November 11, 2018 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: Romans 12:1-2, 9-18
A pastor once told a story about moving into a new neighborhood, where she discovered that two of her neighbors had a long-standing conflict. One of these new neighbors was a professed Christian and regular churchgoer, and the other an unbeliever. One day as this pastor was out doing some yard work, the unchurched neighbor came over and began a conversation with the words, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you?” – words that she quickly realized were the beginning of a plea for her to serve as a type of referee as this neighbor began to open up about the conflicts between himself and the Christian neighbor he just couldn’t understand. He listed quite a history of conflicts over small issues, and then revealed the latest conflict which he said, “really takes the cake.” He had just received a letter from the Christian neighbor’s attorney threatening to sue him if he didn’t trim a tree that borders the other neighbor’s yard. The unchurched neighbor expressed his frustration saying, “It seems strange that he didn’t come over and just ask me to trim the tree before going to his attorney.” Then he added, “You know, I was getting ready to trim that tree, but now, I’ll gladly go to court just so I can have a story to tell about how I was sued by a Christian for not trimming an orange tree.” As he started to walk away, he ended by saying, “It’s funny how Christians say they love their neighbors – but they sure don’t hide the fact that sometimes they don’t like us!”
Have you ever had a conflict with a neighbor? A barking dog next door, a teen down the street who plays their music too loud, someone on your block who doesn’t keep their yard as manicured as the rest of you, or really inconsiderate people who park on your street just a little too close to your mailbox? These are all “neighbor” issues that I confess have ticked me off more than once in my adult life. It can be hard to live at peace with those who live right next door, or just down the street, the people you see on a regular basis, or even the people who live in the same house with you. So it can be even harder to practice living at peace with everyone – those with whom you share the road, a check-out line at the grocery store, an office or a social media network; those with whom you share a city, county, state, country, denomination, world.
That about covers the list of those with whom we as Christ-followers are expected to live at peace. It’s a very tall order. The word “discipleship” shares the same root as the word “discipline.” The only way we’ll learn to be peaceful neighbors is by practicing the Way of Jesus, who gives us peace as a fruit, as a byproduct, of living a life that’s centered on Loving God and Loving our Neighbors as we Love ourselves. As we spend this time reflecting on what this means for each of us today, I want you to close your eyes and think about the person or group of people with whom you have the most conflict today. I would ask that you lift up a prayer for them, as I lead us in a hymn of prayer:
“This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” (UMH 437)
I mentioned earlier in this series that Fed Rogers, host of the children’s public television show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was an ordained Presbyterian pastor. It took him eight years of seminary classes over his lunch hour to complete his Masters of Divinity. But in those eight years, he developed a strong relationship with one of his seminary professors, Dr. William S. Orr. Because of deteriorating health, Dr. Orr spent his final years in a skilled-care facility, where Fred Rogers made regular visits, to read scripture and sing hymns, and continue learning from his mentor in the faith. On one of these visits, they had just finished singing the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” And Fred wondered aloud at the meaning of the third verse, which says about the Prince of Darkness that “one little word shall fell him.” So he asked Dr. Orr, “What is that ‘one little word?’ This is Fred’s account of that answer:
“He said, 'Evil simply disintegrates in the presence of forgiveness. When you look with accusing eyes at your neighbor, that is what evil would want, because the more the accuser'—which, of course, is the word Satan in Hebrew—'can spread the accusing spirit, the greater evil spreads.' Dr. Orr said, 'On the other hand, if you can look with the eyes of the Advocate on your neighbor, those are the eyes of Jesus.'” (Fred Rogers conversation with seminary professor Dr. William S. Orr)
When it comes to loving our neighbor, being able to live at peace with them is the natural result of being able to look at them with the eyes of Love, with the eyes of Jesus. The fifth, sixth & seventh chapters of Matthew contains the teachings of Jesus to the crowd, known as the Sermon on the Mount. And in chapter 5:43-48, Jesus says,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Loving and praying for one’s enemies was a revolutionary idea! It was virtually unheard of in the ancient world to which Jesus was teaching. Tribalism was very much the rule of order in that time, and if one person had an enemy, then they become the enemy of all their people, as well. I can’t help but interject here that we are hearing echoes of that same tribal mentality in our country today. The media, the caravan of immigrants, democrats, deplorables, the NRA – these are whole groups of people who have been demonized by one political side or the other. Some have outright been called the “enemy of the people.” But are they really? As Christians, do we even have enemies? If we do, I’m inclined to agree with Dr. Orr that looking with an accusing eye toward anyone is what creates an enemy out of another, out of the “Other,” and that being an “accuser” instead of an “advocate” spreads evil instead of love.
Fred Rogers took Dr. Orr’s message to heart as he developed the content for his children’s show. Remember that after Fred’s ordination, he asked that his ministerial appointment be to children through the medium of television. So he took very seriously his responsibility of be the pastor of all the children, and their families, who tuned in to watch his show, his ‘sermon’ in a way. His very first episode aired at a time when our country was at war in Viet Nam. So he used his very first week to address children’s concerns about war, to use puppets and Land of Make Believe to demonstrate how wars are sometimes created, but, more importantly, to teach children about how to sow seeds of peace. In one of these episodes, the puppets who were being attacked by those inside King Friday’s castle, which was fortified with high walls and barbed wire, decided to send “Peace balloons” over the wall, with little signs tied to them carry such messages as, “love,” “peaceful coexistence,” “tenderness,” and “peace.” In these episodes, Mister Rogers demonstrated that peacemaking can work – but that it is hard work.
