Sunday, September 16, 2018

Rejoicing and Weeping: Sermon on Romans 12:9-16

“Shall we be jolly or sad?” That was the question – the question that appeared in the New York Daily Herald on Palm Sunday that year. With the war swiftly drawing to a close, all sorts of celebrations were getting scheduled over the most solemn days of Holy Week, when Christians were supposed to be mourning the betrayal and death of their Savior. “A queer muddle all around,” the papers said. But Palm Sunday celebrations continued as usual. The people in every church in the city rejoiced together. In the Brooklyn Tabernacle, one preacher lifted up the passage we ourselves heard last week – “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”

The Monday morning paper brought news that had already trickled into the city by the prior evening – the threat was fading, the main enemy force had surrendered. Over breakfast, it seemed like every table in the city was abuzz with the sensation. Although it rained in torrents from morn to night, still flags went up all over the city, flying proudly and joyously. The day after that, at Trinity Episcopal Church at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street, members and neighbors alike flocked to the church for a special service of thanksgiving shortly after the completion of a hundred-gun salute in Union Square. Hundreds couldn't even fit into the church to hear the Beatitudes read. Though arranged on short notice, the Lord's Prayer, sung as the organ reached its crescendo, sounded like the unified prayer of a whole nation in one room. Four priests gave abundant praise for the return of peace; all joined in chanting out Gloria in Excelsis Deo – a thousand voices and more, sustained by two organs playing in harmony. Hearts lifted high to God, songs of gladness and praise filled sanctuary and sky.

Two days passed. It was Maundy Thursday, the anniversary of the Last Supper. Altars were decorated. Then came Good Friday, and while the day was supposed to be for solemn seriousness, it was hard to keep a lid on joy. The draft had been rescinded, and all over the city, celebrations broke forth with abandon for rich and poor alike. All rejoiced – but a few brokers mourned, those, the daily papers said, “whose business it has been to fatten on the misfortunes of their fellow beings” and who now “found their occupation gone.” An ugly sight they must have presented – this handful of men, grieving amidst the rejoicing of a blessed city.

The curious gladness of Good Friday gave way, the next morning, to devastation on Holy Saturday. The feature article of the Saturday morning paper brought no happy news, but rather a shocking word no one thought they'd see: “Assassination.” The Chief Magistrate of the nation was dead by 7:22 on Saturday morning. Silence settled like a suffocating blanket over the metropolis, punctuated by bulletins and extras promoting contradictory reports, and the sounds of weepers pacing Broadway from Wall Street to Union Square. All the flags announcing the joy of victory fell to half-mast sorrow. Even the poorest of the poor spent what little they had to buy tiny flags with crape to pin up where they lived. Buildings of all sorts – draped in black and white fabric, draining the color from the city. Trinity Church was among them, and their great flag, sailing high over all the city, fell to half-mast, too. In the closing hour of the morning, the sorrowful crammed the church, still as death, punctuated by the words of the pastor and the heavy sobs of the people. The congregation knelt to sing.

The next morning was Easter Sunday – the gladdest, most dazzling day of the Christian year. But the city was drenched in tears. Inside, Trinity Church was decorated with Easter finery, all glowing bright, while the outside of the building still wore its black. The church had never been seen so full – not even at Tuesday's thanksgiving service. Even the Hallelujah Chorus sounded heavy and broken. Men and women sobbed bitterly. The preacher found it all but impossible to keep focus on Jesus and his resurrection; it seemed obscured by the devastating tragedy at hand. He announced that Christ “rose not only to bring light and peace, but to be the judge of the world.” Pray, he urged them, pray for Christ to bring justice to a heartbroken nation. And yet... and yet it was Easter morning. Christ is risen. “With our lamentation,” Rev. Dr. Francis Vinton said to them... “With our lamentation, let us mingle praise, as becomes us on Easter Day.” And so, with heavy but determined hearts, they sang again: Gloria in Excelsis Deo. And then dispersed. How hard it is for one heart to carry both truest joy and truest sorrow.

