Overcome Evil with Good

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, I’ve felt a bit overcome by evil this week.  Monday brought with it yet another video of yet another black man, Jacob Blake, being shot by a police officer who reacted not out of his training, but out of a systemic and culturally engrained fear of black bodies.  Wednesday’s news revolved around the story of a white teenager, raised on steady diet of hatred and fear, who shot multiple protesters, killing two, with a gun almost bigger than he is, only to be allowed to walk right past police officers, cross state lines, and return home to sleep in his own bed. Lest Mother Nature be left out, we had two hurricanes, including the incredibly destructive Hurricane Laura, wreak havoc, throughout the southern United States.  And let’s not forget that amid COVID-19, school started this week for the students of Western, Warren County, and Bowling Green Independent while news of positive tests among school aged children and young adults rattled through our inboxes and across our television screens.  Fear and hatred and violence and pain and suffering seem to be ever present.  They weigh heavy on my heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Evil seems impossible to overcome.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

There was a point this week where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to say anything more to you than these words from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  They are a message of hope that feels almost out of reach these days.  In my heart, I know that I am called to preach the hope of the resurrection at all times, but as the week went by, finding that word of hope felt more and more difficult. By Thursday evening, when my sermons are usually fully drafted, I had nothing but a couple of false starts, as I searched for hope in the midst of systematic evil.  I kept searching because, despite it all, I know that earlier in Romans Paul promises that hope does not disappoint us as God’s love has already been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  Hope may feel beyond our grasp, evil may feel overwhelming, but by the grace of God, we have the opportunity to overcome evil with good through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Thursday evening, the Trustees and Council of the Diocese of Kentucky met via Zoom.  As is the custom at T&C meetings, the Bishop offered some opening remarks.  He noted, as I have here, how difficult things continue to be amidst the dual pandemics of racial injustice and COVID-19 before he reminded us of our call to shine the light of hope in our communities.  By way of a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bishop White called us as leaders in the Diocese of Kentucky to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.  “Christianity stands or falls,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”[1]

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In order to find our voice as harbingers of the goodness of God, those of us who claim to follow Jesus must side with the vulnerable, the weak, the outcast, and the oppressed.  On the broad scale, Episcopalians like to think we do this naturally, but we also tend to take a lot of pride in claiming 11 US Presidents as Episcopalians, St. John’s Lafayette Square as the Church of the Presidents, and the Diocese of Washington’s Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul as the National Cathedral.  Our collective past would have us aligned pretty closely with the worship of the kinds of power that since the beginning of civilization have threatened to overcome good with evil and violence.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In order to help us live into this call, Paul offers a few specific keys to success.  Love one another with mutual affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal.  Be ardent in spirit.  Serve the Lord.  In light of the dual pandemics and the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two of these are speaking deeply to me this weekend.  First, Paul calls on Christians to outdo one another in showing honor.  Honor is one of those old-timey words that gets used often in the church, but so rarely in society that I’m not sure we really know what it means anymore.  To honor someone simply means to regard them with respect.  In order to outdo one another with honor, we must seek to respect all who have been made in the image of God.  Christians who seek to overcome evil with good must learn to see the other, especially those whom we have been taught to hate or fear, as beloved by God, and worthy of honor.  Hearing that quote from Bonhoeffer on Thursday night, I realized why I struggled to find a word to preach this week.  I felt powerless to the societal evils that threaten to overwhelm and saw that powerlessness as a bad thing, when, in truth, powerlessness is exactly what is called for.  Setting aside our positions of privilege to outdo one another in showing honor is the beginning of our society’s path toward wholeness.  This is not easy work. Emptying oneself of power and privilege is a learned behavior.  More often than not, it is a lesson hard-learned as we work to overcome the things that our society, our churches, our politicians, and sometimes even our families of origin, have taught us.  Which brings me to the second admonition that is gnawing at me today, Paul’s call to be ardent in spirit.  Paul is always good for a word or two that need some exploration. I had to look up ardent. I’ll save you the effort and tell you that, in the Biblical context, ardent means to burn hot.  While the world has always taught humans to burn hot with anger, fear, and hatred at those who differ from us, Christians who seek to overcome evil must seek to burn hot with the Holy Spirit. It is only by the Spirit’s help that we can learn to give up the pursuit of power and seek to love our neighbors. It is only by the Spirit’s help that we are able to live lives marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  It only by the Spirit’s help that we can, ultimately, serve the Lord.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

