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Genuine, Demanding Love

Watch the sermon here

Romans 12:9-18

Jackie reminded me this week that if I were a fundamentalist preacher, today’s sermon would have practically written itself. What with the forest fires in the West and the hurricanes in the South, this is the perfect week to preach about God’s judgment.  If you prefer to ignore science, what better explanation can you offer than divine punishment?  This is a particularly appealing tactic if you are feeling that your way of life is threatened, if you’ve seen that white Christians are no longer the majority in America, and/or if you perceive that your ability to control people through guilt and intimidation is losing its effectiveness.  Nothing like a good hurricane to put the fear of God in people, right?

But I am not a fundamentalist—which is fortunate for all of us—although I do have to acknowledge the temptation toward it at times. Fundamentalism is rampant, and not just for conservative Christians or conservatives of any religion.  Almost any belief system can give way to hatred.  That’s why today I want to talk, not about fundamentalism, but about the fundamentals—the fundamentals of Christian faith—and this passage from the book of Romans is a great place to start.  It also feels appropriate, on this Homecoming Sunday, because Paul is telling the church how to be church.

Listen to those first few lines again.

Let love be genuine;

hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

love one another with mutual affection;

outdo one another in showing honor.

The passage goes on with a long series of admonitions—do this, don’t do that. On first glance it could easily be dismissed as little more than proverbial wisdom or the religious version of greeting card sentimentality.  This would be an unfair reading of the passage, but it would be easy to do.  But there’s another way of translating the passage that demands we look closer.

The beginning of that first verse, about genuine love, is lacking a verb in the original Greek. Most translations assume the “to be” verb is implied, and they translate it as “Let love be genuine, followed by “hate what is evil,” etc.  But it could just as easily be translated as “Genuine love is:” with all the rest going on to define genuine love.  “Genuine love is: abhorring the evil; clinging to the good, being affectionate to one another in brotherly love; outdoing one another in honor, not lagging in diligence,

[Genuine love is:]

…rejoicing in hope, persevering in affliction,

contributing to the needs of the saints,

pursuing hospitality.”[1]

This is Paul’s call to the church, and it all starts with love.

But this is not a chirpy-happy-sing songy “all you need is love” kind of love. This is genuine love we’re talking about, and genuine love is hard.  “This passage is not a greeting card slogan but a call to costly discipleship.”[2]  It is a call to radical hospitality, to weep with those who weep, to hold fast to what is good.  That sounds easy until you break it down.  Radical hospitality is not about being friendly to visitors in hopes that they join the church.  Radical hospitality offers safety to all who need it, regardless of where they’re from or how they got here.  Weeping with those who weep is not the same as weeping for them, from afar, but weeping beside them, in the flood, whether it’s a flood of water or a flood of grief.  And holding fast to what is good is difficult because what is good defies simple possession and what is bad has so many more handles.  The call to discipleship, the call to follow Christ, is a call that starts with love.

This week I read posts from someone who said that we Americans “are really good at acute compassion, but pretty bad at chronic empathy.  We, without question, haul strangers out of a raging flood, give blood, give food, give shelter.  But we are lousy at legislating safe, sustainable communities, at eldercare, at accessible streets and buildings.  It is the long-term work that makes the disasters less damaging.  But we don’t want to give to the needy; we want to save the endangered.  We don’t like being care workers; we want to be heroes.”[3]  Genuine love is not about being a hero.  And it’s not just about charity.  Our work to change the world cannot be just about helping those in need.  That’s generous and crucial; especially in times like these and the offering we will take in a few minutes for disaster relief is charity in the best sense of the word.  But genuine love does not stop with charity. Genuine love demands justice.   Genuine love demands we change the system.

Our revised translation of the scripture says “Genuine love is: abhorring the evil; That’s the first thing love does:

Love abhors what is evil.

In order to abhor evil we have to identify it and name it and call it out.

Genuine love does not shake its head when hatred is on display.

Genuine love does not wring its hands when white hoods pass by.

Genuine love does not allow hate to own the day.

Genuine love is not passive and silent.

Genuine love is not always peaceful.

But it is always just.

Genuine love demands that we find our place in the work that is to be done. And there is so much work to be done.

There is a movement called Thursdays in Black that calls for an end to sexual and gender-based violence. According to the organizing group, “Every Thursday, people around the world wear black as a symbol of strength and courage, representing our solidarity with victims and survivors of violence, and calling for a world without rape and violence. . . . Wearing black on Thursdays shows others that you are tired of putting up with violence, and calls for communities where we can all walk safely without fear.”[4]  I have several clergy colleagues, male and female, who participate in this movement.  They wear black every Thursday, often posting pictures of themselves on Twitter or Facebook, bringing attention to the problem of sexual violence every single week.  I’ve thought about participating because it is a cause I support, but I just can’t do it.  It feels like a life sentence—that I will have to wear black every Thursday for the rest of my life—because when will I ever be able to stop?  So instead I’ve been trying to confront rape culture when I see it.      Just yesterday I responded to a company that was selling an offensive shirt, and to an individual who was objectifying and sexualizing a woman online—a woman I don’t even like, but no woman deserves to be defined by what someone else does or does not want to do to her body.  My point is: I can’t participate in one way (wearing black every Thursday) but I can find another way to be heard, another way to take a stand.  And so can you.

On Friday night there was a rally at City Hall in Portland to support DACA, to show support for those undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children. One of the people who organized the event could not attend it—because she organized it from her hospital bed.  She couldn’t show up physically but she definitely showed up for the cause.  She did what she could.

There are so many justice-oriented causes that need us. We don’t agree on them all, but I invite you—I implore you—to do what you can to stand up for what you believe, and especially to stand up to hate.  All of you aren’t able to participate in rallies, but can you join us next Sunday, on the sidewalk in front of the church, for just 30 minutes to publicly call out hatred and racism?  What else can you do? Our faith must be in action if it is to make a difference in the world.  Genuine love demands.  Love is a verb.

I am reminded of a conversation my wife and daughter and I had at the dinner table one evening. Somehow the question arose that if we had to describe our personality as a part of speech, what would we be?  We all agreed that Jackie and I are nouns—good, solid, dependable nouns, the building blocks of sentences.  We are preacher and teacher, celebrant and activist; we are nouns.  Our daughter is an adjective, a descriptive word.   When she is being her best self, she is bright and sparkly and enthusiastic.  Even on her bad days, she is such an adjective.   And then there is our son.  Joshua is, without a doubt, a verb.  He is active, on the go, on the move.  He can sit still if he has to but would much rather run or dance or skip or gallop.  He is, without a doubt, a verb.  He is also demanding. He demands more patience of me than I thought I had.  He demands more energy that I often possess.  He demands more parenting skills than I ever needed with Amelia.  Maybe that’s the way of verbs. Maybe verbs demand.

Love is a verb. It demands. And sometimes I want to say to love, “Would you just sit down and be quiet?  Would you please just let me catch my breath?  Would you stop demanding every single day that I give everything I have?”  And love says “No.”

Love says Stand.

Love says Speak.

Love says March.

Love says Sing.

Love demands. It is the way of verbs.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Stackhouse, Rochelle. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, page 18.

[3] From an unnamed podcast, as quoted on Facebook by Wigrid Ellis.

[4] https://www.facebook.com/pg/ThursdaysBlack/about/?ref=page_internal

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