Scripture: Roman 12:9-21
Sometime ago on Facebook someone I know posted a link to a list entitled “Top Five Friendship Ruining Board games.” I enjoy playing board games so I was curious what the author of this list picked. They of course put the standards of Monopoly and Risk on the list, which I expected. Their number one choice was also a decent one. The author of this list picked Sorry as the game that is most likely to ruin friendships. I do not know if you are familiar with this gaming standard, but it is a roll and move game with the simple objective of the player getting their pieces around the board. However, it is possible to send another player’s pawn back to the beginning. Given the title of the game, the game practically encourages you to say “sorry!” as sarcastically as possible. This becomes grating after happens more than once. However, the author missed the true game that holds the spot as the great friendship ruiner. That is this game, Diplomacy. It has been ruining friendships since 1959. Diplomacy is a world domination game, think similar to Risk if you are more familiar with that. Ideally the game is played with a full complement of seven players. Where this is different from a game like Risk is that there are not any dice. Any fighting is deterministic with the most pieces winning. However, due to the way the game is balanced it almost impossible to attack another player without help. This requires players to make secret alliances, backroom deals, and provide support for one another. The final major mechanism is that turns are simultaneous. All players write down their orders and then they are revealed and enacted at the same time. This means that even though you make an alliance with someone you have no way of knowing they are going to honor what was stated until those orders are revealed. Since the goal of the game is to win, that means every alliance is temporary and eventually someone is getting stabbed in the back. Winning this game practically requires telling someone trust me, while fully knowing that they really shouldn’t trust you. It really is impossible to play this game without betraying and wronging someone else, and unless you are the winner chances are someone is going to betray and wrong you as well. I have played a lot of board games, and if I were to make a list of the top games most likely to ruin a friendship nothing would get as close to Diplomacy. Despite this, the game has appeal because it has been in print and popular now for over fifty years.
I have not played Diplomacy for a few years now, but I could not help but think of the game when reading this morning’s scripture. That is because if I were to play Diplomacy again, I feel like reading this morning’s scripture first would be a requirement. This scripture is all about living at peace and harmony with one another, and the game Diplomacy certainly strains the ability to do that. In this morning’s scripture Paul is writing out a description of what Christian character looks like. Playing Diplomacy is a real test of character. The nature of the game forces the players to deal with being betrayed, back-stabbed, and having trust broken. The game forces the players to confront how they deal with those realities. Can they say it is just a game, and live in harmony with another? Can they resist the temptation to repay evil with evil, seek revenge, or hold a grudge? Perhaps being able to explore these deep interpersonal questions in the safety of a game space is one of the reasons why Diplomacy has endured in popularity.
When someone betrays you or essentially lies to your face in a game it is a little bit easier to shrug that off, but it is far different when it happens in life. When people who we thought we could trust prove they cannot be trusted it hurts. When someone acts in a way that is petty and hurtful it leaves emotional scars. When some belittles, tears, down or uses hurtful words it can harm a relationship. We know this. Several of us probably have far too much life experience with this. Paul knew this as well. That is why he wrote this morning’s scripture. This morning’s scripture is messy advice for when life gets messy. Life will get dirty, mud will get thrown and people will try to drag us down. The conventional wisdom of the world is when this happens is when someone hits you, you hit them back harder. If someone criticizes then you be a fighter and tell them how sad they are. The conventional wisdom is that we fight fire with fire. That is exactly the opposite of what Paul writes. Someone seems to have it out for you then, Paul says “bless those who persecute you.” Someone does you wrong, then Paul says “do not repay evil for evil.” Someone betrays or takes advantage of you, then Paul says “do not take revenge.”
Your first reaction might be one to scoff at this. Because it sounds like Paul is insisting that we be a doormat and let people walk all over us. But that is not what he is saying. The way of the world is to get even, get revenge, and to curse those who wrong us. Paul’s thesis statement though is “do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” We all know the old saying, “two wrongs do not make a right.” When someone does wrong, we do right. They took the low road, so we show that grace comes from taking the high road. This does not mean people walk over us, we are still taking action. It is just our action is one based in love and mercy. We embody the love, forgiveness, and grace of Christ. When we do this, we do not get revenge but instead we overcome their wrong with good.