In case you haven’t noticed, these words are becoming something of a mantra for me.  In a time when evil feels as real and as threatening as I’ve ever known, my prayer for myself, for you, for our nation, and for this world is that we might not be overcome by evil, but that with the help of the fire of the Holy Spirit burning within us, we might outdo one another in showing honor, setting aside our positions of privilege to listen to and lift up those who have been marginalized and systematically dishonored for so long.  It is a long and arduous journey toward self-emptying love that at times will seem impossible, but the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus has never been easy.  Do not be overcome by evil, my dear friends, but by the power of the Spirit, find comfort in the hope that one day, with God’s help, we will overcome evil with good.  Amen.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), ‘My Strength is Made Perfect in Weakness’ a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9 found in ‘The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’

Outdoing one another in showing honor in light of the #NashvilleStatement

Like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, I have read with sadness the recently published Nashville Statement signed by more than 150 leaders in the Evangelical tradition.  As I read these words, I wondered aloud, again like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, “Why now?  What purpose does this serve in a world where White Supremacists march the streets with impunity, where the threat of nuclear was is more real than ever in my lifetime, and where a hurricane has cost $23 billion of property damage and dozens of lives?”  I’ve struggled for the right words to say; how I might respond, not that the world needs to know my thoughts on the matter, but I do write a blog and bloggers always think people care about their opinions.

Of particular note, at least in my opinion, are Articles 7 and 10 of the Nashville Statement.  Article 7 is of interest because it seems to suggest that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that is made.  Here is where our ability to have a conversation on this topic breaks down.  Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, that which would become Evangelicalism in the United States made a conscious decision to hold science at arms length and to trust in the inerrancy of Scripture.  This is why we have things like the Creation Museum, which seeks to discredit the scientific suggestion that world was not created in seven, twenty-four hour periods because one of the two Biblical accounts of creation says so.  Fast forward to 2017, and with no clear scientific study that says where homosexual attraction comes from, it is a no-brainer for the anti-scientific bias in evangelicalism to say, without hesitation, that homosexuality can be and “adopted self-conception.”  Without room for scientific exploration on the subject, there is no way sexual orientation will ever be seen as something other than a choice, and a sinful one at that.  There is no room in this mindset for conversation on the topic, even if the rest of the world still sees it as an open question.

Which leads me to Article 10, the much more destructive of the two.  I commend to you Carol Howard Merritt’s reflection for the Christian Century on this topic.  Because of the inherent danger in it, I will publish Article 10 in its entirety.

Article 10
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

Those of you who read this blog with regularity will know that my favorite word in the Church is “adiaphora,” which means “things indifferent.”  The idea of adiaphora within Christianity came into focus during the Protestant Reformation as debates between Roman Catholics and early Reformers tended to be based on fundamental disagreements over that which was a core doctrine of the faith.  By adopting Article 10, these Evangelical leaders have drawn a clear line in the sand.  Human sexuality and gender identity are, for them, matters of core doctrine, and one’s beliefs on these matters are a part of what it means to be redeemed in Christ.  It is Article 10 that brings me the most sadness because a friend of mine from high school whom I deeply respect for his faith, even if our theologies on topics like this don’t match up, is one of the original signatories of the Nashville Statement.  Article 10 seems to say that he does not see my faith as valid, and that the only clear path for me as a Christian who affirms God’s love for all God’s children, including the LGBT community, is the road to hell.  I have reached out to my friend and let him know that while I disagree with him on this issue, I will continue to pray for his ministry as I hope he will mine.

This, finally, leads me to the Bible, the topic which this blog purports to be about.  Sunday’s lesson from Romans 12 is a quick-hitting list of admonitions from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  As we hear them, they can make us feel good, but in such rapid succession, it might be hard to note how difficult these Godly admonitions are to live by. This is especially true at the end of verse 10 where he writes, “Outdo one another in showing honor.”  Another way to translate that might be “lead the way in showing respect.”  This is affirmed in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church in which we vow, with God’s help, to respect the dignity of every human being.  We affirm that it can only be done “with God’s help” because, quite frankly, human beings can be hard to love.  Our ability to show respect at all times, is flawed, but it is by God’s grace that we are able to lead the way in showing respect.  With Paul’s words in mind and in light of current events, from Charlottesville to Pyongyang and from Washington DC to Nashville, I pray that I might have the grace and courage to lead the way in showing respect to everyone, even as I pray the same for you, dear reader.