Then in 1983, our country seemed to be deep in a Nuclear Arms race with what was then the Soviet Union. Many Americans were nervous about stockpiling more and more weapons of mass destruction. So from November 7 – 11, 1983, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” spent an entire week using scenarios in Make Believe Land to address issues of world conflict. This time, Fred Rogers chose to display the biblical basis for his teachings on peacemaking, by displaying on national television this scripture passage from Isaiah 2:4:
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”
In the recent documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Fred Rogers is recorded in an interview saying, “What is essential in life is invisible to the eye. It is important to make goodness and morality attractive; to see people caring for each other rather than people knocking each other off all the time. The only thing that ever really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound, and can be shared.”
After the final episode of Mister Rogers’ aired, something terrible happened in our country – the attacks of September 11, 2001. Nothing like that had ever happened on American soil, and so leading experts were called be media outlets to try to explain and to soothe and comfort. So on the Children’s Television network, there was only one expert anyone thought could explain this to children in a way that might soothe and comfort – Fred Rogers. So he went back to his old studio and filmed a message aimed directly at children, and those who love and care for them:
“We’ve seen what some people do when they don’t know anything else to do with their anger. I’m convinced that when we help our children find healthy ways of dealing with their feelings, ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else, we’re helping to make our world a safer, better place. No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we all are called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation. So thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy, and faith, and hope, and pardon, and love to your neighbor and to yourself.”
Tikkun olam expresses the Jewish idea that even though this world is broken, it is not beyond repair. Tikkun olam holds on to the biblical belief that ever since Abraham it’s been God’s intention to work through the People of Abraham in order to repair his creation. Emile Fackenheim wrote a book after the Holocaust, based on this same idea, which was called To Mend the World. In it Fackenheim writes: “We are forbidden to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted.” In other words, Fackenheim says to his Jewish community that even in the face of suffering, they are not permitted to give up on the world. It’s the same idea that the apostle Paul refers to in his second letter to the church in Corinth (chapter 5), when he calls Christians to be “ministers of reconciliation” as our English language interprets it.
Too often, we as Christians have mistakenly thought that God is going to give up on this world, that God’s already given up on his ‘good’ creation and will settle for a few saved souls in ‘heaven’ instead. But the first Gospel preached by Jesus’ disciples was no different than tikkun olam. The first Gospel wasn’t the evacuation of souls from this world but the arrival of a new world. The Kingdom of God. The first Gospel was the good news that the resurrection of Jesus Christ revealed that God was making good on his promise to repair the whole world through the People of Abraham. Through us. As Christian author Brian McLaren reminded us at a recent conference on Christian faith formation, salvation is not about evacuation – it’s about restoration.
Friends, loving our neighbors is the way that God has chosen to repair, to mend, to heal, and to restore the brokenness, pain, and evil in this world. Having an attitude of loving and praying for even those who hate or persecute us is the way God has called us to live at peace with others. It’s remembering Dr. Orr’s words about looking at others with the eyes of Jesus, as an Advocate instead of an Accuser, to offer forgiveness in the face of evil. Again, this is not easy – that’s why being a disciple, a follower of the Way of Jesus, requires practice in the disciplines of prayer, praise and thanksgiving, reading and reflecting on God’s Word, through the lens of the Word that became flesh, Jesus Christ, and in practicing the art of neighboring.
Do you remember the exercise we did the first week? I want you all to take out those blank index cards in your bulletins and draw a tic-tac-toe board. Write your name in the center square. Remember that this represents your home, where you live. Now I’m going to give you a couple of minutes to fill in the other spaces with the first names of the adults who live in the eight homes or condos or apartments nearest you. Ready? Begin. . . .
How did you do? Do you know more of your neighbors now than you did four weeks ago? If not, that’s ok, because I have a great way for you to get out there and meet them, starting today!
At the back of the room there is a stack of brown paper bags, and a flyer that goes with it. I’m challenging every family unit to take TEN bags today to have filled for our Combat Hunger Food Drive for the Food Bank of Iowa. The idea is for your family to fill one bag, for you to ask a close friend to fill the second bag, and that you take the remaining eight bags to your eight closest neighbors and ask them to participate in our food drive. Tell them you’ll leave the bag with them, and give them a date this week when you’ll be back to pick it up. Tell them they can leave it on their front porch if it’s easier. And then bring back the bags next Sunday, and we’ll bless them as part of our Thanksgiving offering that day before we take them to the food bank distribution center.
I want to encourage everyone to participate in this! If you can distribute the bags, but need help lifting the filled bags, let me know and we can have someone assist you. But this is a great way to go over and talk to your neighbors, to give them an opportunity to feel good about making a difference in the lives of others, and to also offer a non-verbal witness, by your actions, that being a Christian means we love our neighbors – all neighbors; even those who are hungry. And that we’re even working on liking our neighbors, as well.
I want to end with a different translation of our scripture reading for today. This translation is from The Message and says,
1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
9-10 Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
11-13 Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
14-16 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
17-18 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.
May it be so.
Let’s pray: “This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms: Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done. Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him, and hearts united learn to live as one. O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations; myself I give thee; let thy will be done.” (UMH 437)