The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 18:15-20

The problem is, God is a dreamer. Listen to this: “Outdo one another in showing honor. Never lag in zeal . . . Rejoice in your hope, be patient in your suffering . . . contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality . . . Bless those who persecute you . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty give them drink . . . Overcome evil with good.”

God seems to think we can have a world where lambs lie down with wolves, where guns and tanks can be beaten into plowshares and tractors, and where everyone – even those who disagree – can get along. God actually wants us to love one another and to let that love be absolutely genuine! But then, like I said, God is a dreamer.

For instance, God is asking us, asking you and me, to “outdo one another” in showing honor. What does that mean? Does it mean passing out awards? Handing out ecclesiastical Emmys, or returning to the days of Christian knighthood? Should we give each other gold stars or learn to make sweeping bows in order to show proper homage?

Or does it mean to excel in Christian courtesy, making sure that everyone who comes into the church feels welcomed and included, whether they’re newcomers or “long-timers” and irrespective of their age and appearance? Does it mean listening with respect and interest to whomever is talking, whether it’s the bank president or the homeless bag lady or the religious fanatic who occasionally comes knocking on our door? Does it mean that perhaps we should stop seeing one another in terms of potential pledges and seek the Christ in each other instead?

And then there’s the business of never lagging in zeal. What exactly does that mean? (The thought conjures up images of preaching from the roof tops and handing out tracts and reciting Bible verses on the street corners.)

Zeal is a dangerous word. The Spanish Inquisition never lacked for zeal, -nor did the Crusades nor the witch trials, -nor did Jonestown nor the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, nor the Phelps. Zeal has been used by all kinds of people as a screen to hide racism and prejudice and hate and cruelty and neglect of the poor.

But zeal, here, really means passionate, unfailing, “zealous” devotion and love for God. The same kind of zeal, the same kind of love and grace that God has for us; the kind that infiltrates everything we do until we and everyone else we touch in God’s name and love are made fit for the kingdom of heaven.

What would happen if everyone in this church had that kind of zeal for God? Or everyone in this city? Or everyone in this country? And if every Christian in the world was consumed by love and adoration for God, would we have divisions in the church?

In our worship, would it bother us so much just because someone chooses to kneel while the rest of us stand for prayer, or would the focus of our attention during worship be on ourselves and how uncomfortable it makes us feel when someone chooses to raise their hands in praise to God? Or to shout out an Amen? Could we be bold enough ourselves, when the opportunity is there, to lift up a petition or thanksgiving to God out loud in our prayers of the people?

And on a larger scale, if our zeal was truly for God and God’s people, would we have wars? Would anyone be hungry or turned out of their homes?

The call to “rejoice in hope and be patient in suffering” is typical of God the dreamer. Is God crazy? I mean is trouble supposed to be some kind of test or proof of our faith? Are we supposed to keep hope and faith when a child suffers and dies needlessly? How can we rejoice if our spouse leaves us or if our business collapses or if we live with the kind of chronic intense pain that interferes with everything we try to do?

Well, maybe God is crazy – in terms of human understanding – but my bet is God knows something most of us human beings have yet to grasp or, at least, that we too often forget. That is, that only a rejoicing hope and faith will sustain us and feed us and comfort us in the worst of times.

And yes, it is possible to rejoice and suffer at the same time (and I dare say all of us have experienced this at one time or another). In fact, doctors tell us that people who are able to keep hope and joy alive, even in the most terrible circumstances, are much more likely to recover from physical illness and much less likely to suffer serious emotional problems from the difficulties that come their way.

And rejoicing and hope aren’t options, according to Scripture. They’re commandments—as important as, maybe more important than those concerning sexual morality, or vicious gossiping, or stealing.

So, can you force yourself to feel joy and hope? No, you can’t. But you can start going through the actions of joy, whether you feel them or not. You and I can sing, we can smile, we can praise the Lord. We can eliminate our negative thoughts and speech and actions toward others. Try it! And, if after a while of going through these motions, if you don’t feel better about things, then you can go back to the misery you were in before.

I’m not saying that we all have to walk around happy and all smiles all the time. Anyone who has suffered a deep hurt knows that that sadness or pain will return from time to time. And God understands that better than anyone.

