Sunday’s sermon from Romans 12:9-21 and Exodus 3:1-15
We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome someday.
This is the first verse of the gospel hymn, “We Shall Overcome,” which became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
These words were sung by crowds of people who gathered together to hear the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other prominent leaders in the struggle for equal rights regardless of race.
These words offered hope to a mercilessly mistreated people in a time of divisiveness and helped to undergird the very difficult task of nonviolent resistance
– a means of protest that called upon dignity instead of physical retaliation, to protest wrongs being done to the black community.
Recently, I was able to visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, a wonderfully executed museum of history dedicated to this particularly virulent time in our nation’s history.
One of the exhibits was a poster of the rules for nonviolent resistance. It talked about the training that the people who participated in sit-ins would undergo.
Before someone was able to participate in a sit-in, they had to endure a simulated “torture,” of sorts, to prepare.
They would sit on a stool representing a seat at a lunch counter, and have things thrown on them, be dragged by the hair out of their seats, and be spat on.
When an individual was able to endure this calmly, without trying to defend him or herself or retaliate in violence, then and only then were they allowed to be part of the sit-in movement of nonviolent protests.
At the Center for Civil and Human Rights, there is a lunch counter exhibit, where you can sit on a stool and put on headphones. You will hear horrible atrocities whispered in your ear:
racial slurs, death threats, and your seat will even rumble to mimic the feel of being repeatedly kicked.
Participants are encouraged to place their hands flat on the lunch counter and leave them flat. It’s pretty difficult.
Martin Luther King, Jr. built his theology of reaching the promised land and resisting an evildoer around the teachings of Mohandas Ghandi, which were based in the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the sermon on the mount in Matthew, Jesus shows us, maybe a bit disappointingly to us at times, that Christ’s kingdom, the kingdom of God on earth, is all about flip flopping the norm.
The first will be last, the last will be first, and don’t resist an evildoer.
If someone does an evil to me, my first instinct is to evil them right back.
I will confess that when I was younger, I used to take solace in this passage from Romans when the kids at school would make fun of me because I was tall, or because I was really dumb at math.
I would sneer at them with a sadistic joy, forgiving them in my heart and pledging to make sure when they were down I would pick them back up, BECAUSE, I had it on good authority from Paul himself, that in doing this, I would heap burning coals on their heads.
Vindicated, I would imagine coals lighting on their heads, much like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost but terrible.
Human tendency is to protect oneself. I’m certain, however, that this gross misinterpretation of mine was not what Paul had in mind when he penned this letter to the Romans.
This letter is more of an instruction manual of sorts on how the church can relate to one another within the church community and with those outside the church community.
When he says love must be sincere, the love he is talking about extends beyond just their feelings toward each other but in the way they treat others.
So, what is the way we should treat others in a way that they will know our love is true?
Paul says we begin with hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good. Other versions say “cling to what is good.”
We, the people who cling to what is good, the people of Christ’s church, are writing a story with our lives that is directly opposite to the culture in which we live.
This new story can be a breath of fresh air to the oppressed, downtrodden, society’s forgotten. Our congregation is largely made up of people society would call irrelevant.
But we have a different message; a breath of fresh air for people who need to know that they are important and valuable pieces to the puzzle of the kingdom of God on earth.
On communion Sunday, we practice taking up a benevolence offering at the door. This is the way that we contribute to feeding the hungry and helping those in need.
Our contributions from the missions fund to DCM and DEAM also allow us to make a difference in the lives of others.
These are the things we do as a community. What about individually, and our own lives. How do we hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good in our own lives?
Do we employ the words of Christ and put them into practice in our lives by praying for those we consider enemies?
Do we offer a cup of cold water to someone who just really gets under our skin?
Do we engage in conversation in our divisive time with love and compassion listening to the concerns of the other side before we formulate answers of our own?
Overcoming hate with love is easy to say, and it makes a good sermon title and a catchy slogan, but is very difficult to put into practice. This is why Paul has written to the church in Rome, this beautiful letter of encouragement on how to live the Christian life.
How to weave a countercultural story that brings those on the outside boarders who are outcast and alone into community with a family of faith who practice love and care as a way of life.
The stories we weave with our lives as we try to overcome hate with love are undergirded by the stories of old that ground us in the love of God and speak to us of God’s heart for the other.
When Moses came upon a burning bush in the wilderness, I’m sure a lot of things went through his mind, but I would think what stuck with him the most were the words of God to him about the people of Israel in slavery in Egypt.
I have heard the cries of my people, and seen their tears. God hears our cries and see our tears, and calls us to wipe away the tears of the oppressed.
This is how we overcome hate with love. We remember the stories of our faith, the stories that remind us that God remembers us.
We remember that the struggle of God’s people: immigrant communities, black communities, Jews, Muslims; the struggle of all God’s beloved children is our struggle too, and collectively, we turn our hearts to God who hears, who sees, who intervenes.
As God weaves together a community of faith and love, of peaceful people who try to always live in harmony with one another, we come together as a beautiful tapestry, with Christ as the central crimson thread that ties all of our stories: past and present, together.
In an article for Christian Century, Duke Divinity professor Richard Lischer writes about memoirs, writing your life and looking for God in your story.
He talks about an ancient parable about a sparrow, fluttering into a room full of light and music and feasting; and then as quickly as it appears, flutters off again into the darkness.
The flight of the bird is our life – brief and dramatic and framed by darkness. Where does it come from? Where is it going?
Licher says this parable suggests a religious dimension to the telling of any life. Life begins in mystery and ends in faith.
This story gets its meaning from God’s mysterious grace toward us, and the glue that holds the story together is Christ – sustaining all things through his powerful word.
When we view Christ as the crimson thread that weaves its way into God’s story from Genesis to Revelation, are reminded, especially through communion, that the stories of the past:
Moses and the burning bush and the people of the church in Rome are our stories, the stories of our faith.
The stories of the civil rights movement and the struggle of a group of people for equal treatment is also our story
– an inspiration that undergirds our faith when times get hard and that reminds us that when one struggles, we all struggle and we shall overcome.