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St. Paul’s – 13th Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2020

In todays  epistle, Paul is trying to teach the Romans how to be the church–the true church, the place of Holy Communion. AND it is not easy. Everyone is squabbling. The Jewish Christians start calling the Gentile Christians names. So now they refuse to worship with one another. Then the Roman Christians won’t talk to the non-Roman Christians; so they end up sitting on opposite sides of the aisles. At coffee hour, groups form. Little circles of people gather  like wagon trains to protect themselves from those other people. The conversations are spiced with words like heretic and apostate. Or, stupid Romans or radical gentiles. Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like our country today.

The Roman church reminds Paul of ice on a frozen lake as it begins to crack and divide. Chunks of ice drift apart in the dark water, as the once solid lake becomes a sea of islands of ice. It’s like Humpty Dumpty. How in the world can it be put together again? Great question for our times today.

Well, Paul doesn’t mention some of the worst tactics the church has used in the past 2,000 years: No burning at the stake. No silencing people you disagree with. No dividing into smaller and smaller sects. In fact, in the face of this list, Paul’s suggestions look a little wimpy. He gives some rules about behavior–contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers; do not repay anyone evil for evil. If your enemies are hungry, feed them. These are daunting but at least they are clear. Often we need to begin with specific acts. Certainly there is a correlation between our actions and our inner state.

It is true that our hearts will follow our feet. If we keep doing the right thing, eventually we will feel the right emotions. Know that there is limitation to that method. We can get into a works righteousness mentality that keeps us from the real work of transformation. We do just acts to prove how wonderful we are and to preserve our righteous self-image. Therefore, this morning, I want to focus on the interior side – the conversion/ transformation of the heart.

The first thing Paul suggests is: Let love be genuine…be ardent in Spirit (Romans 12:9).

Perhaps Paul lists let love be genuine first for a reason. Perhaps if we can all discover that place of genuineness, then all else will follow.

What does it mean to let love be genuine? Eugene 

Peterson, in his translation of the Bible called The Message translates this phrase in an interesting way: Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.

To love from the center, to love genuinely, is to know who you are at the center. Most of the time, we don’t know. We usually suffer from an overinflated ego or an inadequate sense of who we are.

When our ego is inflated, we constantly are shoring it up. We are always needing others to certify how wonderful we are, and if they do not, we demonize them. OR, on the other hand, when our ego is deflated, we look for someone to worship, someone to tell us who we are.

Both of these are disingenuous love, and they always lead to pushing or pulling others. Either I am pushing you away, making you wrong so I can be right, or I am pulling you toward me by clutching onto you for an identity. Disingenuous love makes others into idols to worship or demons to despise until we discover our center. Until we find out how to love genuinely, we can never find community.

Being around people who are in the grip of disingenuous love is so exhausting because everything centers on them. You cannot have a discussion without it becoming a referendum on their self-worth. So every conflict has high stakes. We aren’t talking about whether to order red or black prayerbooks; we are talking about whether you affirm who I am.

Love from the center of who you are. Who we are are is this wonderful paradox: we are all sinners; we are all imperfect; we are all capable of causing one another pain. YET, we are all children of God; we all have Jesus Christ within us; We are all God’s beloved. BOTH THINGS ARE TRUE.

Once we embrace that, than we can relax, because we can be merely human, not angelic–not demonic–but just from the very earth. When we know who we are, than we know that God is in control, and God will do what God will do. We don’t have to be in charge or go around looking for some savior to be inn charge.In stead, we can look to see what God is doing in this place and accept it and try to participate in it.

Think about Jesus and the way he encountered other people, always with open arms: What do you want me to do for you? Not, Are you ready to fall down and worship me—-or—Can you prove that you are worthy of my presence? BUT…What do you want me to do for you?

In other words—Speak from your center and I will speak and act from mine. We will see what happens among us—between us.

This leads us to what Jesus Christ offers us this morning. Jesus Christ offers us challenge this morning and peace.  The challenge comes in todays gospel. We are being challenged to deny ourselves and take up the cross and follow Jesus.  We are beings asked to lose our loves for Jesus’ sake so we can find it.  So the question becomes….What does it mean to deny myself?  Living, as I do, in a culture that doesn’t torture and kill Christians for their faith, how shall I deny myself so that the gospel might thrive, here and now?  How shall I save my life by losing it for Jesus’s sake in 21st century America?