But if there’s no room in our hearts for hope or for the rejoicing that comes from a true faith and belief in God’s wonder working, transforming power, then the pain and the sadness will overwhelm us and overtake us, and make us unable to receive the comfort and all those gifts that God wants so much to give us.

Now, you probably don’t fret too much over the part about “contributing to the needs of the saints.” After all, you presumably make a pledge to the church every year; you probably put something in the food cart today; you give money to charity. –But then there’s the kicker in God’s wild card demand: “extend hospitality to strangers.” It doesn’t just mean inviting that person from church you don’t know very well over for supper. It doesn’t just mean giving to charities to help nameless people and faces. What it means is the next time that salesman or that Mormon kid knocks on your door, you need to offer him a drink of water; it means that the next time you see that poor old bag lady on the street, you might ask her if you can buy her lunch; it means the next time you pass by that guy, who doesn’t smell too good and who doesn’t look much like an Episcopalian, you need to offer him your hand and invite him to come to church on Sunday. That’s what it means; ah, but of course, remember, God is a dreamer.

Now we’re down to “Bless your persecutors,” and not returning evil for evil. Persecutors? Isn’t this one a little outdated? Didn’t Constantine put an end to the persecution of Christians? The answer is, “No,” as once again, we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to the world than just America.

For instance, did you know that in some parts of the Middle East, Christians can’t buy food? In Africa and Central America, and many other places in the world, the lives of Christians are in constant peril, especially if they are outspoken in their faith. And in Ireland, even in beautiful, civilized Ireland, for many decades, Christians have persecuted and even killed one another.

And persecution isn’t always physical or overt. In the United States, for example, Christians are persecuted endlessly by being portrayed in movies and on TV as either foolish or hypocritical – and we laugh at it – join in it – because we see it as the persecution of some other kind of Christian removed and apart from ourselves.

And what about personal persecution – not aimed at us as Christians, but as an assault on us as persons. What of the vicious criminal that raped your neighbor’s daughter, or the dope dealer that sold the bad crack to your nephew and cost him his life, or the con man that scammed your mother out of her life savings. Is that not persecution, on a personal level?

& God says forgive them; “bless and do not curse them.” Come on, God! We’re only human! Punishment and revenge are natural. They’re necessary. Deserved. Deterrents. If we did things your way, we’d never get it right. The banks would fail, businesses would bankrupt, crime would be rampant in the streets.

But God answers, “You’ve been doing it your way for thousands of years, and you haven’t gotten it right yet. The banks are failing, businesses are bankrupt, the streets are rampant with crime.”

Okay. Maybe God’s right. But how do we bless our persecutors? We have to kneel down and ask God’s forgiveness and guidance and grace for everyone who ever hurt us or our friends or our country. In our prayers, we can’t just name the ones we love, but we also must ask God to bless and love – and help us love – those who would persecute us and do us harm.

Does that sound insane to you? Do you think that maybe this time, God’s gone too far? Asked too much? Well, before you answer yes to those questions, remember what God has done in the past, for us: “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son” – God incarnate – to reveal his love and to die on the cross, for you and me, so that we could be forgiven and graced and blessed. Remember when Jesus was on the cross and dying, he prayed for the people that put him there. “Father, forgive them…”

When we forgive and bless our persecutors, we open ourselves up to the workings of the Holy Spirit, who, in turn, creates an opening in our spirits at a place that was previously blocked by anger or hatred or judgment. And the Holy Spirit is waiting, eager, to rush in and fill that place, making us a little stronger, a little happier, & a little more fit for the kingdom of heaven.

God is a dreamer. God dreamed and spoke and sang the galaxies into being and created this garden planet and its inhabitants as part of the divine dream. We can resist God’s ideas as being foolish or impractical, or we can choose to leap into the presence of the Dreamer, and in hope and joy and faith take our part in bringing God’s dream to reality.

Listen again to the Christian’s charge:

“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 . . .So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all [and remember that vengeance is the Lord’s.] If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

It’s a tough agenda to follow. And the toughest part is, it’s not “take some of it and leave some of it. Take what you will and leave the rest. –It is all or nothing.

But if you’re willing to try – to live by these impossible standards, this impossible vocation, with God’s help – then may God let it be done for you, and for you, and for you and for me, and for us all. May God’s kingdom come, and may the church support us in, and hold us to, our vows. In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.