Friday, September 05, 2014

Serving the Lord, Serving Others

Serving the Lord, Serving Others
Romans 12:9-21[1]
We who practice faith can have a problem coming across as a bit fuzzy or even vague about what it is that constitutes our faith. Sometimes, I’m afraid that when we start talking about our faith, it can sound like we’re beating around the bush. We may talk about the warm feelings we have when we pray or read the Bible or come to church. Or we may say things like, “Going to church just gets my week off to a good start.” I think that leaves average people who have no church background scratching their heads. The fact of the matter is that the New Testament speaks in very specific language about what it means to practice the Christian faith. St. Paul makes some very definite statements about what living the Christian life looks like in concrete terms. And what it boils down to is that we are called to serve the Lord by serving one another.
When it comes to getting more specific about what this looks like, in our lesson for today the Apostle starts with the instruction to practice mutual love that is genuine (Rom. 12:9). And this isn’t just any kind of “love.” When we love someone we normally expect them to love us in return.[2] But the love that Christians are to have for one another is a love that gives without any expectations. It’s modeled after the love that God has for us all, the love by which God sacrificed his Son in order to bring us all back home.[3] The love that we are called to practice is a love that takes the initiative, that makes the first step, that seeks out those who have broken the relationship, and does whatever is necessary to repair the breach.[4]
This kind of love calls us to do things we might not normally do: to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10); to “contribute to the needs of the saints” (12:13), that is sisters and brothers in the Christian community; to “extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13), or those outside the community of faith. This kind of love calls us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep” (12:15). It calls us to “live in harmony with one another” (12:16) as well as to “live peaceably” with all people (12:18).  It calls us to renounce pride and arrogance and to embrace the “lowly” (12:16).  And this kind of love calls us to refrain from repaying evil in kind, but rather to practice what is “noble in the sight of all” (12:17).[5]
Now, because we’ve heard most of this before, I think we may have the idea that this is all pretty standard. We know we’re supposed to “love our neighbors as ourselves” and that the prime example of what that looks like in real life is Jesus. But when we translate this unusual kind of love into our context, I wonder if we take seriously how far outside our comfort zones St. Paul is taking us.[6] I’m afraid that the hard truth about most churches in our society is that when it comes down to it, we really practice this kind of love with our friends and neighbors. We tend to reserve this kind of compassion and generosity for those who look like us and talk like us and live like us.[7]
When it comes to extending that kind of love to those who are truly different from us, whether it’s the way they look or the way they talk or where they come from or how they live, I’m afraid we’re not so willing to go that extra mile. I’m not just pointing my finger at others here. Last Summer I went on a Presbytery-sponsored youth mission trip to Austin. There we worked with young people who are homeless and living on the edge of the University of Texas campus. It’s truly ironic--you have people who are simply trying to scrape together $20 a day in order to survive living on the streets, and all around them are University students who come from “good families,” many of whom are living in luxury apartments, with their every desire met by their fairly well-off parents.
Well, most of us fell somewhere in the middle of social continuum between homelessness and being wealthy. But we were on a mission trip, so one day we helped the homeless wash their clothes, and offered them fresh clothes.  Another day we cooked lunch together. And another day we worked in a food pantry that served people who were struggling just to make ends meet. And another day we served breakfast to the homeless in downtown Austin. It was all a great experience, and we all practiced a compassion and generosity that might compare with the best of the saints. But it was a mission trip. You can do those kinds of things on a mission trip. Unfortunately, however when you come home and run into someone like that, most of us tend to make sure our windows are rolled up and our doors are locked.
The truth is that it’s much more difficult to practice the self-giving love that St. Paul is talking about when it’s a matter of encountering those who are different from us in our daily lives. And yet, I think that is precisely what Paul had in mind.[8] When the grace of God really gets under your skin, you live all of a life as a “living sacrifice.” And that goes far beyond just a good feeling from coming to church. It means that we feed the hungry and give a cup of cold water to the thirsty and care for the sick and the lonely--and not just among ourselves. It means that we “associate with the lowly” or “make friends with those who seem unimportant” (12:16, NCV), as one translation puts it.[9] Yes, practicing our faith means serving the Lord by serving one another.  But as hard as it may truly be for us to accept this, perhaps most importantly practicing our faith means serving the Lord by serving those in our world who are different from us.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/31/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 34: “human love is by its very nature desire ... . So long as it can satisy this desire in some way, it will not give it up ... . But where it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled, there it stops short ... .
[3] Cf. Carl E. Braaten, “Romans 12:14-21,” Interpretation 38 (July 1984): 292: “Underlying Paul's exhortation to the Christian community is an ethic of agape-love which continues the downward curve of God's own love, ... . Paul's exhortation is not simply a piece of ethical idealism. It is a description of conduct appropriate to the new age in which God has revealed his love in Christ to a world at odds with his will. Paul is describing the new life in Christ as a reflex of the love God has shown to us, while we were still enemies. The love of God and the life of the Christian are interwoven in Christ. Paul puts it succinctly in Ephesians 5:2; ‘Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.’”
[4] Cf. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, 25: “Perfect love is not an emotion; it is not how we feel. It is what we do. Perfect love is action that is not wrapped up in self-regard, and it has no concern with deserving. Instead, perfect love is love poured out. It is self-offering made out of the joy of giving. It requires no prompting. It seeks no response and no reward.” Cf. also Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 35-36.
[5] Cf. Michael Barram, “Romans 12:9-21,” Interpretation 57 (Oct 2003): 424: “Romans 12:9-21 describes the behaviors that would constitute an adequate response to God’s grace. ... Paul is not talking about ethics in a distant, theoretical sense. His moral reflections address the reality of embodied existence ("a living sacrifice").”  Cf. also Frederick W. Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life, 179: “doing the will of God is not a matter of grand designs but of daily, commonplace investment in the lives of others.”
[6] Cf. the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, which defines loving your neighbor as yourself in terms of showing “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness” to all, even your enemies (The Book of Confessions, Heid Cat 4.107)! It means to “work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may” (4.111). 
[7] Cf. Braaten, “Romans 12:14-21,” 292: “If we are honest with ourselves, we will confess that it does not come naturally to love the way Paul is spelling out in this passage, because its attraction is not limited to the brothers and the sisters, members of the same body, the same class or caste or color or creed.”
[8] Cf. Barram, “Romans 12:9-21,” 425: “The love Paul hopes to see among the Roman Christians is not a theoretical ideal; it is something manifested in daily behavior.”
[9] Cf. Braaten, “Romans 12:14-21,” 293: “The hallmark of genuine love in the Christian life is the willingness to associate with the lowly. ‘Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.’ Why should I? Where will that get me? Paul gave his theological reason for this unusual command in I Corinthians 1:28; ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world ... so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.’ This awareness breeds the humility of love.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:188-192.

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