Today we pick up right were we left off last week from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Caroline reminded us all last week that this is the point in Paul’s letter where some practical applications are being laid out about how to live in a community that is full of people with various gifts and experiences.
I shared this a few months ago but I wanted to offer a little refresher about the people first hearing Paul’s letter. In this particular church in Rome there were Roman Christians, those who were gentile with no connection to jewish tradition; and there were also those who considered themselves Jewish Christians, a group who grew up in the synagogues and then at a point in their life came to faith in Christ. These two groups had different experiences and expectations about what it meant to be a community of faith. This is important fact to remember as we explore today’s text, because Paul is laying out the core values of what it means to be a Christian in community with one another.
I am not sure how many of you had to create group covenants when you went on church retreats or conferences as a youth, but when I was an associate pastor leading a church youth group I always had the group create together a group covenant at the beginning of every school year or on every retreat. As the leader I wanted to set the boundaries and expectations of our group and our time together. Whether you are leading a group of teenagers or a group of adults the goal is to create an environment that does not have any tension or fighting, but an environment that supports, respects one another, and loves each other.
Whatever we put down whether it was phrases like “no drama”, “respect other peoples stuff”, “use words that lift each other up”, or “have fun”, the point of the creating a group covenant was to define the core values of the community we were creating either at church or on a retreat. So as I read this text I just picture Paul trying to lay out that first group church covenant to these two groups to get his point across about the core values of being a Christian in community with one another.
The first four words of today’s text is the foundation for how we are to live in community with one another. I imagine Paul writing in big letters on the group covenant LET LOVE BE GENUINE…We are to let love guide us in how we relate to one another. This powerful phrase leads to Paul adding more phrases for how we express genuine love with those around us who have different gifts and experiences. Phrases like show affection to one another, honor each other’s life, be ardent in Spirit. When you let love be genuine you find yourself serving the Lord, being joyful, being hopeful, being patient during hardships, being hospitable to everyone.
As we stand back and look at this group covenant, so far we realize that these expressions of genuine love seem doable, especially among those we might consider part of our group. Then starting in verse 14 Paul starts adding more to our group covenant and he lifts up more ways to express genuine love as Christians that might be more difficult to practice and might include loving those whom we might not consider part of our group.
“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.”
Paul’s idea of community has reached beyond just those who have joined us in ministry, but now seem to include those not like us or people we might despise or people who have caused us great pain. Paul is proclaiming to the church in Rome that genuine love is self giving for life giving relations for all. Genuine love is the balm for a hurting and sinful world.
In today’s text Paul is acknowledging the hateful and inhumane actions of persecution that the 1st century church experienced by those in power because the church’s beliefs are not the accepted norm in Roman culture. Sadly throughout human history, insiders in communities have persecuted and oppressed outsiders by doing horrible and evil things. Paul’s group covenant is full of loving expressions that stand in contrast to hate and sin, and point us to a life where we give the world a self giving love that leads to life giving relations for all.
Throughout the history of the United States one way persecution and evil has taken form is in all the “isms” of our society…”isms” like racism, sexism, and classism. All these “isms” have made sure that our community stays broken. All these “isms” are trying to make sure we struggle to live out our group covenant together.
I want to be honest with you all when I picked this text a number of weeks ago I obviously did not know that our nation would once experiencing another painful week confronting systemic issues of race. We continue to stand at a crossroads for how we respond to this systemic sin and persecution. Do we respond with fear or do we respond with genuine love? In our group covenant, Paul is telling us to bless those who persecute and do hateful things in the world and to bless them with genuine love, what does that even look like?
I will admit to you that as a protestant white straight male living in the United States I do not know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of persecution and hate. If anything I might be more blind and oblivious to persecution that is happening around me. So to explore more what it means to bless those who persecute others with genuine love I wanted to turn to voices that are different than mine.
One of the voices that spoke to me this week was the voice of the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New Year. In her book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” she talks about prophetic testimony as a way of expressing the black voice and faith in the midst of persecution and hate. While her voice is different than mine own voice, I found her approach towards prophetic testimony as an expression of genuine love and a balm to a broken and fearful world. Douglass argues that prophetic testimony consists of four things: moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination.
I want to highlight each of these aspects of prophetic testimony because they are all grounded in the genuine love that Paul has written in our group covenant.
The Prophetic testimony of Moral memory is lifting up the truth about the past and your relationship to it. It is not about exonerating oneself of the past but taking responsibility for it as a pathway to peace for all.
The Prophetic testimony of Moral identity is something we proclaim in baptism, through Christ we are a child of God, nothing more or nothing less. Moral identity affirms that we are all equal in God’s eyes and God is the source of our shared humanity. It is in our shared humanity that we find our source of compassion and empathy for the world, if one weeps, we all weep, if one rejoices, we all rejoice.
The prophetic testimony of Moral participation is where we begin to practice what we preach. To do those things Jesus tells his followers to do; to love our neighbor as ourselves, to tend to outcasts and outsiders, to speak out for justice, to liberate the oppressed and set the captive free. It is when our faithful living becomes an “active presence in human history”.
Finally, prophetic testimony of moral imagination is all about hope and “belief the world can be better”. Moral imagination means your life is not constrained by the things that surround you but your life is oriented towards the hope of what will be in the future. The Prophet Isaiah lifts up prophetic moral imagination when he talks about the hope in the day when the wolf and lamb shall feed together.
She points to people who lived out all these aspects of prophetic testimony in the face of persecution and hate. Martin Luther King Jr’s prophetic testimony in the face of Jim Crow laws is one powerful example. I was in awe as I read her reflections on the way Dr. King faced persecution; the way he used the prophetic testimony of moral memory to lift up the pain African Americans have faced for centuries in this nation, the way he used the prophetic testimony of moral identity to remind the world that God created everyone equal, how he practiced the prophetic testimony of moral participation by allowing his faith to guide how he protested in the streets and in places of business for justice and equality for all. How he proclaimed 57 years ago during the march on Washington the prophetic testimony of moral imagination by telling the world of his hopes and dreams for the future.
Dr. Douglas writes, “In the midst of the harshest realties of a stand your ground culture, King spoke of a dream for a different world. He did not surrender to the crucifying realities of the world. He did not permit it to have the last word…Dr. King’s dream was not born from the possibilities that the past offered but rather from the promise of God’s future.”
As a nation we are at a crossroads in how we respond to persecution and hate and fear within our greater community. May we bless the fear, the “isms”, the hate, the persecution with our own genuine love and actions of prophetic testimony. May we together name the pain of the past, lift up together that we share humanity with one another so may we weep together and may we rejoice together. May we let our faith guide us in how we participate in loving and serving the world with compassion and justice, and may we let our prophetic imaginations speak of the hope we have for the future together that God is promising through Jesus Christ.
As we serve a world in need, may we remember our group covenant and let our love be genuine. May our love be self giving for life giving relations for all. May our genuine love be what lifts the lowly, guide us to truth and justice for all, and unite us in our shared humanity as God’s children. Alleluia Amen