A sermon based on Psalm 26:1-8 and Romans 12:1-2, 9-21 preached on July 12, 2015
The Pretty Penny Café gets a lot of foot traffic. It sits at the center of town, right across the street from Oak Grove Presbyterian Church at what might be the only real intersection in Hillsboro, WV. You get there by getting off 64 at the Lewisburg exit and going the other way for about 45 minutes.
The Pretty Penny has been around for years and years, but has changed ownership a few times over its course, and just this last February, it opened its doors again to start its second or third life—this time being run by a woman named Blair Campbell and her husband of six and a half years, whose name is Charlan. Charlan, a black man from Jamaica, is not only Blair’s husband, but also the cook at the café. Blair, a white woman, and he have two children.
The restaurant serves local, grass-fed beef and local vegetables, and Blair spends lots of her time serving locally herself, often hosting fundraisers at the Pretty Penny Café and staying active in the Parent Teacher Organization up at the school, and volunteering her time at a local teaching academy.
On the morning of Tuesday, January 6th of this year, before the Pretty Penny Café’s grand opening, Blair walked to her new restaurant to get some of the finishing touches taken care of, only to be confronted with a 6-foot-high, 10-foot-wide message sprayed across the side of her freshly-painted restaurant. It was a message of hate: “N-word lover,” it said.
Later that morning, Blair and 9 of her friends took some heavy-duty brake cleaner from the mechanic’s shop across the intersection from her restaurant and removed those words letter-by-letter. They had to remove it just like it was put on, tracing each wretched letter. It took them an hour and a half before it was gone. But then the real work started. Blair wondered how do you respond to something like this What do you do or say?
I have no idea where this came from,
My husband and I have felt nothing but love since we came here to Hillsboro.
Amid all the racial tension across this country, Blair knew she didn’t want to fan the flames, so she invited a few friends over to her house that next Friday night so they could figure out how to respond. Blair didn’t know exactly what to do, but she knew she didn’t want to respond with anger. She wanted to turn the attack into something positive.
The only way to fight hate is with love,
That night, they planned a community dinner at one of the local churches that next Tuesday. No preaching or speaking, just a potluck and a coming-together of people. Blair said,
It’s not about anything other than community. It’s going to be a time when this stupid act of hate is going to cause a lot of people to feel a lot of love.
Today, we’re finishing up our sermon series using Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. We’re talking today about letting go of what other people think, cultivating authenticity, and being brave with our lives. The poet E.E. Cummings once wrote,
To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight—and never stop fighting.
Authenticity, Brené Brown says, is not something we have or don’t have. It’s a practice—a choice we make of how we want to live. It means letting go of shame, because shame is the thing that has us do what everyone else is doing, believe just like everyone else believes, and choose mindless action instead of thinking for ourselves and going our own way.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is his longest one. It’s probably also his last letter—written just before he was martyred. It contains some pretty heavy ideas. If you’re a Greek scholar, you despise translating the Greek into whatever other language, because the language he used in his letter to the Romans is very dense. But in the middle of all this dense language and high-falutin’ theology, we find this passage, full of pretty straight-forward, practical advice about how Christians should live their lives.
This passage should be right up there with 1 Corinthians 13, (“Love is patient, love is kind.”) In fact, this passage goes beyond what Paul says there because instead of simply lifting love up as a virtue, here in Romans, Paul turns love into a lifestyle choice—not simply telling us what love is like, but fleshing out for us what our everyday relationships will look like—what the choices we make, and the ways we respond to small things will be like—if we made love the guiding principle for the way we live our lives.
Love, here, is not an emotion, it’s a very real choice we make to respond to the regular, everyday stuff of our lives. And as it turns out, love has us do some surprising things.
Love each other like family, be on fire in the Spirit, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, devote yourselves to prayer, give generously to others, bless those who curse you, consider everyone as an equal, don’t pay back evil actions with evil actions.
These aren’t unattainable ideas that only perfect people do. According to Paul, this is what the Christian life should look like. This is what it means to be living sacrifices—you and I, living sacrifices who are holy and pleasing to God. This is what a cross-shaped life looks like.
When there are so many voices out there telling us to exact revenge on the people who hurt us, to fear those who are different than us, to respond to evil with evil of our own, there’s another voice asking us to be different—to act as salt and light—to take a completely different path. It’s the voice of grace in a graceless world. It’s asking us to love instead of getting even—to defeat evil not with evil but to defeat evil with good. This is the way of the Gospel. And if we live acting with and responding in love, we will bring the Gospel to life and enact grace into our lives and into our relationships with others and the rest of the world.
This is the way of Jesus. But it’s a way of sacrificial living that takes a great amount of courage, because it often means we say No when the rest of the people are saying Yes and saying Yes when the rest of the people are saying No. The cross-shaped life is nothing if it’s not first counter-cultural.
Paul makes it plain for us: Choosing love is pleasing to God. Love, and only love. In all circumstances, love. Let love and goodness be your constant. Wherever you find yourself, whatever situation you find yourself in, whatever conversation arises among you, be the person who chooses to respond with love. If whatever you have to say doesn’t come from love, then it doesn’t come from God. And in this world, with love as your guiding principle—your home base, your starting and ending place—this means that you’ll find yourself in situations where you might be the only one who feels the way you do, but Jesus wants you to stand in that place, anyway.
Being Christian isn’t always the safe option. Being authentic isn’t either. Brené Brown says that sometimes choosing to be real over being liked is all about playing it unsafe. After all, we follow the One who spoke love in a world that would rather do anything but, and he got himself in a whole lot of trouble for it—slung up on a cross for it. Jesus willingly sacrificed his life on a cross because he knew that the way of love was so much more powerful than any other way. God wants us to respond to the cross of Christ by becoming living sacrifices, which means loving courageously so love can be known by others. It means taking grace seriously by responding to hate with love and leaving the revenge to God. It means refusing to let the evil we see around us undo us or tempt us into responding in kind, because there’s really only one way to defeat evil anyway: as the last verse in our reading declares, evil is only defeated with good.
Conformity is real temptation. To join with others—thinking how they think, believing the same things they believe, acting and reacting how they act and react—that’s the easy way.
Most people take the easy way. But we’re not most people. We’re Jesus people. We’re not called to take the easy way. We’re called to be brave with our lives. To walk the way of the cross even if it means one day getting slung up on one. Brené Brown says that choosing to be real over being liked is authenticity and playing it unsafe. As Christians, we’re called toward a way that is unsafe by the One who took love so seriously he was willing to risk it all to show it.
The good news, though, is that courage is contagious. When others see you standing up for love—committing yourself to the way of grace, choosing to love over every other way—you will, with your bravery, teach others to be brave also. And when a bunch of folks start being brave together, that’s called church. Church is an alternative society where the Gospel’s core values of love, grace, hospitality, and generosity are born and nurtured and offered to the world.
Blair Campbell, the owner of the Pretty Penny Café in Hillsboro, says that if the vandals come again with their spray paint cans, they will react again in the same way: by tracing over words of hate with acts of love—by bringing the people of Hillsboro together each time so they can celebrate connection and community over a shared meal.
Blair’s daughter called her a few days after they fixed the restaurant wall. Blair didn’t tell her daughter what the words were. Her daughter asked,
Did you get it cleaned off?
We sprayed it off just like they sprayed it on.
Then Blair said to her daughter,
It doesn’t matter if they ever do it again. We’ll know how to get it off.
All praises to the One made it all and finds it beautiful!