I plan to post the sermons that I preach each sunday while I am at Bagram. Every chaplain is responsible for leading worship at one service a week. I won't know, until I arrive there, which service will be "mine." In the meantime, this is a sermon I preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church (the church in which I grew up) in Pensacola, FL this past September. In many way, it encapsulates my feelings and hopes for this deployment and my work with both US soldiers and Afghan civilians and detainees.
About 13 years ago in our church gym, some of the boys in Lightshine got together and sold then high school, PHS senior, Patrick Hightower, into slavery. Well, actually they sold him to Joy and Ed Kidd who were our resident Ishmaelites. They turned around and sold him for a profit to Evan Baher, otherwise known as Potiphar, one of Egypt’s millionaires. This is where it gets complicated. Things between Evan and Patrick were great for about half a musical number, that is until Evan found out that his “wife,” either Jessie Gasgoine, Megan Riegle, or Rachel Heffner, depending on the night of the weekend, tried to seduce Patrick because of his looks and charm.
Poor Patrick, playing the role of Joseph was not an easy task. Sold by his Lightshine brothers and imprisoned by the Pharaoh, and all only in the first act. At one point, things were so dismal that Patrick, from his makeshift jail cell, sang a song entitled “Close every door to me.” Here he confesses that he wants nothing to do with the world. He feels utterly unloved and thrown away. He is drowning in pain experienced from rejection and betrayal. The door of his heart has been slammed shut and when the curtain closes, we are left to wonder if it will ever be opened again.
Many of you remember Lightshine’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. You may not just remember it, you may still have props in your garage or in an upstairs closet as well as scars from set construction and costume design to prove your involvement. Whether you were a member of the church at the time or like me, a friend of a member of the church, none of us got away unscathed. There were infinite hours of dance rehearsal where the guys, normally soccer, baseball and cross country stars, were forced to perfect the can-can kick or learn all those many colors most of us had never even heard of like “azure” and “russet” which I still don’t know or “ochre” which I thought was a vegetable that should only be eaten fried with lots of condiments. I would bet that most of us could still get them all in the right order after days of Marilyn's repeated color drills.
In those weeks, we all became a part of Joesph’s story. And, while the miracle of the boys kicking at the same time all in the right direction on opening night after a pretty rocky dress rehearsal, seemed like the greatest triumph of the whole affair, these many years later, I have realized the lasting, profound impact this story has had on my life. It is one of the Bible’s finest examples of radical love, and, in this place, I was given the opportunity to participate in it. Joseph taught us, even as we sang and danced, that faithfulness and forgiveness go hand in hand. Being faithful to God means forgiving those who have hurt us, even when the pain that we have felt is so great that we would rather close off our heart altogether. Forgiveness is born out of radical love. Radical because it is risky and doesn’t make sense to the world. Radical because it requires the one who has been harmed to reach out with love nonetheless. We learned these things from Joseph as he reached out and saved his brothers from famine and death, those same brothers who had sold him into slavery years before.
Sometimes stories, even ones from the Bible, seem well and good in theory but in practice, in real life, we wonder how they could be possible? How are we supposed to live this kind of radical love in our lives? Many days, when I am struggling with this very question, knowing what I should do but feeling like I simply don’t have it in me to actually do it, I remember a friend a have in South Africa. I found out early in our acquaintance that her nephew had murdered her son. Once when I was at her house, she introduced me to a young man who she called her nephew. Surely, I thought to myself, this is not the nephew, the one who killed her boy. So, later I asked her. “Johanna, that boy, that nephew at your home, that’s not...” I didn’t even have to finish the question. Her face changed and in a moment of mixed anguish and love and with tears rolling down her face, she whispered, “Yes, yes it is.” For years, she has given him shelter and clothes and food and money for the doctor, this nephew who took her son’s life. “Why,” I must have asked her in my shock. “Because, I can’t help but remember Jesus needing a place to lay his head.” Radical love that is risky and painful will sooner bring you to your knees with grief than send you over the moon with feelings of bliss. But this is love.
