Sermon August 30 Romans 12:9-20 And Furthermore.... Rev. Betsy Hogan
Are you a list-maker? Some people are really organized about it. They keep a sort of ongoing shopping list on the fridge, jot items onto it as they're used up so they can be replaced. Or they have a list of errands or chores to get through on any given day, and carefully cross each one out as it's accomplished.
I'd like to grow up to BE these people... I do give it a go now and then, sort of as practice, though I usually find that once I've written something down I don't actually need to have it written down anymore...
But still, these reminders, these lists we make or post-it notes we post -- like one on the front door saying "Have you got your hearing aid in?" -- they can be helpful. Particularly when there seem to be more things to remember than we're certain we CAN remember. It's not bad to have a list.
This past week, for example, I would imagine there were a great many parents wandering around carrying lists of school supplies. Long lists of school supplies, all of which need to be labelled -- in my experience, at least, primarily so that I knew to whom something actually belonged, when it came home in my son's backpack. Because if it weren't for the list, something -- for sure -- would be forgotten. In the chaos of back-to-school, it's good to have a list.
But there's another kind of list we sometimes keep in our heads or inflict on our children, especially when it's back-to-school, or first day of a new job, or any kind of just-starting-out, really -- the list of instructions and encouragement.
My dad gave me the same one, for example, every year of high school, of CEGEP, of university. His annual back-to-school speech, just one bit of instruction and encouragement. "Don't just go to classes," he'd tell me. "Sign up for activities -- band or drama or debating or whatever. Go to the football games, go to public lectures. Experience all of it -- school is much more than just classes."
And that was it. My dad's annual back-to-school "list" of instructions and encouragement. Only one item, but it was a good one. Short and sweet. And that was good too. Because the truth is, if he'd rattled on endlessly, with a great staggering list of instructions, like any self-respecting teenager, I probably would have zoned out about halfway through.
As, in my imagination, all the teenaged Romans did when this part of the letter of Paul to the Romans that we just heard was read aloud in their church.
Twenty-five separate instructions, strung just one after another. Do this, do this, don't do that, do this, not that, but also this, and this, but avoid that -- by the time this particular piece of Paul's letter was done it might not only have been the teenagers that were contemplating the ceiling -- there really is a limit for everyone, I think, as to how much impact what's basically a laundry list of directions is really going to have in the grand scheme of things.
It's almost like Paul's afraid he might forget something, so he just lists every instruction and encouragement he can think of. All in a row. And now -- phew! -- he's covered EVERYTHING. Now he can cross that off his list.
So, yes. It could be a more inspiring piece of scripture. It could feel a bit less like Paul just knocking it out, getting the job done. It could seem more directly connected to something that's actually happening in the church in Rome, and less like a catch-all of bits-and-pieces instructions for living a Christian life.
But oh well, too bad, it's what we have. And if nothing else, at least there's the benefit of having all these helpful directions conveniently located in one place. Inspiring and poetic this passage may not be, but it's definitely efficient!
And of course, what it all boils down to -- twenty-five separate instructions notwithstanding -- is on the one hand, how we should BE, and on the other hand, how we should BEHAVE.
Not just because we're people, although that's certainly arguable, but in particular because we're people who identify -- in how JESUS was and in how JESUS behaved --the full measure of what's possible and healing and life-giving, for life in the world to be about.
Because that's what Paul is describing here for the Romans, and for us. A life patterned existentially and practically on the life of Jesus. A Christian life. So that we'll get to heaven? So when the roll is called up yonder we'll be there? Or so we'll be "successful"? Prosperous? Never have anything bad happen to us?
Not even close. Paul wasn't anything like naive enough to have believed that last one. The prosperity gospel would have turned his stomach, and as for anyone getting to heaven, however we understand that? That just IS, Paul's emphatic about that -- it's all about how much God loves God's people; it can't be earned, it's not about checking stuff off a list.
So no -- Paul's only purpose here is to encourage a Christian life for the sake of encouraging a Christian life. Because it builds up instead of tearing down. Because it heals instead of hurting. Because it encourages and empowers instead of ignoring or trampling.
And all we need to do is follow Paul's list of instructions. Just twenty-five simple steps! But the good news is, those twenty-five simple steps pretty much boil down to a couple of basic principles.
About how, in the Christian life, we're called to BE. Inside ourselves, the attitudes and perspectives to cultivate, the basic stance in relation to others to adopt and embody, or at least try to achieve.
And the first thing we're called to BE, unsurprisingly, is to be loving. Loving not in the sense of gushy, or rainbows and pussycats fakey, but loving in the sense of actual regard for and a sense of responsibility for -- and to -- other people, the people around us. Loving in a way that's genuine -- that clearly arises out of a belief that other people are worth our time, and worth being polite to, and worth taking into consideration.