There is a story that illustrates this perfectly. Ethel had passed away. She was a dear old saint of the church. She had done it all taught Sunday school, led VBS, directed the choir, visited the shut-ins, and anything else in the church that needed doing. She had also served as a mentor for a young man answered the call to ministry from his local church. While it seemed an odd pairing at first, this young man and Ethel had many deep conversations, and Ethel is the person who helped him recognize his calling into ministry. It seemed so appropriate to have this young man conducting the funeral. But, for reasons untold, when the time came for the funeral to begin the young preacher was nowhere to be found, not had word been sent to explain his tardiness. The crowd grew somewhat restless as the moments became minutes and threatened to become an hour.
As the restlessness grew, a middle-aged man in the congregation stood and addressed the crowd. “For some reason the preacher has been delayed. Until he arrives I feel as if I should share a special memory that is mine because of this dear lady. My greatest memory is the time that she brought me a cake, and it wasn’t even my birthday. I still do not know the reason that she chose to bring me the cake. But I will remember her for this.”
Being seated, everyone turned their attention to a lady that rose to speak. This woman had a reputation as the church gossip. Whenever she spoke people tended to hold their collective breath, because they were never quite sure what she would say. “Funny that you should remember a cake, because I too received a cake from this lady, in fact, I received several over the last few years.”
Amazingly, yet another man stood, claiming that he too had received a cake. However, the cake he was given a sour cream pound cake. This caused several nods and smiles around the room. Ethel’s sour cream pound cake was legendary. Whenever the church had a pitch-in the attendance that Sunday would be among the highest for the year as people came to jockey in line just to get a piece of sour cream pound cake. The man concluded, “Ethel and I did not often see eye to eye, but she certainly did right by me.”
One after another, people rose to give testimony to the cakes that this woman had baked and delivered over the years of her life. Some had gotten one; some several, some it seemed had received cakes several times a year. More than one person stated, with some level of pride, that they had been fortunate enough to receive a sour cream pound cake.
Seated on the front row, out of the attention of the crowd, was Martha. Since childhood Martha and Ethel had been best friends. As people spoke of the great number of cakes they had received, this lady sat strangely quiet. This dearly departed lady had never, in the many years of their friendship, ever baked so much as one cake for Martha, her best friend. As the testimonies continued, Martha began to feel hurt in ways she could not explain.
About this time the door opened and in rushed a winded preacher. The frustration of delay showed clearly on his face. Going to the pulpit, he addressed the crowd, apologizing for his delay. The first speaker rose again and told the preacher that he was excused, “we have been sharing our favorite memories of this great lady.”
The young preacher spoke again: “Since you have shared your memories, permit me to share mine. When I first answered the call to preach I spent many hours talking to this saint about a wide variety of matters. Once, we were discussing the way people cut and hurt one another, and I asked her how she handled it when evil or meanness was spoken of her. The answer she gave has stuck in my mind to this day. ‘When people have spoken evil of me, I try not to respond in kind, but in kindness. When I learned who had spoken so cruelly, I would go to my kitchen and bake them a cake. I would deliver it to them and never mention their unkind words. Sometimes I had to bake several cakes. And if they were especially cruel, I would go and prepare my specialty, a sour cream pound cake. I learned that to repay this evil with kindness made the evil so much more bearable for me, and I hope that every bite of the cake would tell them that I love them, in spite of their actions.”
A stunned crowd left the funeral home that day, with one exception, a quiet lady who rose from the front row and left with a smile on her face remembering the cakes she never received from her dear friend.
This morning’s scripture came from the letter that Paul wrote to the Romans, and the greatest piece of advice he gave them was to live in harmony with another. The secret to doing this though, is found in verse 9: “love must be sincere.” In the story, Ethel chose to love others, even those who wronged her, and she did this by baking a sour cream pound cake. This did not erase the wrong that was done to her, but evil was overcome by good. The evil that she overcame was in her own heart. When someone did wrong by her, she chose to respond with love. She put that love into action. In the story, she perfectly embodied verse 18 of this morning’s scripture: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” When we do this then it becomes easier to put the rest of this scripture in hope. It is easier for us to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and mourn with those who are mourning if we are at peace with them, and our love for them is sincere.
The story of sour cream pound cake is how one woman chose to respond to evil with good. Imagine if we all, each and every one of us did that. This would be a congregation and a church that was fully defined by a since love for one another, it would be a love the poured out of this place. Not only would we be at peace with one another and others, but we would be agents of peace. Our very presence would calm and defuse tenseness because we will be a people characterized by peace and love. . . and perhaps by cake if we follow Ethel’s example. May we not be overcome by evil, but may we overcome evil with good.