Going Against the Grain

Holy Ground
September 8, 2019
Romans 12:9-21



We have a rich text before us. It is so rich, in fact, that I’m going to read it again. This
time, though, I’m going to read the text from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The
Message. I want this text to come alive for us; to sink into our bones. Pay close
attention because this is the way we are supposed to live. Close your eyes if it will help
you to hear. Listen for the Word of the Lord:

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for
dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t
burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully
expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be
inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with
your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with
each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with
everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says
God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if
he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let
evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

What Paul has given us here are roughly 30 imperatives, depending on how you
count them. An imperative is a command; something that demands our attention or
action; a requirement; a necessity. Some of these imperatives go together but really
each can be taken as its own piece of instruction. What Paul is doing here is teaching
believers how to live as believers and he’s teaching the church how to be the church.
And as much as we think of the church as a place, it is a people before it is anything
else. We are not called to go to church we are called to be the church and that is an
important distinction. Going to church means it is a once in a while activity even if it is
done with some regularity. Being the church means living your life as a disciple of Jesus
Christ daily. Being the church does not begin when you walk through these doors on
Sunday morning and it does not end when you walk out the doors on Sunday afternoon.
What we find here in Romans is a way of life and it isn’t just any way of life, it is the way
of life of a follower of Jesus Christ. This way of living is what sets us apart and makes us
different. And we are supposed to be different, my friends.

One of the problems I see with the culture of Christianity is that it very often
begins to look more like the culture and less like Christianity. The church, which is set
apart to do things differently, becomes a reflection of the culture around it and less and
less a reflection of the love of Christ. It is easy for a church to lose its identity. It is easy
to forget who we are and it is easier still for us to want to fit into the world around us
instead of standing out as ones who are called to help usher in the kingdom of God. As
Jesus following people, our lives are supposed to be different. The way we treat one
another and the way we treat all people is supposed to be different. Even if your
preference is to blend in to the world around you, I think that we are actually called to
stand out. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means going against the grain which we do
with intentionality, and prayer and by living our lives the way Jesus tells us we ought.
Paul’s list here is pretty extensive and pretty specific. And it can be something we gloss
over because it sounds really good and makes perfect sense on paper but when it
comes to embodying these things, it gets a little harder.

One of the complaints I hear most often about the institutional church today is
that it lacks authenticity, it doesn’t feel genuine. For many outsiders, communities of

faith do not seem genuine. Congregations seem to be so desperate for new members
that they’ll do anything to get them: anything except loving people exactly where they
are with no agenda. The thing is, if a church is all about numbers, it has bought into the
culture which tells us that numbers equal success. And people can smell desperation a
mile away. People can also smell authenticity a mile away. So when it seems as though
every action of a congregation is intended to entice people in and make them stay or
just bump up numbers, it doesn’t feel like the people are loving from the center of who
they are. When a congregation says, “We welcome all…regardless of race, creed,
orientation, etc.” but does not visibly live out that welcome, that congregation does not
feel welcoming or authentic to the ways of Jesus. When a congregation lives the way
Paul is suggesting here in Romans, it can be felt.

Jesus calls us to love with all our hearts, to love no matter what…whether people
join us here or not, whether people believe what we believe or not, whether people
agree with us or not, whether people look like us or live their lives like us or love like us
or not…we are called to love. And not just so people will like us or say nice things about
us or join our ranks. We are called to love because God loved us first. It is at once that
simple and that hard. Fred Rogers, who I consider a beloved saint, defines love this
way: Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love
someone is to strive to accept that person the way he or she is, here and now.” How do
we love like that? What would it be like if our only agenda, as people of faith and as a
church, was to sow seeds of love? What might bloom and blossom? I think that’s some
of what Paul is getting at here. Communities of faith that practice these things, however

