Sunday, June 17, 2012

Let Love Be Genuine

Let Love Be Genuine
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 17, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:9
Matthew 23: 13-28

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

So I told you last week that I was going to be preaching on the "Marks of a Christian" text from Romans 12: 9-21 for the next few weeks, and so we are. I decided that I would like to look at each section of it, and so we begin this week with the first half of verse 9, which reads, "Let love be genuine," which I chose for the title of this sermon. Since that passage was so short, I chose a related text for the New Testament Lesson. In this text from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for being hypocrites. It is probably the most scathing criticism that Jesus makes of anyone. This is Matthew 23: 13-28:
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22 and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [1]
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! I hope that all of you are asking yourselves now: What does a sweet sentiment like "let love be genuine" have to do with that harsh indictment by Jesus of the Pharisees? We'll get there, but first I want to talk some vocabulary. Hey, I'm and English teacher, and a self confessing word nerd, so I get excited about things like this. The word I want to look at is genuine. I put in the bulletin there at the bottom because I had the space, the four definitions of "genuine."
1. possessing the claimed or attributed character, quality, or origin; not counterfeit; authentic; real: genuine sympathy; a genuine antique.
2. properly so called: a genuine case of smallpox.
3. free from pretense, affectation, or hypocrisy; sincere: a genuine person.
4. descended from the original stock; pure in breed: a genuine Celtic people. 

Which of these are we talking about when we read in Romans 12: "Let love be genuine?" I want to come back to definitions 1, 2, and 4 in a minute because I think they add value to our understanding of this text, but not until we look at definition #3, which I think really gets to the original meaning of this word, and the connection it makes to Jesus' tirade against the Pharisees. Definition 3 says: "free from pretence, affectation, or hypocrisy," and I had to look up "affectation;"  it means "the appearance of a quality that is not really possessed." So if we are to look at the word genuine in the context we find that it means that in love there must not be hypocrisy. Love must be true if it is to actually be love. If love is not true, then is it still love? This is one great example of the Bible Translators doing a good job because the Greek word that is translated as "genuine" is actually ἀνυπόκριτος (anypokritos). . . do you hear it? " an-hupokritos"... You can actually hear the word hypocrite within it. In Greek the prefix "an" alpha-nu, is a negating prefix, like we would say a word like not, and then hupokritos, which our word hypocrite is a direct cognate. The full line is "h agaph ἀνυπόκριτος" (ha agape anupokritos). It has a nice sweet sounding ring to it, but how biting to us as human beings. It sounds so easy and simple, but it is one of the hardest things in the world to actually do and be, to simply let love be genuine, without hypocrisy.
I want to talk a little bit about where the word Hupokritos comes from in the Greek language. It is actually the word they used for stage actor. It's cool to think about hypocrisy in that way. A person is playing a role, and are not being real or genuine. They are acting. How true? Shakespeare wrote, "All the world is a stage and we are merely players. . . one man in his time plays many parts." Doesn't that ring true for us and our world. So often we play the part of something we are not, to fit in, or to not disrupt the herd, to get along, to make our relationships work for us, to manipulate those around us, to not allow ourselves to be hurt, to protect our true selves from the dangers of abandonment, or cruelty, or judgment, so we can be admired for being smart or talented or strong, and in the end so that we can be loved.  We act so that we can be loved, but in this text love is supposed to not be that way, but we look around us and find that it is.
This is such a truism about our world that it has found its way into the popular music of our culture. Three of my favorite songs deal with this theme. One is Billy Joel's, "The Stranger." He writes and sings: ( )

Well, we all have a face that we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.
Some are satin, some are steel,
Some are silk and some are leather.
They're the faces of a stranger,
But we'd love to try them on.

Well, we all fall in love,
But we disregard the danger,
Though we share so many secrets,
There are some we never tell.
Why were you so surprised that you never saw the stranger?
Did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?

Joel gets at the fact that we tend to hide our true selves from the people we love? Bruce Springsteen, another favorite of mine, gets at the same theme in his song called "Brilliant Disguise." In the beginning of the song, he is showing how he doesn't trust the woman who he is with, wondering, saying, "Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise," but then as the song goes forward you get a glimpse of what the real problem is, he sings: 

I tried so hard baby but I just can't see
What a woman like you is doing with me.  

I'm just a lonely pilgrim I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it's you I don't trust cause I damn sure don't trust myself 

His doubts about his relationship and the way that he feels about her is all wrapped up in his insecurity and wondering whether she is being true because he isn't being true. And then the song ends with him putting up walls, and him believing that she is doing the same.

