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That Word, ‘Love’

Romans 12:9-21 (CEB)

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! 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 home. Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them.

Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 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. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

September 2-3, 2017
Romans 12:9-21
“That Word, ‘Love’”

I continue to be amazed and grateful at how Scripture speaks to us in relevant ways in the 21st century. During September, the Lectionary scriptures, which are prescribed readings for each week, speak to us in powerful ways and seem to speak directly to what is happening in life around us.

So, during the month of September, we will focus on the theme of words and specifically words that we can live by. Words are powerful…whether spoken or written. In the age in which we live, we have more and more ways to share our words…everything from quiet conversations with another person, to loud or shouted words, to preaching, to prayer, to e-mails, texting, blogging, twitting, posting or playing ‘Words with Friends.’ Words are powerful and words matter.

We begin our series by hearing words from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome.

(Romans 12:9-21)

As children, most of us have probably played the game of ‘tag.’ When playing ‘tag,’ if you are touched you hear the words, “You’re it!” Then you become the odd one out, the outcast, the one everyone tries to run away from; and you work hard to catch and tag another person in the game to give the ‘you’re it’ title away.

In the world of social media, I have learned that to be ‘tagged’ means someone has named you in a picture or comment and sent it out for all the world to see. Being ‘tagged’ in social media often has its own concerns and unique features, but it usually means to be included, to be drawn into a larger community, and to be part of something bigger than just your own circle of friends.

In our passage from the Letter to the Romans, it is about being ‘tagged’ as Christians, which draws us into a unique community known as the body of Christ. As Christians we are also ‘tagged’ by a God-given challenge to love, which the Apostle Paul makes clear is not an emotion, but is an attitude that reveals itself in our actions.

So often we allow love to get hijacked by our emotions. But the commandment that Jesus gave to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” has nothing to do with our emotions. This kind of love is not what we feel for one another but how we demonstrate our love of God by how we act toward our neighbors, even those we don’t know and those we may not like or agree with.

For the Apostle Paul, genuine love is the foundation of living as a Christian; so he offers basic instructions that are hard to ignore, and also hard to live out.

To summarize, we are told to: show love without pretending; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; serve God; rejoice in hope; be patient in suffering; persevere in prayer; extend hospitality to strangers; bless those who harass you; be happy with those who are happy; cry with those who cry; do not claim to be smarter than you are; do not repay evil for evil; live at peace with all people; and overcome evil with good…Wow, not a lot of wiggle room with these imperatives!

Yet, these words are not original to Paul; most of them were said in some form by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Still, this string of imperatives contains hard concepts to practice in our day to day lives and there is no guarantee that if we live in this way that others will respond in like manner. Doing good toward another does not mean that person will respond with good toward you.

So, it comes back to the word ‘love’ without the emotional baggage attached to it. When we act in love, we inflict no harm. When we act in love, doing good is a priority that helps the community thrive. When we act in love, we are in prayer with and for others as we strive to stay in love with God. If this sounds familiar it’s because Paul’s words also speak to the requirements for holy Christian living put forth by John Wesley, our founder of Methodism. John Wesley had three simple rules for people called Methodists…to do no harm; to do good; and to stay in love with God.

But we also know that Christian love does not come easily or automatically because people in and outside the church are real and real people come with harsh opinions and tensions and anxious fears and self-serving actions that often lead to hateful acts and harm.

Yet, both the Apostle Paul and John Wesley were clear that Christian love is also our mission as the body of Christ carries urgency. And the urgency is for today and for these days in which we live. This urgency to show and share love is often about giving others a glimpse of God’s kingdom and pointing others to God even in the midst of challenge and conflict.

In a country and world in which division, oppression and violence seem to be the way of handling challenges and conflicts, and where any real understanding of reconciliation, compromise and community have become misunderstood, we need love as an action to be our default response.

And that is the hard work of this word ‘love.’ Living lives that demonstrate love and living “at peace with all people,” in an often violent, evil and divided world, takes prayer; it takes listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit; it takes courage; it takes humility; it takes grace; and it takes being serious about Jesus. In fact, what would happen or how would our love as good action toward others be different if we were as serious about Jesus as, say, Starbucks is about coffee? It’s something to ponder…my guess is we would be more intentional in our words and actions and be more attentive, accepting and welcoming to people around us, or who are different from us in age, race, ability, gender or identity.

