Are you a listmaker? I’m not, or at least I didn’t use to be one. But then I noticed that when life just seems to be piling up I’m a lot less likely to forget things when I write them down and manage not to lose the piece of paper I wrote them on. A few years ago I found this app that manages all my tasks and sends me a tidy to-do-list in my email every morning. It’s called Remember the Milk, and it’s great for grocery lists, but also for recurring things like changing air filters around the house or sending that monthly email reminder to the guys.
I think I may have become a listmaker. Going back to school has a lot to do with it. All those reading and writing assignments – there’s no way to keep up with all that without a personal assistant or a great app that syncs across all my little screens, from the phone to the pad and the laptop. This summer I said good-bye to Remember the Milk and said hello to Wunderlist (app relationships are short-lived), which is half-German for miracle list or wonder list. Great app. And you know what is one of the best features? When I check off an item, I get a “ding” – and I hate to admit it, because I know it makes me something akin to a lab rat, but that “ding” has a direct connection to the area of my brain where deep satisfaction registers. It feels good to tap the complete box and get a “ding.” It makes me feel like the little boy who got a gold star for his homework.
Now the Rev. Hope Hodnett is in a whole different category of listmaking. She will tell you that it’s a terrible waste to just put “do the laundry” on your list. She breaks it down to “wash whites” – check; “dry whites” – check; “fold whites” – check; “wash light colors, dry light colors, fold light colors” etc. She gets twelve things done in the time other folks just do their laundry!
Do you think the Apostle Paul was a listmaker? Today’s reading from his letter to the Romans sure sounds like a list. Let love be genuine. Be ardent. Serve. Rejoice. Contribute. Bless. Extend. Don’t be haughty. Live peacably. I counted thirty-one imperatives in that short passage. I’d say that makes it a list; but it’s not a to-do-list. These aren’t items we can check off and move on to the next. It’s something like a “to-become-list,” and it’s all about how believers extend the love of God in Christ to each other and on to others outside the community of believers. It’s about becoming a community shaped by nothing but the love of God. It’s about becoming a community whose life together in the world shines with the likeness of Christ.
“Let love be genuine” it begins – and everything that follows is an unfolding of that initial statement. In Greek, there are just two words: Love – unhypocritical! No masks. No pretending. No counterfeit niceness. Love as real as Christ crucified and risen. That’s enough for a lifetime of prayer and practice.
Paul knew that, and that’s probably why he started to unfold it for his listeners and readers. “Love one another with mutual affection.” The word he uses is philadelphia, love one another like family, like brothers and sisters. You come from very different parts of town, different parts of the world even, and your daily lives rarely overlap – love one another like family. Yes, all of you. Jews and Gentiles. Wealthy wine merchant and day laborer. Love one another like family.
I wonder if somebody in Rome unfolded those statements some more when they first read Paul’s letter there on a Sunday night. I wonder how they read that letter, that particular passage. One verse at a time? I don’t know how else they could have done it. The unfolding of unhypocritical love in a city that’s not particularly friendly to making righteousness a standard of community, the unfolding of unhypocritical love in such a city is demanding.
I imagine them saying to each other, “We need to talk about these things. Don’t you think? One line tonight. Then let’s talk about the next one next Sunday. We can’t just hear these words and nod and sing another hymn and go home. This isn’t just a laundry list of things to do or not do; these words make demands. We need to let them sink in so they can begin to renew our doing, speaking, and thinking.”
I wonder if perhaps the first Christians in Rome learned these words by heart. One phrase each. And every time they gathered to pray and break bread together, just before the benediction, just before they all went home, one would say, “Let love be genuine.” And from the other end of the room a voice would respond, “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” And yet another voice would add, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”
I wonder how they wove those words into the fabric of their life together in the unending effort to let nothing but the love of God shape their community. How did they, how do we remind each other to persevere in prayer without just telling each other what to do? How do we encourage each other to serve the Lord in all that we do instead of just adding more and more things to do to our days?
Today is our first Sunday with a new schedule. We gathered for worship at 10 a.m., for a variety of reasons, but mainly to carve out a little more time on Sunday morning for all of us to simply be together. To get to know each other. To learn each other’s names. To hear each other’s stories. We have more ways to connect via technology than any generation before – mobile phones, email, text, tweet, facebook, skype, websites, not to forget good old handwritten notes and glossy newsletters. But in order to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep,” we need more than a name in a prayer concern that arrives in our inbox or is printed in a bulletin. Love is never virtual. Love is embodied. Love is incarnate. Love as real as Christ crucified and risen gathers us around a table, face to face; blesses us, hand in hand.
That hour after worship gives us an opportunity to unfold more layers of genuine love, simply by being together. And it’s not just about us. It’s not about suddenly turning our focus inward in some kind of warm fuzzy huddle. It’s about our capacity to be part of God’s church in this city. It’s about modeling community that is inspired and shaped by the love of Christ. Perhaps you noticed how in Paul’s unfolding of the demands of love the circle is being extended further and further outward to include not only strangers, but even enemies. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” he writes, and “never avenge yourselves.” Why not? He tells us earlier in his letter: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us; … while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:8, 10). We are to leave vengeance to God who did not repay evil for evil but overcame it with good.
Barbara Brown Taylor affirms that "the only way to conquer evil is to absorb it. Take it into yourself and disarm it. Neutralize its acids. Serve as a charcoal filter for its smog. Suck it up, put a straitjacket on it and turn it over to God, so that when you breathe out again the air is pure." I counted seven imperatives in just over fifty words. She sounds quite confident that you can do all that – take it, disarm it, neutralize it, all of it – between breathing in and breathing out. I think Paul knows us better. It’s the love of Christ that conquers evil by absorbing it. The love of Christ takes evil into God-self and disarms it. Outside of that love we can do nothing.
The Apostle Paul doesn’t tell us to do stuff. He calls us to give ourselves to the love that has found us in Christ. He urges us to allow this love to unfold between us and transform us. And he’s convinced that neither death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from that glorious communion of life.