June 10, 2018 Doug Norris, Brandon Carter Romans 12 :9-21 (see text below)
Last week, I spoke about a problem we share with the ancient story of Moses – how to encourage people to stop, to pause, to rest, for sabbath.
Today – a situation we share with the Apostle Paul. A challenge that led him to write the things he wrote to the christians in Rome, which is very precisely a challenge we have as we bring our witness to this neighbourhood, these people.
But first, a quick story from this week. A ‘move’ I learned. I don’t practice Tai Chi, I have always found it very elegant, this struck me as a kind of Tai Chi move. I was walking down Roxborough, just a few doors away here… Paused – made this move (sorry, had to be there to see it…)
As I was doing this, I saw a woman looking at me oddly, as she was going into her home. I called out – ’It’s a caterpillar, right at my face! Hanging by a thread – just moving it aside! ‘ But she did not look convinced, scurried into her home… No doubt told her kids later that day she had seen an odd man doing some kind of dance on her sidewalk. In fact it looked like that minister from up the street. What are these Christians doing anyway? They are seeing things…
Paul’s problem, as he struggled to form the first of the churches, or one of his problems, was that as people watched, as they pondered this new religion in their midst, it seemed that they Christians were seeing things, building a religion on what did not seem real. Everyone knew that the gods were perfect, and here this movement was teaching that God had been revealed in a common man, who in fact had been embarrassingly killed as a troublemaker, and now the Christians imagined that he was still with them, present, though unseen. Some kind of Holy Spirit in them, among them.
Paul’s response, his urging to his people : Your love must be real. If what we have learned and felt and been moved by in this Jesus is to have any effect, make any difference, bring anything redemptive and good it will have to be real.
There is very little wiggle room for us now to offer anything less than what is profoundly genuine. Can I trust this place these people these words to lead me to a life that is meaningful and healing and whole ?
We have some very fine moves we know how to make, our music is glorious and our place here is a place of beauty and we have so many words and rituals, polished and honed over the centuries – and now more than ever those who are watching us, those we want to speak with, will have a keen sniffer for for what is not real. If our love is shallow or brief, if we are able only to say a few old words but not enter into the sufferings and the joys, we will not earn a place, re-earn a place among people who are hungry for deep meaning. This is the character of our time, as for Paul. This is our mission.
Let me do this week, as I did last week – say that I don’t yet know how this story ends, so I turn it over to my college Brandon…
“Hold fast to what is good….” (Romans 12)
Ten months goes by quickly. The cycle of fall youth retreat to Red Door Halloween Party to Christmas
pageant to Shrove Tuesday to spring events has completed one more run with me. In a couple of weeks,
this season of ministry will come to a close, and I will return solely to raising money, navigating
entrenched systems, asking complex questions (like, where are the coffee cups?), and spreading the
message of the research at Toronto Western Hospital… quite similar to being a minister at church.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go back to Alabama to celebrate the birthdays of my Dad and
my aunt (the kindest and best person I know) who continues to fight the late stages of cancer. During
the weekend I made the nearly two-hour drive from my parents’ home to Montgomery, AL, the rather
sleepy, often sultry and deeply southern capital of Alabama, which was also at one time the capital of
the Confederacy. Today, you can still visit the first white house of the confederacy, located directly
across the street from the state capital building. It is well-maintained.
For my visit, I went to see the Equal Justice Initiative’s new Legacy Museum, a relatively small 11,000
square foot museum located on the site of a former slave warehouse. The tag line of the place “From
Slavery to Mass Incarceration”, yet much of the story of the museum addressed a history of lynchings
that occurred across the United States from the end of the Civil War all the way to the 1950’s. The
stories told were powerfully heartbreaking. I learned that Montgomery, an old yet rather provincial
town, surpassed New Orleans (which was at the time the 5 th largest city in the US) in the number of
enslaved people traded there in the 1850’s. I also saw the resonance of the stories in the faces of so
many guests at the museum: a sadness, a searching and inability to find words. Perhaps a hundred or so
people of many ages and backgrounds in total silence. Not far from the museum, a new National
Monument of Peace and Justice to the victims of lynching stands. Every county in the United States
where one of 4,400 documented lynchings occurred has a monument. The idea is that when these
individual counties are prepared to address the history and look it in the eye, they are invited to come to
Montgomery to pick up their monument to take home.
