A Sermon for February 8, 2009, Romans 13:8-10, 15:1-6
In a sermon series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Dave suggested that the apostle’s writing is better appreciated when viewed from a different perspective. The letter is often viewed through modern experience, which leads to the conclusion that it’s nothing more than an out-of-date irrelevant document filled with judgment and condemnation for humankind. Instead, we should try viewing the letter in reverse-from the perspective of our ancestors-beginning with the people in Genesis and then working our way through the rest of the Old Testament and onto the New Testament with the gospel stories of Jesus and the birth of the church on Pentecost in the Book of Acts.
When we change our point of view, we discover that Paul’s words to the young Christian community in Rome are rooted deeply in the teachings of the forebears of the faith and in Christ. And Paul’s letter
Remembering the words of Christ (who incidentally was summing up the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses), Paul writes: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves one another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In this time of war, economic hardship and political divisiveness, the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” needs to be heard and followed more now than ever before. And it is no easy task. Every day we encounter people whom we find hard to love like the folks who are rude, arrogant, boastful, pessimistic, annoying, and nosey.
Like the checkout lady at the grocery store who doesn’t say hello and then proceeds to criticize the food you bought: “You know this cereal is not good for you. I just don’t understand why people buy this stuff. Just full of sugar!” Or the guy in your neighborhood who lets his dog poop in your front yard and doesn’t clean it up. Or the co-worker who talks incessantly about the buffet at the Golden Corral when all you want to do is get your work done. Or the student in class who can’t ever answer the teacher’s question without making a reference to Battlestar Galactica.
Or the aunt who always makes a disparaging remark about current news events. Or the sister who borrowed money only to lose it in a financial scam. Or the homeless guy panhandling on the street or the poor Hispanic children that attend your kid’s school or the gay couple that holds hands in the shopping mall.
Personally, I don’t care much for my fellow motorists who cut me off in traffic or who are poking along in front of me when I’ve got somewhere to be. “@@####*&???!! Morons!” I cry out, only to get a frown and shaking of the head from my wife Elizabeth. And it really bugs me when I’m watching the news and I observe someone saying or doing something really selfish and stupid. “Are you kidding me? What a #@**#**@@ idiot! Somebody needs to knock him out! Unbelievable!” I bellow out again, only to get a much longer frown and more constant shaking of the head from Elizabeth.
Some of you may have difficulty loving your neighbors in this very sanctuary. Truth be told, there’s some folks that might seem so annoying and strange that it’s hard enough just to say “hello” much less “love them as yourself.”
The challenge to follow the commandment of loving one’s neighbor is the focus of the beautiful 2007 independent film “Lars and the Real Girl.” [i]Lars Lindstrom lives in a room in the garage behind the house he and his brother Gus inherited from their father. His pregnant sister-in-law Karin’s frequent attempts to lure him into the house for a family meal are usually rebuffed, and on the rare occasions Lars accepts, their conversation is stilted and he seems eager to leave as soon as he can. Lars finds it difficult to interact with or relate to his family, co-workers, or fellow parishioners in the church he regularly attends.
One day, Lars happily announces to Gus and Karin that he has a visitor he met via the Internet-a wheelchair-bound missionary of Brazilian and Danish descent named Bianca. Gus and Karin are startled to discover Bianca is in fact a lifelike doll Lars ordered from an adult website. Concerned about his mental health, they convince Lars to take Bianca to Dr. Dagmar, the family doctor who is also a psychologist.
Dagmar diagnoses Bianca with low blood pressure and advises Lars to bring her in for weekly treatments, during which she will attempt to get to the root of his behavior. She urges Gus and Karin to assist with Lars’ therapy by treating Bianca as if she were a real woman. Lars, by the way, is not interested in Bianca sexually but is seeking a deeper and more meaningful relationship. As it turns out, Bianca is Lars’ way of coping with the death of his mother who died during his birth. Lars’ father was never the same afterwards and Gus, the older brother, leaves home as soon as possible. Lars spends his life believing he will always be abandoned by those he becomes close to, and thus he is fearful of any level of intimacy.
Of course, the reason for Lars’ behavior and relationship with Bianca is not fully realized at first. In an effort to assist in Lars’ therapy, Gus and Karin ask for help from their church’s Session, which prompts a vibrant discussion, as we see in the following scene:
Ernie : We don’t want anything to do with her! She’s a golden calf and we all know what happened with that.
Sally’s husband: He’s not worshipping her, they’re just dating.
Ernie: These young people have no will power
Karin: We were just hoping that if we came to you, you could help, just pave the way a little. If you could just try to understand
(Everyone starts arguing)
Mrs. Gruner: O for heaven’s sake, what’s the big deal! Sally-your cousin puts dresses on his cats. Hazel-your nephew gave all his money to a UFO cause. And Ernie-everybody knows your first wife was a clepto.
Ernie: She wasn’t
Gruner: Then why is she buried in a pair of my earrings
Rev. Bock: Now, that’s enough
Gruner: These Things happen. Lars is a good boy (turning to Gus and Karin) you can depend on me.