But on that day, in that hour, at least the city and country were united in mourning together. Or, almost. The day before, when news first broke, a ferry crossing the waters had its grief interrupted by one passenger who was smugly glib over the whole thing, and spoke quite lightly of President Lincoln's death. One passenger who rejoiced in the face of others weeping. In unison, the rest of the passengers hurled him overboard into the cold April waters. That same day, a few men on Wall Street spoke lightly of the tragedy; bystanders beat them senseless, and one, Charles Anderson, nearly so to death before the police intervened. Levity in the face of grief is seldom appreciated. So too the next day, as maids in some homes, and waiters at one of the city's luxury hotels, were fired en masse for openly rejoicing. There's something wrong with those who weep in the face of others rejoicing, and something wrong with those who rejoice in the face of others who weep.

As for Trinity Church, its history had stretched back a number of years before that week. Their first building at the south tip of Manhattan went up in 1698. The third Trinity Church, consecrated in 1846 and the one that saw the joys and sorrows of that tumultuous week in 1865, is the structure that still stands today as an Episcopal parish church. At the time, it was the tallest building in the United States. The congregation has seen its ebbs and its flows in the long stretch since then. In time, the crowds subsided. It has never been perfect. One usher quipped in his diary that, for the side of the church he collected offerings from, the large offering plate was “a kind of practical satire,” since their level of generosity would suggest a teaspoon as “the more suitable utensil.” They've no doubt had their share of controversies, their share of lapses, their share of troubles.

Long before their first building was built looking out over the Hudson River, a collection of scattered churches around some of the fourteen divisions of first-century Rome were hardly perfect, either. Broken by the tragedy of Claudius' order to expel Jews from the city, and then perplexed by their reintroduction to the city and church life, this Christian network had loose ties; the churches weren't communicating, they were going their own way, they were in conflict, and even within a given house or tenement church, there could be plenty of tension and difficulty. The tragedies and celebrations that should have brought cohesion in each church, and that should have brought the whole network together... They just didn't.

When Paul, writing an exhaustive treatise for them from his base in Corinth before he heads toward Jerusalem, looks over at their situation, he isn't thrilled. He sees so many challenges he wishes they'd work through before he comes their way. His vision for the church, like he'd told the Corinthians earlier, can be summed up in one main thing: Love. And love doesn't look like what they're up to in Rome. Love looks so much deeper than how it is there. And maybe love looks deeper than what Paul would see among and within our churches in Lancaster County today. What do you think?

Paul explains to them that “love is without pretense” (Romans 12:9). It's not just about play-acting, a show to put on when somebody's watching and then abandon when they're not. It's real. It's authentic. It's heartfelt. It's genuine and sincere. And it looks like a close-knit family “being devoted to one another in brotherly love” – a big leap from the fractured and self-absorbed lives of the Roman churches Paul's heard about. No, they need to cultivate real relationships in each church. Paul would tell us to be committed to our churches, to actually treat each other like family. When the going gets tough, a close-knit family sticks together. A close-knit family gets together, gathers to share meals and spend time with each other. That's genuine love. And they have to share things in common, “having the same mind toward one another” (Romans 12:16a). They may not agree on all things – what family does? We may not agree on all things, but we can agree on love. We can agree on some common goals, if not always the smartest way to get there.

And in a loving family, the well-to-do members, the successful members, the well-educated and refined members, don't look down on those who ain't – nor do those who ain't aim to scorn those who is. Love is “not minding the high things, but going along with the lowly,” and “not being wise-minded in yourselves” (Romans 12:16b-c). That's what Paul says. No one of these churches should think it can get by on its own. We shouldn't think we can get by on our own, as a church, without the other churches in our district and conference, or the local churches of other biblically faithful denominations. We can't. Paul tells us we can't. Nor, within our local church, can one piece get by without the rest – we heard that lesson two weeks back.

