“Sharing Resources: How Christians Are Called to Be Different”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
31 January, 2021
Romans 12:1-21

You know, it’s hard work to be human.  We were reminded on our first Sunday of looking at the Holy Habit of Sharing Resources, when we looked at the first chapter of Genesis, that God chose to fashion us in God’s own image.  God chose us to be co-creators, co-nurturers, stewards of God’s creation, saying: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”(1:28)  Turns out, that’s a lot of responsibility!  Happily, God shared all sorts of resources with us, endowing us with gifts and talents, abilities and experiences to help us do the divine work we’re invited and entrusted to do.

But, as we know from the earliest stories about our faith, it didn’t take long for human beings to bump up against the challenges of conflict.  Because, of course, one of the side-effects of diversity and each of us being unique, is that we see and understand the world differently.  The serpent presented a new way of seeing the world when he suggested that the fruit of the forbidden tree would not actually make them die as God had said it would, but rather would make them like God, knowing good and evil.  This introduced some conflict into the relationships, some pressure and an energy that compelled the woman and man to make some choices.  Of course, the serpent had lied. And, by choosing to trust the serpent’s word over their Creator’s, the couple would, in fact, die as God had warned.  And, they would suffer in all sorts of other ways as well.  Not least of which was being initiated into the experiences of alienation, and shame, of not being able to connect with God and with each other in the ways they longed to.  Though they did have glimpses or fleeting moments of God’s original vision restored when they lived according to the Creator’s design.

The couple had two sons, Cain and Abel.  And, in keeping with divine creativity, the two brothers were very different; they saw the world differently and they approached life very differently.  One of them, Cain, seized the dominion – the power he, like every human being, was endowed with at his birth to use for the nurture or destruction of the world around him – and he used it to destroy.  He could not tolerate the conflict he felt with how his brother lived, and instead of curiously seeking to understand Abel and his ways of being human and seeing the world, he opted instead to dominate.  He killed his brother.

This is the story of so much human history.  Dominion used not to nurture or share resources as God did in the beginning, but rather to dominate – to hoard power and resources for oneself.  The irony is that, despite the enduring appeal and temptation of dominance – the “will to power” as Friedrich Nietzsche called it – such domination never truly results in the lasting satisfaction or peace the domineering one seeks.  Only reconciliation and true communion with God and God’s intended order provide that.

The apostle Paul, who shared his life as he shared his love of God and passion for Christ with many fledgling Christian communities, wrote letters that nurtured those early churches in their faith.  And those letters have proved to be full of wisdom and sound instruction for communities of faith in very different contexts, even thousands of years later.

Paul was no stranger to conflict.  He grew up in the Jewish faith, as a Roman citizen.  This would have created friction between him and some of his fellow Jews, many of whom resented and despised the Romans.  Maybe this contributed to his zealotry in his younger years – a need to assert his clear Jewish identity, though he also unabashedly used his Roman credentials when he needed to.  In Acts Chapters 7 & 8, we read that Paul (at the time known as Saul) terrorized early Christians and even watched approvingly as the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death.  Clearly, Saul had a desire to dominate.  He wanted his personal religious point of view to prevail by force if necessary. But then, Paul reports, the Lord confronted him in a blinding light one day as he was headed to Damascus to persecute more followers of the Jesus Way.  From that moment of encounter forward, his thinking changed; his life was transformed as he underwent a renewing of his mind.

“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul wrote to the Romans, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  This is the essence of what Chapter 12 (and possibly the entire letter of Romans) is about.  Because conformity to this world means we abandon our curiosity about the other (and too often our concern for them as well) as we indulge our desire to dominate; as we feed our will to power.

Righteous thinking, Paul says, starts by assessing oneself with sober judgment: not calculating your personal worth or stature in God’s scheme as being greater (or less than!) than it actually is.

In a social ethos that prizes individualism, and that is drawn to figures who assert dominance by rhetorical or other kinds of force, Paul reminds us that “…we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”[1]  While the world’s approach is, “I’ve gotta look out for me, myself, and I”, the Gospel message is that I am – each of us is – part of a body that includes us, but does not end with us.  We are called to take care of others, who also have a role in nurturing us.  Every last one of us is designed and given life with a purpose that contributes to a larger agenda.  As we seek to live out God’s will, striving to do as we pray to help “God’s kingdom come, God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we have to remember that each individual’s gifts are necessary resources to assist in the building or revealing of that vision and divine kingdom.

