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Sermon for September 3, 2023 – Proper 17

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5041Christ, Conqueror of My Soul
Cara Garrity

The English poet, William Ernest Henley, was an avowed atheist. You might recognize his name from his famous poem entitled, “Invictus.” Invictus is Latin for “Unconquered.”

Several generations of high school and college students have had this poem quoted to them at their graduation ceremonies around the world.

The last line of this poem boasts this:

It matters not how strait the gait,  

how charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,   

I am the captain of my soul.1

Many have risen to their feet with applause upon hearing this inspiring declaration. I wonder how these words fall on your ears. Do they make you want to go out and conquer the world?

While we mortal beings do possess great power and can achieve a great many things, are we truly the masters of our own fate, the captains of our own souls?

In his gospel, Matthew records Jesus’ stinging rebuke to one of his closest disciples. After hearing from Jesus that he was going to suffer and die, Peter challenged Jesus to be the master of his own fate, the captain of his soul.

Jesus stopped that train of thought and informed Peter in no uncertain terms that he didn’t have the things of God in mind. Following those words, Jesus clarifies where true life is found – by following him.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it do for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
Matthew 16:24-26

Jesus makes it clear to his disciples, and to us, that as his followers, we must die to our self-will. Entering into life with Christ, opens us to experience his love and the greater reality of his kingdom.  Captived by Christ we realize that our longings and desires are met through participating with him in drawing humanity into the Father’s loving embrace. We trade our self-generated ideas of glory in for giving him the glory trusting he is working for our good.

We must die to the very idea of being the masters of our own destinies. Someone else is in charge, and that someone is Jesus. He is the One who entered into our suffering, conquered our souls with the Father’s love, and who through the leading of the Holy Spirit brings us into a destiny that is far greater than one who we could ask for or imagine.

In response to Henley’s “Invictus”, Dorothy Day penned her poem, entitled “Conquered”. The opening line states:

Out of the light that dazzles me,                                    

bright as the sun from pole to pole,                                        

I thank the God I know to be,                                             

for Christ-the conqueror of my soul.2

Captivated by Christ may you trade your self will for the glorious destiny he has in store for all of humanity.

I’m Cara Garrity, Speaking of Life.

1) Invictus by William Ernest Henley | Poetry Foundation

2) www.desiringgod.org/articles/invictus-redeemed

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c • Exodus 3:1-15 • Romans 12:9-21 • Matthew 16:21-28

This week’s theme is God’s concern and care for us. In our call to worship Psalm, the psalmist reminds us to remember the wonders that God has performed on our behalf. In the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses, letting him know that he has heard the cries of his people and will act on their behalf. In the gospels, Matthew records Jesus telling Peter that the concerns of God are far above Peter’s own concerns, and in Romans, Paul admonishes the Roman church to be concerned for one another after the pattern of Christ’s concern for us.

Overcoming Evil With Good

Romans 12:9-21 (NIV)

Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed a significant rise in the amount of superhero movies that have been released. These often feature some of the most well-known actors in the world. Superhero movies are also among the highest grossing of any genre. In 2019 alone, these movies brought in more than three billion dollars.

A common thread found in these movies is that the superhero will encounter obstacles, dangers, and setbacks. And no superhero movie is complete without an opposing force. A force of evil that must be overcome with good. Sounds a lot like church, doesn’t it? What do we do when the church is in a battle with evil? Do we even know what evil looks like? And how do we overcome it?

In our pericope today, Paul admonishes the Roman church to overcome evil with good. We are going to look at what was going on in the Roman church, how Paul chose to address it, and in the process, we will also learn how to overcome evil in our world today.

Read Romans 12:9-21

The letter to the Romans was written by Paul, in large part, to address the division that was occurring between Gentile and Jewish believers in that diverse church. Those of Jewish ancestry were claiming the blessings passed down from Abraham, while the Gentile’s were boasting of being grafted into Christ as the new family of God. Neither were wrong, yet neither were acting graciously about it.

Up until the twelfth chapter of Romans, Paul had been busily demolishing the arguments that the church was dividing over. He starts off chapter 12 with a “therefore,” and goes on to describe how we should live with Christ in us. Beginning with verse nine, he starts giving his final instructions on how to remedy this “evil” that had infected the church.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. (Romans 12:9-13 NIV)

In this first section, we are told how to primarily deal with the evil in our inner circle. This includes those we are closest to, and those with whom we are already in fellowship. Someone once said that the only army that shoots its wounded is the Christian army. Unfortunately, there is much truth in that statement.

