Three years ago hurricane Katrina delivered death and destruction to the city and surrounding area of New Orleans. As a nation we were slow to respond. We underestimated the amount of devastation in the life of a major US city. The bottom line was, we weren’t very good neighbors. Last week, hurricane Gustav came ashore on the gulf coast just west of New Orleans. The severity of the storm was less, but this time the people of New Orleans were better prepared. Although a few people perished, the majority of the residents were saved due to the infrastructure of the community.
In other words, there was a greater “love ethic,” that prevailed. The intensity of the hurricane was not minimized and the storm was treated with a genuine sense of urgency. There was no procrastination, no “let’s wait and see.” The community took action.
Of course there will be the naysayers who will say that they overreacted. They will argue that it wasn’t necessary to disrupt the life of the community with a mass evacuation. The fact is there was almost no chaos, no panic and the people of New Orleans can return to living normal lives without confusion and grief.
When I was aboard ship in the Navy there were times when the call, “This is a drill, this is a drill,” came over the loudspeaker. “Everyone man their duty station!” Those words disrupted our normal routine. However, they were designed to protect the ship and its crew from a disaster. Unfortunately we did experience a major disaster and had it not been for those “drills” many sailors would have lost their lives and the mission of the ship would have been compromised.
I believe this is what Paul was saying to the early Christian Community. They needed to practice neighborly love by being prepared. They needed to “wake up” and live as though it was a new day. In the morning we are at our best. We are rested, fresh and ready to take on a new day. In the Mideast, the morning is also the coolest part of the day. It is better to do what you can at first light, because the heat of the afternoon will slow you down.
Paul was urging his listeners not to put off coming to the aid of their neighbors. Not only would they be helping others, their state of readiness would be a witness to those who did not believe. The two political parties have a tag line. One is “Country First,” the other is “Time for Change.” Paul had a tag line for the faith community. It was “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
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Included in Paul’s state of readiness was the call to live honorably. Notice that he included “quarreling” and “jealousy” on the same level with the other behaviors of immorality. Meaning, there are those in the faith community who are admired because they have something we don’t have. Jealousy weakens the character of the church. Also, arguing and conflict are non-productive. They are not characteristic of living in the light.
For Paul, loving your neighbor meant everyone. Love was not limited to insiders, the church or family. It is not about us, it is about others.
Billy Harley once told the story about a children’s T-ball game he observed. A young girl named Tracey ran with a limp. She couldn’t hit the ball to save her life. But everyone cheered her on. In the last game of the season Tracy did the unthinkable. She finally got a hit. Her coach hollered at her to run the bases. She made it to first base and her coach told her to keep going. She then made it to second base. Everyone in the stands was encouraging Tracy to keep running. While running to third base Tracy noticed an old dog that had loped onto the field. It was sitting in the baseline between third and home. Tracy was just seconds away from a home run. She then made a monumental decision. She knelt down and hugged the dog. Tracy never made it to home plate. But the fans cheered her anyway. She had made her priorities clear. Love was more important than winning.
Secondly, there is always need for improvement. We can do better. More people can be helped. The mission of the church has to adapt to the current needs of the times and in ways that are realistic. We have to use every available resource and especially the resources of modern times. Continuing to do what we did in the past will not be as efficient and not reach as many people. The challenge is to “wake from sleep,” as Paul said and love in all the ways that are possible.
A little boy was playing in the sandbox with his box of cars and trucks, his plastic pail and a shiny, red plastic shovel. In the process of making roads and tunnels in the sand, he discovered a large rock. The boy dug around the rock managing to dislodge it from the sand. With some struggle he pushed and nudged the rock across the sandbox by using his feet. When he got the rock to the edge of the sandbox he attempted to roll it up and over the side. But every time he tried to the rock came tumbling back into the sandbox. The last time it rolled back it smashed the little boy’s fingers. At that moment he burst into tears of frustration.
During this time the little boy’s father watched from a window as the drama unfolded. When the tears began to fall, a large shadow fell across the boy and the sandbox. It was the boy’s father. Gently and firmly he said, “Son, why didn’t you use all the strength that you had?” Defeated, the boy sobbed, “But Dad, I did.” “No son, you didn’t use all the strength you had,” replied his father. “You didn’t ask me.” With that the father reached down, picked up the rock and removed it from the sandbox. (from: Homiletics, September 2005, pg. 35)
One reason we don’t make improvements is that we don’t ask for outside help. We care about others and want to help, but we use only what we know. Enlightened people are not too proud to ask for help. They take advantage of every available resource.
Third, we are to “put on the armor of light.” The kingdom of heaven will be much more real to us when our mission is one of compassion, forgiveness and peace. In the light we see more clearly. In the light, we are “awake” and we are, as Jesus said, “the light of the world.”
To be the light of the world we first have to be enlightened. We feel good about the deeds we do and we help others in numerous ways. What Paul wants us to realize is that the love we model can be very contagious.
Once there was a family that was not rich and not poor. They lived in Ohio in a small country house. One night they all sat down for dinner, and there was a knock at the door. The father went to the door and opened it. There stood an old man in tattered clothes, with ripped pants and missing buttons. He was carrying a basket full of vegetables. He asked the family if they wanted to buy some vegetables from him. They quickly did because they wanted him to go away.
However, the next week, the man returned again. Over time, the family and the old man became friends. The man brought vegetables to the family every week. They soon found out that he was almost blind and had cataracts on his eyes. But he was so friendly that learned to look forward to his visits and started to enjoy his company.
One day as he was delivering vegetables, he said, “I had the greatest blessing yesterday. I found a basket of clothes outside my house that someone had left for me.” The family, knowing he needed clothes, said, “How wonderful.” The old man replied, “The most wonderful part is that I found a family that really needed the clothes.” (From: Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul)
That story gets to the heart of what Paul is trying to teach us. Our love is genuine when we learn that those we help are also loved by God. We truly capture the meaning of loving our neighbors when we accept the fact that the people we help are just as worthy and capable of loving others as we are.