The scripture Judy read comes to us right from the heart of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. If you think it sounds like he’s presenting a litany of instructions for how to be Christian, you’re exactly right: Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another… On and on it goes.
In my Bible, some editor came along and assigned this passage a title— Marks of the True Christian. And I love that! It reminds me of an entry in a Peterson’s Field Guide. Like, if you’re out in the wild, and you think you might have spotted a Christian, look for these defining characteristics: Are they outdoing one another in showing honor? Are they ardent in spirit? If so, you might have found yourself a Christian!
On the one hand, Paul is writing prescriptively. He’s giving us instructions for how we should live. There’s no missing all the shoulds and supposed to’s.
On the other hand, Paul is writing descriptively. It’s like he’s saying: Notice how you’re already doing these things. You’re already rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. You’re already blessing those who curse you… Behold.
There’s a certain creative distance between hearing what we should be doing and noticing what we already are. Sometimes the old shoulds and supposed to’s don’t ring true anymore, and if the first hope is letting go of the stale prescriptions, the next hope is realizing— there’s a splendid creative distance between accepting who really we are and imagining how we might change one day.
All the stale shoulds can melt away leaving us with: Behold, this is who we are at heart. And wouldn’t you know, as soon as you say that out loud, our honesty turns into creative possibility. Our Behold turns into: Oooh! Imagine if… And once that happens? Well, Hallelujah.
Letting go of old ill-fitting expectations can be liberating.
It might seem like as a respectable and respectful church, we should not take any risk that could cause offense. We should err on the side of caution, and keep to ourselves, and stay inside where it’s safe. Nobody would blame you if you felt this pressure, but the thing about these supposed to’s is — they’re not true.
In a world that’s increasingly hostile toward immigrants, Church of Peace is not afraid to welcome refugees into the building for ESL. You’re not afraid to help our neighbors carry home food from the food pantry, no matter who might see you or what they might think.
It is not simply the case that Church of Peace is willing to quietly welcome those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender… That would be one thing. Instead, this is a church that has chosen to go public with this welcome, even if others might see it and disagree. That’s not being cautious! That’s being faithful.
You know I can talk a good game about visiting those who are locked up. I believe in that fiercely. I can also tell you it is never not frightening to walk into a jail or a prison. It can be scary to go into a hospital, or a rehab, or a nursing home and yet, that doesn’t stop you.
You will go sit down next to someone who’s in the thick of depression or in the blinding pain of grief. If there’s somebody who needs a visit, Church of Peace will not stay inside where it’s safe. You err on the side of courage and show up! Behold.
In my early days here, I was intimidated by all the ghosts in the church, all the saints whose names are on the windows and memorial plaques, that whole row of serious pastors looking down from above the office. I felt pressure from imaginary shoulds— things like: You should be a little afraid of the ones in charge. You should be zealously frugal. You should ensure that worship is formal and serious.
As it turns out, Church of Peace is simply not cold, or rigid, or severe. Look at the Time and Talent sheet, you’ll see one of the most popular ministries —what might be your most authentic love language— it’s baking cookies!
As important as it is to cut costs, the truth is, you are not a church that prizes frugality more than generosity or utility more than pleasure. You care about making people feel welcome. From the flower gardens outside, to the music of the choirs, from the meals served downstairs, to the work of the quilters, to the maintenance of the boiler, Church of Peace values quality workmanship. You know, there’s worth in making something beautiful.
Once I was here for a minute, I began to understand that the saints of the church were revered, not for their fearsome authority or austerity, but for the authenticity of their dedication. That’s when I stopped trying so hard to impress them. It turns out, we have the same loving kindness at heart. We can all lighten up.
And here’s something I learned from you… When we take God seriously, this gives us the humility to take ourselves less seriously. When we take God seriously, this makes us open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit herself is actually pretty hilarious.
Right in this sanctuary, people have told jokes and performed funny skits. We have sung all the verses of Father Abraham —including the tongue! We have sanctified silliness in order to give glory to God. We’ve shared our humor as a way of letting each other see who we really are. Behold.
Now you can understand. In this passage from Romans, Paul is giving the early Christians a set of shoulds and supposed to’s. You should associate with the lowly. You’re not supposed to claim to be wiser than you are. Never return evil for evil… If your enemy is hungry, you should give them something to eat.
If these prescriptions were stale and false, you can understand how this scripture would be a problem. Only thing is… what if they aren’t? What if these instructions are powerful precisely because they’re already true?
If I’m onto something, then Paul is not asking the church to become something it’s not. What he’s asking them to do is practice the radical love they already know so well. It’s like he’s saying: You know how to resist giving in to evil, now imagine if you were to overcome evil with good…
All the stale shoulds can melt away leaving us with: Behold, this is who we really are. And wouldn’t you know, as soon as you say that out loud, our honesty turns into creative possibility. Our Behold turns into Oooh! Imagine if… And once that happens? Well, Hallelujah.
It could be that God looks at this broken world, and loves this world, and their own heart breaks. That’s when God comes into the world to go with us. God weeps when we weep. God dies when we kill him.
Then the Holy Spirit gets up from the dead —even though it hurts, even though this turns all the universe toward the flow of resurrection, even though once you let yourself imagine life where there’s supposed to be death, well there you go! The kingdom of heaven is like this. God begins to pick up the pieces of what we have broken. And I know, says the LORD, What if we take this and make something beautiful?
Now God is still working to turn this world toward love and more love, and who would have guessed that we would find ourselves giving food to our enemies and blessing those who curse us? Who would have ever dreamed this would be possible…
More than anything, what I’m most grateful for learning is how Church of Peace harbors a shimmering faith that insists on showing up to look because what we’re about to see might change everything! I don’t know where you get this. All I can tell you, is you have it. You say: Come on, we might get to see something of life coming back to life. We might get to see something of what God is dreaming! That’s what you’re doing here.
You’ll notice, this is different from a faith that tries to convince us: Everything will be okay. Don’t worry. God has got this. Just trust that it’s going to be all right.
I mean, sure. It’s just…What if it’s going to be amazing?
Years and years ago, Bob M gave me a jar with two chrysalises attached to the inside lid and the instruction to watch them for a stretch of days, then give him a call. This is one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten!
When the time came, I called Bob and told him that one chrysalis was not moving. Bob was kind and matter-of-fact in explaining to me that sometimes in nature, not everything survives. Death is part of life, he told me.
Now the other chrysalis was moving; there were these little antenna, and the filmy case was getting devoured. There was a butterfly, right there in the jar! Bob told me: You’re going to want to take that outside and find a flower where it can land. And yes, that’s definitely what I want to do!
And if this is not exactly the faith of Church of Peace, I don’t know what is.
We know that not everything comes into being, that death is part of life. Nobody would disagree. But sometimes life turns into new life, and oh my goodness, we don’t want to miss that. What if this is the day you get to set a baby butterfly on top of a flower!
On Sunday mornings, at Zoom Centering Prayer, at meeting after meeting, you keep showing up to be this church because what if this is the day. What if there’s going to be a resurrection and you don’t want to miss it…
God has a dream for this church. Church of Peace is a people of new life. And I’m not saying you have to become that, I’m saying, you already are. Behold.
It is my prayer that the dreams of your hearts may rise into harmony with the dreaming of the Holy Spirit, until you can’t even tell whether it’s your dream or God’s dream. And oh Hallelujah, you know what. It’s going to be amazing.