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When I sit down to write a sermon, well, the first thing I do is I don’t sit down for long. I read over the readings a few times – see what hits me. And then I pray, when I ask: what do you want me to do with this God? What do you want to say?
Then I go for a drive in my car, or walk the dog, or sit outside and ruminate, hoping I hear from God, think about the readings, and try out some ideas that occur to me, that just come to me. And then I start talking – out loud – trying ideas out, out loud. Never underestimate the value of chatting with the world, by yourself!
I think about what’s going on in the world, see if there are any connections there, and just basically give God a chance to plant some ideas, to give me a push. And I look for a fairly simple theme, an idea or ideas that pop out of the words that God has given to us. Yes, I do believe that God gives us our readings to work with and I work on my sermon from a basis of gratitude for those words. I try to find a way that the words of our readings work together, even across the distances of the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the Psalm to the Gospel. Usually some sort of melody, some sort of train of thought begins to run through the readings for me.
What’s different about this Sunday is that I started to write about our Gospel, but then, as I went along, I realized that our Epistle from Romans was more suited to us at Good Shepherd at this time than our Gospel. So I’m focusing on Romans today.
Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. Paul’s ministry was to be a missionary to the Gentiles and a church planter. He didn’t get to Jerusalem often. He was a tent-maker, in more ways than one, enclosing people within ideas, as if they were under a tent.
Paul is the star of the New Testament. No single figure, other than Christ, figures so large in the writing of the New Testament. And he’s so unlikely! According to a contemporary description of him, he was “small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, muscular with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed and yet, (surprisingly enough!) full of grace.” He sounds kind of funny-looking! From everything he wrote, we can deduce that he was well read, well-educated, incredibly intelligent, incredibly impatient, and yet very well-spoken.
But Paul was not out of Central Casting. He was unlikely. I can tell you – if you ever go to our Diocesan Convention, you will see a few priests who come straight out of Central Casting. “Hi, it’s Grady down on Soundstage 7. I need a guy who looks like a priest, male, over 45, gray at least at the the temples, clean-shaven, and give him a vest. Naw, he doesn’t need to be able to talk. He just needs to look good.” Trust me. Every diocese has a few who come straight out of Central Casting. But not Paul. Paul was about as far from Central Casting as you can get. He was just unlikely.
Paul didn’t start out admiring Jesus. Paul was much better educated, clearly of a higher class than Jesus. No, Paul started out actively fighting against the cult of Jesus Christ. When an unruly crowd decided to stone Stephen, Paul held their cloaks for them. Later, he was struck down and blinded by a blast of light as he journeyed to Damascus and he heard a voice ask him “Why do you persecute me?” The voice revealed itself to be the voice of Jesus and Paul, the Christian hater, was converted to Christianity. He planted at least 14 churches. Most of the letters of our New Testament were written by him to those churches.
Like this letter to the Romans. Paul’s letters were meant to educate and admonish and encourage these little congregations. They are truly wonderful, and sometimes it seems as if he wrote them breathlessly, he had so much to say – so much they needed to learn!
Paul was brilliant but clearly not lovable. He apparently had disagreements with those who traveled with him – nobody ever journeyed with him twice! But he clearly wanted the people of the churches he planted to love each other. He knew that is what would make them strong – not argument, not disagreement – but love. Paul’s words of advice to his congregations are real and they come down to us as strong and practical as if they were written yesterday. Of course, his words demand perfection, a perfection I doubt he was equal to, but they give us something to work towards!
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” “Contribute to the needs of your members (he called them all saints), and extend hospitality to strangers.” Give to the people of your church who need it, and then reach out beyond your congregation! Support each other! He wasn’t forming social clubs. He was forming inreach and outreach ministries.
He encouraged them to empathize with each other. “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” This is how they would become a congregation. “Live in harmony with one another.” He didn’t want the usual social boundaries of their lives to be observed in the church. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
Now this is hard — “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” He knew they would always be very aware of each other! “Live peaceably with all.”
Then Paul really couldn’t avoid a little tender sarcasm, and my guess is he knew exactly who he was talking to: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
And then Paul advises them to do something that is entirely beyond our common sense. “‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they they are thirsty, give them something to drink;’ And finally and most direct, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Oh, these are hard things to do. Most of us simply can’t do them. But what if we could, if we can, now there’s a revolution. Paul was looking to change hearts and minds, to even go so far as to change what we think of as natural human behavior. He believed that the Word of God can transform us and bring about mental and spiritual revolution in each of us, so that we are governed by the grace of God, transforming every day, more and more into God’s creations, what we were always meant to be.
This is what Paul is teaching us today. And this is what we need to continue to learn and remind ourselves of as I leave you and as all of you return to the search process.