True Strength

Romans 12:9-21

I was driving in the Hudson Valley one day
when I passed a sandwich sign
in front of a church that said:


When you read the sign, you can feel the urgency of the sign creator.  You could tell that what it really says is c’mon God, some days are hard, some days are exhausting to please send your Holy Spirit and some helpers and maybe some good food because we are going to need some help for the days ahead.  And notice we added that extra please because we really mean it!

Come Holy Spirit, please!

It feels like it’s been a tough couple weeks with things going on nationally and a number of people passing away locally and even the sun has been eclipsed in the last few weeks.  If there was ever a time for us to pray, come Holy Spirit, please, it feels like it would be now.

“Come Holy Spirit, please!”

That was my prayer this week as I read the text for Romans and was wondering what to preach.

This text is not an easy one.  It is chocked full of directions like love sincerely, contribute to the needs of the saints, do not lag in zeal and, in the last part,

Bless those who persecute us,
Do not repay evil for evil
But take thought of what is noble in the sight of all.

Perhaps that is the most challenging part of the text.
Bless those who persecute us?

It’s been a tough couple of weeks and this is a tough text.
Into all the tough places of our lives, we pray: “Come Holy Spirit, please!”

This was my prayer as I began reflecting on the idea of strength this week.
I wondered: What makes a person strong?
Perhaps we might say muscle or power, money or a stubborn opinion, status or influence.

Yet what if … what if what really makes us strong is:
Our tenderness,
Our openness,
Our willingness to change our minds about people?
Our refusal to repay evil with evil?

This is what Paul is suggesting in the text today
and this is what Jesus teaches us with Jesus’ whole life
from birth as a sweet, small baby,
to ministry as rabbi who went to the leper and the tax collector and the blind,
to the cross where Jesus prays for forgiveness for those who crucified him,
to resurrection, where Jesus appears to his friends who abandoned him
and said with a fierce love, “Peace be with you.”

What if what really makes us strong is:
Our tenderness,
Our openness,
Our willingness to change our minds about people?
Our refusal to repay evil with evil?

This is Paul is suggesting in the text today, which is striking
because Paul has had quite the personal journey.

After all,
Paul wasn’t always Paul.
He once went by the name of Saul
and, as Saul,
persecuting and arresting the early Jesus followers.
Saul was the enemy.

Then one day, in the midst of Saul’s hardheartness,
a bright light appeared to him,
and a voice said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

“Who are you?” Saul asked.

The voice responded, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting me.
Get up now and go into the city, where you will be told what to do.”

Saul tumbled to the ground, blinded by the light and the revelation.
It’s striking, of course, that Saul was blind because, for so long,
Saul had been blind to the lives and longings
Of all those he had been persecuting in the Jesus movement.
Saul failed to see that they were real people just like him.
Saul had been spiritually blind and now he was physically blind.
His travel companions take him by the arm and lead him to Damascus,
where Saul waits and prays and fasts for three days.

Three days.

In those three days, Saul’s heart softens.
He leaves his sword behind him along with
his sense of self-righteousness.

The tough places in his life become nimble once again.
Saul sees that true strength
lies in prayer
and a gentled heart before God,
it lies in treating ourselves and others with dignity and
turning toward our human kin.
It comes from admitting that sometimes life is hard
And we need help to get through it –
from others, from the Holy Spirit, from God Almighty.

Sometimes, in the tough places of life,
We find ourselves aching and yearning for
for the Big Soft Love that is God,
the Big Soft Love,
That comes and folds into all the sharp, painful place of our loves.

This Eternal Expansive Love that comes to us
Over and over again,
Reminding us:
That we are loved;
That we are forgiven;
That we are children of God.

“Come Holy Spirit, please!” I imagine Saul praying in that in Damascus.
“Come Holy Spirit and grant me sight once again.”

While Saul prays,
a vision comes to a nearby Jesus follower named Ananias.
In the vision, Jesus calls to him, saying, “Ananias.”

Ananias responds, “Here I am.”

Jesus tells Ananias to visit Saul and Ananias protests,
saying I know who Saul is and I know how he has treated the other Jesus followers.

Go anyway, Jesus says.
Suddenly, in that moment, Ananias sees;
Ananias sees that true strength,
lies in prayer
and a gentled heart before God,;
it lies in treating ourselves and others with dignity and
turning toward our human kin.

So Ananias rises,
Ananias rises and walks to Saul’s house
When he arrives he blesses the one who persecuted his people,
Saying, “Saul, my brother,”
“Saul, my brother” – this he says to his enemy.

Ananias continues,

“I have been sent by Jesus Christ, who appeared to you on the way here,
to help you recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

With those words, in that holy moment between, the Holy Spirit comes; the Holy Spirit comes as the scales fall from Saul’s eyes and Ananias recognizes his kinship with Saul and they both see that the other is a fellow child of God.  It is in that moment that the Scripture tells us that Saul “regained his sight.”  Then Saul gets up, is baptized, and his strength returns to him after he eats some good food.

This is the personal story of the Saul who became Paul
and writes in Romans to say,
“Resist evil, hold on to what is good and bless those who persecute you.”

What if when Paul tells us to bless those who persecute us,
he is telling us his personal faith story?
What if it’s his way of testifying to the way the Big Soft Love
That has transformed his life?
What if it is his way of sharing the lesson that he learned
About seeing the real, human life of the people before him?
What if it is his way of reminding us that we are all kin?

Come Holy Spirit, please.

Are we prepared for what happens when we pray that prayer?
Are we prepared to receive the gifts the Holy Spirit has to offer us?
Are we prepared to be transformed like Paul and Ananias?
Are we prepared to turn toward one another and admit our need for God and for each other?

Come Holy Spirit, come and soften all the toughened, wearied place of our lives.  Come like rains that fall on new grass, like showers that descend on tender plants.  Come Holy Spirit and pour out your grace and courage upon us that we may go forth and live, that we may go forth with a love that is sincere and tenacity that is steadfast.

Paul writes:
“Resist evil, hold on to what is good and bless those who persecute you.”

Come Holy Spirit, please.

Are we prepared to pray those words?
Are we prepared for the Spirit’s response when we do?


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