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May 6, 2012 | 4:00 p.m.
High Standards: The Marks of
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
One of our daughters is a teacher on the South Side of Chicago in a charter school. During one of her first years of teaching, I went to visit her in her classroom. She wanted me to see where she worked and to meet the fourth graders she was teaching. While I was sitting in her classroom, I couldn’t help noticing the many signs and charts on the walls of the room, filled with expectations for behavior. These included behavior about lining up, behavior in speaking, when to raise your hand, admonitions about interrupting and cleaning up and handing in work.
I was struck by how many instructions there were, and I found it a bit humorous—and ironic, from a parent’s perspective. I remembered the times when my rules at home had little effect. After my visit, I joked with Carrie, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not in your class.”
Paul’s instructions in chapter 12 of Romans are numerous. They are so numerous they can be overwhelming. One commentator calls them a loosely connected string of exhortations. I look at them and I think of the list of standards posted in my daughter’s classroom. There are so many instructions, I can’t help but be a bit overwhelmed.
The list of exhortations in Paul’s letter is given as a guide—as a list of instructions for pulling off what he instructs in verse 9: “Let love be genuine.” “Let love be genuine.”
He’s not talking about an oversimplified kind of love: let’s be nice to everyone. In the original language, this verse reads “Let the love be genuine.” So the list of instructions isn’t a list to teach us how to share a bland kind of “let’s be nice to everybody” love. The list is meant to help us share “the” love. This is “the” love Paul assumes his audience has experienced already—the prior gift of God’s loving action to each believer. How do we share the love of God we have already received? How do we let the love be genuine?
The love Paul is teaching us how to share is the grace of God we have already received. And so for starters, it is probably important for each of us to take stock periodically and try to know how each one of us has felt the love of God or the gift of God’s forgiveness and grace in our lives. The only thing I’ll say about that now is that it might be a good idea for you to spend some time with that this week. How have you experienced the love of God?
Former President Jimmy Carter wrote a book some years ago entitled Living Faith. In the opening pages of the book, he writes,
In this book I explore some of the ways my Christian faith has guided and sustained me, as well as the ways it has challenged and driven me to seek a closer relationship with God and my fellow human beings. . . . To me, faith is not only a noun, but also a verb. . . . In Christian tradition, the concept of faith has two interrelated meanings, both implying fidelity: confidence in God and action based on firm belief.
The list of instructions today are meant to instruct us in how to let the love we’ve experienced already—love and grace in our lives that has come from God—how to let that love be genuine as we share it with others. The list reminds us that faith is not simply something we’ve received—a noun—but also something we do—a verb. Faith is about both our relationship with God and our relationship with other human beings.
This love Paul speaks of—“the” love—is the love that was expressed in the life of Jesus Christ. Bob Jewett, a New Testament scholar, says, “Since God’s love for undeserving, shameful people was expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the recipients of ‘the mercies of God’ (Romans 12:1) are called to pass it on to fellow humans. So more specifically, how have you experienced the undeserved mercies of God?
Jewett’s study of this text takes into account the social context of honor that marked the Greco-Roman world, in which public recognition was the essential basis of personal identity. Everything was conditional upon your status or standing. The situation in Rome and the early church was that members of competing groups, including competing house and tenement churches, were refusing to accept each other. There was competition and judgment based on honor and prestige and standing. Paul’s writings urged those first believers and us to overcome social discrimination based on Mediterranean systems of honor and shame. And so, for example, he instructs the community to “take the lead” in showing honor to its competitors. If that were the norm—“taking the lead in showing honor to our competitors”—the imbalance in honor due to social stratification and group competition would be transformed in a way that matched “genuine love,” that is, the sacrificial, humbling, life-saving love of Jesus Christ.
In the fall, when I watch college football, especially at the end of the season when bowl games are everywhere around us, I note the coaches and how they respond to interview questions after the game. A winning coach who gives honor to the losing coach and those coach’s players always wins my respect, while a winning coach who says nothing about the other team—nothing generous—loses my respect. Paul’s instructions, far more important than how coaches act after football games, are meant to guide us as a community in showing genuine love to one another regardless of prestige and status and remnants of the honor/shame system prevalent in early Greco-Roman times. We are to take the lead in showing honor to everyone, both within our community and without, in the manner of Christ, which is a love that is not exclusionary and is not based on status.
So now the instructions sprinkled throughout the text take on more meaning. Outdo one another in showing honor; do not lag in zeal; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are: these are instructions to members of the church in Rome, who are, first of all, trying to live counter to the prevailing culture of judging everything according to honor and shame and who, second of all, are swept up in petty competitions among competing house and tenement churches.
One of the watchwords in this church, going back to the time of longtime pastor Elam Davis, is the instruction to this community of faith that we’d better always be about seeking out the least and the last and the lost, because if we forget that part of our mission, we cease to be a community of faith sharing genuine love—sharing “the” love, sharing the love we’ve received that we haven’t deserved.
I think this takes more work than listening to a sermon. I think it takes practice. And sometimes practice seems oversimplified and artificial. But practice prepares us. And so bear with my analogy. I was once part of a church staff that had been focused on learning about spiritual gifts and focused on helping the congregation to discover their spiritual gifts. While I was away with the staff on an overnight retreat, we were talking about these gifts and I was making self-deprecating and joking comments about the fact that I didn’t think I had what was termed “the gift of helps.” This is the kind of spiritual gift that some people have more strongly and obviously than others—people who just love to help people in any manner. I was busy joking about myself and said that I didn’t think I had this gift and my example to prove my statement was that if someone were to come to me saying they’d lost their keys, I’d probably respond, “Oh my, that’s too bad.” But I wouldn’t automatically think to offer to go with that person to help them look for those keys. During that discussion, another staff member knocked over her glass of water and since I’d just been talking about myself, I jumped up in exaggerated ways, still trying to be light and funny, and said “Oh, let me help you. I’ll get the paper towels.” I proceeded to jump up and to do everything I thought a person with the gift of helps would do. I was joking and making fun and being light this whole time, but I’ve never forgotten my overacting this scene, and ever since that time, I’ve become better and better at providing this kind of attention to people. Practice.
Practice in your workplace, when competition is the reality, especially in this kind of economic climate: how could you practice taking the lead in showing honor to your coworker or reminding yourself in a meeting not to be haughty and having to prove to everyone that you are wiser than you are? In a church meeting? In your family?
So find some time to take stock of how you think you may have experienced God’s love, or the grace of forgiveness from God when you haven’t deserved it. If you struggle with that task, ponder simply the gift that life is. What did you do to deserve being given the gift of life—and breath?
And then read over these verses sometime this week and choose perhaps one of the instructions and decide to practice—to practice getting better at one of them.
If you saw the movie Pay It Forward, you’ll remember that the teacher’s assignment at the beginning of the year was that his class should think about something they might do to make the world a better place. He encouraged them to experiment. Trevor, one of the class members, took the charge seriously, and as he stepped out, his efforts expanded and grew, not only in his own behavior but in the behavior of the ones he helped. They passed on the blessing to others. They paid it forward. That’s a bit what this passage is about, sharing genuine love.
Perhaps, like Trevor, you’ll have an experience you never expected and you’ll be motivated to continue on. May you have little trouble knowing how you’ve received the Lord’s humble and sacrificial love, love you haven’t deserved, and may you find your way to practicing just one thing on the list of Paul’s instructions. And as you jump in, may you be reminded that the love of Christ for you is real and genuine and a gift beyond all measure.