Pentecost 16 Year A
"Things to do"
"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
I’ve heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world – those who like to make lists of things to do – and those who don’t. There are people who leave scraps of paper all over the house, are always jotting things down that they want to remember, who may even consider making lists a creative activity. And there are people who never make lists (I’m not sure I know any of these people, but I know they exist), but who just go out and do things. There are really two kinds of people in the world... Actually, I’m not sure I totally agree with this statement – I think there are really three kinds of people in the world
– those who don’t make " things to do" lists, those who make lists
– and those who make lists of things for other people to do.
If that is the case, then the apostle Paul is one of the list-makers. In fact, he doesn’t just make lists of things to do: he makes all kinds of lists: lists of spiritual gifts, lists of his qualifications to be an apostle, lists of names of people he wants to thank, lists of fruits of the spirit... I could go on and on. Paul is a list-maker. And today’s lesson from Romans – really is a kind of a list, isn’t it? You can almost hear Paul numbering while he is writing: 1) Let love be genuine. 2) hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. 3) Love one another with mutual affection; 4) outdo one another in showing honor. ... and we could go on and on like this. It’s a list, a kind of a spiritual "things to do" list, both like and unlike the lists we make in our daily life. "Do laundry." "Feed cat." "Fix rocking chair." "Call the plumber." And oh, by the way, "Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer."
In fact, this list seems full of just this kind of ordinary and mundane thing. Just last week, we heard the first part of this chapter of Romans, which begins with such soaring language of transformation... You can see, I printed verse 2 in your bulletin, so you can remember. "Do not be conformed to this world," he says, "but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." So how is it that now he is writing out "things to do" lists for the Romans? How can we go from "be transformed by the renewing of your mind!" to a "things to do" list? Now I know that all the things to do are good things, it’s all good advice, like: "Extend hospitality to strangers" or "do not claim to be wiser than you are." All good things, you might say. Maybe even ordinary things. Some of the things on this list you might even think, "Of course! It just seems like common sense to me."
For example, consider the very first piece of advice Paul gives to the Romans, "Let love be genuine." Just four words, simple words, and of course, we think: what other kind of love is there? Might seem like common sense to us. But we might consider a little deeper just what Paul is talking about when he talks about "love." Let "love" be genuine – the word here really means "without hypocrisy" – so we might be tempted to think about not "faking" feelings of love for someone we don’t like. But that’s not what I think Paul is getting at. To Paul, and to Jesus as well, "love" is not primarily a feeling, but an action – an act of the will. I remember as a child, when I would get together with my good Catholic friend to discuss the mysteries of our faiths, once she said, with an air of great authority, "My priest said, you don’t have to like everyone, but you just have to love them." We weren’t sure why at the time, but we were sure that this was profound, and true. To love is a choice, an act of the will, and it expresses itself in actions, big and small – the small and great acts of kindness couples give to each other, the way neighbors pitch in for one another, organize to make their community better. "Love your neighbor as yourself..." means literally to seek the good of your neighbor as much as you would seek your own good. If you like having a roof over your head and a good job, seek that good for your neighbor as well. If you like having nutritious food to eat and a safe community, seek that good for your neighbor as well. That’s what it means to love your neighbor, and that’s what "genuine" love is, as well. Genuine love expresses itself in action.
So some of the advice on the list seems simple, and even common sense at first, but let’s face it, some of Paul’s advice might be simple to understand, but not so easy to do. Consider if you will, a verse a little farther along in Paul’s list of advice, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil...." It sounds good, doesn’t it? Eugene Peterson, in his interpretation of this passage, simply says, "Don’t hit back." But we do, don’t we? Literally, when we’re children, but even as adults, our first, our knee-jerk reaction is often to "get back" at someone who has wronged us, in one way or another. Sisters and brothers, estranged spouses, neighbors, communities, countries – get back at each other, when they have been wronged. So when we read these words, when we really consider them, when we really take them to heart, one thing we have to admit is that we do not live by them very much of the time. It reminds me of what Mahatma Gandhi said once when a reporter asked him what he thought of Western Civilization. "I think it would be a good idea," he said. I think that all of us believe that Paul’s words, "Do not repay evil for evil..." would be a good idea, but.... but....
It’s a list. It’s a list of hard, but good "things to do" in it, but it’s still a list. And, even those of you who make lists out there, even those of you who live by "things to do" lists – don’t you just hate them sometimes? I mean, we keep them because they are necessary and because we wouldn’t get anything done without them, we think, but they also remind us of how we are bound to many things, many obligations: "Feed the cat." "Do the Laundry." "Fix the chair." And oh, by the way, "Love one another." "Extend hospitality to strangers." "Contribute to the needs of the saints." It’s a list, and we feel good if we have done one of the things on the list, but the things we have not done weigh on us, make us feel guilty, or tempt us to make up excuses, or break our hearts. It’s a list.
Or, maybe we can think about it another way.
When I was in college, a couple of students I knew wrote songs. They wrote Christian songs, and one I remember because two of his songs were actually taken word for word from the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament. It wasn’t often that someone used the Old Revised Standard Version, word for word, as the basis of a Christian song. One of them was from Matthew, chapter six, and the other song was this very passage of Scripture, Romans 12, starting with verse 9. I remember how it began,
"Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal; be aglow with the Spirit; serve the Lord....."
What if we thought of these words of advice from Romans 12 not as a list, but as a song? What if we saw them not as obligations, but as a vision – a vision to aspire to, a vision of what a transformed life looks like, in all its simplicity, in all its complexity, in all its beauty and impossibility? What if we heard "let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good," and let the words seep into us as if we were hearing a beautiful song, or seeing a landscape, or discovering and studying a sculpture?
A teacher friend of mine tell the story of beginning to take piano lessons. When he first began to take piano lessons, he said, his parents tried everything to get him to practice. They kept a log of his practice time, with little stars for minutes – that didn’t work. They tried bribery – a dollar for practicing; that didn’t work. They tried threats "practice or else. That didn’t work. And then one day he got a new piano teacher, who began by sitting down and playing for him: She played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and my friend was so captivated by the beauty of the music that he began to practice because he longed for that beauty himself.
"Do not be conformed to this world," Paul writes, "But be transformed by the renewing of your mind." And here’s what it looks like: it looks like genuine love, hospitality to strangers, generous giving and generous blessing, even to our enemies. That’s what it looks like. And we’re not there yet. But I hope we are practicing like crazy, practicing like crazy, keeping the vision in front of us.
Finally, Paul tells us, or sings to us, "Do not be overcome by evil. But overcome evil with good." And I can’t help wondering, while singing this song, while writing these words, if he isn’t remembering the One who, on the cross, did that very thing. Instead of seeking revenge, Jesus loved and forgave, even his enemies, and on the third day, rose in the power of God’s love. He is the vision we seek, and his love, the power that transforms our minds, our hearts, our lives and our world. AMEN
The piano story I first heard in a sermon by Prof. Jim Limburg at Luther Seminary, in 1993.