Right now, we need to ask ourselves these questions in the context of a global pandemic that shows no signs of letting up.  We need to ask ourselves these questions in the context of police brutality, white supremacy, racial injustice, and gross economic inequality.  We need to ask ourselves these questions in the context of global warming, mass extinction, droughts, and heat waves.  We need to ask ourselves these questions in the context of the fires destroying forests and towns all over the western portion of our country.

So the question becomes this: where do each of us locate ourselves amidst these crosses?  What is each of us willing to lose in these times?  What do each of us stand to gain? How do I love from the center?

Jesus Christ also offers us peace the world cannot give and the world cannot take away. It’s the peace of knowing that it’s okay that we are sinners and mess up, because we will always be the beloved of God who will be with us and be inside us. Once we know that deep in our hearts and souls, then we can relax. We don’t need others to constantly affirm us. We don’t need someone else to look bad so we will look good. And an amazing thing happens. We begin to see that everyone else is like us, merely human, merely sinners who are redeemed by the love of Christ.

Then the open arms that embrace one another can also become the open arms on the cross, because the world no longer has to conform to my idea of the way life should be. The world can be what it is.

I heard someone say once,  The best ally of God is reality. In order to advance on the spiritual path, in order to grow in the divine school of love, we must become fully alive in this world–as it is—because it is the only world we have. The Word became flesh and dwells among us, right here in the very world in which we live.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis says that hell is a vast, gray city only inhabited at its outer edges. In the middle are rows and rows of empty houses. Empty because everyone who lived inn them quarreled with their neighbors and moved away. Then they quarreled and moved and quarreled and moved.

When I have read that and think about it, I think of our contemporary  cities—empty houses downtown and the crowded suburbs. I think of how divided our nation is, especially by race, class, politics, gender and sexuality. Yes we have made progress in some of these areas but over the  summer it is clear we have a long way to go in our cities, country and world in order to be called what Martin Luther King, Jr. called The Beloved Community.

Let love be genuine. Love from the center of who you are. Have the courage to see yourself and the person in front of you, as the redeemed sinners and as God’s beloved. Have the courage to accept what is and offer the person you are to God so God can use you to mend the broken places in the world.

Community is only possible when we relax. Community is only possible when we put away our masks (not the Covid masks), put away our agendas, and preconceptions. When we meet someone, it’s not  How can I keep you in a box–so I can maintain my self-image? 

INSTEAD, How can I see the Christ in you and allow you to see the Christ in me. How can I and will I live in the way Paul is saying to in his epistle this morning.

How can we find genuine love? Remember in To Kill A Mockingbird when the white men come in the night and surround the jail where Tom, an African-American wrongly accused of a crime, is held? The men are a mob. They do not see Tom. They only see an enemy. They do not know themselves. They are blinded by rage and fear. Scout, a little girl watches them. Her father tells her to run away and to go home. But Scout doesn’t run, and she doesn’t fight. Instead she finds a way to love. She looks at one of the men in the mob and says,

Hey, Mister Cunningham….Don’t you remember me?….I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he?….We brought him home for dinner one time….Tell him “Hey” for me, won’t you?

There was a long pause. Then the big man separated himself from the mob, squatted down, and took Scout by both her shoulders. I’ll tell him you said “hey”, little lady. Then the mob dispersed.

That’s genuine love. Only when we call one another by our true name. Only when we remind one another of how we are connected. Only as we follow in Christ’s footsteps with the cross. Only when we speak and love from the center of who we are will our divisions be healed, and the church will become the place of communion it was created to be. 

Let us pray:

O persistent God,

Deliver us from assuming your mercy is gentle.

Pressure us that we may grow more human

not through the lessening of our struggles,

but through the expansion of them

that will undamn us

and unbury our gifts.

Deepen our hurt

until we learn to share it

and ourselves


and our needs honestly.

Sharpen our fears

until we name them

and release the power we have locked in them

and they in each one of us.

Accentuate our confusion

until we shed those grandiose expectations

that divert us from the small, glad gifts

of the now and the here and the me.

Expose our shame where it shivers

couched behind the curtains of propriety,

until we can laugh at last

through common frailities and failures,

laugh our way toward becoming whole.

Deliver us

from just going through the motions

and wasting everything we have

which is today

a chance

a choice

our creativity

your call.

O Persistent God

Let how much it all matters

Pry us off dead center

So if we are moved inside

to tears

or sighs

or screams

or smiles

or dreams,

They will be real

And we will be in touch with who each of us is

And who you are

And who our sisters and brothers are.