I have been a preacher for three years and still am surprised most weeks when I read the lectionary text. More often than not, it feels as if I am reading the passage for the first time. This can’t be true, though, not officially at least, because I was required to read the whole bible when I was in seminary. While I will admit to skimming chunks of Leviticus and Chronicles and Numbers, I don’t remember skipping Romans! It’s one of the shorter books after all. But I have no memory of chapter 13? Surely I would have remembered these words, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Every commandment is summed up in this word. Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a rephrasing of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22. When Jesus is asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Normally, I don’t have a lot of time for Paul. Perhaps wrongly, I give him a hard time because it seems like so many of his words are used by Christians to justify all that we seem to fight about in the church. Whether it is the roles or lack thereof of women in worship or the degree of sinfulness of a plethora of issues, homosexuality at the top of the list, Paul is more often used to divide the church than it is to bring it together. Encountering this text was just the wake up call that I needed, a reminder that bits and pieces of the Bible should never be used as a weapon to justify prejudice or hate. But all the commandments, the instruction given to us through this holy revelation are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Love is not about a feeling. It has little to do with emotion, at least according to Paul. Instead, it is about behavior. We know that we are loved not by what is said to us but by how we are treated. We love our neighbors through our actions, not by empty words. And Jesus has already told us who our neighbors really are. Not just those who share our pews or our opinions on politics, not just those who agree to believe in God the same way that we do, not just those who make love easy. But, Jesus says that any human being that we come into contact with, every single person, is our neighbor, family and friends of course, but also included are the strangers we meet, the person from the other side of town, the drivers of cars next to us on the road, and even our enemies. If we want to fulfill the law, if we desire to be faithful to God at all, we must do this first. We must commit to love before we move on to anything else.
Next month, I head to Afghanistan with a group of about 200 US soldiers. The 14th Military Intelligence battalion is one of two battalions in the Army whose main purpose is interrogating prisoners who are being detained by our government as are enemies of the United States. A few weeks ago, while reading through my specialized job description for Afghanistan, I came across a list of persons for whom I will provide religious support: US soldiers, US contractors, Allied soldiers and contractors, civilians, and detained persons.
Seeing this in writing caught me a little off guard. I had heard that, as a chaplain, I would be the only person from my unit with universal access to the prison. Up until that moment, I still figured that I would have little to do with them. After all, I am a young woman and a Christian. What would I have to offer 2000 Muslims being held by our government as terrorists? Paul’s letter to the Romans could not have come at a better time for me. It has been a reminder that even there in this prison where I will spend a year of my life, in a position where it is easy to conceive our side as good and their side as evil, that even there, I am called, as a chaplain and more importantly as a Christian to love. Though they may be marked as my enemies, they are nonetheless, my neighbors.
On most days I have no idea how I am going to do this. I have tried to pray for guidance, and I have asked others to pray for me, too. But I am still scared because I don’t know if I will be able to follow Jesus all the way into that prison. I don’t know if I can love them. As I stand here with you, my church family, I remember that I don’t go there alone. With knowledge of God’s radical love learned in this very place, I go, trusting that God is at work even there, sewing, creating, and nurturing a kingdom where friends and enemies look like one another. And, we are all called to be a part of it. Owe no one anything except to love. It’s not easy, nor is it safe, but it is the way of the cross.
The first scripture that I ever memorized was Psalm 23. It was what I said to myself whenever I was too afraid to fall asleep at night. For years it was the only part of the Bible I knew by heart. Looking at the psalm more closely, I have discovered that it is broken into three sections: our life on earth, our death, and our life after death. I have often puzzled with the first verse of the third section, the part about heaven. It says, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” It didn’t make sense to me. I thought that in heaven God would be preparing a place for me with all the people that I loved, not the people that I didn’t care for. Why did my enemies have to be present? As I have struggled to pray for my enemies, those who have hurt me, as I prepare to go to live in the midst of those who are called “enemy,” I have found great comfort in this verse.
What is being prepared for me by God, what is eternally waiting for all of us, is a place, a table, where we are in the presence of our enemies and we are not afraid. We have nothing to lose, nothing to guard. In this place where God is, there are no enemies. Where we have struggled to love, struggled to forgive, God is moving and working, binding every wound, smoothing every crack, softening every hard place. At God’s holy table, we will break bread together, friend and enemy and everyone between, taking part in a feast of love forever. This is God’s promise to us. So come, taste and see what the Lord has done. Amen.