It’s been a difficult week in the world. At the time of my writing this sermon, the news had confirmed thirty-five deaths in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. One chemical plant outside of Houston, TX had experienced two fires and a 1½ mile radius around the plant had been evacuated. Other chemical plants were facing similar concerns. The flood waters were not expected to fully recede for at least another week and a half to two weeks. In other towns around Houston, floodwaters are still rising.
And the United States aren’t alone this week. In Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, flooding has killed nearly 1200 people. Two weeks ago, three hundred were killed in flash flooding in Sierra Leone. It can be difficult and scary to watch the news. One can feel helpless in the face of such devastation, reaped by mother nature – exacerbated by poverty, substandard or non-existent building codes, deregulation of environmental standards. It is difficult to know what to do in the face of unrelenting environmental disasters.
We all have different gifts, Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans. In last week’s lectionary reading, Paul listed those specific gifts. This week, we are given practical advice on how to use our unique giftings to positively impact the world.
When we see the plight of people around us (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), when we heard their cries (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), when we are moved with compassion and feel their suffering (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), we are called to action (as God acted in calling Moses in our Old Testament passage today). If we are to take seriously the notion that we are made in the image of the divine, then surely we can see and hear what is going on in the world today, feel the sorrow of a broken and hurting world, and respond in a way that brings God’s love more readily into the world.
In our epistle reading for today, Paul lays out how to respond to a world that is hurting. Our response hinges, it seems to me, on verse 16, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” Paul’s central call in this passage to a posture of humility. “See the truth in a situation and in yourself exactly as it is and you are. Do not make the things, yourself included, larger or smaller than they are.”
One of the central issues we will wrestle with in the course of our life is what Carl Jung called our shadow side. Our shadow side is the part of us that we cannot except – that which we seek to exile. This can be lived out in forms either grandiose or shameful – assuming we either greater or lesser than the truth of our identity. When we live lives disconnected from a posture of humility, we often find abrasive in others the things we cannot embrace in ourselves. We reject in the other the very traits we cannot accept in ourselves.
“Live in harmony with others … so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The Greek word translated as “peace” is more similar to the Old Testament word “Shalom” than our common understanding of peace – which we often simply think of as lacking in discord. Peace means “living in the gift of wholeness,” having “integrity of being.” Peace is about justice, completeness, the common welfare. True peace acknowledges that when some part of our world is hurting, all of our world is impacted. True peace seeks not the calmness of an individual, but restoration of the whole of creation.
Paul calls us to love genuinely, with mutual affection; to rejoice in hope; to persevere in prayer. It is an impossible task to love genuinely in other what we have exiled in ourselves. When we begin to make peace with our shadow side, when we begin to accept in wholeness that we are capable of both goodness and evil, when we embrace the totality of our humanness, we are finally able to fully embrace others. We can find ourselves capable of stepping back, looking at things exactly as they are, and we can respond with humility.
From the vantage point of humility, we can truly rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. From a place of humility, we can see the plight of people around us, hear their cries, be moved with compassion, and respond to their needs. What that looks like will change from one situation to the next; from one disaster to the next. But it will always include contributing to the needs of the saints, extending hospitality to strangers, feeding those who oppose us, and giving them clean water to drink.
And perhaps in today’s world, it will also include calls address climate change, supporting regulations that keep chemical plants away from residential areas, and investing in infrastructure. And if you’re wondering who the saints are in the midst of these disasters, so that you might contribute to their needs, I invite you to consider the words of Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, who so graciously invited children from all over the United States into his neighborhood for generations:
I was spared from any great disaster when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels.
For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure in my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about alarming events in the world.
There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the
helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors, and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.
Look for the helpers. Join them in their quest to live peaceably. And may you give up who you think you should be and embrace all that you are – for Jesus’s sake and for the sake of God’s kingdom and just reign on earth. Amen.