"COMMUNITY" - Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Romans 12:3-8
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, September 30, 2018
Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Romans 12: 3-8
In 1966 an 11-year-old black boy moved with his parents and family into a white neighborhood in Washington, DC. Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front steps of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned and looked at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Writing about those days many years later, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we were not liked here. I knew we should not have moved here.. . .”
As he was thinking those thoughts a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the street. She turned to the children, and with a surprising and broad smile, she said, “Welcome!” She then disappeared into a house and re-emerged with a tray laden with drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. That moment – the man wrote later – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realize – in a time of racial uncertainty and racial tension – that a black family could feel at home in a white area. Over the years he learned to love and admire the white woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, the definitive moment. It was a moment that broke down separation, a moment that turned strangers into friends.
The young man there, Stephen Carter, became a prominent law professor at Yale. He wrote a number of books; one called Civility, about what he learned that day moving into that neighborhood. The woman across the street was named Sara Kestenbaum, who died all too young. She was a devoted Jew. In the Jewish tradition, such “civility,” such kindness, is called hesed – the doing of acts of care and compassion, which emerge from the idea that human beings are made in the image of God. Carter writes this: “Civility itself may be seen as part of hesed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.”
Carter goes on to say this: “Nothing in contemporary secular conversations calls us to give up anything truly valuable for anybody else. . . .Only religion offers a sacred language of sacrifice-selflessness-awe that enables believers to treat their fellow citizens as fellow passengers. . . . . And even religion has too few practitioners, which is why those who are truly moved by it to love their fellow human beings are so special.” . . . . Carter says, “to this day, I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.” (see J. Sacks, To Heal A Fractured World, p. 44-45)
Hesed – is one of the most important words in the Bible. Hesed means kindness – loving kindness – not love as an emotion, but love expressed as a deed, an action.
Hesed. The Biblical word is so unique that is it used only in cases where there is some recognized tie – both vertical and horizontal - between the parties concerned. Faithful people act with loving kindness – not just because, and not just indiscriminately – but always because and in response to God’s loving kindness.
Hesed represents what faithful life looks like – God’s steadfast loving kindness – hesed - is the sure love that will never let us go. God’s loving kindness – hesed - confirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Hesed therefore intends to be our way – the way of God’s people.
We hear this through the pages of Scripture. Just as God clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as God visits the sick, so you visit the sick. Just as God welcomes the stranger, so you must welcome the stranger. Just as God comforts those who mourn, so you comfort mourners. Hesed is God’s way toward us. Loving kindness, mercy, compassion, and care. So, hesed is our way of faith and life.
This is the essence of the first lesson from Deuteronomy. “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord require of you? To fear the Lord your God – (and remember that does not mean to “be afraid” – but to live life fully in God’s presence) - to walk in God’s ways, to love God, to serve God. God is great. God is real. You also are to love the stranger and execute justice. That passage offers a picture of hesed – a life of loving kindness that emerges from God’s loving kindness. A life of doing acts of care, compassion, and justice, because God is a God of care, compassion, and justice.
Through the recent weeks, I have found myself getting so discouraged by so many things. We have people, weeks later, still suffering from flooding and in shelters from hurricane Florence.
We have had, this week, riveting debate and testimony about the latest Supreme Court nominee. This is clearly a time of extreme division – male and female, privileged and entitled and victim and assaulted, Democrat and Republican, and other divisions – who to believe? What is the best way forward? So much give and take.
We also have growing tensions with China, . . . and uncertainty about Iran, . . . and turmoil at the United Nations.
So much rancor and discouragement.
Here is what Eugene Peterson says: getting saved is easy; becoming a COMMUNITY is difficult – super difficult. (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 250)
Having religion is easy; becoming a people who love and serve together is quite challenging.
Claiming God’s hesed – God’s loving kindness covers us forever – is easy; living out God’s intended hesed – loving God, serving God, doing justice, becoming God’s covenant people together in COMMUNITY – that is so hard.
No matter how right we are in what we believe about God, no matter how accurately we phrase our belief, or persuasively we preach or write or declare it, if love does not shape us, if loving-kindness – hesed – is not daily part of us, we falsify what we say and believe; we are a long way from what God intends.
Indeed, this is what most of Deuteronomy is about – becoming God’s people in COMMUNITY – living and serving, shaping life and doing all things as God’s people. Deuteronomy keeps making this point: a COMMUNITY that believes but does not love, does not spread hesed, is NOT a COMMUNITY of God’s people.
In fact, so much of the Bible is about this challenge. God is our God; we are God’s people. We are to worship and serve, love and care, live and act as God’s COMMUNITY in the world. . . .