In a loving family, Paul says, love looks like “taking the lead in honoring one another” (Romans 12:10b). We go out of our way to take the initiative in making the others look good, in showing them honor. That was a hard word to hear in Rome back then, when folks said that honoring somebody else was something people hate, since it feels like being deprived of honor yourself. But in a loving family, instead of trying to make yourself look good, you try to make your family members look good. And that, Paul says, is how it should work in each one of these churches – and between them. We should focus on treating each other well, talking up each other's accomplishments and character, taking the lead in that. And we should be advertising all the great news that's coming out of our other district churches and sharing that with the neighborhood. It's why we try to promote events at the other churches nearest to us here: to take the lead in honoring them, just like the Lord tells us to through his apostle right here. It's biblical. Let's keep at it.

And as we do that, Paul says, family-style love means not being lax about it. When it comes to honoring each other, when it comes to building each other up, when it comes to working to make each other look good, Paul tells us it means “not lagging when it comes to zeal” (Romans 12:11a). Paul's imagining a church, and a church network, that turns its back on slacking off. Instead, love means “boiling over in the Spirit” (Romans 12:11b) – letting the Spirit of God, with all the gifts he brings, flourish in us. Rather than stifling our gifts as we're prone to do, we should keep them from getting rusty by keeping them active. And the only guideline we need to how to use our gifts rightly for each other is to use them in “serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11c). By remembering that we're all the Lord's servants, whether here or at Terre Hill or at Bridgeville or at Mt. Airy or at California or at the church down the street that's denominated under a name besides EC, we can keep our gifts on track in family-style love under the Lord we're all called to serve.

For Paul, a loving church needs to have some things in common, and one of them is a common hope. What are we looking for? What are we expecting? Ultimately, we should be expecting and looking for the day when the Lord Jesus will return to bring this new creation he's started into full bloom. What we're looking for isn't the growth of our church – though that'd be nice, and may well be how God blesses our faithfulness. What we're looking for isn't the moral upkeep of the nation – though that wouldn't be a bad side effect for our collective faithfulness. What we're looking for is the action of God in the return of Jesus. Family-style love in the church means “rejoicing in hope” by reminding each other of what's really in store, a new heaven and new earth with God's presence at the center, all thanks to Jesus (Romans 12:12a). In the meantime, though, things are likely to be rough. We know how rough. Elsewhere in the world, the church is outright persecuted with all manner of violence. In America, some forms of soft persecution are creeping in. More relevant to our lived experience, we get sick, we struggle, we grieve, we die. It's rough as we try to stay anchored in the hope that's in store. So Paul reminds us that family-style love also means “being patient in tribulation” (Romans 12:12b). Jesus is on his way when the appointed hour comes, and until then, we have to endure.

The only way to do that, Paul says, is by being “constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12c). Family-style love in the church means getting together to pray regularly. We do that on Sunday mornings. That's a start. It should take place more often. And it doesn't mean just listing a series of the woes of relatives and neighbors. It means refocusing our prayers the way Paul's prayers were focused: God-centered, Jesus-anchored, Spirit-powered, big-picture praying, with the rest finding its place naturally within that priestly, family-style work. And that adds up in a big way to how Paul pictures a healthy church – a church that embodies family-style love.

From the 1870s to today, I'm sure there are times we've come closer and times we've fallen further. And just so, from the 1690s to today, I'm sure there are times Trinity Church in Manhattan has come closer and times they've fallen farther. But one thing is for sure. For at least that one week, they embodied a key characteristic of love: “to rejoice with those who rejoice; to weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). And oh boy, did they ever. When the war ended, they rejoiced with all their neighbors; when the president was struck down by John Wilkes Booth, they wept with all their neighbors. They actively shared in the lives of those around them.

