8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.
The Congregational Church of Easton – Sept. 10, 2023
What a difficult few weeks this has been! So much suffering. A thousand dead in the earthquake in Morocco. 115 people dead in the wildfire in Maui and almost 400 missing. Floods in Greece have claimed at least 10 lives and laid waste to thousands of acres of rich agricultural land. Hurricane Idalia left entire neighborhoods submerged. Wildfires in Canada continue. When has there been a month of devastation and loss like this one?
We often hear people say catastrophes bring out the best in people. There are wonderful stories of heroism and self-sacrifice. Here’s one I particularly like that happened several years ago in Houston.
A regional medical center surgeon received a phone call that a young teen needed immediate surgery. Without hesitation Stephen Kimmel jumped into his car and attempted to get to the hospital. When floodwaters prevented him from going further, he found two volunteer firemen who had a canoe on their truck. With their help, Dr. Kimmel was able to get to the hospital and perform the needed surgery.
“Sometimes you have to do whatever it takes,” Kimmel told Houston Public Media.
There are hundreds of stories like these. Think of all the stories about heroic first responders during 9-11.
Yes, tragedy and suffering often brings out the best in people.
I would like to suggest that we see the best in people in times of crisis because they are literally IN the Kingdom of God. Jesus says the Kingdom of God is right here now, as well as in the future. If the Kingdom of God is at hand, where else do we see it but in actions like the passengers who tried to take back United flight 93 causing the hijackers to crash the plane into a Pennsylvania field. Their bravery saved the lives of many others at the intended target in Washington DC.
You may be thinking, how can we say that those heroic passengers had actually entered God’s Kingdom?
If I had any doubt about that, my mind would have changed when I watched the musical about the volunteers who fed and cared for thousands of travelers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland. It was right after 9/11 when US airspace was closed down and planes from out of the country couldn’t get in.
The musical, “Come from Away,” was based on over 1000 interviews with townspeople and airline passengers who lived and worked and cried and laughed together for five days. 6700 travelers from 38 wide-bodied airplanes were cared for by a somewhat larger number of residents of Gander and surrounding towns.
One line by an actress playing a department store cashier was “Welcome to Walmart. Would you like to come home with me and take a shower?”
The audience response convinced me that what we were witnessing in “Come from Away” was an hour and a half long window into the Kingdom of God. The standing ovation must have gone on for well over five minutes. I was wiping tears from my eyes and, sure enough, Susie and the people around us were doing the same.
Recently someone announced the discovery of a new emotion – “elevation.” Elevation is what we feel when we witness acts of compassion or virtue or self-sacrifice. It is what you may have been feeling when I read the story about Dr. Kimmel paddling that canoe to save a young boy.
When we feel elevation, we can be pretty sure we are witnessing people who are in God’s Kingdom.
How many of you have wished you could do something to help when you watch flood victims on TV or see people looking stunned after the earthquake in Morocco? Have you felt a longing to do something to help?
If you have, it’s natural. It’s because you and I are created in the image of God. God lives in us!
In today’s reading in Romans Paul gives us a reason why you and I feel an impulse to help when we see people suffering. Let me read it again.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”[a] and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul is writing to people who want to be good, people who want to do the right thing. Those who read his letters feel a sense of obligation; they feel obligated to live up to the moral standards of their day – the 10 commandments – the “law.” But listen to that first line again:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.
There is so much freedom in what Paul is saying! We don’t owe anyone anything! We are under no obligation to live our lives out of “should’s” and “ought’s” as long as we love one another. And, in Jesus’ language, when we are loving our neighbor as well as loving ourselves, we ARE in the Kingdom of God.
I don’t believe Dr. Kimmel talked those firemen out of their canoe out of a sense of obligation. The clerk at that Gander Walmart didn’t invite her customer to come home and take a shower, because she should. No, these were acts motivated by deep empathy, deep compassion. They were free acts of love.
What a joy to be free of obligations to be good! What a joy to be free of should’s and ought’s! What a joy to simply be free to follow our impulse to love.
When we respond to the needs around us out of love, rather than obligation, there is a deep sense of freedom. It is the joy we feel at Christmas when give freely out of love, rather than obligation.
You can test what I’m saying for yourself. There’s an opportunity by the front door of the Staples building to meet the needs of homeless women with children living at Merton House. When you go to coffee hour, stand in front of the basket where it asks for sample sizes of toiletries and say to yourself, “I ought” to go to the store and buy some.
Then come at it differently. Picture yourself at Merton House in Bridgeport. Imagine you are looking into the eyes of one of the residents. Feel your compassion for this woman who has no other home for herself and her children. Then decide whether you are going to pick up some toiletries this week at the store.
Imagining an actual resident of Merton House is just like wishing there is something you can do when you watch flood victims on TV. Your impulse to help is the magnetic attraction of the Kingdom of God. Or, in Paul’s language your impulse to help is Christ within you.
The impulse to help is utterly natural because Christ lives in us, because we were created in God’s image. Responding to that impulse out of love, not obligation is freeing! We are free of HAVING to be good. We don’t have to grit our teeth and try to be good. No, we do good because we ARE good!
Go out this week and buy some sample sized toiletries – experience joy and freedom!
Let us pray: Thank you God for the impulse to help in times of trouble. Thank you for our heartfelt desire to help those who suffer. Thank you, God for these invitations to enter your Kingdom. Amen