Holding Fast

Passage: Romans 12: 9-21
Date: September 3, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

One of the interesting things about this text from Romans is that Paul never tells us what love is, what evil is, or what good is. There is either the assumption that we, like the letter-readers in Rome, already know what those things are, or the encouragement for us to figure that out for our own community.

But with all these sorts of things, my fallback is usually the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in writing an opinion about something being obscene, when he said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description… but I know it when I see it.”

We know what love is when we see it. We know what evil is too, and good. We’ve had so many images of love and evil and good this week with the world’s events, and especially with the images of flooding not only in Houston and the Gulf Coast region but also in Nepal and Bangladesh and India.

Let love be genuine. There is something about the love between a parent and child that may be the first and best experience of love most of us will know. (And I know there are too many exceptions to that, and I am deeply sorry that not all parents and children love each other well.) 

Perhaps that kind of love – not only genuine, but almost primordial and essential – was best seen in the tragic story of the three-year-old Jordyn Grace, who was found clinging to the body of her mother as floodwaters rose in south Houston. “Mama was saying her prayers,” the little girls said, prayers that must have been for the life of her daughter. It’s the greater love of giving one’s life for someone else. I imagine too that this child’s trust in her mother’s love gave her courage as the waters rose.

I must always remind myself that Paul wrote not to individuals about how to live their best lives, but to a community about how to live together. So he is encouraging the Romans – and us – for our communal love for each other to be genuine. Do we love each other? Would a stranger walk into Westminster and have a sense that we really, truly care for each other, that we pray for each other as the waters rise, that we would give all that we have – maybe even our lives – for each other? What would a stranger see?

Well, it would depend on the stranger. But last week, as our community gathered around Kelly Coyne in his mourning his partner, David’s, death, I saw so much genuine love. People who took time to listen. People who took time to show up. People who helped with cake and flowers and Facebook and music. People who told stories about David, reminding us that his love is still with us in some godly way. Let our love for each other be genuine, because if it’s not, we might as well turn off the lights, lock the doors, and go home.

Even as much as we let love be genuine, Paul encourages us to hate what is evil, to abhor what is evil. Now evil is one of those things that we know when we see, but it might be helpful to put some flesh on the word.

One of my favorite theologians, a novelist named Susan Howatch, says this about evil. “Evil is a very emotive word. Of course it refers to something which is all too real when we encounter it, but it’s very easy, by using emotive language, to make evil seem slightly unreal, something ‘other,’ something which exists ‘out there’ and can be kept at arm’s length while we get on with our ordinary lives. There’s always a strong urge in us to disarm it in this way because the reality is so different and so frightening that our natural inclination is to run away rather than confront it. It’s only when our lives are invaded by evil that we realize it’s not at all like the lurid fantasies in stylized Hollywood horror movies.

“… The trouble is, you see, that evil isn’t just ‘out there’…. It’s among us all the time. A little lie here, a little cheating there, a little self-centeredness somewhere else – and then suddenly all those little moments latch onto each other to present a cluster of evil and we come face to face with a monster.” (The High Flyer, p. 449)

We learned so much about evil, and the little things that grow into a monster, in the horrors of World War II. A few years ago, I read a book called “In the Garden of Beasts,” the story of the U.S. ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, who saw the beginning of the rise of Hitler and national socialism and anti-Semitism, who saw all of that and could not budge the American government to respond. Ten years later, a continent was in ruins, and six million Jews were dead.

So I wonder what roots of evil we are seeing today in places where neo-Nazis are rallying, with claims that they are losing their way of life and with hints that they must kill those who threaten them. Friends, we have seen that movie and it ends in genocide. Gathering in places like Charlottesville for a rally may not, in and of itself, be evil, but it’s sowing the seeds, and we have to speak up and stop it.

Paul encourages us to hate what is evil – to hate evil, but not to hate evil people. It’s a subtle difference but an important one. Hating someone will not change them; loving them might not change them either, but loving someone doesn’t hurt us and it is a witness to the world. Dr. King said it best: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

But in order to hate evil, and in order to love people whose words and actions are utterly and morally opposed to our own, we have to be grounded; we have to have a constant, a firm foundation. We must, as Paul says, hold fast to what is good.

The tragedies of Hurricane Harvey have shown us how much good there still is in people. One of those people is Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mac,” who owns Gallery Furniture in Houston.

While we worshiped last Sunday, Mattress Mac and some of his employees drove their big delivery trucks around their larger neighborhood and rescued 200 people who were stranded by the flood waters. Right now about 300 people are staying in the 160,000 square foot store, plus 60 National Guard troops who are sleeping on the best Tempur-Pedic mattresses. He’s also paying for temporary showers so those evacuees staying with him can have their first hot shower in days.

Mac is pretty amazing in some ways, and in some ways, he is simply doing what any of us should do: He’s doing good. He’s sharing his abundance of space and furniture with those who have lost everything, those who are frightened and anxious and in shock.

I saw an interview with him the other night. He talked about going to Catholic schools when he was growing up, where he learned what was right and good. I don’t know if it is his faith he holds fast to these days, or if it is deeply embedded morality that he holds fast to. What I know is that he has provided life and light, and maybe some love, for people who thought they might drown.

It’s hard to prepare fully for a disaster like Hurricane Harvey or like the floods that have taken 1,200 lives in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India. There are only so many sandbags you can have, so many crank radios, and so much stored food. We can, though, prepare our hearts to meet human suffering, to resist evil, and to seek out good that will support us through it all.

The scenes from Houston have motivated Gregg and me to step up our own earthquake preparedness, because you just never know. We’ve talked with Sarah about which out-of-state family member will be our contact, and what to do if we’re all in different parts of the city. We know our neighbors and their phone numbers and where their spare keys are kept. We keep meaning to get that water filtration system and the earthquake bag. I pray we will never need any of it.

We’re not quite ready if the big one hits, but I hope that my heart is ready. I hope that our church community is ready. If disaster strikes and we are able to open our doors, will we? Will we give funds to those organizations that are poised to bring real help? Will we have compassion on those who weren’t ready, those in shock, those who lose everything? Will we not judge each other? Will we help whomever, regardless of what they look like or whom they worship or how they behave? Will our love for them be genuine?

*****

My family moved to Houston in 1972 and left in 1985; much of what has happened there this week has taken on a deep poignancy for me.

I looked at the website of the church I grew up in, and was so pleased to see that they were sheltering 100 people who had been displaced by the floods, and they were taking in and giving out all sorts of supplies.

That church was one of the places where I learned what was good. Certain things I learned there nestled deep down in my soul – like God’s love for me and the call to help each other. Every week in worship we said together a proclamation of faith, words I have never forgotten and indeed hold fast to.

“We believe in God, who has created and is creating,
Who has come to us in the true man Jesus,
Who works in us and others by his Spirit.

“We trust him.
He calls us to be the church,
To celebrate his presence,
To love and serve others,
To seek justice and resist evil,
To proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
Our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death, 
God is with us.”

Amen.