Sermons

pastorEric aug2014Sunday's Sermon - 
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. 

 

“Try never to injure another by word, by act, or by look, even. Forgive as soon as you are injured, and forget as soon as you forgive.”

I will come back to this quote later. I thought of it as I read the wonderful words from St. Paul about love, part of today’s second lesson: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection ...”

In the verses before today’s second lesson Paul urges his readers to be “one body in Christ.” In today’s text Paul goes on to give a series of commands for Christians. Today, as in Paul’s time, many people assume that Christians are to hate evil. However, many people today, as in Paul’s time, also talk about using “fire to fight fire” and seeking retribution upon the enemy, even quoting Exodus 21, “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” But, Paul offers a different response for Christians saying we should even “bless those who persecute” us and that we should “not repay evil for evil.” Vengeance, Paul reminds us, is not ours to give but is up to God. Commentators suggest that Paul is reflecting here on Jesus’ admonition to Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you from Matthew 5:44, a verse which describes a righteous Christian life according to St. Paul. The righteous life of Christians is not just good, it is a particular kind of goodness, a goodness grounded in genuine love and active in doing good, doing good even to one’s enemies. We are not to allow our efforts on behalf of righteousness to destroy the good. Rather than using evil to overcome evil, we are to "overcome evil with good" and in all things to “love one another with mutual affection.”

“Love one another.” So simple, so direct, and so difficult. The history of the Christian Church is full of examples where Christians did not love one another. Our congregation’s history is no different. My own life is no different. I am certain it is the same in your lives.

For example, for me, one of the biggest challenges to loving one another is righteous indignation. I bet you know about this, too. Righteous indignation is the temptation to respond with anger or hate or just simple snippiness when we know someone else is wrong or has wronged us. It is the temptation to respond with a “gotcha.”

But, here is my experience – every time I have responded with righteous indignation, I have been wrong. Every time I have responded with righteous indignation, I have been wrong and I have lived to regret that response. Not sometimes. Every time.

This got me thinking about loving and forgiving and the quote with which I began today. It is from the story of Johnson Whittaker, who, in the late 1800’s, was one of the first African Americans to attend the US Military Academy, West Point.

Johnson Chestnut Whittaker was born a slave in 1858 in Camden, South Carolina. In 1880 he was in his fourth year at West Point when three cadets burst into his room and attacked him.

Whittaker was the only African American at the school at that time. There were no other African Americans – students, faculty or staff.

The masked intruders who burst into Whittaker’s room and attacked him, slashed Whittaker’s face, hands and ears with a razor, smashed a mirror over his head and left him unconscious and bleeding.

When no one confessed to the attack, school officials concluded that Whittaker had attacked himself to discredit the military! Secretary of War Robert Lincoln discharged Whittaker from the academy, saying that Whittaker had failed a philosophy class. He had not failed that or any class. As a part of his discharge, Whittaker was also court-marshaled for his actions.

US President Chester Arthur later overturned Whittaker’s court-martial, but Whittaker was never commissioned as a US Army officer because of this incident.

Whittaker became a professor at South Carolina State University where he taught for many years. He died in 1931.

And that ended this story for 115 years. However, in 1995, US President Bill Clinton awarded Whittaker’s commission as an officer in the US Army to him posthumously.

At a White House ceremony attended by Whittaker’s descendants, Clinton said, “Johnson Whittaker was a rare individual, a pathfinder, a man who through courage, example and perseverance paved the way for future generations of African American military leaders. We cannot undo history,” said Clinton, “but, today, finally, we can pay tribute to a great American and we can acknowledge a great injustice.”

Whittaker’s granddaughter, Cecil Whittaker Pequette of Los Angeles, attended this White House ceremony and said it was “a happy day and a proud day. It keeps our faith in America strong.”

Thus, an awful story had an appealing, happier ending. A terrible injustice was righted after more than 100 years.

But, there is more.

During the White House ceremony, President Clinton presented the family with Whittaker’s Bible. This Bible had been confiscated as a part of Whittaker’s court-marital and had been held since that time in the National Archives. As he presented this Bible to the family, Clinton said, “Today, fading words on the inside cover of that fragile volume reveal a young man whose essential goodness still offers a lesson to all of us.”

On the inside cover of his Bible, Johnson Chestnut Whittaker had written these words: “Try never to injure another by word, by act, or by look, even. Forgive as soon as you are injured, and forget as soon as you forgive.”

Important words for you and me this day and every day. Words to think of when we are tempted to respond with righteous indignation over a perceived wrong that has been done to us. Words to think of anytime.

“Try never to injure another by word, by act, or by look, even. Forgive as soon as you are injured, and forget as soon as you forgive.”

Or, as St. Paul tells us, “let love be genuine; hold fast to what is good; love one another …”


Amen.

 

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California

 


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