What about the churches in Rome? Paul would've reminded the Gentile Christians to celebrate with the Jews who returned – their fellow believers and even the ones who didn't believe. And even beyond their churches, he would've reminded them to celebrate the lives of their fellow church members, the lives of the other churches in the network, the lives of the people down the street. Not every celebration could be joined, it's true. Romans had plenty of pagan festivals Christians couldn't in good conscience join, and love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). But a new marriage, a baby being born, success at work? Any Roman Christian could rejoice in that, even if the person so blessed was a despiser of the faith, and surely if it happened to a fellow Jesus-follower.

As hard as anyone tries to 'pursue' the church in putting us down, that's how hard, Paul says, we should 'pursue' chances to show hospitality (Romans 12:13b). To be good hosts. To invite travelers into our homes – vital and important especially in Rome, where travelers passed through all the time. Paul plans to be one himself. But not just for Christians, but in general, Paul tells them not to just passively wait, but to actively go looking for people to put up with room and board – people to host, people to feed, people to welcome. Reading Paul, you'd get the impression he thinks an empty room or empty couch in a Christian home is a contradiction in terms, or at the very least a wasted space and a lost opportunity. Around here, with all the bed-and-breakfasts and the different sort of local economy, we still take Paul's point. We could at least host celebrations for our church family and for our neighbors, couldn't we? We could send cards of congratulations for every good turn we hear, couldn't we? We could join in the festivities in every way compatible with our faith, couldn't we? Couldn't we “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15a)? And in our churches, couldn't we keep our ears open for every scrap of good news, and let it sincerely fill our hearts?

Of course, not all news is good news. Life is rough in a broken world. There will be tragedies in our lives and in our neighbors' lives. Griefs. Sicknesses. Financial hardships. Losses. Disasters. Funerals. Times when those in our church or those on our block have reason for weeping. What does Paul say in that hour? “Weep with those who weep,” he tells us (Romans 12:15b). Don't turn away from anyone's sorrow; enter it, share it, suffer it alongside them. Be a consoling presence where you can, but also just be a co-suffering presence. Even if you've got no words to say, just be there to weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, lament with those who lament.

Sometimes there will be ways to help, especially in the church. Paul says another mark of family-style love is in “contributing to the needs of the saints” (Romans 12:13a). Distribute what you've got to them, as a way of distributing part of their hardship onto yourself, and sharing in bearing their load. But whether that fits or not, be emotionally open to the joys and, yes, the sorrows of others. That was a weird idea in first-century Rome, a city where Stoic philosophy was doing quite well, a strain of thought that encouraged people to be unmoved and impervious to suffering. Paul says, rather, don't be emotionally closed off; be more open. More empathy, more sympathy, more imagination; be active in sharing what your neighbors are going through, and certainly so for those in your church or church network. Don't turn away from anybody's joys or anybody's sorrows; don't resort to clichés that only insulate you from what's really going on. Jesus doesn't bid us be a church of clichés; he wants us to grapple with dark and bright realities as they are, and to look then to the hope beyond.

Rejoicing with those who rejoice can be hard, if we aren't feeling very light ourselves. It was hard, in 1865, for people at Trinity Church to rejoice with Christians around the world in the resurrection of their Lord. It was hard, because they had their own national sorrows. And yet they had to lift up praise amidst their laments, to rejoice with those who rejoice. And weeping with those who weep can be hard, if we're in a more chipper mood ourselves. And yet the Holy Spirit can expand our capacity, to have hearts big enough to carry our own joy or sorrow as well as the sorrow or joy of those around us.

Rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep – it is hard to do. I won't deny that. And yet failing to weep with those who weep, and failing to rejoice with those who rejoice, can have such painful effects in the lives of weepers and mourners. Think of how tacky people found it in 1865, when the draft was revoked and those who stood to profit were in open grief over the end of lucrative warfare. Think how provoked people were that weekend in 1865, when some few made light of the Lincoln assassination in the face of those grieving a national tragedy. The reprisals were pain lashing out – and though the violence was wrong, the pain was real.

