(Romans 12: 9-18)
I hear it all the time. I meet someone new who doesn’t know me and when they learn I’m a pastor they feel compelled to tell me that they don’t go to church anymore due to a “bad experience” with organized religion. I don’t call them on it or doubt their word because I know there have been too many actual instances where someone did have that bad experience with a church, whether it was with the pastor or a member of the church. We can do a lot of damage in the name of Jesus Christ, damage that I have no doubt makes Jesus winch. Sometimes I think I should ask them if they’d like to talk about it so they can get the hurt off their chests and maybe even offer up an apology for the trauma they experienced. And sometimes I suspect that it’s just an excuse offered up to cover the fact that they’ve gotten out of the habit of going to church. With so much going on in their lives competing for their time, something’s got to give and often it’s rolling out of bed on a Sunday morning. And then there’s the distinct possibility that they aren’t being fed spiritually, they don’t think we’re relevant. They don’t see how going to church applies to their lives. They’re not feeling the love.
And showing the love of Christ so that others feel it is what the Apostle Paul is talking about in our scripture reading for this morning. He starts out by saying: Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the spirit as you serve the Lord! “Love should be shown without pretending.” Now that’s an interesting statement. He’s taking a not-so-subtle shot at the hypocrites, those who feign love and concern but don’t invest any of themselves in putting their love into action. The best example of this is when some sort of natural disaster befalls a community, and you hear politicians, pastors, and others say that the grief-stricken victims or the impacted community are “in our thoughts and prayers.” Don’t get me wrong, sometimes praying is all we can do, and prayer is always proper if it is heart-felt and genuine. But our prayers and our thoughts should be what spurs us into action as we endeavor to be the somebodies who do something in Jesus’ name. What Paul is saying is that, in addition to our faith, our love for others ought to define our Christian community and the actions we take to shine God’s light and love out into the community. You know, being “that” church. He continues by saying: Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your homes. This is where Paul, the Apostle James, and John Wesley are all in agreement. Faith without works is dead. Paul is telling us that faith, closeness to God, is the center-point of who we are and with that foundation we are compelled to do whatever we can with whatever we have for the least of God’s children, including the welcoming of strangers, showing that radical hospitality we should be known for.
Paul then addresses the gentle nature we should possess and exhibit as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. He tells us to bless those people who harass us, bless them and don’t curse them. He instructs us to be empathetic as we are happy with those who are happy and sympathize with those who need our sympathy, to cry right along with them in their grief and despair. He says: Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. This is the heart of the issue, where the bad experiences with organized religion come from. It’s when we show that un-Christian behavior towards someone who has wronged us, offended us. People watching us rarely see the bad behavior of the offending party. All they see is a “Christian” exhibiting un-Christ-like behavior and it doesn’t matter if you were in the right. That’s not what they see. We come off as thinking or showing that we believe we are superior and better than the other person and people like them. Rather, we should associate with people who have no status, you know, the people who can’t do anything for us. You see, too often our hospitality extends to those who can do something for us in return. It was Christ who demonstrated and taught that we should treat all people with respect, those of a different race, the handicapped, the poor, young and old, male and female. We must never consider others as being beneath us. We must do all we can to actually live in harmony with others and enjoy the diversity of those people who are not just like us. There’s a lot we can learn from people who are different, people who don’t look like us, pray like us, love like us, speak like us, or live like us.
Paul tells us to rise above what others would do when offended or hurt. He says not to pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. Don’t waste your time and energy getting even. Instead, cut them loose from your life and align yourself with other likeminded people who believe in what is good, just, and righteous. And, if possible, he says, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. I love the phrasing here. Paul’s a realist. He knows there are some people out there who are just difficult, at best, to get along with and there’s just no pleasing them. If it’s possible and within your ability, try to live in peace with them. If not, go your own way and do what you can for who you can with what you have.
What the Apostle is saying is that we should strive to be a faith community that exhibits, first, familial love directed towards members of the church, and second, love strangers regardless of who they are. Paul is exhorting us to exercise a radical hospitality that focuses on the other in a way that honors people because they have been created, like us, in God’s image, because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and because they have a unique contribution to make to Christ’s church. Hospitality focuses on the guests, the others, their needs, whether it’s a place to stay, nourishing food, a listening ear, or acceptance as the primary concern. And hospitality can happen in so many unexpected ways. We just have to be open to the opportunities and unafraid to extend an open hand.
Our recent storm made us feel helpless. We couldn’t open the clothes closet due to the power being off and our volunteers were concerned about not being there to meet the needs of those who come to them for assistance. We worried about those around us who had no heat, no way to cook food, no way to stay warm, no place to escape the cold. Vulnerable people right in the very back yard of our church. We have to ask ourselves, as people of faith, how do we respond when others are in need, and they don’t have the resources to meet those needs? In addressing the needs, immediate and long-term, are we guided by love? Is our response a duty, an obligation, or a privilege? I think the answer is yes to all three. It is our duty as Christians to see to the needs of the least of these in their times of distress and uncertainty. It is an obligation that we have as a church located in this community that we share in our abundance. And it is a privilege bestowed upon us by the Father who has chosen us to be his hands and heart to the lost and searching, a privilege to be that good experience with organized religion with no strings attached. When the Christian community is motivated, as we are, we will not attempt to hoard our abundance for our own “rainy” day. We will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and look for ways to make the most of our resources so that we can make a just distribution to all in Jesus’ name. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that we have come to a position where we can make even more of a difference. It’s taken much work and faith as we have remodeled our sanctuary and narthex, upgraded our kitchen, and converted our heating system from fuel oil to propane. We are now at the point where our dream of installing a propane-fired generator to power up the church during outages is a reality. Being able to have power when all around us are in the dark and cold will allow us to welcome those folks into the church for a hot meal and warm place to weather the storm. We do this because we have re-established our footprint in the community and people now turn to us, “that” church, when they feel there is no other place to go. We see this as a duty, an obligation, and a privilege in being the somebodies who do something in Jesus’ name.
Paul’s message to us is that God calls us to real and sincere love that goes beyond pretense and politeness. This sincere love requires concentration, devotion, commitment, and effort. It means helping people become better people and it demands our time, money, and personal involvement. In doing this, in being “that” church, we must be mindful that no one individual has the capacity to express love to a whole community, but the body of Christ in our town does. We are called upon by the Holy Spirit to look for people who need our love and continue to look for ways we Followers of the Way can love our community for Christ. Ways to be that genuine and good experience that opens the door to knowing Jesus and a life in eternity with God the Father.
Let us pray.
We serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today and we know that he is living whatever foes may say. We see his hand of mercy, we hear his voice of cheer, and just the time we need him, he’s always near. Yes, merciful and loving Father, we know your Son lives because we can see him in others. Our prayer is that others can see Him in us as we daily walk our Christian walk for all to see as we do your work and your will. Move us through your Spirit to be the true and faithful disciples of your Son for the transformation of the world, the world in which you have placed us where we can do the most good. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.