Ask God to bless everyone who mistreats you. Ask him to bless them and not to curse them. When others are happy, be happy with them, and when they are sad, be sad. Be friendly with everyone. Don’t be proud and feel that you are smarter than others. Make friends with ordinary people. Romans 12:14-16 (CEV)
I really liked playing sports when I was growing up. I was on swim team, soccer, and basketball teams. I don’t know what it was about soccer, but I really liked it. I think I liked being outside, running across the field, and stopping the ball – I played a lot of defense. I don’t know if I was really very good, but I played hard and could kick the ball really far. I remember this one day things got pretty heated on the field between myself and a player from the other team. We were really pushing each other and playing hard. What I know of what happened next was what my dad told me, laughing after the game, but at the time I had no idea. After a whistle, I followed after the ref back to position, but I guess the girl I was playing so hard against followed after me swinging her fists to fight. With every swing, I just stepped further away from her, completely clueless of course, while she foolishly kept trying to hit me. I have no idea what would have happened if I knew this was occurring behind my back. I probably would have just laughed and kept moving. But that was then.
A few years later, I was playing an intense basketball game. Again, I found myself playing really hard against a player from the other team. (Do you see a pattern here? I’m just a little competitive…) The whistle blew and this time, it was I who spun quickly with a fist to get this girl off of me. I caught myself just before the punch would have landed so it kind of turned into this weird slow motion fist push. Of course, my coach pulled me out for a little time out.
As I reflect on these two moments in my sports career, I am interested in the fact that I played both roles – the person walking away from a fight and the person lashing out to start a fight. I wonder, if you reflect on your life, would you find instances where you have similarly played both roles?
In today’s short, but heavy, reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we face our two selves: the side of ourselves that would curse our enemies and the side that would bless; the side of ourselves that would fix, dismiss, or judge someone’s emotional response to their life circumstances and the side that would be with the other person in their happiness or sadness; the side of ourselves that would focus on social or economic status and the side that would focus on the things we hold in common, creating harmony and friendship. Though it is easy to think of our world and each other with this split thinking, as though we are either good or bad, it really isn’t that simple or clear cut. We hold within us the capacity to mistreat and support one another. Most of us struggle to hold these two sides of ourselves. We want to be all good or we want to see someone as all bad, but really it is in a very rare case that we would ever meet someone that purely good or bad.
It is natural to want to see people as either good or bad. I believe that what is beneath these blunt categorizations is our search for integrity. Is this person really who they say they are? Who they seem to be? Our heartbreak, our let down and disappointment, often happens when someone doesn’t play the role we want for them. Suddenly, we see the nuances and angles to their personality that we weren’t expecting or don’t understand. Oftentimes, this is when we want to walk away from the relationship. We think that because a person isn’t all or nothing what we want them to be, they have somehow lost integrity. But that is not integrity. Integrity is not defined by what you or I think of someone. Integrity means “the state or quality of being entire, complete, and unbroken.” Even deeper still, integrity refers to an “unimpaired, unadulterated, or genuine state, corresponding to its original condition.” Parker Palmer writes, “When we understand integrity for what it is, we stop obsessing over codes of conduct and embark on the more demanding journey toward being whole.”
The community life that we have been hearing about from Paul over the past few weeks is a community of generosity and sacrifice. This community is on a journey toward wholeness. In our journey toward wholeness we must recognize the places where we live divided – divided within our world and community; divided within ourselves. We must “be glad in our hope” and not give up on each other. We must do the demanding, personal work necessary so that our bonds may be strengthened, so we may live together in wholeness. The beauty of being a Christian is not that we suddenly become all good. The beauty is that we become whole.
Imagine a very still, calm lake. One small drop can create a ripple of movement that fills the entire space. A splash, will cause not just ripples, but waves. Our lives have been shaken up by the transformative love of Jesus striking our hearts with a splash. This love may start as a small ripple in our lives, but eventually things change, as those ripples widen outward, growing ever more generous in their widening, to embrace even those on the furthest reaches with the love of God.
Throughout this season of Lent, we have been talking about what it is to be a living sacrifice – starting with ourselves, offering the way we think to be transformed by God; then moving to the tightest, nearest circle, we began to consider our sacrificial life with those closest to us, those who share our interests and involvements in the body of Christ. Then we moved further out along the ripples, recognizing our varied gifts and ways we may be called to share those gifts with our community. Even further out, in verse 13, we are called to welcome the strangers in our midst. And today, living a generous life touched by the love of Jesus, we are directed to a further circle, people we wish to keep far from us, those who mistreat us, our enemies.
In practicing a journey toward integrity and wholeness, we may not be able to control how others act, but we are always able to control our response. So, we are encouraged not once, but twice, to bless these people that have hurt us. I am sure Paul is not just talking about saying “bless you” after a sneeze. Instead, I wonder if Paul is nudging us to the healing power of forgiveness. In what ways would our world change if we blessed one another with forgiveness rather than angry curses? In what ways would we live a more whole life – as individuals and in community?
Wholeness also leads us to accompaniment. When we are whole, we can truly sit with another no matter what the circumstance – joy, pain, happiness, and sadness. We can be with one another no matter our social status, successes, or our failures. We can look beyond our divisions to the greater truth that holds us together and calls us together.
When I think of someone who lived an undivided life, a life of wholeness, I can’t help but think of Mother Theresa. Here is someone who blessed everyone she met; who cried with those who cried and laughed with those who laughed; who humbly befriended the most ordinary, discarded, and forgotten people. Here is someone who did not deny her own fears or doubts, but acknowledged them, prayed about them, and lived into the life of love for others that God had given her. Whenever we live into this life of love, we return to our original condition, we are made complete and whole. We live a life of integrity.
God sees us for all that we are, all of the roles we play – stranger, neighbor, enemy, and friend. In the beginning, God created us in God’s own likeness and proclaimed humanity good. While we fight with ourselves over whether we are good or not, Jesus calls us members of his body. We are named “children of God.” This is the truth that makes us whole, that allows us to look at ourselves for all that we are with love that surpasses everything else. In this wholeness we are free to see one another, in all of our ordinary human-ness, and revel in the glory of God.
In the words of Martin Luther, we are both saint and sinner. While we may play all of these roles, in every moment we can be made new and whole. We can decide which side of ourselves we will live into. Will we believe what our worst fears say of ourselves and our humanity, or will we believe in what our God says of us? This is a faith issue. This is a trust issue. Can we live as though we really do believe that God created us and said, “It is good”? Can we live as though we really do believe that God took human form, lived a fully human (and fully divine) life, to be with us, to walk with us, cry with us, laugh with us, eat with us, because… he loves us? Whenever we answer yes to those questions, “Yes I believe in this God and this God believes in me, that I am good, that I can be this person who blesses rather than curses…” We live as witnesses to the power and grace of God. We can change the world with radical, generous love.
This Lent, our congregation has taken the 40acts Challenge. Our theme is A Living Sacrifice and each week we are focusing on readings from Romans 12.