Today it seems like the word “good” or the concept of “goodness” has been somewhat swept aside as
the “Second-Place is the First Loser” to greatness. We are called to admire greatness, seek greatness,
pursue greatness. Jim Collins 2001 blockbuster business book From Good to Great celebrated
companies that had been good, yet were able to take it to that next level. At the time I read the book 15
years ago, I was fascinated. Greatness is alluring, it is powerful, it is sensational, and it has the results
right there on paper to show how great it is. Greatness is a word oft floated around oligarchs,
celebrities, dictators, conquerors and political leaders…. The winning coach, the President of the United
States, the CEO. Greatness is what we too often want for ourselves and in our leaders. Goodness, on
the other hand, is somewhat ho-hum, B-average, pleasant without being offensive. Just good enough.
As if we have enough goodness, it may one day add up to greatness.
Yet greatness as we understand it today is not really a strong Biblical idea. The Bible says if you want to
be first, be last. Give it all away. The Bible talks a whole lot more about “goodness”, and this idea of
goodness as a staple ingredient in “love” is central to our passage today. When we look at goodness and
greatness, perhaps they are not siblings, or first cousins, yet closer to opposites. Greatness, while
possibly admirable comes from a pursuit of power, while goodness comes from a similarly intentional
pursuit of powerlessness. Greatness is all that we manage to accumulate, while goodness is all we
manage to give away….of our resources, our time, ourselves. Goodness requires that we hate evil;
greatness does not. Greatness is a moment on the platform, while goodness is a lifetime of practice.
Greatness is that solitary highest point on a mountain. Goodness is a river deep and wide whose banks
overflow to the ends of the earth.
I love food, as we all must to some degree. In some ways, I am obsessive. After the early days of his TV
career, it wasn’t the food itself as an end, but rather the way Anthony Bourdain used a meal to expose
the love and community and goodness of people who are marginalized or misunderstood because of
their race, their religion, their country of origin, their sexuality, their poverty, or their struggles with
personal demons. Tony and Parts Unknown opened the doors to the world in both sought and shared
Hold fast to goodness. If there is one lesson for the children and youth of Rosedale today, it is not that
“You could one day be Prime Minister of Canada”, as cool as that would be. It is that right now, you can
be something better, you can be good. Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing noble in being
superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” The most impactful
quality that you can embrace, share, and hold dear is “goodness”. The antidote to evil, whether that evil
be slavery and a hundred and fifty years of racist fallout, bullying and meanness at school or across
fences, or the inhumanity of an institutional culture whose unwritten rules are more important than the
living people who serve it, is goodness.
Fifteen years ago, still relatively new at the second church and only other church I served full time out of
seminary, I was met in the back parking lot of the church by an elderly widow of the congregation by the
name of Frances Hammonds. She looked me in the eye and said, “God told me to give this to you.” In
her hand was a ten dollar bill. Being skilled at questioning God on many fronts, I refused and even
refused again after she insisted. I felt partially justified in the fact that no roosters crowed, and I knew
that she needed that ten dollars much more than I did. That encounter stayed with me. In time I
learned that this exchange was not about $10, but about the practice and the lessons of goodness.
What will lead you and me and Rosedale United Church to our “best” will be goodness. As a long-
tenured (though at times maligned and kept at arms-length for coming up Baptist and American)
student of church, let me assure you, there will be no great program or flashy concept or silver-tongued
and golden-haired orator that sustains a healthy church (or business or community for that matter). It
will be goodness held fast. An intentional practice. The thousands of held doors, small gifts and helping
hands…. Goodness. The countless moments of prayer and meditation, the cups of cold water, the extra
miles walked hand in hand…. Goodness.
What we need most from each other, and what the world needs most from us.
God is great because God is good.
And… It is great to be good.
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[a] Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.