imperfectly, are the kinds of communities that people want to be a part of. Communities
of faith that can love from the center of who they are, the center that is Jesus Christ, are
the kinds of communities that people want to be a part of.
If you’ll notice in the text, a good portion of these imperatives have to do with the
way we treat others. They have to do with hospitality and with our relationships. We are
called to be hospitable and to welcome. And this is one of those things that most
churches think they are really good at but very few are. Communities of faith can
become closed very easily. Being a part of a group where everybody knows everybody
is a double edged sword. It’s good because it can feel like a family. It’s bad because it is
really difficult to open up and let others in. But the marks of people called to be the
church are listed here for us: rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who
weep…that means we laugh together and we cry together. That means your joys are my
joys and your sorrows are my sorrows whether I’ve known you my whole life or I just
met you today. Paul says live in harmony with one another…that means get along. That
means listen with genuine interest. Listen even if you disagree. Listen even if you are
never going to agree. Listen to one another’s stories and experiences and be kind.
Honor one another’s person-hood. Believe people when they share their sorrows and
their joys. Don’t discount what they have to say because your experience may be
different than theirs.

The beginning of the passage says outdo one another in showing honor…that’s a
competition I can get behind. What would that look like to outdo one another in showing
honor? Do not be haughty or stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies…associate with the

lowly. This is a call to humility. It’s a call to reach out to those whom we might never say
hello to on the street. It’s a call to befriend the friendless. The friendless, the lowly, the
nobodies…these are not the people the world celebrates and when we are really honest
with ourselves we’d rather hang around those who are celebrated. It all comes back to
that genuine love thing. We seek out the image of God in every person we meet. And
we love all of God’s children even the ones that nobody else loves. I would guess that
there isn’t a single one of us in this room who hasn’t struggled with this. It is hard to be a
good neighbor. It is hard to befriend the lowly, the friendless, the challenging and mean
it. And, yet, it’s something we are called to do. Each of these things drags us right out of
our comfort zones. Being hospitable means setting an open table and adding more
chairs as necessary even if it gets super crowded. I think the table ought to be crowded.
Being hospitable means being open and vulnerable and honest about who we are and
sometimes it means admitting we don’t have all the answers which is never an easy
task. Communities that let their authenticity shine know that they don’t have it all
together but they try their best to do as God commands and they always err on the side
of love.

The last section of this text speaks about the way we treat our enemies and it
speaks about vengeance. I like what Peterson says here because while I know the
definition of vengeance I have a hard time translating it to my life but I can understand
hitting back. Do not repay evil for evil. Don’t hit back. When we are hurt by someone or
something, we want to hit back. We want to hurt in return. That’s human nature even if
it’s not pretty. As followers of Christ we are called to do something else, though. We are
called to a higher standard. Getting even isn’t our job. Judging isn’t our job. These
things are left to God. God will handle vengeance. God will handle judgment. It isn’t up
to us even when we would like for it to be.

And the text goes a step further. How are we to treat our enemies? If our enemy
is hungry, we feed them. If our enemy is thirsty, we give them a drink. Again, I like what
Peterson says here, take your enemy out to lunch. When is the last time you took an
enemy out to lunch? This puts it in terms in we can understand and makes it all the
more real and all the more difficult. Jesus wasn’t making a suggestion when he said we
are to love our enemies. He meant it. And who are our enemies? Maybe it’s the person
you don’t get along with or don’t agree with. Maybe it’s the person who cut you off on
the highway. Maybe it’s the person who said terrible things about you or the person who
shared your secrets without your permission. Maybe it’s the person who seems intent
on making you feel less than. And in each and every one of those cases, we are called
to love and to care for those individuals. There’s a place for them at the table, too.
It goes against the grain, doesn’t it? It’s not the way our culture would suggest we
behave. Our culture is a tit for tat, hitting back, getting ahead, leaving others behind,
closed group culture. The culture around us encourages discrimination and does not
value the stories of the oppressed and marginalized. The culture around us does not
value listening or even genuine relationships. The culture around us tells us that we
ought to do everything we can to make ourselves happy and successful at any cost,
glorifying accumulation and self-preservation. We are surrounded by these ideas and
they creep into our lives and into the life of the church. As Christ’s disciples, we are
called to be something else, though. We are called to go against the grain: to rejoice in
hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. When things get tough, we pray.
When things get tough, we hold onto the hope of the resurrection. When things get
tough, we trust that God has us well in hand. These things are true for you and I and
they are true for us here as Christ’s church. It’s not the easy way but it is the better way.
That’s the wonder of this messy, imperfect, beautiful thing called community, the body of
Christ. It’s a crowded table where genuine love is the goal.

Rev. Alexandra Rodgers
Assoc. Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Care