Tolpuddle and Puddletown

Sunday 3rd September 2017

Romans 12.9-21

 

I wonder how you would like to be remembered at your funeral. What sort of things will they say about you?

 

It’s amazing how, often, when people die, they suddenly become paragons of virtue. I hear all the time about those who never said a cross word, who were unfailingly loved by everyone, who always put the needs of others before their own, who were exceptionally patient, who gave generously to every cause they supported, who always smiled even when they were in pain, who had wings and a halo . . . .

 

When someone we love dies, of course, we want to remember their strengths and positive characteristics, but the picture I am often given of a person who has died is an airbrushed one, and not the complete truth.

Nobody would want a vicar or friend to give a funeral eulogy that said something like: she was an old cantankerous bat, who was always grumpy and never helped anybody, and we won’t miss her; he was a young man who never took advice or listened to anybody and look where he’s ended up. We just don’t do that sort of thing, however true it may be.

 

But most of us will fall between the two: neither perfect in all our ways nor completely bad. If we look honestly at our lives, we know we are not perfect, and others probably know that too, however hard we may try to hide our sins and imperfections.

 

Last week we heard St Paul telling us to be transformed and not squeezed into the mould of this world and its thinking and less than godly behaviour.

 

The way to do that was to allow God to be the one who shapes us, and to play our part in the body of Christ.

Today’s message from Romans is what follows. It is Paul setting out the sort of pattern for the behaviour of those who follow Christ.

 

The first point is the absolute key to all the others: let love be genuine.

 

Real love doesn’t involve play-acting or hypocrisy.

 

Real love depends on and is modelled on the self-giving love of the divine.

 

Real love doesn’t brush over the imperfections but loves in spite of them.

 

The love required of those who are Christians is authentic and not fake. So we can acknowledge our weaknesses and those of others, while still loving. To pretend that someone was better than they were is not a loving or genuine thing to do but living in cloud-cuckoo land.

 

Living a Christian life is not just a hobby or something we do on a Sunday morning but a gritty realism that involves commitment and passion.

From the moment we acknowledge the place of Christ in our lives – or at least the place where Christ should be in our lives – at the centre - we begin a journey of transformation.

 

Our baptisms or conversions are not just one-off days to be forgotten about and left behind. Like a wedding day they are first day of the rest of our lives, and as with a successful marriage, there will be ups and downs in our Christian lives, sacrifices to be made, times when we feel we are going forwards and other times when we might feel as if it’s the opposite.

 

Sometimes within a marriage it may feel very lonely, but as Christians we are not asked to do anything alone: God is always with us and we are part of the Body of Christ, which also demands a commitment. It isn’t good enough to say one can be a Christian without belonging to a church, because church is about so much more than what happens on a Sunday morning, and, if, for you, that isn’t the case, then stop and ask why.

 

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like God is with us, but love is not a feeling. Love is real.

 

Genuine love doesn’t depend on how we feel, but on how we live and act towards God and others. We can show love towards someone who may stir up great feelings of dislike within us – in fact look what Paul says about our enemies – feed them, water them, overcome their evil with goodness.

 

The outpourings of solidarity and community after such atrocities as the Manchester Arena bombing and 9/11 show the power of good over evil. Love will always win.

 

So it’s not surprising that in this passage where Paul is showing what the Christian life looks like, he begins with genuine love.

 

And that’s because we begin our Christian journeys not with anything we do but with the perfect love of God for us and for the world.

 

If you want to know what authentic love looks like, look at God in human clothing – Jesus, who never pretended things were better than they were, who loved completely, but didn’t let people get away with anything less than total commitment.

 

A church community should be a place where we can be absolutely honest with one another about our struggles.

 

It’s a place where we shouldn’t need to feel that we have to put on our best face or our Sunday best, because Jesus loves us as we are and that is the real love we are called to imitate.

 

A love that copes with tears and sadness and weeps with us; a love that celebrates our joy with us without envy at our good fortune but with genuine pleasure for a member of our community.

 

It’s a love that touches every area of our life.

Look at what Paul picks out: our individual life, our community life, our passion, our hope, our suffering, our prayer, our generosity, our attitude towards strangers and enemies, the joyful, the sad, the lowly: perhaps it can be summed up by those two great Commandments to love God and to love our neighbour.

 

And all of this we called to do with zeal and ardently. Be ardent in spirit – be ablaze for God.

 

Each day in Morning Prayers we pray that God will set our hearts on fire with love – that phrase hits me every time – this is a passionate love we are called to have for God, not just a dying flickering flame, but a roaring, moving blaze that affects everything in its path.

Not a fire of destruction like the one at Grenfell Tower but a fire of goodness and love that moves just as fast, a fire that responds to God’s Holy Spirit and brings healing and peace, compassion and gentleness, a fire that burns away any impurities and refines us and mould us into God’s shape.

 

Nadia Bolz-Weber is not the sort of person you would picture if you were asked what a Lutheran pastor looks like – and yet she is one.

 

She is a recovered drug addict and alcoholic, divorced, covered in tattoos, someone who knows what it is to be one of life’s outsiders, someone whose life has been dramatically changed by God, a person who tells it like it is, often in language that we would be horrified to hear in church, but in so doing she attracts many who would be the people who flocked to Jesus but who often feel that they couldn’t possibly have a place in church because they’d be judged for not being clean or pure or educated or because they live a disordered type of life.

 

She has an extraordinary ability to remind us of God’s work in those people and place that we wouldn’t immediately associate with God – as she says “what makes us the saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but God’s ability to work through sinners”.[1]

 

One of her books has the wonderful subtitle “Finding God in all the Wrong People” – exactly what Jesus did when he reached out to tax-collectors and prostitutes, cheats and sinners, adulterers and those who didn’t keep the Law. In his view there are no wrong people, only those who don’t recognise their need for God.

 

What Nadia does that many of us fail to do is to strip away the dishonesty and live with the reality of sinfulness, which is when God can transform us. If we can’t open ourselves to recognise that we’re not all sorted out there is no room for God’s transformation in our lives.

That’s why in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector it was the latter who went home justified. There was no room in Pharisee’s prayer for anything but self-satisfaction and pride; the honesty and humility of the tax-collector was what let God in.

 

Nadia’s church – known as the House of All Sinners and Saints – is a place of word and sacrament, where God meets people and brings about transformation, which, she says, is “born in a religious life, in a life bound by ritual and community, by repetition, by work, by giving and receiving, by mandated grace”.[2]

 

If we want to know what genuine love looks like in today’s world, here are some pointers from Bolz-Weber – and remember what I said about her language – don’t be too shocked by its earthiness to engage with the truth of what she say:

“The moments when:

  • I realise God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I am an asshole,

  • and when I am confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies

  • and when I am unable to judge the sin of someone else (which, let’s be honest, I love to do) because my own crap is too much in the way,

  • and when I have to bear witness to another human being’s suffering despite my desire to be left alone,

  • and when I am forgiven by someone even though I don’t deserve it and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel,

  • and when traumatic things happen in the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting,

  • and when I end up changed by loving someone I’d never choose out of a catalogue but whom God send my way to each me about God’s love.”

 

What will they say about us at our funerals? I hope we will be remembered as people who loved genuinely, honestly and without pretence. Amen.

 

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the wrong people (Canterbury Press, 2015) p. 7

[2] Ibid p.9

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