At a confirmation retreat, the sixty teenagers involved were asked to create a “covenant” that would govern their behavior towards ones another during the course of the three-day event. The room erupted in laughter when one teen shouted, “No drama!” as the first suggestion. Other ideas followed quickly: Do not talk when others are talking. Respect the leaders. Participate fully in activities. Soon the page was filled, and each teen came to sign his or her name in agreement. Over the next few days, both leaders and participants had occasion to remind the group of what they had signed as a corrective to behaviors outside the covenant’s boundaries.
The words that we head read this morning written by Paul to his Church in Rome would function perfectly as a group covenant for any gathering of people of faith.
I do not know much about the craft of weaving, but I do know that the first step in the process is to create what is called the warp; this is the base of yarn upon which the weaver will weave a pattern of weft. What we see here in Romans could act as the warp, or the base to the differing gifts Paul outlines in the previous chapters, and we spoke about last week. This is a covenant that lays the basis for the intricate pattern in the tapestry of life of a faith community. Like the Ten Commandments, this covenant functions as the structure, the core values on which all the activities and ministries of the Church, and of us as individual Christians, are built.
Early on in the days of Church websites, it was important to have a page dedicated to what the individual church believed. This could be a statement of faith, such as we read today, it could be a point by point list of things and what we believe about them like; baptism, Lord’s Supper, Scripture, Ministry, etc. However, the trend over the last few years is to move away from strict statements about beliefs and more towards what our core values are as a community. What we say are our core values will say far more about us a community than a simple statement of faith. What we believe becomes less important that how we put what we believe into practice and action.
This covenant that Paul puts forward this morning contains everything that we would expect and a few more things that are put there to push us past where we feel comfortable. Paul tells us to “hate evil.” He reminds us to “persevere in prayer,” and to “celebrate with the joyful and weep with the grieving.” All of these are values that none of us should have any trouble with. But then he throws a curveball at us. He turns his attention away from those that we love to those that we find hard to love.
Paul tells us that our covenant, or core values, should not only be extending hospitality to strangers but blessing, feeding, and refusing to take vengeance on enemies. These very statements may make some of us uncomfortable, but this passage is not a greeting card slogan but a call to what Detrick Bonhoeffer calls, Costly Discipleship.
I think it is safe to say that we were all moved this past week by the images coming out of Houston. Pictures of the complete devastation of “biblical proportions” moved many people to do extraordinary things. Men and women were coming from all over the South to help people they did not even know simply because they were in need and they could help. Guys with boats, they called themselves the Cajun Navy, came and rescued people stranded in their homes. The owner of a furniture store opened his store as a shelter during the early hours of the flooding, and multitudes of stories. It seemed that any issues one group might have had with another were washed away by the flood waters. We say real humanity in action this past week, and it was a good thing. Now the cynic in me just knows that before long we will go back to sniping at each other, but the person of faith in me wants to believe that we will be changed, even just a little, by the outpouring of generosity that we have witnessed these last few days. This generosity cost people time and money, and they did it without thinking of their security and their safety, which is radical love and costly discipleship in action.
We see in the first two verses of the passage today that the tone gets set for the rest of what Paul has to say:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
This type of love that Paul is describing is energetic and profoundly optimistic and is counter to the culture that we live in. As I mentioned last week, the world calls us to do whatever we can, no matter the price, to get ahead of the next guy even if it means lying and cheating to get what we want.
I am a big fan of the TV show Big Brother. I like it for its competitive nature but part of the game is lying and backstabbing, and I think that is why the show is so popular as it shows the real sense of what our culture is calling us too, get ahead regardless of the cost. It should come as no surprise when we see people leaving their homes and going to help others in Texas, this should be as natural as walking down the street, but because our culture is calling us to a radical sense of individualism, we are surprised when we see this outpouring I mentioned earlier.
Paul’s core values that he expresses in the first two verses might best be summed up in a phrase used by Dr. Paul Farmer in the book Mountains beyond Mountains. Dr. Farmer travels the world establishing clinics to treat chronic diseases in areas of severe poverty and inadequate health care. In doing this, he has to deal with not only the medical establishment but bureaucracies and local traditions. His approach is what he calls a “hermeneutic of generosity.”
The hermeneutic of generosity means evaluating people’s actions from an assumption that their motives are good even if, at first glance, one might suspect the opposite. To honor people such as Paul exhorts, which includes, by the way, attitudes and actions such as not being haughty, being hospitable to strangers, and taking thought for what is noble, reflects an underlying hermeneutic of generosity toward those to whom we relate to inside and outside of the church. When presented with this hermeneutic, the teenagers on the retreat included this challenge in their covenant and had cause to refer to it as inevitable conflicts arose during the weekend.
Adopting a covenant including Paul’s exhortation and also a hermeneutic of generosity as core values have an impact on the growth of a Christian community and the work of making disciples. When visitors attend worship for the first time in a congregation that torn by conflict, they are unlikely to return. Growing churches often report that those who join a community after a time of visiting did so because they found in the community a spirit that attracted them by its power of love and hospitality, not just in the way they were treated by church members, but also in the way church members treated each other. Churches are practice fields for living the covenant Paul describes, if we cannot live it inside the church, there is no way we can live it outside the church.
Paul makes it clear that the Christian is called to live a life by a different standard in all parts of their everyday lives. The hermeneutic of generosity is meant to extend to the person driving too slowly in front of you on the highway, the cashier at the supermarket, your coworkers, classmates, family, and even our enemies.
I think we would do well to adopt these verses as our core values here at Bethany not just in lip service and a nice sign, but in our core as individuals. The values of the individual are reflected in the whole so if we each adopt these core values, then the community will adopt them, and change will start to happen.