Now you play the loving woman I'll play the faithful man
But just don't look too close into the palm of my hand
We stood at the alter the gypsy swore our future was right
But come the wee wee hours maybe baby the gypsy lied
So when you look at me you better look hard and look twice
Is that me baby or just a brilliant disguise

What a shame? What is the truth there? We just never know. . . We never know what the other person is thinking, and since we have our own protections up we assume that they do as well. Another word for this is cynicism, or distrust, or well the very essence of sin.
Which brings me to my favorite of the three, from a songwriter who I think is just absolutely brilliant, a man named Townes Van Zandt, who wrote, "The Tower Song" which deals indirectly with the same thing, only showing the results of these defenses we build around ourselves. ( )

So close and yet so far away
And all the things I'd hoped to say
Will have to go unsaid today
Perhaps until tomorrow
Your fears have built a wall between
Our lives and all what loving means
Will have to go unfelt it seems
And that leaves only sorrow
You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see, it's got to fall someday

The truth he is getting at is that the towers that we build around us are fleeting and they will fall. They will fall because they are not built around the truth, they are built around lies, an act, and are just a house of cards ready to fall at any moment. The foolish man built his house upon the sand and the rains came a tumbling down. . .
Now all three of these songs are talking about romantic relationships, but the truth is the same in all of our relationships, from our most personal to our most casual and fleeting. There seems to be major parts of ourselves that we do not put forward for all to see as we play our part in our act. There is a total lack of the genuine in love when this is the case.
I was having a discussion with my students about what are important maxims to live by. One of my students said, "My parents taught me that it is important to work hard, so that  you can also play hard." He thought that was a good maxim to live by. I asked him though, doesn't that compartmentalize your life. I mean I agree with the importance of work ethic, but to completely separate work and play, is that really a healthy division of yourself. I asked him, "What do you do when those two versions of yourself conflict with each other? How do you keep them separate? What happens when they collide?" He said, "They never do." So I changed gears and asked him, "Then can every one look at your facebook page? Your parents? Your boss?" He got it. . . What do we keep hidden?
Pretty much the point of the Commencement speech I made at Blue Ridge was that the world needs those young men to love, and I completely believe that, but that love must be genuine because the world is filled enough with the false type, as we print and print money to keep our economy affloat, as we focus on the lives of celebrities and their relationships instead of our own, when we are afraid of words, choosing instead to live in the politically correct land of euphemism, when our marriages don't last, and children are growing up with wounds that cause them to build their own new towers, where charity giving is a tax right off and community service is a resume builder. The only hope is love, but how can we make love be genuine, when we see so many manifestations of it around us that is false and hypocritical, how do we trust in love again, if we ever truly did in the first place. . . Father forgive us, we know not what we do, and we never have. How do we make love be genuine?

It is here that I want to look at the other pieces of the genuine definition. I've already shown how the Greek word means without hypocrisy, but when we translate it into English the word expands because genuine has multiple meanings. The first there is 1. True, authentic, real. Yes that is what we need. The second is 2. Properly, or so called. .  . as if love itself would no longer be proper or authentic if it were not true. It would cease to be, and 4. Perhaps the most important, "descended from the true stock." It is this definition that is as close to the derivation of the word genuine as you can get because the root "gen" is the same one you find in genus, and genesis, and genetics, meaning literally "from birth" when something is genuine it is the way it is supposed to be, the way that it was created to be, the way that it is in its true form. So how do we make love be genuine again, how do we do this if we seem to be surrounded by so much love that isn't genuine. . . The answer is we can't.  .
But that is not what the text in Romans says. It doesn't say make love genuine. It doesn't say that we need to make ourselves love in a genuine way, it doesn't even say we need to make ourselves love, it says to "Let love be genuine." In other words it already is, if only we'd let it be. To let love be genuine, we simply, but I realize it is difficult, have faith that love is the answer, let it be, and then recognize the wonders of it. Again it comes down to faith rather than doubt. Trust rather than distrust, reality rather than hypocrisy. Love. . .
And so on Father's day, I stand in awe of the faith that is possible in the power of love. I have learned so much in the 2 + years of being a father, and I know that I will be humbled even more by what I will learn as the future becomes present and then past. I know all of you who are Fathers know what I am talking about, because of the love that our children inspire within us, and the amount of love that they need, and man do they need that love. Look at the history of our God the Father, and the amazing steadfast love that He has for us, and in that is true hope. . . True hope based on the power of love. True hope based on knowing that love's foundation is God, and God is the very definition of genuine love, because all that is was created by Him. Help us to see, help us to believe, and help us to follow in that amazing example of genuine love, which includes even the cross. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 23:13-29). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.