Paul goes on to explain how love—genuine love—should behave.  You’ll recognize echoes of our Common Commission in what he says: genuine love hates what is evil, and holds fast to what is good.  It puts a premium on showing honor toward others.  It is ardent (which is to say, warm) in spirit; rejoices in hope as surely as it is patient in suffering.  And it can do these things because genuine love perseveres in prayer.  A disciple guided by Christ’s love is aware of the needs of the saints—those doing God’s work, Paul says, and extends hospitality toward strangers.

Furthermore, the transformed person does not curse anyone who persecutes them, but instead blesses them—prays for goodness to come to them.  The ability to bless those who persecute us is a sure sign of a mind that’s been renewed. And it brings us back around to the issue of conflict among those who’ve been created to share the riches of God’s creation so that everyone can flourish.

The audience to whom Paul was originally writing in Rome was trying to figure out how to follow the Way of Jesus Christ in spite of the cultural differences that sorted them into different groups, that attempted to define them as one thing or another, and thereby threatened to divide them.  Paul, in this letter, was writing not exclusively to Jews, but also to Gentile converts in Rome.  There was tension for some of the Jews who, all their life, had been taught to keep a safe distance from Gentiles.  Ingrained social habits die hard, and they were having to re-learn entire patterns of thought, entirely new ways of seeing the world.  And the Roman Gentiles also would have felt some tension, as they grafted themselves onto a religious tradition they were learning pretty much from scratch, though they brought residual ideas from the religious worldviews they had previously held, as well, including prejudices about the Jewish people (who were hardly the darlings or favored constituency of Rome).

It was into those conflicted situations that Paul was trying to introduce a better way of sharing life, so that all could flourish in a relationship reconciled to God.  Their only way to mutuality would have been through conversation.  In order to forge a healthy community that honored God’s image in each one and actually accomplished the divine work they were meant to do, the individuals and communities to whom Paul was writing would have had to engage in difficult conversations.  It’s the only meaningful way to work through conflict, whether in our families, or between friends or colleagues, or with people we barely know.

But having difficult conversations is . . . well, difficult.  It’s why today, when sometimes it seems like the only thing we can agree on is that we’re painfully and perilously divided as a nation, people nonetheless lack the commitment to do what it takes to move toward cohesion or unity of any sort.  There is a will to power that so many see as the only means to personal survival and flourishing.

But as Paul described, and as the video we watched in our Introduction to the Theme laid out, there is a better way.  It’s a way that, when we practice it in relation to family conflicts, or conflicts with friends, colleagues, or people we barely know, instead of diminishing, we find ourselves growing in the life of the spirit.  Our connection with God’s eternal vision intensifies, along with our joy and contentment in life.

This better way is one in which we share of the essential resources of our selves.  Not the sort of one-sided sharing where one party gives and the other receives, but a mutual sharing where both give and both receive, mutually.  Where we honor the image of God in the other by becoming curious about them.  Where we honor the individual by recognizing that “we all hunger for the same things: to be heard, to be understood, to be respected—and by doing our part to feed that hunger by asking kindhearted questions, offering equal speaking time, and expressions of understanding and appreciation.”[2]

The better way of Christ emerges when we recognize and remember that we belong to one another.  That we are members of the same body, and committed to an agenda that’s bigger than our personal point of view.  As part of that mystical Body, we welcome conflict as an opportunity; a sort of energy to be transformed within the body, as we appreciate the lifetime of experience another brings to the table, and use that appreciative energy to make progress.

Reconciliation happens and the divisions between us diminish when we identify with one another; when “we connect something in our experience with something in theirs.  This builds trust and rapport”, as the video said.  When we pay attention to our impulse to dominate or “win” a conversation, and instead remain committed to understanding the other as our goal, we grow in the wisdom that “sometimes, a disagreement is just two ways of looking at the same thing.”  The Persian poet and Islamic scholar Rumi once wisely suggested that, before we speak, we should let our words first pass through these three gates by asking the questions:  Is it true?  Is it necessary?  Is it kind?

Finally, life around us and our own lives can flourish as God intended, when we practice practical love: when we put love into action, remembering that at the heart of Jesus’ love was a willingness to sacrifice, alongside a strong and clear understanding of what is true, and just, necessary, and kind.

Friends, it is hard work to be human.  Conflict is inevitable.  But, as those who understand that we’ve been created in God’s image in order to share in the delights and challenges of nurturing creation, we are called to be different.  We believe that the entire world was created with a different vision in mind than the vision of power that consumes so many lives and spirits today.  And it’s up to us to model what the divine intentions for human life actually are.

It’s hard to be human, sure—but good Lord, when we get it right, it is very, very good!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

 

[1] Romans 12:5

[2] The five italicized “big ideas” and quotations associated with them come from SALT Project’s Vimeo video “Navigating Difficult Conversations” for Everyday Democracy (found here: https://vimeo.com/474024998 ).

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