Preached today at Webster Groves Baptist Church (St. Louis)
Do you ever search for an easier way to do things? Americans seem to have perfected the system: we have fast food restaurants so that we not only do not have to cook, but we don’t have to wait for our food. If you are trying to be healthy, you can buy your fresh fruits and vegetables pre-sliced and ready to eat at the grocery store. We have microwaves and instant coffee. Many send email instead of taking the time to write and mail letters. And with internet and digital cable there are services like Netflix and Hulu and OnDemand that instantly deliver TV shows and movies to your TV or computer – or iPad or smart phone so that we don’t have to waste time with a trip to the video store. We even have tricks to make learning easier. We put the letters of the alphabet into a song, make up raps to learn our multiplication tables and chant “i before e except after c or ending in ‘eigh’ as in neighbor or weigh” in order to remember spelling. When my mother taught the second grade, she would teach kids to identify states on the map by telling stories. She even managed to convince her students that Kentucky looks like a piece of fried chicken. It seems that in all areas of life, we want to find an easier way get things done, to remember.
As we look at today’s text, I can’t help but wonder if the first century church didn’t have that same desire. Look with me at Romans 13:8 – “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” And just in case you were reading quickly through the letter, Paul steps into teacher mode and repeats. “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.’” And since students don’t catch on that something is important until after it is repeated, Paul writes it again – just in case. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Paul has just handed out the cheat sheet. “You know all those commandment that we study Torah and attend Sabbath School to learn? You know that mental list of commands you run through before deciding how to behave? Here it is – your “i before e except after c.” Are you ready? All is love. That’s it. If you are truly loving your neighbor, you’ve got the commandments down. If you just treat everyone with love, you’ll never have to remember the lists of commandments again. And when you consider that in Jewish tradition – and remember, Paul is a Jew – there are 613 commands, being able to reduce them to just one single, simple word saves an awful lot of time.
But do you see the problem?
What do you do with the guy who cuts you off in traffic, only to display a certain finger in your direction?
Or with the coworker who claims all of your ideas as her own in order to get the big promotion?
Or with the stranger who yells at your child in the middle of the supermarket for being a typical five-year-old?
The problem is that love is hard – much harder than simply choosing not to murder someone or steal from them. It requires stepping beyond
I recently heard the story of Mary Johnson, a 59-year-old woman who lives in Minneapolis. Mary’s 20-year-old son was shot and killed in 1993 as a way to end an argument. The murderer, 16-year-old Oshea Israel, was tried as an adult and spent 17 years of a 25 ½ year sentence in prison. Those of you who are good at math have probably figured out that means Oshea was released about a year ago. The remarkable part of this story, however, is that Oshea lives right next door to Mary – at Mary’s invitation.
But love was not easy for Mary. When she recalled her feelings during the trial, Mary described the murder as being “like a tsunami. Shock. Disbelief. Hatred. Anger. Hatred. Blame. Hatred. I wanted him to be caged up like the animal he was.”
As part of a grief group, Mary was encouraged to reach out to Oshea’s family, because they, too had lost a son and were grieving. After getting to know the family, Mary decided to go a step further and asked to visit Oshea. At first, he denied her visit request, but several months later, he changed his mind. Mary said she wanted to see what Oshea was like – if he was still that boy she’d wanted to go hurt during the court proceedings. But instead of a 16-year-old boy, she found a grown man. During that meeting, Mary talked about her son and what kind of person he was.
That’s not the picture we usually see, is it? TV shows seem to paint this scene more accurately – the angry parents might have visited Oshea, but it would be to yell at him – to threaten him. To let the murderous beast know that he was being watched. My guess is that was the tradition of the neighborhood where Oshea was from. You take someone out, then you watch your back. Revenge is the way of the street.
But Mary didn’t seek revenge, she just wanted Oshea to know who her son was. And Oshea was overcome with emotion – he even hugged Mary at the end of the visit. Mary described that experience – hugging her son’s murderer – as the moment she knew she had forgiven Oshea. And a relationship began to develop.
Mary choose to love. And that love took work. Took a decision. Took action.
During a recent StoryCorps interview – a project to provide Americans of all backgrounds to be able to record their own life stories – Oshea described Mary’s forgiveness as transformative – because he hasn’t been able to fully forgive himself. The two described their relationship as like mother and son.
“Well, my natural son is no longer here. I didn’t see him graduate. Now you’re going to college. I’ll have the opportunity to see you graduate,” Mary said. “I didn’t see him getting married. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to experience that with you.”
Oshea says he is on a different path because of Mary – because she loves him and believes in him. He’s trying to live a better life – and doing it right next door so that Mary can see what he’s up to, can call on him if he’s doing something he shouldn’t and can praise him and encourage him in his new life.
I sincerely hope that none of us ever have to experience what Mary did. But whether it is a son’s murderer, or the person who bullied you in school, or the person on the street corner asking for money, or the neighbor who fails to care for their yard, we all have people in our lives that we don’t know what to do with. We might not steal from them or intentionally hurt them, but if we aren’t actively loving them, then Paul says we’ve missed the point – we’ve failed to live up to the law, even if we have practiced the letter of it.
Singer/songwriter Kyle Matthews depicts this well when singing about the relationship of a parent and child. The kid keeps getting into trouble – as a kid he’s caught cheating on a test, because Mom told him to make good grades. In high school he is caught selling drugs, because his family needs money. The response to him is always the same – “son, the way we go about it matters, it’s the testimony of the heart. Yes, the way we go about it matters, it’s the proof of who we are.”
It isn’t about the end result – isn’t about accomplishing the task or the law, it is the way we go about it that matters. We may have passed the test, but if we did so by cheating, then we didn’t actually learn the content that gives that grade merit. If we have kept from harming our neighbor, but done so without love, what have we accomplished? The way we go about it matters. If we want to fulfill the law, we have to love.
And that love can change the world around us. As followers of Christ, we believe that we are people transformed by God’s love for us. As God’s people, we have been sent out to transform the world with that same love. Are we people who are known for our love? Or are we simply people who follow rules? Paul says that all is love – that without love, we’ve missed the point. The way you go about it matters.
Note: the title “All is Love” comes from the Karen O & The Kids song of the same name