Love Letters: Genuine Love
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Love Letters: Genuine Love”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 20, 2019
27 "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37 "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;
38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
9 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.
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; 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; 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.
The Church is hypocritical. That is the conclusion of 85% of young people who don’t go to church. What is worse, however, is that 47% of young people who do go to church agree. The Church says it is a morally superior institution, when in fact, it is just as sinful and messed up as the rest of the world. That is what young people have seen, inside and outside the church.
The book UnChristian, by researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, shares these statistics, along with personal accounts of the church’s hypocrisy. For example, Victoria, who is a 24-year-old single mother, says that “Everyone in my church gave me advice about how to raise my son, but a lot of the time they seemed to be reminding me that I have no husband – and besides, most of them were not following their own advice. It made it hard to care what they said. They were not practicing what they preached.”
Superior attitudes paired with inconsistent practice is driving young people especially away from Christian churches.
Fortunately for us, the Apostle Paul wrote a helpful guide on how to deal with this problem. It seems that the Roman church was struggling with attitudes of moral superiority as well. Some felt that they were better than others because of their spiritual gifts. Some felt that they were better than others simply because they were Christian.
Paul addresses this superiority by assuring them that they are all members of a single body, working together with a variety of gifts, all of which are valuable and proceed from the Holy Spirit in the proper measure.
And then, in verse 9, Paul says, “Love is not hypocritical.” In most English translations, verse 9 of Chapter 12 begins with the imperative that we read today, “Let love be genuine.” But in Greek, there is no imperative. It’s simply a statement of fact. And the word translated as “genuine” is the Greek word for unhypocritical.
The word hypocrisy is derived from the Greek word for actor, someone playing a part. Paul is insisting that love is not pretend, it is not faking it, it is not putting on a show. Love is not hypocritical.
And that means that love does not say one thing and do another. It does not say “God loves you,” and then judges you for all the things you do that God doesn’t like. It does not say “everyone is welcome” and then exclude certain people based on their beliefs, behavior, or their very being. It does not “Jesus will transform your life” and then insist that nothing should ever change. That is not love. Because love is not hypocritical.
Paul uses this dichotomy of word and action that hypocrisy highlights to describe what love really looks like using a series of contrasts. He talks about loving good and hating evil. He says not to be idle in our earnestness but to “maintain our spiritual glow,” as one translation puts it. Love blesses enemies instead of cursing them, just like Jesus talked about when he said we must love our enemies. When we are hoping for things that haven’t yet come through, we’re supposed to rejoice as though they already have. When we are in the thick of trouble, we’re supposed to sit in it patiently rather than struggling to get past it as quickly as possible. We’re supposed to be busy – not with checklists and errands and tasks – but with prayer, that exercise where we sit around and talk to God. Instead of trying to bring people back to reality when they’re thrilled out of their minds, we’re supposed to rejoice with them. Instead of trying to cheer people up when they’re sad, we’re supposed to weep with them.
These are the things that love does. It doesn’t talk about doing them. It does them. Unhypocritically.
There’s this fun wordplay in verses 13 and 14 that you can’t really hear in English. Literally, it says, “pursue hospitality” and “bless those who pursue you.” The word translated as pursue in both verses can also mean persecute. But Paul is connecting our extension of hospitality to the blessing of people who are out to get us.
I wish those young people surveyed for the book, UnChristian, would spend a little time at 1st on 4th. Because what they would find here is love, not hypocrisy.
I mean, we’re not perfect. I’m sure we sometimes slip up and occasionally fail gloriously. After Stewardship season, I’ll get back to talking about our flaws and failings and the grace that sustains us.
But right now, you need to know that, as I’ve said many times, we are a unicorn church. This is the church everybody wishes church would be. Because we aren’t full of ourselves. We laugh at ourselves. We own our stuff. We admit when we’ve missed the mark, and we love and forgive each other, and we try again. I have witnessed this so many times in my two years of ministry with you.
We truly and deeply appreciate one another’s gifts. And especially when it comes to loving people, we don’t mess around. Our actions match our words.