Ernie: Well, he’s not bringing her to church is he, Rev Pock?
Rev Bock: Well, ahem, the question is, as always, what would Jesus do?
[The scene transitions from the meeting in the church’s basement to the sanctuary on the following Sunday morning. Lars (with Bianca) is singing the hymn with the rest of the congregation. Some members are giving them strange looks. After the service, Rev. Bock personally thanks Bianca for coming to the service and then Mrs. Gruner gives Bianca some flowers because she is a first-time visitor. Other members look at Lars and Bianca with skepticism.]
As time passes, Lars begins to introduce Bianca as his girlfriend to his co-workers and various townspeople. Aware of the situation, everyone reacts to the doll as if she were real, and Bianca soon finds herself involved in volunteer programs, getting a makeover from the local beautician, and working part-time as a model in a clothing store. Due to their acceptance of Bianca, Lars soon finds himself interacting more comfortably with people. And yet as Lars becomes closer with others, his fear of abandonment and Eyore type of attitude also crop up again. One evening, after a hard day of work, Lars comes home expecting to play scrabble with Bianca only to find out she has made other plans:
To Lars’ surprise Mrs. Gruner and Karin are helping Bianca get ready for a banquet being held in her honor for the charity work she has done. Lars becomes angry, has an argument with Bianca and storms out of the house. Later he complains to Karin that everyone cares more about Bianca than him:
Lars: You don’t care.
Karin: We don’t care? We do care!
Lars: No, you don’t.
Karin: That is just not true! God! Every person in this town bends over backward to make Bianca feel at home. Why do you think she has so many places to go and so much to do? Huh? Huh? Because of you! Because – all these people – love you! We push her wheelchair. We drive her to work. We drive her home. We wash her. We dress her. We get her up, and put her to bed. We carry her. And she is not petite, Lars. Bianca is a big, big girl! None of this is easy – for any of us – but we do it… Oh! We do it for you! So don’t you dare tell me how we don’t care.
Karin and the community prove that while difficult, loving our neighbor-faults, struggles and all-is possible…and it’s what we are called to do. It is our reason for living. The late Mister Rogers, “America’s favorite neighbor” puts it this way: “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has-or ever will have-something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression. [ii]
One of my heroes of the faith, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who knows first-hand of loving one’s neighbor through the reconciliation work he did in apartheid torn South Africa, says that love “is an act of the will, where you act lovingly even if you do not always feel loving. We tend to think love is a feeling but it is not. Love is an action; love is something we do for others.”[iii]
God’s love which we are called to share with others is more than just warm fuzzy feelings or pleasantries. God’s love can’t be contained in a box of chocolates or a Hallmark card. It is much more powerful and far-reaching than that. God’s love is outside of the box and out of this world!
To cultivate this ability to love as God loves us, Tutu says every person must see themselves internally as a center of love, as an oasis of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. You can begin, he says by “biting off the sharp retort that was almost certainly going to hurt the other. Perhaps somebody has done something or said something and you were going to give them as good as you got. Instead you turn the interaction around and shock them by being quiet or perhaps by smiling or…by simply walking away. You say in your heart, ‘God bless you’ … Let’s say you are caught in a traffic jam, and instead of getting angry and saying, ‘What a bunch of morons!,’ you bless them. If you are a Christian, you could trace a cross over them. Prayer and holy words can also bring us back to our love and our recognition of our connectedness.”
Paul reminds us that we must love and help our neighbor “for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not help himself.” Because God in Christ builds us up through an unconditional and merciful love, we respond by lifting up others, our neighbors, with that same love, no matter how trying and difficult it may be. By the action of love, we help to transform hearts and build the kingdom of God for all people.
If there are any doubt among you as to whether it’s always possible to heed this call to love one’s neighbor, let me share this last story that occurred last week on Capitol Hill. [iv]
On Tuesday, 72-year-old Elwin Wilson, a white resident of Rock Hill, S.C. met with U.S. Representative, Georgia native and Civil Rights pioneer John Lewis to apologize for beating the congressmen 48 years ago in a bus station simply because he was black. Lewis never knew his attacker until Wilson came forward to say, “It was me.”
Wilson, who has said publically that it took many years for him to change his attitude toward blacks, stretched out his hand to Lewis and the two men, without pause, embraced. “I am sorry,” he told Lewis who responded, “I forgive you.”
Lewis later told reporters, “The spirit of the cause for civil rights always was love and redemption, never malice or hate. Even after beatings…I never had any idea this would occur, never thought it could happen. This shows the power of love. Of grace.”
Love your neighbor as yourself, says Jesus.
Owe no one anything except to love one another, says the apostle Paul
Love is an act of the will, something we do for others says Desmond Tutu
Acting in God’s love brings us closer to God and God’s kingdom which is built for every person, every neighbor, say we all.
[i] “Lars and the Real Girl” 2007 film
[ii] “The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember” by Fred Rogers, 2003
[iii] “God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time” by Desmond Tutu, 2005
[iv] “Rockhill man apologizes on TV for attack on congressman” The Herald, February 4, 2009