Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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I suspect all of us have been watching the news and watching the destruction resulting from Hurricane Harvey.  It’s immense beyond our comprehension.  Whole neighborhoods appear as homes peak through lakes.  The fourth largest city in this country sits in destruction.

We’ve seen destruction here in NYC, whether through the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in which members of this congregation and its staff stood handing out water to people walking up from Wall Street and other areas.  We’ve seen the results of Hurricane Sandy.

Though under circumstances I would not have chosen, I had the true blessing of joining others from a church I previously attended in going to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina several times.  In one such trip, we stayed at a Presbyterian church that was maybe 3-4 blocks from where the eye of the hurricane came ashore.  Members of the congregation described the miraculous story of waters parting around the church and the church being saved from substantial destruction.  All around the church, destruction was obvious.  On the very edge of the gulf coast, it looked like a war zone.  I still remember the view of one house vividly — I have a photo of it, too.  It stood two stories high.  One half of one side-wall of the house didn’t exist, and the entire face of this brick house had been ripped away.  The floors remained.  I looked into the second floor of the house and saw two bedrooms with beds and chairs still sitting there.  On the right side, the floor had begun to sag and fall in the corner significantly.  A sofa and chair remained ready to slide off any moment into the rubble that remained.  The ceiling and other innards of the house had been ripped out and deposited… somewhere.  A few blocks away, I saw a young girl walking around alone — sad and alone — along graffiti left on homes.  Other places were marked as biohazards because of the raw sewage, human bodies, and black mold that had consumed the inside of houses where the outside seemed in relatively good condition.  We were warned in our first couple of trips — the first being three months after the hurricane — that we might very likely find bodies in the houses we were gutting.

The tremendous challenge was that similar descriptions could apply to nearly every house and other structure as far as one could see and beyond.  There were no resources within the community to deal with the problem.  Stores that previously sold construction supplies, gas stations, grocery stores — any store that would provide essential goods was likewise devastated.  Everyone was devastated.  We passed houses that were once tremendous in size, and beautiful, where families had fled the storm and resolved to never return.  They couldn’t even move themselves to return to see the devastation with hopes of finding a few important belongings.  Everything, they imagined, was lost — and they very well might have been correct.  The recovery from Hurricane Katrina — experienced in 2005 — continues to this day.

I imagine a similar scene in Corpus Christi, in Houston, and in other areas after this past week.  I imagine some areas look like a war zone; I imagine houses marked as biohazards because of raw sewage, black mold, and human bodies.  I imagine houses eventually marked with insurance policy numbers and statements that “we are safe” and a phone number of where the family can be reached.  I imagine some coming “promised” services they never intend to provide — only to receive payment and move on to the next house to scam.  I imagine the fourth largest city in the United States devastated and without sufficient resources internally, statewide, or even regionally to deal with the tragedy they face.

I invite you to support the recovery in Texas, Louisiana, and elsewhere by contributing to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and other reputable agencies.  I invite you to consider whether you might take a trip to Texas to aid in the rebuilding — when I would visit areas affected by Katrina, I was thanked by so many who replied that it was the church that was having the greatest impact on recovery.  It was church members who would tear-down houses, replace construction that had been destroyed, and sit with devastated people and simply listen to their stories.

It was in my experience serving in Mississippi that I saw the church in the United States come together in the most unified way, of any experience I have ever seen.  Presbyterians of different denominations served beside Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, and it didn’t matter.  Presbyterians worked on Roman Catholic homes, and Roman Catholics worked on Presbyterian homes.  Our Presbyterian church even had a number of Roman Catholics join us in going on some of the seven trips the church took.  The devastation was so immense, the diversity of the people affected so wide, and the work to do so great that none of this mattered, nor did church membership.

 

Unfortunately, the church doesn’t often resemble this unity.  Often, the world (outside the church) is appalled at our internal bickering.  The church universal, which is the ONE bride of the ONE Christ[1], seems to be being torn apart as rapidly as the house I described torn apart during Hurricane Katrina.  We can argue about anything from the color of the carpet to who qualifies for ordination and marriage to whether God predestines the minutia or allows humanity to make every choice.  I don’t mean to say that these aren’t important issues — they certainly are.  The problem is that we find scriptural or other evidence for our viewpoint and disregard the other side’s counterpoints that also have evidence.  We can’t see that individuals truly trying to be faithful to our scriptures and the history of the church can place Jesus as Lord and come to different conclusions.  We assign an enemy image to the other side — liberal, conservative, non-scriptural, unloving — and quit associating entirely.  We try to shut-down their voice.

 

Christian scholars are, also, not beyond arguing with one another, and our passage from Romans is one that leaves many scholars confused.  The form of this passage seems almost random.  Paul includes a long list of imperatives that don’t necessarily seem to relate well.

More recently, many scholars have started to see a more consistent structure to this passage.  Douglas Moo asserts that the most persuasive proposal for structure notes the first few words of this passage are the heading, “Let love be genuine.”[2]  Another popular English translation uses, “Love must be sincere.”[3]  The translation I used in our children’s sermon uses, “Love must be honest and true.”[4]  In the Greek, the verb is actually missing; a more literal translation would be “The love sincere” or “The love genuine.”[5]  The verb here is rightfully assumed.  Black, through Moo, asserts that this is essentially the title of this passage.  The passage is then broken into four sections, addressing two topics.  Verses 9-13 and 15-16 address relations between Christians, and verses 14 and 17-21 address relations Christians have with non-Christians and enemies.[6]

 

Within the two sections relating to how we treat fellow Christians — and I emphasize this is beyond Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, beyond the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and even beyond Protestantism, Paul has much to say.  First, when Paul writes in the Greek, “Ἡ ἀγάπη ἀνυπόκριτος”[7] or “Let love be genuine,”[8]  he writes not of brotherly love or romantic love; he writes of a love that would sacrifice the self for the other.  This is Paul’s heading and summary command.  I might amplify the translation by stating, “let sacrificial love be sincere.”