lovegodbumpersticker

Renovation Realities

2017-04-04 19.25.01.jpg

We bought our new home in Bowling Green knowing that it would require a full kitchen renovation.  What we did not know what how much work a kitchen renovation really was.  More than just taking out cabinets and replacing them with new, we took the entire thing down to the studs and sub-floor, rewired every light, switch, and outlet, moved some plumbing, and even expanded a walkway.  Rather than putting lipstick on the pig that was our old kitchen, we worked with intention and care to turn it into one of the finest pork roasts you could ever imagine.  Straining metaphor aside, such is the work of the Christian faith, according to Paul’s often quoted twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Romans.

“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.”

The word translated as “renewing” can also be rendered as “renovation” as in a “complete change for the better.”  Like it was for our kitchen, the goal of our faith journey in Christ isn’t a simple cosmetic upgrade, but rather that we take a full accounting of our sins, strip everything of our old self away, and with God’s help, work toward a new mind that is one with the will of God.  To be sure, painting cabinets and upgrading a light fixture will make things look nice, and it is a whole lot easier, but the real work of renovation comes when we are willing to dig deep and uncover the hidden mess that lay beneath the surface.

One way to do that, though one that I have found to be rarely used in the Episcopal congregations I have served (so rare, I have never had anyone ask me for it), is the sacramental rite of reconciliation of a penitent.  Found in the Prayer Book beginning on page 447, this rite invites us to name aloud “all serious sins troubling the conscience,” that is, to move beyond the surface to bring to light those things that we would rather not name.  To take on the work of what is commonly called confession, is difficult, and it can take a while to really get at what God is trying to help us let go, but it is always fruitful as it brings us closer yet to a renovated mind that is able to discern the will of God.

It is often said of confession in the Episcopal Church that “all may, none must, some should,” but I wonder if Paul would have us maybe more carefully consider if we fall in that category of some who should.

Giftedness

It is an ancient tradition to lift up the Seven-fold Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, we claim those seven gifts at every ordination through the rubric that requires either Veni Creator Spiritus or Veni Sancte Spiritus be sung prior to the Consecration.  Both ancient hymns make reference to the Seven-fold Gifts which come not from the usual gifts lists cited from Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians, but instead from the Prophet Isaiah.  In a prophecy about the savior who will grow the Peacable Kingdom from the root of the Tree of Jesse, Isaiah lists the gifts the Anointed One will possess: “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of

  1. wisdom and
  2. understanding, the spirit of
  3. counsel
  4. and might, the spirit of
  5. knowledge
  6. and the fear of the LORD.
  7. He will delight in obeying the LORD.”

It took some digging to figure out how repeating the “Fear of the LORD” made for two separate gifts, but thanks to the theological resource to end all theological resources, Wikipedia, I figured out that the list comes form the Latin Vulgate, which is a notoriously bad translation.  In the Latin, number six reads not “fear of the Lord” as it does in Hebrew for both 6 and 7, but “pietatis,” a helpful word for a Church trying to overcome an empire built on a sacrificial system of moral corruption. This gives us a list of seven unique gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the LORD.

Which is a really long way of introducing the list that shows up in Sunday’s lesson from Romans.  Paul, continuing to call upon the Church in Rome to discipleship and unity, reminds them that the only person who possessed all of the Gifts of the Spirit is the head to which the Body is united, Jesus the Christ.  Without mentioning the Isaiah list, he certainly brings to mind, at least for the Jewish Christians in the Roman Church, the promise of giftedness that comes with Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.  Paul goes on to list some, not all, of the gifts that are needed in the Church, gifts that will ensure the health of the whole body: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.

None of us possesses all of the gifts of the Spirit, those listed here or the expanded lists elsewhere in Paul’s letters.  None of us has none of them.  But the Spirit, according that good and perfect will of God, divvies them out by grace, through baptism, so that each member of the Church might have a job to do that builds up the Kingdom and strengthens the body.  It is through the exercise of those gifts that we are able to join with God in the re-creation of earth, in fulfilling his dream, in creating the Kingdom of God.  

