Our reading this week comes from the book of Romans, is a letter that Paul wrote to the new church he started in Rome.  The letter is full of advice and in it Paul offers guidance to this young community of faith as they seek and struggle to find their way as people of faith.

The new congregation in Rome is having some growing pains, there are conflicts and challenges, as they figure out how to have a new life and fellowship together. A fellowship that is rooted in love: not a warm, fuzzy, soft-focus love, but a clear, community, interdependent kind of love. In our efforts, today to be loving communities of hospitality and grace, we have a lot in common with the early church, and much to learn from their teacher.  Hear now Romans 12:1-2, 9-21

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d]

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

May God bless to our understanding the Words that we hear today.

Will you pray with me please?  May the Words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen

Wow!  That is some list of instructions from Paul about how to live like a Christian.  I always get the sense that Paul was kind of putting this list together as he was writing, probably intending to just mention one or two things but once he got started he just could not stop and they just kind of flow, one after the other as if Paul has so many things to say he wants to make sure he fits everything in before he runs out of room.

Paul’s passion for Christianity is clear and he wants the church community in Rome to share that passion as well. Paul wants them to understand that who they are and what they do and how they do it is an important witness to the world.  Yes, they are a small community of committed and faithful people, but Paul wants them to see themselves as mustard seeds of goodness that can grow beyond their size and surprise everyone and maybe even transforms everything around them…Transforms everything around them… What do you think about that?  Our Christianity is not just about our own personal spiritual transformation, it is about transforming the lives of others, not through conversion, it’s not about converting others to our faith, but it’s also not about keeping our faith confined to the life of the church, keeping our faith walled up in our Sanctuary. Don’t get me wrong, caring about one another in the church is very important, but we can’t keep it here, we must turn our attention and our love on the world that God loves too.

Love, love, love…there’s nothing better than love is there?  But this isn’t cotton-candy I love you, you love me sentimental love.  It’s more like “tough love” because how much tougher can it be for us human types than to turn away evil for good, to respond to injury or insult with a blessing?  I mean really, doesn’t it feel good to give help to people who, we feel, or judge, are “deserving” of our help? And how totally irritating it is to give to someone who “doesn’t deserve it!” It’s even harder to extend that love, to bless someone who has wronged us and is there a way for us to draw the line between unfathomable hurt and hurt feelings?

This list seems to bring up more questions than answers, but it does get me wondering if the world might just be transformed if we Christians acted our faith, refused to get involved in petty squabbles and stopped assuming we are, always right?

And that is both hard and important to think about now in the midst of ongoing tensions of demonstrations by white supremacists and Nazis around the country. Many of us struggle with how to respond as a community of faith and as individuals to groups chanting hate toward other groups and individuals, especially if we are called to keep in mind that all of us are children of God. Where do we find our place in all of this? How do we live so that love and grace, courage and bold witness, properly intertwined? How do we live into all of that so people will know we are Christians?

Set into the middle of Paul’s list of instructions lays our challenge.  Paul urges us to love from the center of who we are…discover beauty in everyone. It is a challenge because loving from the center of who we are, and finding beauty in every single one of God’s children, should lead us to be generous and hospitable, forgiving and peaceful, humble and kind to everyone, and I can see from some of your faces that several of you are ready to argue with me about this because honestly, I am asking you to love “Those people.” And you have list all ready of “those people” from whom you want to be exempt.

When I was installed into my first church, my dear Uncle Carl came to preach and to be a part of the service. Afterwards he told me that one of the things I had to do was to learn to love the people that I served, no matter what. And I thought “duh, well of course!”  But his words stuck with me over the years as I experienced people in my churches who were not loving, to others or to me.  People who were mean, rude, difficult to live with. People who had psychotic episodes during which they threatened me verbally and physically. And outside of church, there were many times that I was hurt by others and I struggled to find ways to love and to bless even if I could not get to forgive and forget. I found that I could love people even if I didn’t like them.  I found that it did not keep me quite about speaking up or speaking out if actions were unjust or wrong. I found that I did not have to agree with them, or condone their actions, but that I could not render, evil for evil. (I say that every week by the way in the benediction…that’s what it means, do not return evil for evil.)

 In Rome, long ago and in the world today, the irony of loving our enemy, of giving our hungry enemy food instead of bombing them, of giving our thirsty enemy a drink instead of striking them down, might confuse and confound them. However, it might also lead to their transformation, to a change of heart within them, as God works through us, the disciples of Jesus. Christians.

We want people to know that we are Christians but at the same time we are often unwilling to turn off the evil with good.  Instead we strike back and feel pretty self-righteous in doing so and we call that justice and we fuel the evil instead of doing the unexpected thing of responding with love, or with the “better angels of our nature” as Abraham Lincoln put it.

I guess the thing I try to hold on to and that I ask you to think about is the fact that we have been, we are, transformed by God at work in our lives and in our hearts. The actions that we choose can shape us, not in the form and image of a broken world, but in the shape of God’s own dream for us.

I will confess that I find Paul’s words hard to live by, I struggle with it every day, but I also believe that if we open ourselves up to the Spirit of God to work through us in the world, by loving each other, and listening to each other, and hoping and sharing and forgiving and welcoming each other, that hard as it is, we will begin to live into a whole new way of doing things, and we will be known as Christians for our love, and wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?. HA