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Sermon by The Rev. John Allison

Proper 17A

Romans 12:9-21 Matthew 16:21-28

August 30, 2020 

Christ Church, Hudson

In his column in the New York Times on Friday, David Brooks presented the concept of Mean World Syndrome. I was not familiar with this concept but it has been around since the 1970s and it’s essentially this: people who are exposed to relentless violence on television begin to perceive the world as more dangerous than it really is. Brooks goes on to extend the idea through the decades to include reality TV, with its depictions of people as inherently manipulative, selfish, and petty, leading us to the conclusion that we are in a competition and that our fellow humans are essentially untrustworthy. His larger point is about how this dynamic is at play in extreme ways in our current political climate and how it leads to a distorted view of how we are called to a relationship with one another.

Reading this column as I did, after spending several days with today’s epistle, and with all of chapter 12 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, I was reminded in new and fresh ways what Paul means when he says, “Let love be genuine.” That word “genuine,” some scholars suggest, is better translated as unhypocritical. Let love be unhypocritical. You see, Paul was writing to a group that was deeply divided. The fledgling church in Rome was made up of both Jews and Gentiles and there was much vehement disagreement about what it meant to be

a church—about who could and couldn’t be included and under what circumstances. Consequently, there was significant conflict and division and it was within this context that Paul urges, “Let love be genuine,” and the twenty-three or so other imperatives that follow.

A few verses earlier, in our reading from last week, he says, “We who are many are one body.” That’s the church, the gathering of God’s people on a common mission and, while Paul is writing to set forth a code of conduct for how members of the Church are to be in relationship with one another, I think today in this century we are called to something more. As followers of Jesus, much like those early Christians in Rome, we continue to disagree and argue over who’s in and who’s out, and Paul’s urgent plea, Let love be genuine, is no less urgent now; indeed, that urgency extends even further, beyond these walls to the wider world. We are called to love not only the person sitting next to you who doesn’t believe like you but also the person out there who doesn’t believe like you or who doesn’t look like you or the person who doesn’t vote like you. Even the person who refuses to wear a mask. What Paul offers us today is what that love looks like.

Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, it’s hard. Some days are harder than others. Some people are harder than others. Sometimes finding strength to summon a loving response is all but impossible in the face of a difficult situation.

And yet, here we are. A Church. A body gathered together, called out together to be witnesses of Christ in a world that often champions behaviors and feelings—fear and prejudice in particular—that run counter to

God’s peace. And what Paul gives us today is a framework for how to be a church that does that—in spite of Mean World Syndrome. Paul shows us how to live into our identity as creatures made in God’s image and to reclaim God’s likeness in Christ. And we are called to these rules not in fear of punishment but in response to love. 

We love because we are loved. We bless those who persecute us because we are loved. We are patient in suffering and persevere in prayer because we have said yes to God’s love. That’s what it means to be a faithful people. Love is at our core and we must choose to act from that place of centeredness and trust, that place in each of us where God dwells.

But again, it’s not easy. We must admit that. Several years ago I served as a hospital chaplain and was one of a large staff. There was a group of us who met regularly as colleagues to reflect on our ministry in the hospital and more generally on our own faith journeys. This week I’ve been thinking much about an event one of my colleagues shared concerning an incident at the hospital, that in the end worked out but left him with some hard feelings toward one of the medical staff. I won’t go into the details of the incident but say that it left my colleague with some difficult feelings—humiliation, anger,

resentment. My colleague, I’ll call him Tom, was one of the kindest and gentlest men I’ve known. Yet in spite of his best efforts he shared with us the difficulty he was having in letting go of the event. He would find himself thinking

about it at random times, rehearsing the heated exchange and fantasizing about what he could have said or done differently to put this other person in his place. To some extent, he said, it affected his work and his ability to be present to others. On the surface, none of this was evident; he seemed to be the same solid, gentle soul. But, inside he was seething. Then, he said, one dayhe recognized, like a light suddenly being turned on, how these feelings of anger and resentment had infected him. Remember, he had not acted on any of these feelings or impulses and yet he felt them like a stain slowly spreading over him. And that is the danger. That is the difficulty. We don’t always readily recognize when we are not living from a place of love. For Tom, he recognized that a force far different from love was acting on him. That recognition was the beginning of a turn, or return, to living from a place of love.

In our Gospel today, something similar happens when Peter, fresh from his Confession of Jesus as Messiah, protests at the thought of Jesus being crucified. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But Jesus, the very Incarnation of God’s love, rebukes him, “Get behind me Satan!” And here, if we are aware that one of the ways the figure of Satan is understood in the New Testament is as tempter, the exchange is one to which we can all relate. Temptation comes in things that seem perfectly reasonable. “Suffering and Crucifixion in Jerusalem? That shouldn’t happen, you’re the Messiah!” 

Or remembering my colleague at the hospital, “You have every right to be angry. That person deserves to suffer because he hurt you.” That’s temptation. That’s what we must be vigilant against. Those are the thoughts that are a stumbling block to us. These are the human things that divert us from divine things.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In a mean world that relies on a dog-eat-dog mentality, we are tempted to act from a place of fear, or greed, or

anger. To bear one’s cross, as Jesus calls us, is to act from a place of love. The list Paul gives calls on us to do just that. For his early readers, what he asks would have been quite counter to the culture of imperial Rome. I think we could say it is quite counter to our modern world as well. And yet, here we are. Two thousand years later and we are together, united as one body—learning to love one another as Christ loved us. We live that unity through sacrament every time we come to this table but we are

also called to live it out there’s beyond these walls.

One of the early Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, wrote concerning the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Our likeness to God, he said, is like a mirror that has become clouded over, too cloudy to see a reflection. The work that we do, our adherence to Paul’s admonitions, as well as our various spiritual practices, is our way of polishing that mirror, of cleaning it and clearing it so that we may more perfectly reflect God’s love to the world. That’s our work. As disciples that is the cross we will bear until the day we die. That is the charge before us today and always. We may live in a “mean world” but we know there is another way. We are called together to live another way. May God give us vision to see when we stray from that way and strength to persevere on thAT way so that we may love one another as he loves us. Let love be genuine. Amen.