uncomfortable neighbor for us?  What are the barriers we build up against others that are swept aside in this commandment to love, in this call to be transformed by the renewing of our minds?  Let’s face it, we modern Americans are pretty good at building walls between us.  The walls might be border fences, or high-grown hedges with a brick wall hidden within, or simply miles separating us from any other habitation.  The ones we keep out might be members of another race, another religious group, another Christian denomination, or (especially in contemporary USA) another political party.  Or they might be in a whole other country.
Agnus Dei is a traditional text in Christian worship, dating back to very near the beginnings of the church itself.  In 1956, for the dedication of the Basilica of the Annunciation in the city of Nazareth (yes, that Nazareth), a young Arab composer named Yusuf Khill was asked to create a tune for that traditional text to be used in that dedication service, the tune we sang earlier in the service.  That request tied the Basilica to the community around it; not only Arabs, but also Palestinians and Israelis who had chosen to follow the way of Christ in a land already challenged by religious strife.  Those Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Israeli Christians, fellow members of the whole worldwide unbounded Body of Christ; those are our neighbors too.
A Reformed Christian missionary by the name of Tom Colvin served for years in a fairly remote northern region of Ghana, ministering to those in a land where Christianity was also a minority religion.  He found success in communicating to his listeners by setting the ideas he wanted to teach them to traditional tunes they already knew.  The years of effort to learn the language, to become a part of the community of the Chereponi region, and to gain the trust of the citizens enabled Colvin to find a language and a tune, that we will sing at the end of the service, that taught a provocative lesson; that neighbors are a gift of God, not merely to live next to or to be friends with, but to serve – even to the point of being down on their knees washing each other’s feet, turning old worldly relationships upside down.  These are our neighbors too. 
For neighbors to love and serve, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: (all from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): Brethren, We Have Met To Worship (396), Holy Lamb of God (Ya hamalallah, 602), My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing?, 821), Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love (203)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon: Living In the World

August 31, 2014, Ordinary 22A
Meherrin Presbyterian Church
Romans 12:9-21

Living in the World

So, have you heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge?
You know, that thing where you film yourself dumping a bucket of ice water over your head, then post the video to Facebook or some other social media with a challenge to three or four other people to do the same thing, along with making a donation to the ALS Association?
What has become one of the most phenomenally successful online fundraising efforts ever apparently started with one young man, a former college baseball player, who was stricken with the disease.  As his own body deteriorated,  he came up with the idea to challenge some of his old teammates to contribute themselves and also to challenge others to do so; it’s not exactly clear why he chose dumping a bucket of ice water on a person as the means of challenge, but it does seem true that athletes – the original target of the challenge, and a bunch typically keen to show off their toughness – seemed to find it irresistible.  Over time the challenge spread beyond athletes to other celebrities, and then to the public at large. 
The challenge has literally raised so much money that the ALS Association is having to think about a strategy to spend that money most effectively.  As of August 19, more than $15.5 million dollars had been raised in the last month, compared to $1.6 million in the same period one year ago.
One might think that this would be regarded as simply a success story, if a rather unusual one.  One might think that for however brief a period of time, people across many walks of life had been motivated to pull together and take action, if a rather silly action, against one of the crueler and more devastating diseases to ravage the human body.  On the other hand, if one really pays much attention to how human beings really behave, one probably figured the backlash was coming.
Why is this disease any more important than any other disease?
How can you waste time with something so frivolous when people are dying in Ferguson?  (Or Gaza, or Ukraine, or any number of other places?)
How can you waste good clean water like that when so many people in so many places don’t have nearly enough water to live? 
Never mind the non sequitir that each of these represents.  (The latter reminds me of how when I was a child I was upbraided for not cleaning my plate when there were children in Africa – it was always Africa, for some reason – who didn’t have enough to eat, and how it never seemed to help when I volunteered to send my meal to them.)
What is most striking and dismaying about each of these is how, even when there are so many bad things out there in the world – abusive police, bombing innocent civilians instead of going after actual terrorists, one country invading another and lying about it, hideous diseases wreaking destruction on countless people, a deteriorating planet – people somehow decide that it is more important to attack other people who are trying to do good things rather than keep attention focused on the evils that need to be opposed.  Another example can be found in the story of a handful of graduate students at North Carolina State University, who are working on a nail polish that, when dipped in liquid, can alert its wearer if a well-known type of “date rape” drug has been slipped into the drink.  Rather than any kind of positive acknowledgement, the project has been roundly denounced – not by men, but by women who somehow see it as an insult, or irreparably flawed, or somehow insincere in the intentions of its developers. 
The Apostle Paul would be thoroughly baffled by the whole ice-bucket phenomenon, to be sure, but he’d recognize the backlash, and be grieved about it.  It’s exactly the kind of thing he warns about here in one of the maxims that make up this second part of the twelfth chapter of Romans.  After the previous instructions – which still apply here; we are still under the mandate to present our bodies as living sacrifices, and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds – Paul now begins to lay out, in a series of maxims, what it looks like to live in that condition, to be a full-fledged part of the body of Christ.  They almost look like the kinds of do’s and dont’s more characteristic of the un-regenerated mind, as we also discussed last week; here, though, Paul is not being prescriptive, but descriptive.  Beginning with the simple maxim “Let love be genuine,” what follows is a series of the characteristics of genuine love, having to do with first how we, the body of Christ, live with one another, and then moving to how we live as the body of Christ before the larger world. 
Genuine love (Paul uses the Greek phrase αγαπη ανυποκριτος, which might be more literally translated “love without hypocrisy.”  It’s a phrase that crops up several times in the New Testament, and not just in Paul’s letters.  To describe this un-hypocritical love, Paul describes the way a community that lives in such love acts towards one another; hating what is evil and clinging to the good, instead of the other way around, loving one another and vying to outdo each other in showing honor to each other rather than tearing each other down, being ardent and zealous in doing these things and in serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, living patiently, being persistent in prayer, contributing to the needs of the community, and welcoming strangers to the community with hospitality and grace.
This makes up the “internal” part of this list of maxims, but Paul is also aware that even these internal behaviors, or the lack thereof, are also visible to those outside the community.  Others see how we treat each other, and are going to be quick to judge if we are tearing one another down, or pursuing the things that are not good, or letting our own live in poverty and neglect.  Paul knew that the Roman congregation hearing this letter lived in a city with its own idols, so to speak, and it was the example closest to the seat of the Empire of what was then known, if at all, as an obscure and curious sect of Judaism.  Paul is concerned about how the Roman congregation acts within its larger context of the seat of empire, and will address them about how this love works in that context.  But Paul is also concerned with the witness they give by how they treat one another, and wants to be sure that they know what it means to live in un-hypocritical, non-destructive love towards one another.
Before we move on to those external characteristics, though, be sure to notice something about these internal effects of un-hypocritical love; they are active.  It isn’t enough to avoid tearing one another down; it’s the work of un-hypocritical love to build one another up, to show honor to the other, praying persistently and frequently, overtly caring for the needs of those within the community, reaching out actively to the stranger in the community; even the image of clinging to what is good suggests an almost physical quality of activity.  Un-hypocritical love isn’t a quiet thing; it stirs us up to doing good towards one another in observable, potent ways.
As we move ahead you’ll notice that the same is true for those behaviors of un-hypocritical love towards those outside of the congregation.  In a couple of cases Paul goes to the trouble of pointing out the passive or non-acting possibility of behavior, only to go beyond it and mandate a more active response that un-hypocritical love requires. 
Verse fourteen: to those who persecute you, do not curse (passive response), but bless them (active response).
Verse sixteen: do not be haughty (passive response) and do not be wise in your own estimation (another passive response), but associate with the lowly (active response). 
Verse seventeen: do not repay evil for evil (passive), but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (active, more or less). 
Verses nineteen and twenty, in a rather more complex way, display the same dynamic.  Beginning with the passive, refraining position – never avenge yourselves – Paul cannot resist slipping a bit of theological and scriptural instruction – for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” – before coming to the active response that un-hypocritical love requires:
No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. (12:20)