Do you know your gifts?  Do you have a means to exercise them?  If not, ask your local clergy person for advice, surely they can help you stretch your spiritual muscle.

On Conforming to this World

It is rare that I don’t focus this blog and my sermons on the Gospel text appointed for a Sunday, but for some reason, this week, I’m feeling a strong connection to the Romans 12 lesson.  Perhaps it is because, as I said yesterday, it contains one of the few verses of scripture that I actually memorized, chapter and verse, back in my youth.  More likely, however, is that I’m drawn to Romans 12 because it is a deep well from which to draw.  The language is rich and evocative.  The imagery is profound and the basis of much ecclesiology.  And to top it off, in very un-Pauline fashion, the message is clear.

After 11 chapters of dense theology and Mobius strip like prose, Paul begins chapter 12 with clear thesis statement,  “Therefore, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to take on the only reasonable response to what I’ve laid before you: present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable; do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing your minds in order to discern God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

The traditional reading of this passage is to see it as a call to sanctification or purity of life.  It is the Siren Call of modern evangelicalism, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world.  Don’t do all the stuff that heathens do.  Don’t drink, smoke, dance, have sex outside of marriage, be gay, or vote Democrat.”  Given Paul’s context, this isn’t actually a bad reading, though maybe the list of don’ts assumes some things about both heathens and Christians.  Writing to cosmopolitan Christians, both Gentile and Jew, Paul had his hands full on what it looked like to follow Jesus in first century Rome.  Don’t have sex with temple prostitutes, maybe don’t eat meat sacrificed to Roman gods and goddesses, and don’t feel the need to get circumcised if you aren’t already are all on his mind, but so are a lot of “do’s”.

Do believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  Do follow in his footsteps.  Do take care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and the oppressed.  Do seek justice for those who are outcast.  Do share the Good News with those who haven’t heard.  Do, he’ll go on to say, utilize the gifts that God has given you to build up the Kingdom.

Sure, when faith is young, a list of things we once did without thinking that we should now maybe think about not doing, is probably helpful.  But as faith grows, as we mature, as our focus turns away from ourselves and toward God and his Kingdom, the tenor of the conversation should change, maybe even be transformed, from a list of don’ts to a vision for how to do this thing called discipleship.

A Living Sacrifice

When I was in high school, I became pretty heavily involved in Young Life, a parachurch youth ministry.  Things weren’t really happening at the Episcopal Church of my upbringing (a well rehearsed trope, to be sure), so I chose instead to hang out with the hundred or so kids who showed up on Wednesday nights for Club.  A smaller number of us, maybe 12-15, would take part in a Friday morning Bible study, which also had a name, but I can’t remember it all these years later.  A part of the mission of that smaller group was to be leaders in our school, and to be the model for Christian discipleship among our peers.  One of the key pieces of that discipleship was Bible memorization.

I suck at Bible memorization.

Dutifully, however, I went down to our local Bible book store and bought this exact set of Bible memorization flash cards, red plastic pouch and everything.

I should have known, given my inability to memorize the multiplication tables and my spelling lists, that Bible flash cards weren’t going to do any good, but I bought them, and then proceeded to feel guilty when I failed to memorize a verse a week.  One of the few that I did manage to set deep in the recesses of my mind was the opening two verses of Romans 12 that are appointed in Sunday’s lectionary.  Of course, I didn’t yet know of the gloriousness that is the NRSV, so my version of choice was the NIV.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Having successfully memorized it, and not yet knowing was exegesis was, I really had no idea what Paul was calling for in this admonition.  A living sacrifice?  Be transformed by the renewing of your mind?  God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will?  It sounds like the stuff of discipleship, to be sure, but like memorizing Bible verses, it can just be fluff-n-stuff, unless there is some real intention, some real meat behind it.  To be a living sacrifice for God doesn’t just mean memorizing Bible verses, but getting down and dirty in bringing the Kingdom to earth.  The fact of the matter is that most of us, myself very much included, would like to follow Jesus in the easiest way possible.  We don’t necessarily like to take risks, but sometimes God calls us to become living sacrifices for the greater good.  Standing up for justice, reaching out in care and love, doing the right thing when you know that the wider culture will punish you for it: these are the living sacrifices that disciples make everyday, whether they’ve memorized Romans 12:1-2 or not.