Paul continues, “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection [or brotherly and sisterly love]; OUTDO ONE ANOTHER IN SHOWING HONOR…. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers…. 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.”[9]

When we meet other Christians, we are to be other-focused.  Their mood is what determines our mood in rejoicing or weeping.  We practice sincere, self-sacrificing love.  We are in prayer for them.  We are patient.  We try to show the other person more honor than they show us.  We extend hospitality to strangers. 

Paul offers NO qualifiers for which Christians must fulfill this command, and he offers NO qualifiers for which Christians to whom we have to provide these benefits.  The benefit is expected to be given from every Christian to every Christian.

    

 

Paul’s exhortation for how we should treat people outside the church reminds me of a story I recently read of the church in NORTH KOREA.  The government in North Korea seeks out church members in order to suppress the church, and worshippers who are discovered are likely to be imprisoned, required to do forced labor, or executed.

Kim Sang Hwa writes, “When I was 12, I accidentally found a Bible my parents had hidden in their closet.  I don’t know why, but I started to feel inside the cabinet with my hand, pulled out a book and began to read.”  She continues that the stories in the Bible were incredibly interesting, but she knew reading the Bible was dangerous.  Her father had told her not to share anything she read with anyone else.  Her father would pray in whispers, “Father, help the North Korean people to seek your Kingdom first.”[10]

Sang Hwa later learned that her father met people in a secret location as part of the underground church, “Many children of believers came to that location too and learned the Bible.  We prayed together.”[11]

Sang Hwa and her parents had no idea that “government agents had infiltrated the underground meetings.”  They later learned that in those meetings were non-believers and spies from the government.[12]

Her father went to see one of the visitors on his deathbed.  “The man confessed… ‘I know everything about you, your family and your faith.  I was a spy and ordered to watch you.’”  His father was startled.   The government spied never reported them to the government.  Sang Hwa notes that she saw the people “praying and singing, [and] his heart softened toward them.”  At bedside, the spy asked the father, “Tell me how I can become a Christian too.”[13]

The father in this true story took an incredible risk to worship with others.  The congregation he attended accepted visitors with the threat that there might be enemies or persecutors who would turn them into the government and leave them in prison, hard labor camps, or awaiting execution.  The outcome of taking this risk, however, had eternal implications.  The potential persecutor accepted Christ and was now no longer a persecutor but a member of the body of Christ.

 

Paul’s exhortation on how we should relate to those outside of the church seems even more difficult than how we should address those within the church.  Paul writes first, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” [14] The father in the story regarding North Korea blessed those who might truly be his persecutors. 

Paul continues, “Do not repay evil for evil…. 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.”  Further, do not “avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.”  Veangance is God’s; “I will repay, says the Lord.[15]  If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”[16]

To our enemies, we are to respond in care and in every way possible to live peaceably.  We don’t take revenge but leave any such act to God and God alone.  We feed our enemy; we offer drink to our enemy. 

     The meaning and origin of the statement heaping “burning coals on the heads” is not clear to scholars.[17]  Based on the outcome of the story from North Korea; however, we might add that the result may be our enemy joining the faith and ceasing to be our enemy.

 

One significant piece of good news in these exhortations of how to behave to both believers and enemies is that the world might see a community in the church that is different, and we might see our world transformed.  Christ might be known far more widely, and our churches may be far more full.

 

This, then, is the good news alluded to in our New Testament passage.  The passage begins, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Later, Jesus told the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[18]

We all know where the path to the cross and beyond leads.  It had eternal implication as the work of the father and others in North Korea.  Jesus Christ was crucified for sinners — enemies of God — such that these same people (including you and me) might be reconciled to God.  Jesus would tolerate being subjected to scorn, to ridicule, to torture, and to murder by his own community and the Roman leaders such that he might be lifted up on the third day and that we might all be reconciled to him.

Among the many results of this action is the church, the body of Christ, that today exists in practically every nation on earth and numbers over two billion believers.

Jesus Christ — Jesus, the Messiah — God incarnate in human form — sacrificed himself for his community and his enemies alike so that we might be reconciled to him and to one another.  While he may not lead us literally to the cross, he most certainly expects something very similar from each of us.  May we likewise sacrifice ourselves for the peace of the faith and of the world!  As we pray weekly, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.”

 

In the name of the Father,

and of the Son,

and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

SIGNIFICANT SOURCES REFERENCED

 

Aland, Kurt, Barbara Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger. Novum Testamentum Graece. 28th Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012.

 

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

 

Mission Catalyst.  http://missionscatalyst.net/?p=7317.  {Accessed August 26, 2017.}

 

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

 

Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2: Chapters 9-16. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004.

 

[1] Ephesians 5:22-32, NRSV.

[2] Moo, 773; NRSV, Romans 12:9.

[3] Romans 12:9, NIV.

[4] Romans 12:9, NIrV.

[5] Aland, Romans 12:9.

[6] Moo, 773-774.

[7] Aland, Romans 12:9.

[8] Romans 12:9, NRSV.

[9] Romans 12:9-13, 15-16, NRSV; Moo, 769.

[10] Missions Catalyst.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Romans 12:14, NRSV.

[15] Romans 12:17-19, NRSV.

[16] Romans 12:20, Proverbs 25:21-22, NRSV.

[17] Moo, 787-789.

[18] Matthew 16:21-25, NRSV.