And finally, verse 21, restating the previous verses: do not be overcome by evil (passive), but overcome evil with the good (active).
For Paul it is important for the Romans to understand what this un-hypocritical love, this living in the body of Christ, this renewed mind means.  It is not an excuse to pull back from the world and go into isolation.  It does not allow for the ordinary strivings and battles in which the un-renewed mind indulges.  They don’t get to outdo one another in seeking honor for the self.  They don’t get to tear one another down or puff themselves up.  And they don’t even get merely to refrain from doing ill to one another or to the world.
No: the un-hypocritical heart goes out of its way to do good, and to do so not in a hidden or invisible way.  It builds one another up.  It blesses those who assault you, persecute you, trouble you.  It demands that you live at peace with all, as far as you have any control of the situation.  It actively rejoices with the rejoicing, and weeps unashamedly with those who weep. 
And remember, all of this instruction is still all about living in the body, about being transformed by the renewing of your mind, about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.  And all that we are seeing today will carry over into Paul’s next points, found for us in the thirteenth chapter of Romans. 
You see, it all goes together.  It is no accident that Paul uses such as strong word as “transformed” back in verse two.  The Greek word there is the same from which we get the world “metamorphosis.”  The change is that significant. 
And that change matters, because that’s how we live together as the body of Christ.  And it also matters because the world is watching. 
As noted before, at the time Paul is writing to the Romans, the empire doesn’t really have a grasp on what these “Christians” actually are.  They still look like a sect of Judaism to the empire.  But over time Christians did start to take on a particular identity, not because of any particular edict on the part of an emperor or because of any great speech or sermon given by anybody in the church at Rome.  Rather, these Christians began to stand out in Rome and in the Empire because of what they did. 
People began to notice the way they gathered together, singing songs to this Jesus they worshiped and also sharing food.  People began to notice that, unlike most Romans who would half-heartedly acknowledge whatever idol or Caesar was put before them by the Empire, no matter what their beliefs were personally, the Christians wouldn’t do that, instead reserving their homage for this Jesus alone.  And they noticed that when Roman families, as was the custom, would leave an unwanted infant in a remote place out of doors, to die of exposure, those Christians would pick up the infant and take it into their homes, to be raised as one of their own. 
You see, when we get it right, the world notices.  And they also notice when we get it wrong, and have a great time letting us know about it.  When our life in the world fails to show transformation, the world will let us know about it, and then they will ignore us.  But when our lives show that transformation, that renewed mind, that un-hypocritical love, the world cannot help but notice, and wonder. 
For love without hypocrisy, within and without, Thanks be to God.

What a Friend We Have in Jesus (PH 403)
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart (PH 326)
Jesus Calls Us; O’er the Tumult (Hymns for the Family of God 399)