Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 13th Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017
Reading: Romans 12:9-21
If you were here for worship last Sunday, you probably remember Frank Hale giving a Temple Talk about the Navigators, our men’s group, which meets monthly for breakfast and also coordinates a lot of volunteer work to help people in the congregation and the community. Frank began his talk by mentioning the issue of Time magazine he’d seen sitting on his coffee table; its cover said in big letters: “Hate in America.”
“If we were making headlines,” Frank asked, “what would we want them to say? What about ‘Love at St. Andrew?’ How about ‘Christ is victorious?’”
I love that question. If a reporter were to look at St. Andrew, or at the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole, what is the headline we hope that they would write? If we were living up to our own highest standards of discipleship — or better, put, if we were living as close to God’s way as we could, what would that headline read?
I thought of that as I read this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this chapter Paul set forth the ideal image of Christian life. The introduction to that reading (printed in your bulletin in italics) says it like this: “Love is the unflagging standard of our behavior. When we encounter evil, we do not resort to its tactics but seek to overcome it with good. While Christians cannot control the actions and attitudes of others, we seek to live at peace with all people.”
It can feel like we encounter evil a lot. As Frank pointed out, our news headlines often highlight the evil for us. Hatred, violence, and crime; abuse, discrimination, and infighting; corruption, lies, and terrorism — the news can make it feel like that’s all there is in the world.
And we may experience evil more close to home, in our own personal lives. We suffer from broken relationships, we feel caught in webs of manipulation or defensiveness or anger. Someone may lie to us or treat us unfairly or make us feel betrayed. People we love hurt other people that we love.
Sometimes all that evil seems overwhelming. We want to be part of the good that overcomes that evil, but how do we do that? How do we even start?
A podcast series I’ve been listening to spent its final episode trying to answer the question of how we can help overcome one specific evil: racism. What can we actually do about it? The hosts of the podcast did one of the classic bits: asking random people on the street for their opinion. First they stopped a man named Robby and asked him, “I was wondering what you feel like the solutions to our race problems are.”
At first Robby joked about being asked out of the blue to answer such a conundrum “Oh, just a little, quick question like that. Not anything deep…” But then he gave his actual answer, which made me think of this week’s reading from Romans. Robby said:
I think it’s humility. I think that even when we’re communicating our frustration or our anger, we do it from a very selfish place because I want to feel a certain way, and the fact that you’re not doing something that makes me feel that way, I’m offended by it. So I think selfishness is a huge, huge barrier to us being able to have an open and honest conversation. We have extreme challenges and things that have happened in the past that are absolutely unacceptable. But we bring that anger to the conversation from both sides, and that selfishness that I want to feel a certain way, I think really hinders our ability to move the conversation forward.
As that introduction to our Romans reading reminded us — and as any therapist will tell you — we “cannot control the actions and attitudes of others.” But what Robby’s thoughts and Paul’s teachings share is the encouragement that we do have power over our own actions and attitudes. And as good, orthodox Lutherans we should say, better yet: it’s not us alone trying to change our own actions and attitudes — if you’ve tried to make conscious changes in yourself, whether that’s changing your eating habits or changing the way you treat the people around you or changing your outlook, you know how hard it can be to work transformation even in yourself. But we believe that we are not trying to change ourselves by ourselves, but the Holy Spirit is also working in us to transform us, to bring our thoughts and actions more and more into line with God’s will.
As Paul wrote earlier in this chapter of Romans:
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. Do 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. (Rom. 12:1-2)
And when we are “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” when we — with the Holy Spirit — do change our actions and attitudes, we can have big impacts in our conversations and our relationships.
If we can be a change from the usual way of doings things, if we can break the usual pattern, then the people and things around us have to respond to us and to the change we’re bringing. And at least that opens a door for things to change for the better.
When we do this as individuals, we can bring change to our own spheres. When we do this as a community — as St. Andrew here in Williamson County, and as the Church at large — we can change the world. Our lives can be one of the means by which God overcomes evil with good.
Let’s read the Romans lesson one more time. If you tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might your life change? And if we all tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might our community change? How might our nation change? How might the world change? You might even underline the parts that really jump out at you as we go.
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. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.” 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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
 From Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2017, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), September 3, 2017, Romans 12:9-21, pg. 257.
 John Biewen, “Transformation,” Scene on Radio, episode 45, (episode 14 of the series Seeing White), podcast, August 24, 2017. Available online: http://podcast.cdsporch.org/episode-45-transformation-seeing-white-part-14/