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Our Labor

Updated: Jan 29


a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.

September 3, 2023

Romans 12:9 – 21 NSRV

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; Extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, Weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 No! “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 head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but...overcome evil with good!

As we celebrate the Labor Day weekend there is a lot that relates to how the work of our faith and our lives connect. When I watched and listened as you brought up your symbols of your labor I was moved by thoughts of how important our life work is. But this morning I want to look at the faith and life connection. What is our labor – our work – as Christians? And how does that impact our everyday life? As someone who is here in worship, you know that there is more to life than a job. A job, even a profession, is not the same thing as our life work, our true labor. For me the words of Paul help define what are the things I always need to work on in life to be a better person. Good advice, if you will, for the work of “life improvement.”

Our Scripture reading is essentially a series of recommendations from Paul to the gathering of Christians in the Roman churches of that day. I have to admit a struggle with a lot of what Paul says in other writings, but I’m pretty ok with most of what he says here. That’s kind of arrogant isn’t it? Saying “I’m ok with what the Apostle Paul wrote?” Who the heck do I think I am? But the fact is unless we are willing to take any passage of Scripture seriously and seek to implement it in our lives, what good is to sit and listen as I read it and try to interpret it to you somehow?

These are practical recommendations for Christians in their relationships. Originally, these were probably intended for “in-house” relationships- the way one Christian relates to other Christians. But the fact is they are important for every relationship, maybe even more so for those we relate to outside the church. The early church was initially thought of as just another strange sect of a strange religion called “Judaism.” One of the early observers of the church marveled at the way Christians, so many kept joining with these Christians because of the way they treated others. They treated others with kindness and love and a welcome at their table feast.

Today, we all know many people are leaving churches because of the way Christians treat each other and those outside the Christian community. People are tired of the judgmentalism, the hypocrisy, the outright hatred many who use the label Christian express toward others. They don’t want to be associated with that. There is even a Facebook group that is called “I’m Not That Kind of Christian.” It regularly posts material that defines the difference between the judgy-hate-ish, superior attitude type Christians and those of us who have chosen a different path in our faith. All this said, what about the particulars of Paul’s advice?

It starts with advice for the “lovelorn.” “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” Genuine love is unconditional love. But for too long the loudest voices seem to claim God’s love has all kinds of conditions. I get their point. They believe in the holiness of God and want to protect God from the sin of humanity. But the truth is God doesn’t need us to protect God from bad humans. The motivation to not be evil isn’t to get in to heaven someday, it’s because living right is its own reward. God doesn’t need people keeping other people away from God because they don’t fit what those protectors believe about God.

As much as we would love our religion and our Sunday morning to be nothing but sunshine and roses, the Bible is always real about life. Paul, like all the other voices in Scripture, knows that whenever there are two people in a room there are at least 5 opinions about the same thing, right? I mean, most of us are in conflict with ourselves without anyone else in the room, aren’t we? So Paul knew that Christian, or not, we are going to have to deal with conflict. Well, here’s the good news. Paul has some guidance for us and it isn’t what everyone else is telling us to do.

As I talked about a couple of weeks ago, everyone else basically uses that “fight or flight” instinct in any conflict situation. There are multiple problems with these two strategies, but the greatest problem is neither leads to community. And community is God’s purpose for our lives. God does not intend us to be happy alone with our own opinions. God designed us from the minute Adam was created to be in community, but it was hard for Adam to communicate with the apes, the snakes, and the clams. Bring on Eve. So then the first marital conflict in recorded history: Eve – want a bite of this Adam? Adam – oh, no! God said no bitey the appley. Conflict. Fight or flight? Ok, well I guess to be honest Adam did choose a third way – he ate the apple. But that didn’t solve any problems including his hunger, really. Maybe I need to start calling this the fourth way, because the third way from fight or flight is give in and give up, right?

So here is God’s advice through the writing of Paul. Here’s what I’m going to start calling the “fourth way.” It is to work through the conflict without giving in, but working through it with that revolutionary concept we call “love.” But Paul defines love in a very particular way. It involves several parts.

First, it requires us to focus on hope. Paul says, “rejoice in hope.” To me that means in every situation we must have hope that it can be resolved positively. If we have hope we should rejoice. The second part is to be patient, because hope doesn’t put an immediate stop to suffering. Then Paul says, “persevere in prayer.” To persevere in prayer, you see, takes that patience and together they give us the courage to do what is right. Prayer allows us to seek the mind and heart of the Holy One on things, and to seek the voice of Christ to teach and guide us. After reminding us to “contribute to the needs of the saints” – that is the offering you give – and “extend hospitality to strangers” – how many times have I reminded us of that Biblical commandment? Paul challenges us with God’s way: “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Truly this is a different way to deal with conflict.

What would happen if every time we felt someone was attacking us, we stopped and asked ourselves, “how can I bless this person?” Boy, wouldn’t that change things if that was a world-wide ethic? But you and I can’t make anyone else do these things. This is where “personal” religion becomes very personal. You and I have to decide – how do we bless when what we want to do is curse? Remember that time you let the guy cut in front of you in traffic, even though you were muttering Not Suitable for Church words about him or her? Boom! Congratulations! You did it! Was that too hard? Ok, now let’s talk about those “woke” folks you want to kill. Or those MAGA folks you want to nuke if you could. Whoops! There I go again. Making trouble.

There is a lot more advice in this Scripture but to stay focused on the kind of love Paul is talking about let me let those slide for now. So here is the knock-out punch: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…” and finally, “do not overcome evil with evil but overcome evil with good.”

I know Paul says some things about leaving room for God to take vengeance, but I am going to leave that there and just say it was Paul knowing we were going to struggle with wanting some “payback” for certain people. Here’s the thing, if we leave it to God then we don’t have to spend time plotting it. We can spend more time figuring out that “how do I bless this person” part.

Sounds like hard work, huh? Well, it is Labor Day, c’mon what have you got to do that is more important work than how to live? We can spend our lives making a living and never really make a life. Which is more important? And if you are not laboring at a job/occupation/profession/daygig you have nothing better to do, right?

So as we prepare to come to the Communion Table I can’t help but harken back to the words I shared a few weeks ago from another colleague. She suggested world peace came through BBQ. We all just need to sit down together at the picnic table of heaven here on earth and look across the table at that Son of a … God and remember they are family. And start planning how we can bless and love and share a meal with them. That’s what this table is about. Heck, even Judas and Peter shared that first Holy Communion with God. You and I certainly fit in there somewhere. And so does that child of God you and I are hating on right now. So come on, let’s eat. AMEN?

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