This sermon has been through a multitude of permutations. Had you asked me, even a month ago, what passages I might choose upon which to base a candidating sermon, I might have come up with a list of possible choices pretty quickly. But I would not have guessed that I would be introducing myself and my hopes for church to a congregation, seeking its approval of my call as pastor, and reflecting on the tenth anniversary of September 11 all in the same twenty minute sermon.
I settled on last week's epistle text, because I had thought that I might be candidating last week, had begun to consider it, and then concluded that it might work for September 11. And I chose to include Micah 6:8 because, given the opportunity, I almost always would.
What a stirring and demanding day lies before us! September 11 is one of those days which stand out in our collective memory, one of those days on which we all remember what we were doing when we heard what was happening. A day like the day on which Pearl Harbor was attacked, or the day on which President Kennedy was assassinated, or the day on which the space shuttle Challenger exploded. A day which brought us together even as it took family and friends away from us , a day which required us to re-think some of our assumptions, a day which changed much about how we see ourselves and our world. And on this tenth anniversary, it remains a day which challenges us -- as a nation, as individuals, and as Christians – and it challenges us as people just getting to know one another!
The apostle Paul, in writing to the Romans, faced circumstances somewhat similar to mine this morning in one or two respects: He was writing to a church he had not yet visited, a church worshipping and exuding hopefulness in challenging times! The Epistle to the Romans is the only one of Paul’s letters written to an existing Christian community which he had yet to encounter. By the time he wrote to the church in Rome, Paul had been traveling the Mediterranean world for several years. He had no doubt heard much about the city and church, but he had not preached or taught there in person. I gave some thought to Paul’s situation as I was preparing this sermon. I thought about him imagining the faces of the members of the Roman congregation, about him wondering about their relationships and their hopes and their concerns, and about him writing to them in the hope that together they would continue to build the church of Jesus Christ. I thought about him imagining potential and possibility. Maybe a few similarities! – that’s what I thought.
In our very short passage from Romans this morning, Paul makes three huge claims: Love is the fulfilling of the law. It is in loving our neighbor that we fulfill the law. And it is living in the light of Jesus Christ that we awaken to God’s love and hope for us.
What is this question of the law? Well, the early church in Rome was, of course, made up of a mixture of people. Some were Jews, those of Jesus’ own community of faith who had come to understand Jesus as God’s messiah, God’s anointed one. Others were citizens and foreigners and slaves in the ancient but cosmopolitan city at the center of the vast Roman Empire. The Jews themselves lived within a framework of law as established by God 1200 years earlier, when God had called the people of Israel into nationhood and community, and had delivered the law into the hands of Moses. The others – some of them had worshipped the Roman gods, some respected the Jewish religion but were not Jews themselves, and some no doubt had been aligned with the gods of other cultures.
The small Christian communities that grew up around the Mediterranean Sea didn’t know quite how to handle the matter of the Jewish law in the context of such diversity and in response to God as revealed in the person of Jesus. Should they insist that all followers of Jesus also follow the religious laws under which he had lived? Or should they not? To the Jewish people those laws are God’s revelation, a sign of God’s love and care and interest in every aspect of life, but to us, and to those outside the Jewish faith at that time, those laws look pretty complicated. What to do?
Paul is clear and to the point: Love is the fulfilling of the law. You may remember that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law; Jesus is love; love is the fulfillment of the law.
It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? You’ve been hearing this all of your life. Love one another. Love your neighbor. God is love. How basic can we get?
But think about it. The God of the Universe, the Lord of our lives can only be love, because God is complete and whole and perfect – and yet we sometimes speak and think and act as if God were otherwise. We might view God as a God of a rigid set of rules, or as a God of vengeance without mercy, or as a God of power without compassion. We might think of God as distant and perhaps even aloof, forgetting that God’s own son came to share in our lives as a human being who himself had to confront human limitations and suffering. We might view God solely as the dispenser of the Ten Commandments, overlooking the most astonishing reality that God’s own Spirit nourishes and sustains us in all aspects of our lives. And the God who supports us, God’s beloved people, with and through and in love, asks of us this one thing: that we recognize that love is the fulfillment of God’s law and conduct ourselves accordingly.
And how do we do that? We do it by loving one another, and by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. We do it by “putting on the armor of light.”
I have heard some stories about you all, of course, just as Paul had heard about the Romans, and I have heard that the people of N. Church love one another. I have heard about how you have cared for each other during times of loss, and how you celebrate together. I have seen the work you have done, in this sanctuary, in the fellowship and kitchen space below, and in the memorial area outside, all as signs of your love for one another and your eagerness to share that love with others. I hope to learn much more about N. as a loving community.
But today, September 11, calls us to think more about our neighbors than about ourselves. A great crisis, a great tragedy – those events always call us to think beyond ourselves. Who are our neighbors? And how do we love them? How do we respond to events of such magnitude with justice and kindness and humility?
