Text: Romans 12:9-21
(Worship Under the Trees service)
I have asked a number of people - kindergartners, grade school students, undergrads, graduate students, elementary teachers, college professors, principals - if they were glad to be back in school. The answers fell into three categories: yes, no, and then the majority said kind of/sort of. For most, there were mixed feelings, both pros and cons.
On the plus side, students get to see friends, school can be fun, it is something to do, parents are glad to get the kids out of their hair and back in school. The social aspects of education can be pretty important. Beyond that, I have talked with students who really like their classes and enjoy what they are learning.
Then there is the negative side. You have to take notes. There are tests. You have to study. You have to plan. You have to write papers. And that is just what I heard from the professors. It’s no picnic for the students, either.
I’d like for us for a moment to think about our scripture today as though it were a lecture heard in class. This is not an especially long passage; it is fairly short and concise. But there is a great deal packed into these verses. In our text today there are 30 injunctions, 30 instructions to follow. If you heard this in a lecture, you would be scribbling furiously to get it all down.
I have heard homiletics professors say that the structure of the text should be a cue for the structure of the sermon. If the text is a story, the sermon will probably flow differently from a sermon based on a Psalm. If the text is a theological argument, the sermon would likely be structured differently than if our scripture were a parable.
Well, a scripture that contains 30 different instructions poses some unique possibilities. We could go with a 30-point sermon. It would be a kind of macho approach. “Yeah, I preached a 30-point sermon.” But it might be kind of choppy - that is a lot of transitions – and I finally decided that if the sermon was like one of those lectures that just goes on and on, we might not have very many people back next week.
I did think of a possible modification. I could give a pop quiz. I could read the 30 different instructions - Do not lag in zeal, be patient in suffering, extend hospitality to strangers, and so on. You would tally 1 point for each of these that you practice most of the time, and if you get 20 points, then you get in line for lunch. The rest of you would have to sit through a 30 point sermon. But that seemed to violate the spirit of the text itself – it might knock a few points off of my score.
It can come across as a lot of instructions to follow, a lot of stuff we are supposed to do, but Paul is really not giving us 30 different instructions, 30 points for the class to remember for the test. Rather, Paul is describing the characteristics of Christian living – the marks of true Christian faith. The entire passage is a way of further defining and describing what we find in the very first verse: “Let your love be genuine.” All that follows – the 29 other injunctions - are descriptions of what genuine love looks like.
If you had to choose one passage of the Bible and try to live your life based on that one passage, you could do a lot worse than to live your life on these words.
“Let your love be genuine.” Literally, this reads “love un-hypocritical.” Love that is for real - not fake or put on or show-offy – here is what it looks like.
An interesting idea Paul shares has to do with competition. “Outdo each other,” he says. We know about outdoing each other. We live in a very competitive society—we compete at all kinds of thing. Sports, grades, houses, jobs, clothing, cars. We compete with friends and strangers alike in games we play games on our phones. And it can happen with churches as well. We can be very competitive.
I have a couple of good friends from my hometown in Indiana who are serious bowlers. Randy is the one who is really into it – he competes in a lot of pro bowlers tour events. When he turned 50, he thought, now I am going to really make a splash because now I can join the senior tour. I can win against the old guys. But as it turns out, it doesn’t work that way. It would be like me turning 50 and thinking I could really excel in senior league basketball but then Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Dr. J show up at the gym.
Well anyway, my friends Randy and Kevin were in a Senior PBA tournament in Iowa a month or two back. I met them and we all went to see Field of Dreams – they are big baseball fans and had never been there. Another guy had traveled with them for the tournament and he went along as well. I have known Randy and Kevin for years but had never met Jeff. So we are in the car driving up to Field of Dreams and Jeff, this guy I had never met, hears that I am a pastor. And what is the first thing he asked? What do you think? “How big is your church?” Very first question. Apparently he goes to some kind of massive church. “How big is your church?”
I told him a little about First Baptist, but what I really wanted to ask him was, “How awesome is your church?” But I didn’t.
We can be competitive about a lot of things. And Paul urges us to be competitive - with a twist. He says, “Outdo each other in showing honor.” Outdo each other in the care and respect and help and encouragement that you show. This doesn’t mean rubbing it in someone’s face that you are more loving than they are – that would be kind of a self-defeating action, wouldn’t it? – but it means having the kind of enthusiasm and drive and commitment to being loving and compassionate and to doing good that we so often see in our various competitive activities.
Paul says that as a community, we are to have a mutual affection – a deep, shared concern. An AP story reported on Mark Lowery, a 7th grader at a Lutheran school in Yorkville, Illinois. He was diagnosed with leukemia and the other students learned that Mark would soon be undergoing chemo treatments and lose his hair. By the end of that week, 14 of the 16 boys seventh and eighth grade boys in the school had shaved their heads. Two of the 16 were not bald. One was waiting to have his clipped that weekend. The other was Mark, who had undergone a treatment but still had his hair. Genuine love within the community means sharing our lives with one another. Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Those seventh and eighth grade boys knew something about love.
