Sermon – September 7, 2014

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyWithout Malice

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love never wrongs anyone; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” — Romans 13:10.

I am sure my late mother did not invent this. But she often said it. “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” (Slight pause.)

Let me take that thought somewhere else for a moment. Amy Butler is a single mother of two in her mid-forties. She is also an ordained pastor who has just been called to lead the largest church in the New York Conference, one with a national reputation: Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

She recently posted a blog about being a stranger. By definition, the day she arrived in Manhattan she was a stranger since before landing there she had only visited.

In her post she says: “It’s a commonly accepted biblical mandate that we welcome the stranger. In our better moments people of faith manage to cross wide valleys of opinion to agree on that.”

“And while we can be good about quoting Scripture, we are rarely the stranger, ourselves. What does it feel like to be a stranger?” she asks.

“After my first week in a new city, I remembered being a stranger has not been a common experience for me. And I acknowledge my experience as a stranger has very little desperation associated with it, but this brush being new reminded me of what it might feel like.”

She continues: “First, I experienced anonymity. Navigating the world with no recognition from the folks around you can be freeing, but there is also something a bit unmooring about it.”

“Freedom comes at the price of irrelevance. And I remembered: we all need to be recognized, to fill a role in the lives of those around us.”

“Being a stranger also comes with strong discomfort. Nothing feels quite normal; everything is brand new. And as soon as the excitement of the new passes, a nostalgia for the familiar rises to the surface.”

“It’s not that the familiar was better but the territory was readily navigable. We all long for familiarity and comfort.”

“Constant newness also brings to mind the built-in sense of incompetence being a stranger imposes. Need to get across town? Need milk for your cereal? Need a doctor? How is that done? Who do I know who knows?”

“These are all puzzles of varying degrees. At first a challenge, they readily grow tedious. The feeling of incompetence humbles, then wears down the spirit. Reminder: competence and value go hand in hand in our society; it’s discouraging to live with a steep learning curve.”

“Indeed, the stranger finds a constant need for getting help, which isn’t the most comfortable exercise; life as a repetitive receiver can be frustrating. To learn to accept help can be a challenge for those of us accustomed to the other end of the equation.”

“So, strangers do see the world around them with new eyes. In that window of time before anonymity becomes familiarity, before discomfort relaxes into ease, before incompetence develops skill, strangers can see a world with a clarity familiarity does not afford.”

“Welcoming the stranger, you see, should not be an issue-specific anomaly, not be a one time occurrence. It should be, rather, a regular, daily Christian practice” — The Rev. Amy Butler, Senior Pastor, Riverside Church, New York City. [1] (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Romans: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love never wrongs anyone; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Slight pause.)

Like most pastors in Main Line Churches, I have a 90 credit Master of Divinity Degree. Something I may never have said from this pulpit is my Bachelor’s Degree is in Creative Writing.

But way before I had that degree not only was I a professional writer— paid for my work— I was involved in writing workshops and writing classes. One of the basic premises taught in such venues is called particularization.

Put succinctly, this is what particularization is about: no one really cares about the million people starving in— fill in the blank with the name of a country. Why? You see, when numbers get large they are hard to conceptualize. It’s difficult, numbing, to grapple with something that big.

Writers learn if the situation is particularized— if, as a writer, you write about the needs, the wants, the pain of one person, one family, one child— then people not only pay attention. They give money, food— nearly anything to help that one person, one family, one child, in need, in pain, in want.

Why? A million people starving is a concept. One person starving is personal, tangible, real— particularization. (Slight pause.)

I think the Rev. Butler is on to something. When you place yourself in someone else’s shoes, see things from another person’s perspective, that’s particularization. But I also think seeing things from another person’s perspective is harder than we realize.

There are two reasons it’s hard. First, to see things from another person’s perspective we need to leave our own, personal way of life, our way of seeing the world behind.

Another way to say that is we all have our own baggage. In order to really see the world from another person’s perspective we need to leave our own baggage behind. We should not force our vision, our solutions, our life, our way of seeing things on someone else.

To be clear, our baggage, our way of life, may be quite successful for us. But we cannot presume our baggage, our way of life will be successful for someone else.

The second reason it’s hard to see things from another person’s perspective comes back to what my late mother said. “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.”

Now, this is a truth none of us likes to admit: eventually people get on our nerves. And when I say people, I’m not talking about the million people somewhere out there.

I’m taking about your spouse or your child or your in-laws. I’m taking about your neighbor who just put up a fence you don’t like. I’m taking about the person who jumped in front of you in the supermarket line.

I’m talking about the people in the restaurant three tables down who are talking way too loud. This noise is flowing over you as you try to have a quiet dinner with your closest friend and ask them for advice because you are having a life crisis.

And you know your friend will help, even if it’s to just listen, to offer an attentive ear. But that noise from the next table persists and you cannot be heard. (Slight pause.) In the words of Andy Rooney— “Don’t you just hate that? (Slight pause.)

Well, I suppose all this is to say at least at first we should not worry too much about humanity, the one million people. Rather, we need to find ways to love those who, in terms of distance, are much, much closer to us. No matter how much those at hand get on our nerves, we need to put ourselves in their shoes, see things their way.

I think what I’m trying to say is Mom had it backwards. First, we do need to love people— those at hand. Once loving people becomes, in the words of Amy Butler, not an issue-specific anomaly, a one time occurrence but a regular Christian practice, that will empower us to not just love people who are near by. It will empower us to love humanity also.

Theologian Bruce Epperly adds this: Paul tells us to put on the spiritual armor of light. This is the armor of character, the armor of love, the armor of healing. And if we do so, we find out the armor is called self awareness. [2]

When self awareness becomes real, true, that can empower us with a sense of divine awareness. And, indeed, a sense of divine awareness helps us realize what divine protection is about.

Divine protection invites us to go beyond our own fears, our own sense of self protection. Divine protection invites us to go beyond a sense of scarcity to a realization of abundance. A divine self awareness does, in fact, allow us to see things from another person’s perspective.

Hence, when we understand God is with us always— that the Divine presence is with us, tangible, real— when we understand God is with us always, we can occasionally get to that place Epperly calls divine self awareness— divine self awareness. And, indeed, this is what the Apostle Paul had to say about what happens when divine self awareness becomes tangible (quote:) “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love never wrongs anyone; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “It is sometimes said ‘don’t sweat the small things.’ It is sometimes said ‘don’t sweat the big things.’ I disagree with both. Why? It’s not about choosing one or the other. Life is about discerning things, one step at a time. And if w36e consistently strive love one another as we attempt to always discern the presence of God and always and strive to do the will and the work of God, that’s the kind of exercise will work up a sufficient sweat. And then we’ll have to sweat neither the big stuff nor the small stuff because in so doing we will accomplish the work and the will of God more often than not— both the big stuff and the small stuff.”

BENEDICTION: Let us go forth in the Spirit of Christ. Let us seek the will of God. Let us put aside ambition and conceit for the greater good. Let us serve in joyous obedience. (Slight pause.) Hear this is prayer of Melanesian Islanders: May Jesus be the canoe that holds us up in the sea of life. May Jesus be the rudder that keeps us in the straight road. May Jesus be the outrigger that supports us in times of trial. May the Spirit of Jesus be our sail that carries us through each day. Amen.


Note: this was edited slightly for the context of this sermon. Any change in meaning is unintended and my fault, not the fault of the Rev. Butler.


Note: this was edited slightly for the context of this sermon. Any change in meaning is unintended and my fault, not the fault of the Rev. Epperly.

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