Pentecost 13a: Love beyond the Mask

The second reading for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost is Romans 12:9–21; and it starts off with this challenging and profoundly simple idea: “Let love be genuine.” And the word for “genuine” means “no play acting.”

 

Daniel Schorr, the consummate CBS and NPR journalist and commentator, said that, when he started work for CBS, he didn’t quite know how to take it when a well-meaning boss advised him, “Sincerity! If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

 

Just this past Sunday, at a recent gathering for a social-distance car parade to honor a couple who are retiring after over 40 years of faithful service, I had something of a personal epiphany. Fellow church members were preparing decorations for their automobiles; and as they passed near me, I smiled. Suddenly I realized no one could see my smile under my mask. Then I wondered to myself: are my smiles genuine or fake?

 

A smile can be genuine. But much of the time it is perfunctory. It is a habit. It is a bit of what specialists call “phatic” communication—not really meant to say anything, but simply a thoughtless bit of negotiating of the social situation.

 

A smile can be genuine, and say, “I am so happy to see you, because I truly care for you.” Or it can simply say, “Don’t take me as a cad or a threat.” Blacks get tired of the smiles of liberal whites, that seem to mean, “Pass on by. Just don’t hurt me.”

 

So, wearing masks with others might be a blessing. It takes away perhaps our most potent device for faking sincerity.

 

The Apostle Paul, writing to a fledgling Christian congregation in Rome, gives advice anchored in the idea of genuine sincerity—so genuine and so sincere that it can be called love. And love is the greatest of gifts from God, and the greatest of virtues of a believer.

 

Pau’s audience lives with constant threat. Greco-Roman society that surrounds them is suspicious of this strange new religion that worships a treasonous, crucified prophet. And can these Christ-followers even trust the person sitting next to them in their gatherings? Some of them come from polytheistic backgrounds, and some from monotheistic, Jewish families, worlds apart. Together they are struggling to be an entirely new kind of society, where wealth, power and honor—the currencies that matter all around them—are now to matter not to them. They are to empty themselves, honor self-sacrifice and find life in this world and the next as they put others above themselves.

 

Paul knows, only genuine love will work for the Roman Christians. Fake sincerity, and fake smiles, have a sedative effect. They are like the casual promises we make to people: “I’ll pray for you. We have to get together sometime. I’ll always be there for you.” We throw out these promises we have no intention of keeping, and it all seems to us to be just about as good as actually praying, visiting, or helping. And a smile too can be such a lethal shortcut. Subconsciously we think, “It’s better to look good than to be good.”

 

So, Paul tells us, if you feel torn as a community, try genuine love. It’s not bad enough today that people are losing their jobs, their homes, and their lives to the pandemic. Now both political parties are working overtime and spending billions to convince us that if the other guy wins, we are all doomed. So, we must appreciate that Paul was writing to Christians who faced threats from outside, but even greater threats from the division within their own fragile community.

 

Paul said, “In such times, don’t play the victim. Don’t play the bully. Don’t think you must win your arguments. But let love be genuine, even when it looks weak to the dominators all around you. It is evil you are fighting—not other people. The only way to overcome evil is with goodness and love.”

 

So, here is what the Apostle advises us to do: “Don’t fake sincerity—let love be genuine:”

 

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.

 

 

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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