When I was on renewal leave this past month, I was paying careful and prayerful attention to the violence in our country triggered by hate, prejudice, and fear. Along with you, I grieved the loss of life and prayed for those injured in the violence in Charlottesville, VA. I was saddened by the division, extremism, hatred and evil being made visible and spiraling out of control in Charlottesville and many other communities in our country. The words, “Hate evil and hold on to what is good,” and “Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good,” jump out to us from our Scripture passage today and seem like they are words written for such a time as this.

During the week at the height of the violence, I was in Virginia visiting family and also in Washington DC. Early one morning, I was in the hotel fitness center and every one of the many T.V.’s was tuned to the morning news and the coverage of the events in Charlottesville. There were not many people in the fitness center that morning and at one point all six of us were standing near one of the T.V.’s and silently watching and listening. I stood with two African American men, an African American teenage boy, a Jewish man; visibly wearing a small, round yarmulke cap on his head; and a Muslim woman, who was the housekeeper, wearing a hijab covering her head.

Even though we had only greeted each other, it seemed like we shared a sense of beloved community as we stopped our workouts and stood in what seemed like prayerful silence to watch the events unfolding on the television, not that many miles away from us. Then the Jewish man spoke words quietly in a language I did not understand, but from the cadence of his words, sounded like a prayer. When the news segment was over, we exchanged friendly eye contact and returned to what we were doing. I gathered my courage to ask the Jewish man if his words were words of prayer. He said he was reciting words in Hebrew from the book of Deuteronomy that say, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

As Christians, we know those words as the greatest commandment, spoken again by Jesus, who added…and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

During the violence in Charlottesville, the First United Methodist Church of Charlottesville stepped up to be a beacon of God’s love and a safe space. Rev. Phil Woodson, one of the pastors at the church said, “As horrible and scary as everything was at the white supremacist rally, what will stay with me for the rest of my life is so very many good people coming together.” He said, “They came together to ensure the safety and security of the most vulnerable among us.”

One story was told of five elderly white women encircling a young black woman to provide a human barricade as she left the church.

UM Bishop Sharma Lewis, who leads the Virginia Conference, called on United Methodists to “witness to others what prayer and love can do in times of fear and hate.

In his Sunday sermon, Rev. Woodson said, “God is good. And on that day, the day when Nazis and white supremacists came to our town with their guns, bats and pepper spray, the work of God’s people was also good because so many people asked for God’s ultimate will to be done and then actually went out and did it.”

We all wrestle with this word, ‘love,’ and we all wrestle with what a loving response looks like in the face of this overwhelming toxic stew of sin in the form of hatred, prejudice, intolerance and violence in life around us. All of which is contradictory to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The UMC has a video that was put together in the wake of the racism and violence we have seen in recent months. I invite you to watch this video in which children do the teaching. CLICK HERE for the video.

God loves, celebrates, values and honors all of humanity. It is up to us as people of faith to show love that shares the value of every human being.

The Apostle Paul reminds us in our Scripture that our faith compels us to live and teach love, acceptance and peace. Our faith compels us to share a collective responsibility to follow the Prince of Peace, who is Jesus the Christ, and create non-violent communities where all people are respected.

There is a wonderful hymn that is not in our United Methodist hymnal, but that speaks to the overwhelming times in which we live. It is titled, “In Times Like These.” The words of the refrain say, “In times like these you need a Savior. In times like these you need an anchor. Be very sure, be very sure, your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock! This Rock is Jesus, Yes He’s the One…”

Our hope…our only hope is in the solid rock, which is Jesus the Christ. Our only hope is to be the kingdom of God here on earth, which is stronger than the forces of evil around us.

In this sanctuary, as we share in worship and as we take the Sacrament of Communion as the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing, may we allow the love of God to wash over us and ‘tag’ us in such a way that we are renewed to go back into the world to show and ‘tag’ others with that same love.

May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.