And how much we long for that!
Our second lesson today comes from Romans 12. Listen:
3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Last week, I quoted Richard Rohr. He is worth quoting again as he reminds us that the faithful life is “NOT thinking our way into a new way of living. The faithful life is LIVING our way into a new way of thinking.” (G. Boyle, Barking to the Choir, p. 83)
That is worth remembering, especially with the number of times this Romans passage mentions “think:” Do “not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, . . . think with sober judgment.”
This passage invites us to live ourselves into a new way of thinking: it all begins with grace; we are to remove ourselves from the center of things; we are all in this together; we each recognize the gifts that are ours; we have different gifts and they all work together to build COMMUNITY. COMMUNITY.
So, we cannot get discouraged about our calling and our work – loving-kindness – in building COMMUNITY. We are claimed as God’s people. We have to keep striving for hesed – as we live as God’s people building COMMUNITY.
The passage from Romans reminds us that we, “who are many, are one body of Christ, and we are members one of another.” We all have gifts – and our calling is to offer our gifts for the wholeness and hope of the COMMUNITY. When we share our gifts, we do not have less; we have more. This is different from most things, like politics or economics. If we share power . . . or share money, . . . .we are left with less. But spiritual gifts are different from everything else – when we share them, EVERYONE has more.
This is what the Scriptures want to teach us. In faith, in the home, in the church, we learn that we are bound to God and bound to one another. “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” When we know and work on this idea that we are one body – God’s people – recipients of God’s loving kindness – hesed – we also work on sharing our gifts to spread God’s loving kindness – hesed – in all we do. This is our constant calling.
Some are called to be prophetic – to spread God’s deep concern for justice and equity, for prosperity for all. Some are called to minister: our bulletin reminds us that we are “all ministers” with something to share that makes the world better, moves the world closer to what God intends. Some are called to teach. Some are called to leadership roles. Some are called to generosity – especially those who have been given so much. Some are called to ministries of compassion. The point is – when we know we are part of the Body of Christ, we all seek to offer our gifts and lives in God’s service – in spreading loving kindness – hesed. And the more we share, and build COMMUNITY, the more everyone has. God’s purposes and plans multiply.
In the oldest sanctuary from the Old Testament, the holiest item of all the furniture, was the ark. The ark, like a box, a container, in the center of the sanctuary, contained the holiest objects, like the tablets on which the law of God was written, and also the fragments of the tablets. Above the ark in the Holy of Holies were two figures, cherubim. In Exodus 25:20, it says that the faces of these cherubs were turned toward each other. The point of this image is to convey the powerful truth – God is most present when people have their faces turned to each other.
We often wonder where God is and whether God is present. The truth is this: God speaks where two people turn their faces toward each other in love. Where have you seen that recently? God is most present in care and generosity, . . . when people are seeking to build community. That is where God is most present. (See J. Sacks, To Heal A Fractured World, p. 54)
All of this is to say that we have much continuing work to do – all of us. We have been covered with God’s loving kindness. We have each been given gifts to use for God’s work – the Body of Christ. We live in difficult and anxious times. We cannot be discouraged. We are all called to use our gifts and use everything about our lives – to turn and keep turning to one another. What if that could happen?
We are all called to share our gifts - to build COMMUNITY, to spread loving kindness near and far, and to collaborate with God in the healing of the world and the coming of Christ’s reign on earth.
What if that could happen?
If we can indeed commit our lives to one another, to COMMUNITY in these tumultuous times, we just might find our way to those final and important words in this passage. This passage ends with “the “compassionate, in cheerfulness.” Those two words, “compassionate,” and “cheerfulness,” are some most appealing descriptors. Acts of loving- kindness generate in us cheerfulness. Amazing.
The Greek word there for “cheerfulness” is the word “hilarotes” which gives us the English word – “hilarity.” The Greek word means something much more than how we understand “hilarity,” which implies “noisy merriment” or “boisterous gaiety.” The Greek word there conveys a deep sense of rich treasure in God’s grace for us, such a deep sense that we are set free to share love, spread love and joy. We have such a “cheerfulness” in belonging to God, that we live with generous love. We have such a sense that God is at work, even in the tough stuff of life, that we continue our loving kindness in the world: “in compassion, cheerfulness.” (See M. Dawn, Truly the Community, p. 135)
What if we trusted God so surely, and served God so well that this was the descriptor for us? “In compassion, cheerfulness.”
What if that could happen?
We would be on our way toward God’s true COMMUNITY.
May it be so. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: Loving God, move in our midst in fresh ways to shape us as your faithful community of loving kindness. Amen
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on September 30, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.