In today's America, it's a lesson we still have to learn. Every day, when I log on to social media, I still hear all about the latest big controversy of American culture: the national anthem protests. Remember that? It's still a very live issue. We're all talking past each other. And it's all because we've failed this verse.

Here's how I look at it. When Americans stand for the national anthem, when they hear hopeful and idealistic words about “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” when they hear the song and see the flag meant to represent those things, it's an act of rejoicing – rejoicing in the many gifts the country has received, the many glad-hearted values the country was meant to embody, however faltering we've been. It's a shared affection, a common commitment and cherishing, a rejoicing in the endurance of glimmers of moral beauty amidst the smoke and turmoil of a troubled world. Why were some vocal factions offended when some football players visibly refused by kneeling? Because in doing so, they refused to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” In its place, they lamented in the face of the rejoicing of their fellow-citizens. No wonder some people now, as in 1865, were provoked!

But then there's the other side. In kneeling, the players meant to embody the posture of a flag at half-mast – not out of hatred for the country, but out of grief over a national tragedy, just like flags flew at half-mast in the wake of the Lincoln assassination. That national tragedy is felt especially keenly by racial minorities in America who receive unfair and unequal treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system and in American society at large. Numerous incidents over the past several years, as well as day-to-day life, for some Americans links to the lengthy legacy of oppression in the slavery Lincoln abolished and the patchy history of recovery that came afterward. America doesn't always live up to the ideals she professes, and some in our country mourn the fear and suffering they endure. In the face of their real sorrow and real pain, many of us have, in turn, refused to “weep with those who weep.” In its place, we minimize their suffering; we rejoice in their faces as they mourn and weep and lament. How well did that go over in 1865? No wonder some now are provoked into protest! 

But imagine what could happen if we more consistently wept with those who wept, mourned with those who mourned, and really took upon ourselves their sorrow and pain in the face of discrimination. Imagine what could happen if they and we still found ways to rejoice with those who rejoice in whatever blessings or virtues the country yet has. Wouldn't that make a move toward a healthier country, if we all learned better how to both “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep”? What would our national culture look like, I wonder, if even 10%, 20%, of the people made a concerted effort to do so in the face of any given hot-button dispute?

The church can make that happen – we can make that happen. Not just when it comes to the anthem protests, and not just when it comes to any other big national controversy, but right here, in our neighborhood, in the life we live alongside our neighbors day by day. We can make it happen because the Holy Spirit gives us hearts big enough for our own joys and their own sorrows, or our own sorrows and their own joys. We can make it happen because we have made a family, made for family-style love. And by pursuing Paul's prescription for family-style lovin' in the church, we'll be better positioned to share each other's joys and sorrows as well as those of our neighbors. Like Trinity Church in 1865, we can welcome the joys and sorrows of our neighbors and each other into this place, gathering them up, throwing the bonds of family wide open.

It starts with us. It starts with you, this family-style love. You, all of you, each of you, can be present to the joy and the sorrow of the house next door. Each of you can rejoice with your neighbors, your relatives, your kids and grandkids, your co-workers or schoolmates, your church family. Take the initiative, send messages of light and blessing, host the party or just join in. And each of you can weep and mourn with the same people when they hurt and grieve and struggle and suffer. Take the initiative, be there for them in silence or send words of compassion and fellow-suffering. Allow the joy, allow the tears, to enter your heart. It's the kind of possibility that our family-style love as a church is meant to make possible. And imagine, just imagine, what could be if you were known in your workplace, your school, your church, your neighborhood, as someone present and emotionally available to the life-situations of each one, and who can point, in joy or in sorrow, to the one hope: Jesus Christ. Let that be our love. Let that be our witness: of rejoicing and weeping, as Jesus did, and in his name. Amen.

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