First of all, it’s great to be back writing. It’s been way too long, and I miss writing - hopefully - as much as you miss reading what I write. My situation in ministry has changed; I am no longer an LCMS National Missionary providing pastoral care in Gary, IN. I now serve two congregations in Lansing MI, serving as Senior Pastor and Sole Pastor, respectively, of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran and Good Shepherd Lutheran Churches of Lansing, MI. The former is the “mother” church of the LCMS group in Lansing, while the latter is a church plant that left the inner city to serve a would-be new housing development section in Delta Township on the western end of Lansing. That development never was built, and instead, Good Shepherd became a congregation that sits astride one of the main business arteries of Lansing, near malls, restaurants, and a major motel.
The two congregations share some commonalities, one of which is that they are both largely populated by an aging population while having a small but growing set of young families. They are also, not willingly, but (hopefully) temporarily, almost completely Caucasian. There are some social realities that come with that, even in a place like Lansing, the State Capital of a bluish State. I knew that my family and I would have to navigate them eventually.
When “eventually” became “now,” it involved the application of one of my core values, looking for opportunities to “love my neighbor.” I love putting that into sermons, because it is the thing that Jesus said is next to the Great Commandment: Matthew 22:34–40 (ESV)
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
The thing about “love your neighbor” is that, from a First Use of the Law perspective, we all get it, as long as our “neighbor” is, well, lovable – either presently or potentially
The thing about “love your neighbor” is that, from a First Use of the Law perspective, we all get it, as long as our “neighbor” is, well, lovable – either presently or potentially. We love those who are weak or vulnerable, we love those who have sympathetic narratives attached to them, we love to “help those who cannot help themselves,” and we love those who share our core values, if not in toto, at least substantially. Outside of those walls, it often gets murkier, and we tend to shy away from situations where that Command seemingly forces us to “switch sides” and love someone who we view as “an” if not “the” enemy.
A parishioner came to me with this very conundrum. It involved a friend who served as a police officer. He had gotten into a situation with a newspaper delivery person who seemed to be behaving suspiciously, while he was off-duty and in the process of taking his child to school. He pursued the other driver and confronted him in a gas station parking lot by holding him at gunpoint until a State Police unit arrived. The event, which took place a couple of years ago, apparently became part of the whole social justice/police community relations drama that had become news fodder in many communities in the U.S. My parishioner had befriended the now former police officer, who had been an officer for some years without any negative activity, but because of this incident, had lost his job before being given a different job with the city, and now had to deal with the long arm of the Law reaching out making him its target rather than its agent. Yes, the individual was black; the cop was white.
There were several villains from which to choose
There were several villains from which to choose. There was the other individual who now, wrapped in the robe of social justice, was accusing the parishioner’s friend of “oppressing him under the color of Law.” There was the State Attorney General, who seemed to want to make her mark in the battle against the evil of racism and police abuse by charging him with assault and abuse of authority. There was the trial judge, who once worked for the above-mentioned Attorney General, and so now, according to my parishioner, should have recused herself from this trial. And there was the State Police Unit which, upon investigating and discovering that the other individual was driving on a suspended license, decided to let both gentlemen go home without even a citation, thus leading the police officer to think that no further judicial activity would be forthcoming.
The question that I had to answer was, “how do I love the sinner, but hate the sin?”
The question that I had to answer was, “how do I love the sinner, but hate the sin?” In this case, the “sin” was not the actions of the then police officer who drew his service revolver to stop the other driver, nor was it the actions of the other man who was trying to avoid being forced to pull over by this stranger in a pick-up truck. The “sin” was the Attorney General’s use of her office to advance the social justice agenda of retributive justice against those who used their power and privilege to the detriment of those who lacked the power to protect themselves from such activity.
Never mind that, if this was a sin, it wasn’t one that I normally must preach against on Sunday morning. The issue here turned out to be that there was no courtroom drama in which this would be played out. The former officer had already accepted a plea deal, the only thing left was to receive sentence on a misdemeanor charge. My parishioner was afraid that the potential sentence could have damaging consequences for the family of his friend, for he was married, and they were a good Catholic family.
I found the answer in the Epistle from the previous Sunday: Philippians 4:10–13 (ESV)
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Often used to encourage people in the pursuit of their goals or dreams, this passage is actually about trusting in the Lord when circumstances are not comfortable, just like you do when they are satisfactory
Often used to encourage people in the pursuit of their goals or dreams, this passage is actually about trusting in the Lord when circumstances are not comfortable, just like you do when they are satisfactory. Can you take to heart St. Paul’s words here, along with those of the author of Hebrews 12:1–2 (ESV)?
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Keeping your eyes on Jesus is easy on Sunday; He sits enthroned on the cross where He died as the propitiation for your sins and you are in a safe space, surrounded by those who, like you, love Him because He first loved you. It can be a different story when His image is not there to remind you, and you are like everybody else in the world, living without any tangible evidence of His presence and oversight. But that is the time when the presence of Christ, in Word and Sacrament, can be for you what God describes as “a present help in trouble” as God the Holy Spirit, watching over His Word to perform it, brings to your remembrance the things that Christ has promised you in the Holy Scriptures. It takes time, and some help from pastors and other brothers and sisters who speak God’s word in response to your frustration, anguish, or fear, whether verbally, from a book, or even in a social media comment, but it is what we are called to do at all times and in all places.
That’s because there is no place where our Lord is not. There is no set of circumstances where our Lord has left us to fend for ourselves, to attempt to fulfill Christ’s command to love one another in our own strength. As David wrote in Psalm 139:7–10 (ESV)
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
As you might expect, this story has a happy ending. People, including me, prayed for the will of the Lord to be done, and it was. As it turned out, what my parishioner feared – a year in State prison - did not come upon his friend, and, I hope, they both learned about both the efficacy of prayer and the presence of the Lord in His people, even if one of them makes his home in Rome (for now?). As I encouraged them, I encourage you, my neighbor, wherever you are today, to remember that the Lord is with you, whatever the surface conditions, and that He “is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy!” He is, after all, “the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord…, Amen.”
Stay focused on Christ, my friends!