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Do Not Be Overcome

September 1, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 31, 2014.

Romans 12: 9-21

Many of us, upon hearing these moving words written by the apostle Paul, find ourselves nodding, yes, yes “let love be genuine, be patient in suffering, return no one evil for evil, extend hospitality to strangers, live peaceably with all, reach out and offer sustenance even and especially to your enemies.” But by the end of these paragraphs I think we also begin to feel the distance between who we would like to be as followers of Christ and who we really are. Am I right?

I mean we hear the words “let love be genuine” but we can think of times in our lives when we’ve faked it – perhaps because we didn’t want to hurt another person or because we really wanted to be liked by a group of people – and we stopped being genuine. We stopped being ourselves. We stopped short of saying what we really thought and all kinds of nonsense started flowing from our lips. Whether we’re a junior higher dissing our best friend in order to be “in with the in crowd” or whether we are kissing up to our boss by agreeing with everything she’s saying about a co-worker or whether we’re dating someone and not sure what we want and then finding ourselves saying things we don’t really mean because we don’t want the relationship to end and we’re afraid if we say we’re confused that it will… Let love be genuine? Yeah. We see the gap between what we’re striving for and how often we find ourselves being anything but genuine in our love.

Be patient in suffering. Well most of us like to think of ourselves that way, don’t we? I mean I like to think I’m pretty patient in suffering, but the reality is when I threw my back out a while back, I was really hurting. And I was short-tempered with myself, with my family, I wanted to be done with the pain and up and doing things I was used to doing. Of course my episode was nothing compared to many of us that live with chronic, even debilitating pain. It’s one thing to be patient when you’re talking a four day flu. It’s another with chronic illness that makes ordinary tasks excruciating and it’s coupled with the need to explain whether you can do something or can’t do something and why to just about everybody until you feel like you might bite someone. And still people don’t get it! They don’t have accessible ramps, they don’t understand you can’t help with certain routine tasks, you have to explain all over again, and again until it seems that you are your illness, you are your infirmity, the you who you were has been colonized by sickness.

And some of us aren’t suffering from illness. We’re suffering from loneliness or from our own self-hatred. Some of us get so impatient with ourselves we think there’s no way out. Some of us wish it would all end. Some of us try to hasten that end.   Be patient in suffering? Well, hmmm.

Return no one evil for evil. Gosh we like to think we do that, but then, well, people do really horrible things – whether it’s bomb the twin towers or cheat in a marriage or treat us as if we’re less than others because of our background – and then, and then, our very dignity seems to cry out “respond! You must respond! You must strike back!” And sometimes we do.

Extend hospitality to strangers – sure we’re a welcoming church and we’ll go the extra mile for someone in need. But what exactly is our obligation, we wonder? What does it mean to be hospitable? Isn’t polite enough? We’re friendly, but we think of how much more we could offer – if we weren’t so frightened of becoming vulnerable, of being taken advantage of, of being intruded upon. We wonder, how much is enough? We retreat from the risk but also from the incredible holy encounter with another that is only possible when we become vulnerable to and with each other.

As far as it is up to us, live peaceably with all. That part’s OK, we know how to not cause waves, right? But oh wait, that’s not what this means – living peaceably means treating our enemies, those who would do us harm, with compassion – if they’re hungry, feeding them. But to be honest we’d rather give them just enough rope to, well you know. Why should we make ourselves a target for either more pain or humiliation at the hands of our enemies? How will our enemies respect us if we don’t put up a show of force in the warzone, or spell out a threat in the workplace that communicates loudly and clearly “don’t mess with me?”

If you’re anything like me, by the time I get to this short pause in this chapter of Romans, this beautiful, lyrical collection of statements about what it means to be a Christian, I am both inspired and discouraged in equal measure, simultaneously. Oh God, I pray, I want to be this way, but I can’t seem to do it. I just can’t. I’m suffering so much, I’m overwhelmed by things on all sides, can’t you just make it all happen? Can’t you take this burden from me? I just can’t do this. I’ve tried, but really I can’t.

despair

And just then come the best words of all: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. This is not the same sentence as earlier, “do not repay anyone evil for evil” it is a different sentence. It is not an instruction, it is an exhortation – a word of encouragement. Do not be overcome by evil, Paul writes. And if we are honest, really honest with ourselves, we get overcome by evil.

