Live and Love Between the Steps – September 6
A sermon based on Romans 13:8-14
Given at Mount Vernon Ohio on September 6, 2020*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As we just heard in our lesson that Laura just read so well, Paul tells Christians we owe a debt “to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” We also heard Paul sum the whole of the Torah up in a short phrase, a Jewish tradition that goes way back, even before Paul. Paul’s short sum of Torah we hear a lot in this church, because it is also the sum of Christianity: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Note that it’s not just “love your neighbor,” that would be tough enough. It is actually “love your neighbor as yourself ”. . . as yourself. The Texts for Preaching, commentary on our reading points out that:
“Only a healthy whole person —one who is capable of loving herself or himself – is capable of loving another. Love of the other does not require self-deprecation or self-hatred, emotions that in fact inhibit the ability to love others. Love of the other begins with self-love that is able to acknowledge and enjoy the handiwork of God in every creature.” 1
Paul’s commentary in our lesson asserts all of this love stuff requires us to
“lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ . . .”
Christians, you see, are NOT to just live in the moment, but to LOVE in the moment. We are to dress ourselves with love, with Christ, every day . . . all the time. We are to do this by loving self and others right now, in this moment and the next moment and each moment that follows.
None of that is easy work. Loving self can be difficult. We know our down sides. Most of us are our own harshest critics. But we need to manage to love self. Of course, God– who knows even more than we do about ourselves– manages quite nicely to love us. And usually, despite knowing our flaws, most of us, most of the time, also manage, or strive to, find a way to love ourselves. We care and desire for our own well-being. Healthy humans usually do this, but it takes hard work.
It can take even harder work to extend that type of love to others. Family can be easier “others” to love like that . . . most of the time. It can, however, be especially hard to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But this is what Paul advises, this is what Paul sees as the heart of Torah– God’s law summed up . . . is love.
And it’s not just Paul. Jesus, of course, taught there is no greater commandment than to love . . . to love God and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus and Paul got that command from Torah. Leviticus 19 (18) commands that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But Jesus is credited with being the first to stretch “neighbor” to mean everyone, even our enemies. “Love your enemies” is one of his most difficult teachings
Jesus not only taught us to love everyone, but he lived what he taught. He walked the walk of loving everyone. It is quite remarkable. Jesus’ ministry in the gospels is soaked with loving acts for others. Love for his disciples. Love for his family. Love for his friends. Love for every person he encountered. All were his beloved– even those who were supposed to be his enemies. And even more remarkable, miraculously,
Jesus’ love has reached out far beyond his time and place. His love extended to those yet born, the countless people of the future. It still does. The good news is we can experience that love . . . and also be a part of it. Jesus lived his life to not just help those he encountered, but to leave a legacy that would help humankind in the future– help us be loved . . . and be love.
Paul’s lesson today evidences the early church understood Jesus’ Way boiled down is in essence all about love. That’s what Jesus modeled. Jesus adorned his life with love. He lived his life loving others AS one loves one’s self. Jesus stopped to take care of others’ urgent needs as if they were his own. Jesus stopped what he was doing to lovingly heal– to tend to the insane, to touch the unclean, to embrace the loathsome, to transform the life of an adulterer, to feed the hungry, to tend to throngs of crowds, to forgive those who were crucifying him. Jesus did this work on the road; where he spent the night; at parties; at outdoor meals. Jesus did this by listening. Jesus did this with words. Jesus did this with touch. Jesus did this with spit and mud. Jesus did this while dying on the cross. And Jesus Christ does this even now, resurrected, and living on. A part of that resurrection is continuing on as Church, the Body of Christ . . . and in our own hands and feet and voice being love.
The gospel accounts of Jesus’ life paint a picture of a fully human man who figured out a way how to love in each moment of his life, not just himself, but his neighbors – all of them– just as he loved himself. He wore love on the outside of his being with every waking step he took. In the gospels accounts we can feel the power of that love pulsating still in his teachings and his Way of being. And we can choose to step onto Jesus’ Way and follow what he taught, live as lived; fully immersed in love. We can experience and become a part of that Way, of that love.
And each time we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, it matters. If we pay the debt of love Paul talks about once a year at Christmas, maybe twice a year with Easter then we love like Christ once or twice a year in those moments. If we do it once a week on Sundays we love like Christ once a week. Any love of neighbor is going to be the love of Christ. So once or twice a year helps. Once a week helps. We can feel it.
But is that how we love ourselves . . . bits at a time here and there? Do we only have affection, care and a desire for our well-being a few times a year or a few times a month or once a week? I hope not! If WE have a healthy sense of love of self we care and desire well-being for self almost moment-to-moment. Paul’s point in the lesson is that we need to strive to give that kind of moment-to-moment love to others. Paul does not pull this idea out of a hat. That’s what the Torah says. That’s what Jesus preached– and how he lived and died–and how he lives on so we feel his love eternally.
Paul is instructing Christians how to live like that. We’re not to live to love our neighbors now and then, but “[i]nstead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and wear Christ all the time. We are to clothe ourselves with God, don what Paul calls “the armor of light” moment-to-moment. Jesus, a fully human being, proved this could be done two thousand years ago and look at the effects it’s had over time!
There are stories of others doing as Paul and Jesus taught. Their acts also reverberate with love through time. People like St. Francis, St. Claire, Harriet Tubman, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. We remember these and other famous people in history for their acts of love toward neighbor. But it’s not just famous people in past who’s acts can reverberate with love. Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor reports this story:
“A university professor tells of being invited to speak at a military base one December and there meeting an unforgettable soldier named Ralph. Ralph had been sent to meet him at the airport. After they had introduced themselves, they headed toward the baggage claim.
As they walked down the concourse, Ralph kept disappearing. Once to help an older woman whose suitcase had fallen open. Once to lift two toddlers up to where they could see Santa Claus, again to give directions to someone who was lost. Each time he came back with a smile on his face.
“Where did you learn to do that?” the professor asked.
“What?” Ralph said.
“Where did you learn to live like that?”
“Oh” Ralph said, “during the war, I guess.”
He then told the professor about his tour of duty in Vietnam, how it was his job to clear minefields, how he watched his friends blow up before his eyes, one after another.
“I learned to live between steps, “ he said. “ I never knew whether the next one would be my last, so I learned to get everything I could out of the moment between when I picked up my foot and when I put it down again. Every step I took was a whole new world, and I guess I have been that way ever since.” 2.
God bless Ralph and others like him.
In today’s reading Paul urges Christians to be a blessing like Ralph to not just live in the moment, but to love in the moment– every moment, between the steps. Paul’s instructions amount to three things we are indebted to God to do:
1. Love our self;
2. Love our neighbor– as we love our self; and
3. Do this Love in each and every moment by showing Christ on the outside of our being.
To borrow Ralph’s enlightened words, we need to walk through life trying to love in the times between when we pick up our foot and when we put it down again. May we learn to live between steps loving others just like we love ourselves moment-to-moment. AMEN!
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008
1. Texts for Preaching CD-ROM Version, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, (2007),475
2. I got this story attributed to Barbara Brown Taylor out of 1001 Quotes, Illustrations, and Humorous Stories, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, (2008), 161.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2020