St. Thomas, Springdale
September 4, 2011
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
What is the greatest loss a human can experience? Let’s ponder that together this morning. First, let’s take the death of a loved one out of the conversation. I’d be really surprised if anyone thought there was a greater loss than that. While we’re at it, let’s set aside physical losses—loss of sensory ability, mobility, and such, permanent or temporary—and let’s ponder everything else that can be lost.
In the wake of Hurricane Irene, the recent anniversary of Katrina, and the devastating tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo., a few months ago, various news sources showed us the look of great loss on the faces of people who lost their homes and everything else in those weather events. I’ve known several people, including our neighbors last spring, who lost their homes and everything in them in fires. That is a great loss. Loss of personal things is not so bad one at a time, but losing everything at the same time in fire, flood, tornado, or theft makes for a great loss.
Loss of a job is a big loss. Especially if it is a job you enjoy and feel like you’re good at. It’s a loss of income and security. That’s a great loss being endured by many these days. The loss of a job is compounded when a loss of purpose comes with it.
Loss of dignity that comes with extreme poverty and affliction, loss that pushes people to beg for food or some other kind of relief seems like a monumental loss to me. But if poverty and persistent suffering are all you’ve ever known loss of dignity may not be as much a loss as the loss of those who are willing to provide what you’re willing to beg for.
Loss of trust in someone is a big loss. For me, someone’s loss of trust in me is a greater loss.
Loss of a friend, not by death or geographical distance but by irreconcilable differences, is a big loss similar to the loss of all that holds a marriage or civil union together. That loss feels a lot like a death.
Loss of respect for others is a great loss – especially those who have authority over you as Paul writes in the portion of his letter to the Romans that immediately precede what we read today. And I challenge you to read Romans 13:1-7. You may be surprised to learn what Paul has to say about how Christians should behave towards their government and paying taxes. Widespread loss of respect like we see today is a huge loss in a civilized society. And loss of self-respect leaves a deep hole in a person’s center that affects every relationship the person has. It’s a crippling loss.
I focus our attention to losses today because so much of life’s energy is spent trying to avoid losing anything we have or believe we have the opportunity to get and grieving over what we’ve lost. Paul reminds us that love is the answer to this constant bleeding of energy that drains the life out of us.
The commandments Paul mentions all refer to acts that bring about a loss to someone else. Since women were the property of their fathers or their husbands, adultery is an act that defiles another man’s property thus causing a loss to him. In the commandments God gave to Moses, God said not to commit adultery. Murder is obviously a loss of life to the one murdered. It is also a loss to the victim’s family. The death of a loved one is such a great loss that I chose to set it apart from the others. God said do not murder. Stealing inflicts loss to the one whose property was stolen. God said do not steal. Coveting is more than being jealous of something your neighbor has and wishing you had one like it. When you covet what your neighbor has that means you want what is theirs for yourself. It is theft committed in the heart, a strong desire for personal gain through someone’s loss. God said not to covet anything.
Paul echoes Jesus’ words, when he says love is the way to keep the commandments. Paul says love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love does not make decisions or do anything that would cause a neighbor to experience loss. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you are as concerned about preventing your neighbor’s losses as your own. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you grieve what your neighbor loses as if it were your loss. Think about all the energy we expend avoiding losses, protecting what we value, and grieving over it when it’s gone. Can you imagine spending the same amount of energy protecting what our neighbor values and grieving with our neighbor who experiences loss as we would a loss of our own? This is the love Jesus and Paul are speaking of when they say love your neighbor as you love yourself.
In time of our Lord and long before that, the ideal was that the People of God perceive themselves as one people in relationship to one God. Not as a group of individuals, each one out to get the best for himself or herself. If they kept the laws God gave to Moses they wouldn’t see themselves as separate from their particular social contexts. Relationships were of great value. They held the society together. If one person or household was estranged from another the whole society felt the fracture just as they felt each other’s losses. That was the ideal. The testimony of the scriptures is that it was what God intended. Although there’s not much evidence that it ever was the reality.
When Paul preached the Gospel to Gentiles in his day, our Lord’s commandment of love made sense to virtuous people in an honor-shame society where living honorably mattered. Even so he had to remind them from time to time that being a Christian meant they didn’t live for themselves alone. Life was not about getting what they wanted and keeping it. Their lives belonged to Christ. And because of that, how they spent their lives was important.
It still is. It still is.