Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior’ Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the mid 1980’s, when a cold war still divided Communist nations from democratic nations, and when concrete barriers and barbed wire fences divided East Berlin from West, there was a young man who passed through the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie nearly every day. Driving a pickup truck with a couple of bicycles tied to the top of the load, he would be stopped by the German guards, who would thoroughly search his possessions.
Some days, under the bicycles and under the tarp, he would be carrying pails of sand, and the guards would empty every one of them onto the pavement, looking for contraband. Other days, when the guards pulled of the bikes and the tarp, they found boxes of books, and they would unpack every box and leave them scattered on the ground. Still other days, he would be carrying pallets of blocks, or rolls of sod.
The routine was always the same: stop the truck, inspect the load, and send the man on his way. Now, the guards never found anything illegal, but each day the young man was required to reload his truck, tie the tarps down, and throw the bikes back up on top of the load. It was a daily inconvenience, as you can imagine.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1988, this young man met one of the border guards at a tavern in downtown Berlin. Over glasses of beer, they reminisced about the loads he carried, and the daily ritual that they now laughed about. Then the former guard got serious, and said “Comrade, we know you were smuggling something, but we could never figure out what it was. Now that the danger has passed” the older man said, “tell me…what you were smuggling?”
And the younger man answered “Bicycles. I was smuggling bicycles.”
Sometimes in this life, the most obvious things are right in front of us, and yet we fail to see them. A promising business opportunity, or a potential marriage partner, or the possibility of an exciting adventure goes unnoticed because we were looking for something else. A current television ad shows a man jogging through a city neighborhood, wondering what kind of car to purchase, and he is oblivious to more than a dozen different Volkswagen Jettas that nearly run over him on his route. It is reminiscent of the proverbial man caught in a flood who turns down a life raft, and a canoe and a helicopter because he is waiting for God to rescue him.
The German border guard was looking for something secretive in the young man’s truck; something hidden to the naked eye that was a threat to Communism. But all along, the illegal import was in plain sight. And he missed it.
I think many Christians in today’s culture are guilty of the very same thing. We work overtime, debating issues of morality, and theology, and politics to determine which are the Christian positions. Countless books have been written which describe Christian lifestyles, family values, prayer in school, and what real men do and don’t do. Churches spend millions of dollars annually on conferences and workshops learning how to attract visitors, how to be “seeker-friendly,” and how to tolerate other religions. We’re looking for the hidden secret of what Christians are supposed to do, and how Christians are supposed to live. As if finding the one key element will then dramatically change everything we know and do. And in the process we have complicated the Christian life.
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In just nine verses of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are told how to walk Christianly. There’s nothing in Paul’s list that is new for Christians; nothing there that Jesus didn’t already say. And yet we tend to gloss over it because it is too simple, too obvious for us to concern ourselves with. And what’s on Paul’s list?
Let love be genuine.
Hate what is evil,
love what is good.
Rejoice in hope.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty.
It sounds like its right out of the poster “Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Life I Learned in Kindergarten.”
But if I could distill all of what Paul says in this 12th chapter of Romans, two directives would emerge; two distinct marching orders for Christian people, that, if we actually did them, it would change the world. Radically change the world. For if you read Paul’s list, he is basically saying this:
· Be generous to those who are in need, and
· Be kind to your enemies
That’s it. Those are the bicycles on top of the load that we miss as a Christian people – either accidentally or intentionally – as we try to figure out how we are called to live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
Now the first of those commands is a familiar one: Be generous to those who are in need. In other words, learn to share. It’s something we teach our children from the youngest of ages, that they should share what they have with other children. But I don’t’ think its working! One of the first words children learn in the sandbox is “Mine!” We don’t like it when other kids play with our Tonka trucks. We don’t like it when other kids take anything that actually belongs to us. Last Thursday at our SummerSong worship, I told the children at KidTalk that I had brought Krispy Kreme donuts, and then I opened a large box which held a single donut. When I asked the question, not a single kid said that they would be willing to share it if I gave it to them. Excuse me, one little boy said he would share. Actually, he said he would first lick the chocolate off the top of the donut, and then he would share it with the other kids.
Where do children learn that kind of behavior? Unless it is from us, the adults in their lives. We are willing to share, only after we are certain that there is enough for us. Once we are sure that our own needs will be met, only then are we comfortable in giving our things away. And how much is “enough” for us? Enough is a relative term. Billionaire philanthropist John Rockefeller was once asked “how much is enough?” and he answered “one more.” There was enough profit at Enron, but some people wanted more. There is enough food produced in this world every year, but some people want more. There is enough land in Israel for all the people to live comfortably, but some people want more.
Ancient Jews had a saying that said “we cannot laugh so long as there is one person weeping.” That’s a fascinating concept. If we lived by it, we would be a little bit uncomfortable until all people had enough food to eat, and jobs to do, and schools to attend, and houses to call home. But in order to do that, we would have to share.
The second directive of Paul is equally challenging: Be kind to your enemies. If they are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. This is radical, because we are taught to hate our enemies. Loving them would be a sign of weakness, and it would give them the upper hand, or so we think.
The story is told of a pro-life organization holding a protest outside a Planned Parenthood office on a cold winter morning. The director of the Planned Parenthood office committed a random act of kindness, she brought hot cocoa and cookies out to the group that was protesting her office. At first, the protesters refused to drink the cocoa! “It’s a trick” they thought. And only when the director herself came out and drank some of the cocoa did the protesters pour cups for themselves. But that act of kindness opened up a dialogue between the two sides that helped them see each other as people – not enemies.
Of course, sometimes the gulf between enemies is simply too great. When a loved one dies at the hand of another person, it is humanly impossible to love the person who is responsible. I don’t know who could possibly do it.
In 1960, Adolph Coors III, owner of the Coors Brewing Company, was kidnapped and subsequently murdered by a man named Joseph Corbett. Adolph Coors IV was just 14 years old at the time, and it sent his life into a tailspin that would continue for years. But in 1975, Adolph Coors IV came to faith in Jesus Christ, and one of the first things he did as a young Christian was to travel to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Carson City Colorado to forgive Joseph Corbett and to ask Corbett to forgive him for feeling intense hatred for him for 15 years. Ironically, Corbett refused to see Coors. What the Apostle Paul said was exactly true: that when we are kind to our enemies, it is like heaping burning coals upon their heads. But by offering forgiveness in a letter, Adolph Coors was relieved of the weight of hatred that had shackled him for half of his life.
I have entitled this sermon “The Work of the Christian” because the two challenges I have shared with you don’t come easily to us. It takes work to freely share what we consider to be our own. It takes work to offer kindness to those who have wronged us, or those whose values are different from our own. But imagine how different our world would be if we began to implement those two attitudes — even in small ways — if we became more aware of those who had simple needs, or if we became more considerate of those whom we dislike. Our new attitudes may never change the other people, but I guarantee that these new attitudes would change us. And that is precisely what God wants to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.