A world of weary Christian soldiers needs a place of peace, a place of safety, where they can lay down their weapons and join an army of other believers skilled in the spirit of peacemaking. If the church cannot be the place where there is support, encouragement, respect, and hospitality, then where else are we supposed to turn?

Churches need to be sanctuaries of healing, not places where we must hide our wounds. The charge we have been given in these scriptures is to root out evil by caring for one another. It’s not about how well we can pass one another’s theological test, but rather about the love we have in Christ, a love shared with each other.

In the Working Preacher Commentary, Israel Kamudzandu wrote the following:

The harmony of the Trinity is none other than the practice of love, because love is the essence of God. Love drives and builds a fellowship of believers. Love is the radiating orbit on which the cross of Jesus Christ is centered and calls on everyone to accept and share the same love.1

The church, then, can be thought of as an incubator for the formation of love amongst believers, so that we might live a life of love and service to a much larger world. For it is in the church that we are surrounded and upheld by the undeserved and steadfast love of God, and where the community of Christ practices the love we receive and experience in the Trinity. Let’s continue:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans12:14-16 NIV)

While these words can apply to relationships inside the body of Christ, they are meant to move us further into our communities. It is here where we will naturally encounter opposition to our faith. This might include those who might be very different from us as well as those who live in very different circumstances from us.

It is one thing to honor and care for those who care for us, to show love to those who are just like us. It is a whole new level to be able to love and serve those who may not care for us at all.

Remember, when Christ performed the self-emptying act of washing his disciples’ feet, he also washed the feet of his betrayer.  Judas received the love and service of Christ just as much as the other disciples did.

Sometimes we confuse emotionality with love. The kind of love that we have been called to show to others does not depend on whether we feel like it or not. This love comes from the transformational power of the new life we have received in Christ. This love seeks the best in others, the forgiveness of others, as well as peace and reconciliation with others.

Loving someone is not appealing to a person’s likes and preferences, rather, it is displaying actions towards them in ways that will help move them to experience God’s goodness.

Let’s finish the passage:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21 NIV)

These verses bring us to the people who have done us the most harm. The ones that have brought us to the point where we want revenge or are tempted to want to see their destruction.

This is the place where we might want to justify our participation with evil, where we want to be granted the right to take matters into our own hands. But even here, you will notice that Paul ends this section with nearly the identical words that he started out saying in verse nine. Overcome evil with good.

The spirit that is in the world is one of dividing and conquering. We see nation against nation, political parties in violent confrontation, men against women, the old against the young, all the way to the breakdown of the family unit. We, the church, can be overcome by this evil when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the ways and the thinking of the world. But we cannot lose out on the opportunities to display God’s love even to those who might despise us. In verse 20, Paul gives us what many find a confusing statement.

If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on their heads. (Romans 12:20 NIV)

While theologians have differing opinions of an exact illustration of this phrase that Paul uses, it is clear it is referring to repaying hostility with kindness and forgiveness. This might lead to an enemy feeling shame. A modern-day metaphor might be your enemy having egg on his face.

We are to overcome evil with good in our churches, in our communities, and towards those who would do us harm. This might seem like a feat only for those who possess the strength and abilities of a superhero. Fortunately, for us, we have someone who provides far more than anything that could come out of DC or Marvel Comics.

We depend on the all-powerful love of God in Christ Jesus who is always with us. A love that conquers all and enables us to serve others. A love that has no kryptonite. A love from a God who truly overcomes evil with good.

For Reference:

1) www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22/commentary-on-romans-129-21

2) Kenneth Samuel Wuest: “Romans in the Greek New Testament” For the English Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961)


The Art of Neighboring w/ Geordie Ziegler W1

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September 3 — Proper 17 of Ordinary Time
Romans 12:9-21, “The Art of Neighboring”

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Program Transcript

The Art of Neighboring w/ Geordie Ziegler W1

Anthony: Let’s turn our attention to the first pericope of the month. It’s Romans 12:9-21. I’ll be reading from the Common English Bible. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 17 in Ordinary Time, which falls on September 3.

Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. 18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

Geordie, if you were teaching from this pericope there’s a lot of Christian living shoehorned into this, what would you focus on and why?

Geordie: This is a crazy coincidence, but the first half of this passage is actually being read at my son’s wedding this coming weekend. When I saw that, I was pretty amazed. But if you imagine a married couple making this kind of promise to each other, to make this your intention, especially the first few verses. Love is not about pretending; it’s being real with each other.

It’s holding onto the good and not fixating on—it’s so easy. I’ve been married 33 years. It’s so easy to, at times, to—something maybe annoys me with my wife. And then I’m just fixated on that and holding onto that instead of holding onto so many good things.

And on down the line, I think the whole section is such a good challenge to how we would treat each other in close relationships and in relationships that aren’t quite as intimate as marriage. Showing honor to each other.

Being enthusiastic. The word—I’m checking it in a different translation for on your translation it says, beyond fire in the Spirit. I think sometimes it’s “your Spiritual fervor,” which is an interesting word. It both refers to fire and bubbling boiling. Just energized by the Spirit as you serve one another. So that certainly attracts my attention.

But I think I’d want to focus or emphasize that everything in this passage describes the way that God is revealed to be in Jesus. Jesus is all these things. There’s no description, there’s no command or call that God gives to us that he doesn’t describe himself in the first place. He’s not telling us to take out the trash because he’s too lazy to do it.

Maybe a second comment. If I were wanting to focus, I think it’s worth taking a little bit of time on verse 19 because that can easily get misunderstood. On the surface, it looks like it’s saying that God is a vengeful God paying back evil for evil. And I’ve heard that verse quoted often by those that insist that it’s in God’s character to be retributive and punish violently and eternally. But I think the text actually is making the opposite point, and we just need to keep reading the passage.

So, if we actually stopped at verse 20, but verse 21 continues—or no, you read verse 21. That’s the end. “So do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” And that’s how God overcomes evil. He doesn’t overcome it by retributive or violent punishment. He overcomes it his way, which is by his goodness.

Anthony: Yeah, it reminds me, Geordie. I saw a quote from Bradley Jersak and he mentioned, when has guilt and shame retribution ever brought somebody to a loving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ? Because his way is mercy and when Jesus showed mercy, he wasn’t trying to change the Father’s heart toward that person or toward humanity, but revealing the heart, right? This is who God is and the way he operates.

Geordie: Yeah. I think anytime it’s so easy for people to lift verses out of context and then use them in ways they aren’t meant to. So, this is, I think, a good test case or just even a good teaching opportunity for people to recognize, let’s read the big picture here.

Let’s see what Paul’s actually trying to do. There’re a couple ways I think to come at it. I think I was reading some—you mentioned Brad Jersak—I was reading I think something by him related to this. It was talking that verse 19 is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 32, which is a different emphasis.

Just because the Old Testament is quoted doesn’t mean the way it was meant in the Old Testament is the way they’re meaning it in the New Testament. So, in the Old Testament, it’s almost a celebration of vengeance. But it seems like Paul is subverting that original intent. And instead of advocating vengeance and violence, he’s actually promoting enemy love.

And this whole section is caught up in the relation to the state or to the government. And of course, we know the government that Paul is writing under is Nero’s government which is like the imperial beast. It’s the worst government they could imagine in so many ways. And yet Paul is warning his people to not become like them.

Because first of all, that’s not Christ’s way, and secondly, you’ll just get killed. So, the way to be Christ person is to overcome that evil with good, with a kind of non-violent resistance that proclaims Jesus is Lord and Caesar’s not. The weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of this world.

It’s a gospel of peace and acts of enemy love. And that’s how God’s going to defeat this world. So that’s one angle.