And that’s why, here at 1st on 4th, we don’t just serve cookies and crackers and coffee to our brothers and sisters, our beloved friends here in this place. We pursue hospitality with anyone who walks in off the street, whether they pursue us or not, whether they like us or agree with us or not, whether they’d like to help us or they’re out to get us.
Earlier this month, my son Dean was serving with our awesome crew at the Community Kitchen. That night, there happened to be several folks who got into heated arguments that nearly broke out in fist fights. As Dean and I talked about the experience, I kept trying to get him to recognize that most of the people at the kitchen were nice, and grateful, and just like you and me. But that wasn’t his experience. He said that most of the people he interacted with were grumpy and strange and even a little scary. And I realized that we have this narrative around hospitality that says we serve people because deep-down, they’re really like us, they’re really good. And our service makes a difference. It makes them happy. It makes them grateful.
But the truth is, that’s not the hospitality that comes from love. That’s hypocritical. It’s acting, it’s pretend love. We say we’re serving people selflessly as Christ served us, but we’re really self-interested. We really want to make people like us, and make people like us.
Unhypocritical love pursues hospitality towards those who are not like us and who don’t like us. We might find those folks at the Community Kitchen, and we might find them in the pew next to us. But wherever we find them, we love them.
When people come up to our doorstep during Night on the Town, they can’t believe we are just handing out free popcorn and inviting folks in to look around or use the restroom.
There’s a catch, right? You want to lure me in, get more bodies in the pews and dollars in the plate. They’re pretty sure it’s some kind of bait and switch. Because that’s what Christians have been doing in this country for decades. It’s tough to convince them that we really just love them because they are our neighbor, and we want to show that love with free popcorn and bathrooms. It shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. But it is.
You all let me visit you when you’re sick and listen to you when you’re sad or confused or angry. But as soon as I show evidence of a sniffle or a headache, you all are checking in on me and offering to bring casseroles. And it’s not just because I’m your pastor. You do this for each other. You do this for everyone. You contribute to the needs of the saints and the not-so-saintly and show hospitality to friends and strangers.
We love people at 1st on 4th, unhypocritically, not because we are such an exemplary church or such outstanding people. The love and actions described in this passage are a response to the love and grace of God. We live by Paul’s admonitions as the response to a grace taken seriously enough to shape our lives accordingly.
Our community life and individual lives are shaped by love. Love for God and for one another. And so, our actions are consistent with our words. Which means, we put our time and energy and passion and gifts and skills and MONEY where our mouth is.
Your church leaders, your elders and Deacons, and committees, work tirelessly to manage the loving work of this church, to care for those in need, to provide meaningful, praise-filled worship. Volunteers step up to teach and provide refreshments and to clean and make repairs. You had 10 people travel all the way to Mexico this year to serve with our sisters and brothers in the Yucatan, and you have folks who spend hours every month serving our neighbors in this community.
And this is the season when we remember that this is a church that is also abundantly generous with its money. I love that I don’t have to get up here during Stewardship season and plead for money to keep the lights on and the boiler running and the pastor’s salary paid. That would be super awkward. I thank you that I don’t have to do that. You all are as generous with your money as you are with your time and everything else.
All I have to tell you is that we’ll need a bit more next year. We want to continue loving our youth and children with new staff. We want to continue welcoming folks to use the restroom in our building during community events. We want to extend our mission and ministry in new and exciting ways. And so, we’ll need a little more.
And I am blessed, because I have exactly no doubt that you all will step up, as you have again and again. Because you are that unicorn church. You are special. You do what so many other churches aren’t doing. You are proving that love is not hypocritical, that the church, this church anyway, is not hypocritical.
And the support you give to this church’s ministry will allow us to share that love with the young people of our community. It will help us send a different message from the one they’ve heard, outside and inside some churches. Love is not hypocritical. That’s why we say, “God loves you,” and then we love you and don’t judge you. We say, “everyone is welcome” and then welcome and include everyone. We say, “Jesus will transform your life” and then we make room and offer the flexibility for that change to occur.
We’re not perfect, or even better. I’ll be the first to admit that. But we love. And we mean it. And we live it. Because our life, and our church, is shaped in joyful response to the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, to whom be all glory forever and ever. Amen.