Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
I don’t know about you, but for me, although I have been out of college and seminary for many years, when September comes around each year, I still think about going back to school and I still feel a sense of newness and opportunity. I even sometimes have my old high school anxiety dreams!
Anyway, part of those “back to school” feelings is reflecting on the summer just/almost past. Kind of like that old school assignment to write about “how I spent my summer.”
No matter how you or I spent our summer, it was nearly impossible to avoid all of the heavy headlines and news. Think of some of those:
- Thousands of children fled murderous conditions in Central America to become refugees in the USA
- Ebola spread across West African nations, killing many, including many health workers
- The forces of ISIS, intent on carving out a new, extreme Islamic state took over major cities in Iraq, brutally killing anyone in their path, including journalists
- Russia swallowed up Crimea from Ukraine and now threatens the rest of that nation
- Gaza was reduced to rubble while Hamas rockets still fly toward Israeli cities
- In Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man who was to start college this week, was shot and killed by a white police officer.
Depressed enough? Sadly, this list could go on. The United Nations now reports that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” And who even remembers the “Bring Back the Girls” campaign.
It definitely was not the summer of love!
After such a summer, today we hear Paul’s words in our second lesson from Romans – “Love does no wrong to a neighbor;” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Really, Paul? “Owe no one anything , except to love one another.”
Some years ago, the well-known Swedish Lutheran scholar, the Rev. Dr. Krister Stendahl, told a group of pastors, “Never preach about love unless it is in the text.” He probably had heard too many sermons that claimed that love is the answer to everything that is wrong in this world. Of course, the word love IS in today’s second lesson from Romans – five times in just three verses.
Prior to today’s verses, Paul began this chapter telling people to obey the government authorities “for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Yikes! Think of how that verse has been misused over the years by governments and rulers of all types – think of the South African rulers in the time of apartheid there, for example, or any of the tyrants in history who have tried to justify their cruelty with God and faith – just look
at ISIS in Syria and Iraq today, for another example.
However, in today’s verses, Paul changes the subject and talks about love – guess he had never heard Dr. Stendahl’s admonition not to preach about it! Paul even says that all laws can be summed up in one simple sentence: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Whatever Paul’s reason for this change of subject, he probably also knew what we know, that loving our neighbors is no simple task.
Loving one’s neighbors is not easy. We know that. Not for us as individuals or families or neighbors or even congregation members. And, as this past summer’s headlines tell us all too well, it is even harder and sometimes seems almost impossible for Sunnis and Shiites or Isrealis and Palestinians or white police officers and young black men to like each other, let along love one another. ELCA Pastor Barbara Lundblad even suggests that it might have been easier for Paul to write about the love in a letter to the Romans since he had not yet visited them to see how they did not do so well in loving their neighbor!
So, was Paul totally out of touch with reality? We know how difficult loving each other locally really is and, especially after this summer’s headlines, should we set aside Paul’s words as totally naïve and unrealistic?
I serve on the editorial committee and write at times for a weekly online Biblical reflection series called ON Scripture – the Bible, a series which tries to relate the assigned texts for each week to current events and our own lives. Pastor Lundblad also writes for this series and her thoughts on today’s Romans text are reflected in this sermon.
This week ON Scripture – The Bible included a video about “The Interfaith Tour” a group of French young adults from different faith backgrounds who have travelled to more than 50 countries to spread interfaith understanding. They began this project by deciding to “stop talking about the other and start talking to each other.”
Recently, I also saw a news segment about the USA “Seeds of Peace” summer camp – perhaps you saw it also – an organization that brings together young people from Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims and Christians. They spend three weeks together at a summer camp in Maine, interacting with others who, until this camp, they would have considered “the enemy.”
Do these efforts matter? Do they make a difference?
Research shows that whenever people make a personal relationship across “divides” – rich and poor, black and white, Israeli and Palestinian, or Muslim, Christian and Jew – it does make a difference. Attitudes change. People in the other group are no longer enemies or stereotypes; they are acquaintances, even friends.
I was struck this past summer by the Facebook reactions to a photo from my installation, the one of Rabbi Stanton, Bishop Erwin and me in our worship garments together, a photo that became rather widely distributed online. Many people, especially among Rabbi Stanton’s Jewish friends, held our worship together as a hopeful sign. Messages such as “can these three go to the Middle East to help” were shared both in a joking and in a hopeful way.
Okay, you may be saying that there goes Pastor Shafer again into some idealistic and utopian but hardly practical ideal. And that may be so. But, I want to point out, as I have mentioned in the past, that more “realistic” efforts by our nation and other countries have certainly not solved or come close to solving many, if any, of these conflicts. Sadly, how has all of the money spent and lives lost worked out in Iraq? Or Afghanistan? Is Israel or Gaza any safer following the bombings and missile launchings? What would have happened if the billions spent on these conflicts had been used for schools and teachers and even efforts at dialogue or exchange visits across divides?
Totally naïve you may say. Perhaps. But, would the situation in Afghanistan or Iraq have been any worse if we had chosen those sort of options instead of going to war?
Okay, now you may be thinking, this is all nice, Pastor Shafer, but what does this have to do with me? I am not making decisions about wars and international relations. And, for most of us, that is true. But, here’s what I think – what we do personally makes a difference and ends up influencing our national and even global conversation. What sort of things are we viewing on the internet? Are we listening to hate radio or watching hate on television? What are we reading and watching?
What sort of video games are we playing? What sort of jokes are we telling? If what we are “consuming” endorses hate, it will affect our own lives and the lives of everyone around us. Racism, homophobia, sexism – these things all matter and they dirty all of us and, indirectly, they soil our nation! Want a very current example?
Just look at Phil Robertson from the television program Duck Dynasty this past week – his comments about Muslim extremists in Syria make him no better than those murderers.
Even closer to home, what if we tried to bridge the hurts and pain in our own lives, the hurts connected with others – the family member who is always difficult, that neighbor who is unpleasant towards us, a co-worker with whom we have an ongoing conflict or one who has been cruel to us, a friend who has hurt us in the past.
Paul tells us, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Scholars tell us that Paul was surprised to discover in his own life that love of neighbor was at the very heart of the Gospel.
Perhaps the call to love one another sounds foolish after the headlines of this past summer. Perhaps, but, as Pastor Lundblad writes, we need to remember what Paul wrote earlier to the believers in Corinth – “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (I Corinthians 1:25).
Our traumatized world needs a lot more people who dare to love one another across differences and in spite of the risks. Paul invites us to try a little foolishness, even if people laugh at us – the foolishness of love and caring in our own lives and all of our relationships. Such foolishness may be all that is needed to change our lives and the world.
This week, let’s try reaching across the differences and divides in our own lives, let’s try to heal some hurts among our families and friends and colleagues; let’s try to watch our language and behavior toward others.
Will such efforts bring about world peace? Not directly of course. But, they will help humanize society in their own small way. And that, I believe, foolishly perhaps, is the beginning of much larger changes. And, as Paul tells us, this is what we “owe” each other, to try to love one another as Christ has first loved us.
No, it certainly was not the “summer of love” in this nation or our world. But, maybe, with our individual and congregation efforts, we can help make this the fall of love and the autumn of hope.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California