When I was a teenager, there was a groundswell of complaining that Montreal busdrivers were surly and rude. Which, to be honest, they kind of were. Though it probably wasn't a whole lot of fun being a Montreal busdriver. But at any rate, because of all the complaints, the bus company actually instituted a rule that whenever anyone got off the bus, the bus driver had to say "Thank you. Have a good day!". In a cheerful voice. Like he meant it.
Which everyone thought was hilarious. Like all of them parrotting nice words would actually change anything. But you know what? It DID. And it didn't even take very long. The drivers said thank you, the passengers said thank you back, everyone got a whole lot more cheerful, the drivers actually started greeting people when they got ON the bus. The whole bus-taking atmosphere just got brighter. It really did make a difference, as ridiculous as it sounds.
And the Apostle Paul wouldn't have been surprised. He might have thought it was sort of too bad that the busdrivers had to be ordered to appear like they actually cared about the people around them, but he wouldn't have been surprised that they very quickly DID actually care about the people around them. And that it was good for everyone.
Because for Paul it really is all about operating out of that stance of love -- kindness, caring, regard, responsibility, for others. Operating out of that basic perspective that everyone around us is as much a person as we are. Literally looking at other people as though we're looking in a mirror, in terms of how much care we think they deserve.
So it starts with being loving, this Christian life Paul describes for us. And the second thing, in terms of what it means for how we should BE, that Paul's directions here all boil down to, is that we need to be open. We need to cultivate a willingness to connect. To be present to others in relationship. Not just to rejoice with those who are rejoicing, but also to mourn with those who are mourning.
Which is tough. It's technically tough during a pandemic, but it's tough anyway: to be willing to share pain, to worry about people, to not know what to say but to want so much to help. It's difficult. It's emotionally draining. To be open, to be willing to really be in relationship with the people around us -- there's a real vulnerability in it. But quite apart from that, it also takes time, it takes energy, and sometimes.... it even takes research.
Just two days ago, it was the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington. Already a day fraught with meaning and emotion for millions and millions of people, but particularly so at a time when the furious need for that dream to come true – the furious demand for a reshaped 'law and order' that actually manifests justice – is so heightened.
"I have a dream" with all its soaring rhetoric – it's easy to forget how much anger that speech carried. And 57 years later, still – so much anger. At what is still – and here too – so much systemic injustice. Friday was a day fraught with emotion for millions and millions of people.
And then Friday night, breaking news. That the actor Chadwick Boseman had died of colon cancer at age 43.
But here's the thing. I didn't have a clue who that was. I read it in a Facebook message, from a member of the congregation, as it happens – that Chadwick Boseman had died, but I had to go look him up.
Not a clue. I love tv – I hardly ever watch movies. Didn't know his name, soooort of recognized his face – and meanwhile social media and actual media were being FLOODED with grief.
Sometimes... cultivating present-ness to each other, a willingness to connect, so we can not just rejoice with those who are rejoicing but also mourn with those who are mourning – it actually takes research.
Chadwick Boseman played the King of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther. He played Jackie Robinson, he played Thurgood Marshall, he played James Brown – but most iconically by far, he played the King in Black Panther. He brought that character to life. A noble, strong, courageous, powerful Black role model in a huge Hollywood movie. That's golden. That's big meaning for a LOT of people.
And he did that battling stage 3 and then stage 4 colon cancer? Because that's how much it mattered to him? That's King all over again: "I may not get there with you". And he didn't. But to miss the opportunity to make the contribution he could? No way.
Big meaning. Big grief. And is it in my bones? No. I didn't even recognize his name. I never saw the movie. But rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, is what Paul says. And sometimes that takes research. Like me googling Chadwick Boseman.
Because if we don't get it, what are we missing about what our human family is going through? What are we missing about what matters and where big meaning is being made... for people who aren't us? There's a reason Paul emphasizes this in his endless list – and it's because that's how real diverse community gets built. Like the real diverse community he's dealing with in Rome.
We all have all our fingers and toes crossed right now, as we're heading into the beginning of the school year. There's going to be a certain amount of chaos and I think some real challenge in trying to figure this new stage of pandemic out NOT in the context of Springtime and the moving outward, but instead in the context of Autumn and the moving inward.
And the one piece of the specialness of church community that I really feel quite desperate to somehow re-achieve in a meaningful way is the thing where the church is the only institution left in which the generations mix outside of family. And not everyone's background is the same. And not everyone's present is the same.
Because that's part of the research. So we CAN rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, just as Paul wrote for us on his nice list. That we should follow? Sure. But it's more like we get to follow it. Because it expands our understanding of what matters to each other. It's the best of what we're made for. God being our helper. Amen.