We are overcome by the small, nasty, painful ways that people hurt us intentionally or unintentionally; we are overcome by the weight of an economy that seems to make some rich while the rest of us can’t get jobs or ensure our family’s security; we are overcome with the sense of betrayal by people we trusted – parents, spouses, friends – people we gave our hearts and our love to – who ate our hearts, gobbled them up, and looked hungrily for more. We are overcome when we look at our world, at its unrelenting viciousness, at the ferocity of hatred, whether cloaked in religious garb in the Islamic State as it rampages across Iraq or whether it is cloaked in a white police officer’s uniform as he guns down Michael Brown, yet another the long, long line of unarmed African American boys and men in our country who have been killed by police or by citizens protected by stand your ground laws. We are overcome at the inhumanity of leaving this poor young man’s body in the street for hours, in a street where children and grandchildren and grandparents and parents live, near by where his family waits and waits as he never returns. We are overcome. WE are angry. We are horrified. We are confused. We are sobbing for some kind of release from this evil that comes at us from every side. We are overcome.

And through our anger at our world, at our selves, at the system, at our neighbors, at our bodies, at the grief, the loss, the mistakes and calculations and failures…

Do not be overcome, says Paul – voice gentle, like the kind friend that won’t depart from our side as we process the bancruptcy, like the prayer minister who sits with us through the worst hours of our spouse’s surgery, like the daughter who removes the scotch bottle from our hand and takes our hand in hers. Do not be overcome, says Paul. Do not be overcome by evil, dear one, but overcome evil with good.

There is a way forward for us. When we are overcome, beset from every side. When we feel that the night can’t get any darker and our fear can’t get any wilder, and our anger keeps growing, and the pain won’t stop – there is a way forward – we can overcome evil with good. We can overcome evil with good.

This is not a hallmark card. It’s not a saccharine saying. It doesn’t work well as a bumper sticker. But it is a life preserver thrown to all of us, drowning in the sea of despair and human suffering, of uncertainty and fearfulness. Because when we refuse to respond to evil with evil, when we dare to care for our enemy, when we risk helping a stranger, making ourselves vulnerable, when we keep focused on the what is good in the midst of terrible suffering, not pretending the suffering isn’t there, or saying the suffering itself is somehow redemptive, but being able to see the light and the shadows, being able to see both and to keep holding on to the good, when we are genuine, authentic with one another, extending an offering to another, we find that we begin to see the world differently. We find that we are able to forgive more freely. We find that we are able to either repair or release relationships where we’ve hurt or been hurt, without recrimination. We find creative ways to give life and love to others, and even to ourselves.

The good news of this passage is that this passage is not about perfectly aligning ourselves with a set of standards and whether we measure up or (as most of us will) fall flat. This passage is about showing us a way out – a way out from being overwhelmed, overcome by evil of all kinds. It is an invitation to a new way of living – not a test about whether we’re getting it all right. Paul’s reminding the community of practices that, when we take them up, have the power to release us from the small, strained vision of our world and set us free, free for life. Free for love.

Once upon a time a man was walking down the street and he fell into a hole and down into a tunnel below. It was dark and there was no ladder. He was stuck and called and called as loud as he could to passers by. One passer by said he’d like to help but she was too busy. Another passer by dropped a self-help book down into the hole. And then suddenly a third passer by leapt into the hole and stood and looked at the man. What are you doing?! Asked the man frantically to the guy who had just jumped into the hole? Now we’re both down here in the dark!   Yes, he said, but I’ve been in this hole before and I know the way out.

This letter from Paul is like the guy who jumps down into the hole with us; it shows us the way out. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Joan Marino permalink
    September 1, 2014 4:59 pm

    This is one of my favorite passages…and, for me, one of your best sermons. A gift. Thanks!

    • September 1, 2014 7:42 pm

      Thank you, Joan. This is one of my favorite passages as well, used on the masthead of my blog.

  2. Betsy permalink
    September 2, 2014 3:39 am

    Really beautiful message. Thank you for sharing.

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