Our “Favorite Scriptures Series” is officially over,
and we are going to be following the lectionary for a little while. Unlikely as it may seem, though,
Romans 12 happens to be one of my favorite scripture passages.
Of course if you ask any of my former youth group students,
they would tell you that you could open the bible
and point to any passage at random,
and I would probably tell you that it’s one of my favorites.
The reason I like this passage in Romans 12 so much
is because of how, in a few short verses,
it gives us an accurate look at what Christian behavior looks like.
In verses 9 through 21, we receive roughly 29 statements or directives
about Christian interaction with each other,
with strangers, and with our enemies.
And it all begins with, “Let love be genuine”.
even with all the specific behaviors listed in these verses
and all of the examples that we have from Jesus,
there are still people who just don’t get it.
I am sure by now all have you have read about
or seen a news story about a little church from Topeka, Kansas
called Westboro Baptist.
These are the folks who first made headlines
as they began protesting at soldiers funerals
holding signs that say things like
“Thank God for Improvised Explosive Devices”
or – and I cringe to even use this language in the church –
“God Hates Fags”.
I trust that the idea of protesting at a funeral
or toting signs that carry those hate-filled messages
is as distasteful to you as it is to me.
But, if you have ever seen an interview
with someone from Westboro Baptist,
you will have heard them say that their message
is a message of love.
They believe that through their various protests and their message
that they are helping to bring us to repentance
and save us from the wrath of God.
These actions and the message they are proclaiming,
to them, is an act of love.
And yes, there is a time and place
for offering correction to one another…
but I’m not exactly sure that,
when Paul advised the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love,”
this is exactly what he had in mind!
Let love be genuine we are told.
Demonstrate real, authentic love.
But what is love? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more!
If you have ever been to a wedding
you probably know rather well what Paul’s idea of real love is,
from 1 Corinthians 13.
Love is patient, and kind, not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude. Love doesn’t get irritated. Love rejoices in truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, and endures all things.
We see much of the same ideas mirrored in our reading this morning.
Love each other with mutual affection.
Outdo each other in showing honor.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,
take care of the needs of the saints
and be hospitable to strangers.
I was truly touched this week when I saw a news story that shows
some real genuine love being expressed to strangers.
Apparently a church in Southern California saw a need
and decided to do something about it.
They did not have a lot of money,
but they had some money and they had some time.
They started renting out their local laundromat one evening a month
and doing laundry, free of charge,
for the homeless and less fortunate in the area.
Relationships were formed. Connections were made.
The ministry eventually expanded to include a meal
along with helping people find ways to meet their other needs. This simple idea, to do people’s laundry,
has grown in the last 10 years to over 100 locations
across the country and
includes people from many different faith traditions.
It’s so simple: washing clothes.
We all know how to do that.
And yet, that act – that gift – has grown to so much more.
That, to me, is a phenomenal example of showing hospitality
of making the genuine love of Christ visible in the world.
But Paul doesn’t simply stop with asking us
to show genuine love to other Christians and to strangers.
No, like Jesus, Paul wants to kick things up a notch.
From verse 15 on, Paul is talking about
what genuine love looks like
as we extend it towards our enemies.
Let’s be honest: in our modern western culture,
most of us are hard-pressed to find anyone
we would call our “enemy.”
We aren’t being persecuted.
We aren’t caught up in a daily cycle and struggle of violence.
We aren’t looking over our shoulders in fear all the time.
If there were comic book versions of our lives,
there would be no super villains threatening our Gotham City.
Even if we don’t have literal enemies
this scripture is vitally important for us.
Because there are always people who rub us the wrong way,
people that know how to get under our skin
and make us lose our minds.
Can you think of any people like that?
The kind of people who, if they showed up
at the same party you were at, you would avoid.
The kind of people who,
while you may not long for their destruction,
you would hide from in order to not have to see them.
These are the people that Paul is referring to in your life:
the ones who are, for one reason or another,
especially hard to love.
And sometimes, they are even Christians.
I was in my last youth pastor gig for about 3 months
before the church went nuclear and split.
I assure you it was not my fault.
They had been on that path for some time.
It was a difficult time
for those that remained in the church I was serving.
They didn’t want to split.
They felt abandoned and betrayed by people they loved.
The folks that left started a new church the very next week.
Going through the split and the new church starting
was bad enough, but add to it the fact that it was a small town –
the kind of place with only one grocery store
and one Walmart – and it was horrible.
You could not help but run into someone
who left our church for the other one when you went out anywhere.
I once saw someone from my church
abandon a cart full of groceries and head for the exit
in order to avoid any interaction
with someone from the other church.
I am sure there are still people in that church today,
nearly 10 years later,
who still won’t make eye contact with anyone
who associates with the other church.
It was a painful situation
and it could have been made so much less painful,
if not avoided all together,
if those church members had remembered that what matters most
isn’t our personal agendas or priorities
what matters most, within the church and without, is love.
The world already does a good job of dividing us from one another,
splitting us into parties and camps, teaching us that
if we don’t agree on everything then we can’t get along at all.
But the church is supposed to be different!
What would have happened, I wonder,
if those Christians had taken seriously the challenge
to outdo one another in giving honor
to put their own egos aside,
and honor one another’s voices instead?
What if they had loved each other with mutual affection?
And what if, even when things started to fall apart,
they had committed to love one another all the same
to feed one another, to care for one another,
to bless one another even in the midst of conflict?
What if they had remembered that as much as it depends on you,
live at peace with everyone.
That idea alone may be the most difficult aspect of genuine love.
Because it means that sometimes
you have to choose love and peace with others
over being right. And Lord do we LOVE to be RIGHT!
This is why Paul goes on to remind us that vengeance
is not ours to dole out.
If any vengeance is going to come to anyone
it is going to come from God, not from us,
because God is the only one
in a position to understand the whole situation.
God is the only one who can meet out justice and have it be truly just.
I did have to laugh this week though
because in my study of this passage
one of the commentators I was reading
suggested avoiding the last part of this passage,
the part having to do with heaping burning coals on the heads
of our enemies.
The commentator suggested that this phrase
may not align itself to well with the idea
of not seeking vengeance. I, of course, disagree with that notion.
Folks God knows that when we are wronged or slighted
that our gut reaction is to strike back,
to make the other person feel the way they made us feel.
In God’s utter brilliance we are given a way to strike back in love.
If you can’t let it go, if you have to do something
then get even by loving your enemies.
Get even, not by hurting them, but by loving them more.
Get even by refusing to play the game by their rules;
get even by throwing your “enemies” off their game
by heaping burning coals of love onto their heads.
But this love too has to be genuine.
When we pray for our enemies
we really need to pray for them, not at them.
We should not pray like the Psalmist prays for his enemies:
“Dear God… Go get em’!”
And we should not pray for our enemies like the Pharisees do:
“Dear God… I am so glad I am not like so and so.”
Instead, we pray for their true blessing,
we seek to show them Christ’s true love,
and we will find that the coals of burning love we heap on them
will bring blessing to us all.
It’s easy to love those who love us,
to love those who are like us.
It is much more difficult to love strangers,
to love our neighbors whose names we may not know,
to love even those we would consider our enemies
but friends, that is what we are called to do.
That is how Christ’s love is made known,
is made manifest in the world,
when we love those who do not love us in return,
when we serve those who cannot return the favor.
When our concern for self is turned into care for the stranger,
the neighbor, the enemy,
then we will know the truest love of our lives,
then heaven will collide with Earth,
and Christ’s love will be visible to all. Amen? Amen.