Another angle is a little bit what George McDonald does with this, which I think is very challenging because his approach—and maybe I could read a little bit of what he says, and I wish I had the sermon. I took this out of his devotional. But he says:

No prayer for any revenge that would gratify the selfishness of our nature, a thing to be burned out of us by the fire of God, needs think to be heard. Be sure, when the Lord prayed his Father to forgive those who crucified him, he uttered his own wish and his Father’s will at once: God will never punish according to the abstract abomination of sin, as if men knew what they were doing. “Vengeance is mine,” he says: with a right understanding of it, we might as well pray for God’s vengeance as for his forgiveness, for that vengeance is to destroy the sin—to make the sinner abjure and hate it; nor is there any satisfaction in a vengeance that seeks or effects less. If nothing else will do, then hell-fire; if less will do, whatever brings repentance. Friends, if any prayers are offered against us because of some wrong you or I have done, God grant us his vengeance! Let us not think that we shall get off! And part of what McDonald’s getting at is God is committed to purifying all that is not of love’s kind out of us. And. That’s a good thing. Yes. So sometimes I know I was brought up with the idea that once you believe in Jesus, you’re forgiven. [from Consuming Fire, the devotional version of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons]

And part of what McDonald’s getting at is God is committed to purifying all that is not of love’s kind out of us. And that’s a good thing. So sometimes I know I was brought up with the idea that, well, you know, once you believe in Jesus, you’re forgiven. And then you don’t have to face your sin because Jesus did it for you. And that’s, on one level, sure, we’re forgiven, but on another level, God’s committed to healing all in us that would need forgiveness. And that’s a good thing.

Anthony: Thanks be to God that the old Anthony Mullins will not inherit the kingdom. And may it be so, Lord.

Verse 15, Geordie, indicates that, at least in my mind, we should place-share, enter into the place of another, through kinship and mutuality, by rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn.

You are someone who vocationally offers soul care, Spiritual formation to others. So, I imagine you would have much to say about this topic. Using the passage and thinking Christologically, what guidance would you give people who yearn for deeper connection? And frankly we all do, whether we know it or not, we want deeper connection. What does that look like? What would you say?

Geordie: This is such an important verse. I think it offers us a kind of litmus test for our love. Is our love real or not? Is it sincere or not? Are we really just out for ourselves or not? If I’m really for others, over myself, then I’m going to celebrate their blessings and achievements rather than harboring some kind of competitive jealousy or envy, which is so easy to fall into.

And then it’s turned back on myself and I’m thinking about, oh gosh, I wish I had that, instead of just being able to celebrate with them. And then when those that have persecuted me or have been unkind to me, when they’re mourning or suffering, love mourns with and for them. And that’s a real test of love. I’ve had to wrestle with that myself many times. And it’s a reminder of the kind of love that God calls us to.

One of the things I do, in addition to my full-time work with Imago Christi, I also work part-time at a hospital as a chaplain. And as I said before the show, I had a shift last night. I just got off a couple hours ago and as I begin every shift, I know that I’m going to be with people who are mourning. And occasionally, I get to be with people who are rejoicing at some news. But nine out of 10 visits I make are mostly about dealing with mourning, with grief and loss, the mourning of unexpected trauma or diagnosis or impending death.

And people will sometimes say to me, I don’t know how you do it? And it’s hard, but my approach is pretty simple. And I should maybe just say first, initially my first feelings were performance anxiety. Gosh, I hope I know the right thing to say and feeling awkward. But I’ve learned over time to take a different approach.

So, when I’m on my way to visit a patient, I just pray a simple prayer. “Jesus, help me to love what I find there. Help me to love as you love this person, this family, this situation.” And that prayer, that focus on love has an amazing power to lower my anxiety level and also to enable me to be attentive to what they’re actually grieving or mourning. And not bring all my own assumptions into it. So, I don’t know if that answers your original question.

Anthony: It does. It does. And God bless you and your work, and I appreciate what you said about how the prayer that you pray to Lord Jesus helps you to not center yourself in the process, in the relationship, in the time that you’re with somebody who’s grieving.

He empowers you by the Spirit to be with the other. And ultimately, I think Andrew Root was the one I read that talked about place-sharing. It’s just entering it into the grief. And ultimately, isn’t that what compassion is? It’s with somebody’s pain. It’s with their suffering. God be with you as you go. And thank you for staying awake for us. We appreciate that.


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • What are some of the ways that we attempt being the masters of our own fates or captains of our souls?
  • What does it mean to take up your cross and follow Jesus?
  • What does daily discipleship in Jesus look like to you?

From the Sermon

  • How can our churches be “sanctuaries for healing”?
  • What are some practical ways of washing someone’s feet or heaping coals upon their heads?
  • Share a time when either you or someone you know was able to overcome evil with good?

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