Sometimes, it isn’t difficult to know who our neighbors are and to love them, even though we may be much challenged in our physical and emotional safety to do so. The first responders on September 11 who ran into burning buildings when everyone else was running out -- they recognized their neighbors as people in trouble and loved them by risking and in many cases losing their own lives.
This past week, one of the news stories highlighted the young men – athletes all – who tried to stop the hijacking of Flight 93. They succeeded in forcing the plane away from Washington, D.C. and into a Pennsylvania field. They lost their lives, but saved those of many neighbors – neighbors whom they would never see. They loved in the most sacrificial way possible – civilian men, untrained for conflict, expecting an ordinary business day – they gave up everything they had to save others.
Sometimes we are surprised by who our neighbors are. I remember walking into a Borders Bookstore a couple of weeks after 9/11 and seeing that the entire entryway display area was filled with book about Islam. Sometimes we discover that our neighbors walk paths different from our own, and we realize that we need to love them by getting to know who they are. We may have thought of them as “other,” but we all know that, when asked “Who my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, as someone who would have been excluded, viewed as “the other” by his followers. The Samaritan, the outsider, was the one who conducted himself as a neighbor. It wasn’t easy for Jesus’ followers to hear that their neighbor was someone whom they would have ignored, someone whom would even have avoided, in the usual course of events.
And sometimes – sometimes love, love as the law, calls us to something far more challenging. Sometimes the evil perpetrated against us is so great that we cannot fathom what the response of a loving God might possibly be. Sometimes we forget that we cannot toss all people of a certain religion or nationality or other group identity into a category defined by those whom justice requires be brought to accountability. And surely God does not expect us to be agents of reconciliation where such wrongdoing is concerned? And yet God requires not only justice, but also kindness and humility.
And remember, Paul is clear and to the point: Love is the fulfilling of the law. Jesus says that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law; Jesus is love; love is the fulfillment of the law. Justice is essential, but love is fulfillment.
Who are we called to love by sacrificing something of ourselves – our time, our energy, our expertise, our very lives? And who, I wonder, who constitutes the “other” here in N. – who are those to whom we are called to extend hospitality? To get to know? Whose lives are we called to share? You already know some of the answers to that question – like the church to which Paul wrote in Rome, you are already here, already at work for God’s kingdom. And I’m hoping that you will share what you know with me.
And I’m hoping that together we will pursue the question of: How? How can we further God’s love – where we experience loss and hurt among ourselves, where we and our neighbors struggle against unemployment and homelessness and other problems, and also where terrible, almost unspeakable wrongdoing, leads to impasse, and where its consequences cry out for justice? How do we “put on the armor of light,” as Paul urges us to do? What potential looms before us? What possibilities might we explore?
What is the work to which we are called as followers of Christ, as people who long for the coming of the Kingdom of God, as people called to love one another, to love our neighbors, and to live in the light of Christ?
We get some clues from those commands relayed to us by the prophet Micah, who wrote hundreds of years before Paul lived and whose words Paul would have known as he formulated his clarion call to love: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. Love requires all three: justice, kindness, and humility.
We are called to be the people of God who dislodge barriers and who confront injustice -- people who know that behind the heartbreak in our lives and the horrors perpetrated in this world stands our God, whose only Son completely emptied himself that love might prevail over evil.
We are called to be people who remember – but who remember in order to pursue victory for God’s justice, a justice that ultimately leads to the
greatest of fulfillments: love of neighbor and reconciliation with the “other.”
We are called to be people of kindness, people of chesed. Chesed is the Hebew word for the great loving-kindness of heart that serves as the foundation for all other virtues. Chesed is the first of the virtues; it is without cause; it is creation itself. The Psalms tell us that “the world is built with chesed.” As those who live out the virtue of chesed as Jesus modeled it, we are called to be people of creativity: people who see something where there is nothing, people who see hope as a replacement for fear, people who imagine something beyond what is and act to further that vision. We are called, in other words, to be people of reconciliation and peace.
We are called to humility, to the knowledge that God’s ways are not our ways. We are called to be people who see with the eyes of Jesus: people who see the hope of rescue where disaster looms, people who see the potential for peace where there is conflict, people who see the possibility of reconciliation where differences seem to prevail, people who persist in the faith that love is the fulfillment of the law.
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he was hoping that the congregation would support him in his next planned venture, a missionary trip to Spain. He never made that voyage, but his words to the Romans, his insistence that we love one another, that we love our neighbors, and that we live in the light of Christ, have travelled much further. They are words that speak to us, twenty centuries later, in a time of turmoil and on a day of remembrance, on a day on which we first meet one another here in N. They are words which tell us that:
We are called to be the church, that community which lives out the love of Jesus, the love that fulfills the law. We are called to be the church, the community to which all might look when it seems that human inadequacies have impeded us. We are called to be the church, the community to which all might turn when it seems that evil has the upper hand. We are called to be the church, the community of Jesus Christ, the community in which our limitations are always trumped by the love and the creativity and the generosity of God. We are called to be the humble home and the lively springboard for potential and possibility, for God’s work of love and justice among us.
Thanks be to our God, and Amen.