But the genuine, un-hypocritical, “for real” love Paul writes about is not simply for those who are within the community of faith. We are not called just to care for each other within the church; we are called to action in the world, to care for those in need whomever and wherever they may be.
The two go together. It is the love – the care, the encouragement, the acceptance, the support that we gather from the community that enables us to go out and serve boldly in the world.
Tom Ehrich, an ordained Episcopal priest and a writer and church consultant, wrote last week about the importance of churches being safe places – where members feel acceptance, dignity, and respect and are treated as people of value. This is something a lot of people don’t experience in their day-to-day lives and too few people experience even in church. He wrote, “(Such) a congregation would equip us with the faith, self-confidence, courage and tools to go forth into a dangerous world and be God’s agent for hope and healing, diversity and justice.” Writing about the fighting that can sometimes go on in churches, he argues that going forth from God’s community into God’s world will never happen if the basic faith enterprise itself is not experienced as a safe and loving place.
But he went on to say, “Let’s devote less energy inside the walls but instead draw strength there for devoting energy outside. We expend too much effort trying to perfect church -- to perfect the people around us, to perfect our worship and internal ministries, to perfect our surroundings. God needs us working out there, not fussing in here.”
Paul’s description of love that is “for real” in Romans 12 mirrors what Ehrich is talking about. It includes both love experienced within the community of faith as well as love that we express outside the walls of the church.
I always enjoy this service that we hold outside each year, just as I have really enjoyed our services at Brookside Park in the summer. It’s fun, it’s more casual, it’s different, I don’t have to wear a suit and tie, we always have a good meal - there are a lot of reasons to like this service. But I also think it is really helpful to worship outside the walls of the church if for no other reason than to remember that we are part of a larger community, a bigger world. We have neighbors all around us with various gifts and concerns and needs and frustrations. We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in the real world. Cars and passersby and traffic noise might be distractions, but we might also think of them as reminders.
This year our church joined AMOS, a group that does this work of reaching out to make a difference in our community by changing structures, by engaging the principalities and powers, as the Bible puts it, to be more fair and just for everyone. In the next few weeks, our church and the other 26 AMOS institutions will hold house meetings. In these meetings, small groups will gather and basically share about where they feel pressure in life – where life is hard. Out of the concerns that are shared, AMOS will come up with the issues that it will research and address in the coming year or two. This is not just for church members – friends and neighbors, anyone is welcome. The more community members who participate, the better.
A few years ago, a woman attended an AMOS house meeting and told her story. She had no health insurance. An expectant mother, there was nowhere in Story County where she could get pre-natal care. The time came, she went into labor and drove to the hospital in Marshalltown. They told her that she had not dilated enough and to come back when she was farther along. So she went to the parking lot and sat in her car, with two young children, in freezing February weather, to wait until her labor was far enough along that she could be admitted to the hospital.
She told her story, and something came out of that. Through several partnerships, a free pre-natal clinic was started and is held in a mobile clinic at Bethesda Lutheran Church twice a month, staffed with a doctor from Broadlawns who volunteers his time. This has all led to a new community health clinic that opened this year in Ames.
The whole story – and the work of AMOS – is an example of love expressed by the people of God beyond the walls of the church.
Paul writes, “Contribute to the needs of the saints. Extend hospitality to strangers. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.”
Genuine love, as Paul describes it, cares for others, cares for the world, and in fact extends even to those who are our enemies. He writes, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”
Martin Niemoller, the famous German pastor and theologian, put it this way: “It took me a long time to learn that God isn’t the enemy of my enemies. God isn’t even the enemy of God’s enemies.”
Now like many of you, I am struck at how unjust, how unfair, how difficult, how plain mean our world can be. The news can be so depressing. In a world of terrorism, in a world of violence, in a world of such deep differences, in a world of such animosity and hatred, loving our enemies sounds so out of touch. Oh, it might sound nice and spiritual, but it just seems terribly naïve and unrealistic. If you really try to love an enemy in this world, it might get you killed.
From a certain perspective, this is true. Loving others doesn’t work. But there is another perspective, and that is the perspective of Jesus. What if Jesus had said, “Loving my enemies isn’t realistic. Loving my enemies will never work.”
It is true that loving one’s enemies can be dangerous. Look what it did for Jesus. Jesus knew what it would lead to, and yet he said to his followers, “you must love one another.” And not only that, but “Love your enemies.” Jesus came to show us what love is--genuine love, love that is for real. And he showed us how dangerous living that way can be. Jesus died on the cross for all of humanity, for those who love him, and for those who do not.
We have the example of Jesus, but still, the question is there. Is the love that we read about this morning - a love for each other, a love for our world, a love that extends even to enemies – is it realistic? Is it worth it?
Maybe we should ask a different question. In a world filled with so much pain, can we as Christians do anything less than love? Outdoing each other in goodness, weeping together and celebrating together, helping those in need, even loving our enemies. This is what God has called us to do. And in the end, this may be the only thing that makes sense.
We don’t have to memorize thirty rules about Christian behavior. We don’t need a 30-point sermon (although if I’m flooded with requests, I may consider it.) It is all wrapped up in one word. Love. Love that is for real. Amen.