Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Romans 12:9-21)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017
Text: Romans 12:9-21

Christians are strange people in the world.
On June 17, 2015, a young man came to Bible study at a church in.  The rest of the group welcomed him, even though they didn’t know him and even though he was the only fair-skinned person in the group.  After welcoming him and discussing Scripture with him, that young man, Dylann Roof, took advantage of that group and opened fire on them while they were praying.  Later at his indictment hearing, several relatives of the victims asked to speak.  They shared their obvious pain and anger, but nonetheless, they told the man who had killed their relatives, “I forgive you” and that they werepraying for God to be merciful to him.[1]
On the morning of October 2, 2006), another troubled man by the name of Charlie Roberts entered the West Nickel Mines Amish School.  He barricaded himself inside the school and executed 5 children ages 7-13.  In this case, the shooter took his own life, so there was no earthly justice to be had.  In the aftermath, the parents from the Amish community publicly forgave the man who had brutally killed their daughters.  At the shooter’s funeral, the community came together to embrace the shooter’s parents, Terri and Chuck Roberts, and one of the first to approach them was one of the parents who had lost two daughters in the attack.[2]
In a world that thirsts for justice, selfish ambition, and power, Christians stand apart.  The Holy Apostle Paul writes about this alien quality of Christians:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Psychologists and sociologists study trends and factors that lead to why people are the way they are.  Yet, in spite of personal backgrounds and the culture they live in, Christians are aliens.  If it isn’t simply because of family of origin or culture, how do Christians become this strange?
It goes back to little word in last week’s Epistle reading: “Therefore”  “Therefore, by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”[3]  “Therefore” encompasses all that came before: The righteousness of God has appeared, condemning the whole world, exposing the judgment that all have fallen short of the glory of God, but are justified by His grace as a gift in Jesus Christ.[4]  This gift comes to us according to God’s everlasting promise of salvation, secured even for His enemies, for the whole human race even if they should never believe.[5]  Yet those who believe rest in the peace that comes from God.  They have comfort in their continued struggle against their own sin, and because of the peace they have received, they extend that peace to others.[6]
Therefore, because God has shown what true love is, His people love.  Therefore, because God has turned the evil of the crucifixion into the world’s good, His people are heirs of that mighty act.  Therefore, because Jesus endured the cross in hope of our salvation, those who follow Him are empowered to bear all things with hope in God.  Therefore, as Jesus blessed His crucifiers and prayed for their forgiveness, so also we, who are baptized into His crucifixion and death, bless their enemies and pray for their good.
The members of Christ’s Body sing, “I’m but a stranger here; heaven is my home,” and it’s true.  Christians are strangers in this world, not only because they don’t behave like other people, but because they belong to a different place than this world.  When the world and our own flesh are bent on vengeance, justice, and wrath, Christians are for peace and forgiveness.  In a culture that says, “It’s all about me,” Christians are generous and count others more important than themselves.
Therefore, because you have this different identity, this different origin, you think of yourself and others in God’s light.
Never be wise in your own sight” reflects your humility at the thought that you have nothing to boast of before God—not college degrees, not experience, not a pious life, not purer doctrine.  God doesn’t have any favorites, and He doesn’t make distinction, so of course how could you set yourself up as better than any other person?  That also means you’re not afraid to be wrong, to admit your mistakes, your part in making conflicts worse.  Let God be the only one who is absolutely true and right all the time.  You?  Me? Not so much.
God’s therefore also changes how we treat those who have wronged us, not by minimizing the injustice or the damage caused by it, and not even by the other party admitting what they’ve done to be wrong.  It changes how we respond: 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”  Vengeance comes in many forms these days besides physical. They used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The words that have been uttered have proven that playground rhyme false.  In person and online, words cut people down and make them small, insignificant, and worthless in our eyes.
Besides condemning that firmly with the 8th Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” God has gone further.  By making peace with His enemies, God has undercut the reason we have to accuse others and speak ill of them.  He has made us different by making us people of peace and forgiveness.
Just as that’s true individually, it’s true as a congregation.  Over the past few years, there have been a lot of hurts, betrayals of trust, slander, and broken promises.  There’s no sugar-coating the wrongs that have been committed, some are public and some are not.  Instead, there is the blood of Christ, the sacrifice offered which is the power behind the words God speaks: “I forgive you.”  Just like the parents and relatives of mass shootings—who have every right to be angry, who suffered so much because of someone’s actions—we who are baptized into Christ can say to those individuals who have wronged us: “I forgive you.”
It’s this forgiveness that makes us strangers and aliens in this world, but also what makes us heirs of eternal life.  The mark of us being a Christian congregation isn’t found in externals of the leadership, or worship style, or in how many are at our congregation versus another.  The mark of us being a Christian congregation is that we sincerely forgive and even gladly do good to those who have sinned against us.  We love even our enemies, not with a subtle wish that burning coals would hurt them but that God would keep us all in humble repentance and the grace which God has showered on us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.
[3] Romans 12:1
[4] Romans 3:22-25
[5] Romans 4:16, Romans 5:6-10, Romans 5:18-19
[6] Romans 7:14-15, Romans 8:1-2, Romans 8:26