The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Love Your Neighbor
Tomorrow will be the sixteenth anniversary of Welles Crowther's death. He was twenty-four years old the day he died; this year he would have celebrated his fortieth birthday. But instead he made a decision, a decision that froze him in time.
Crowther worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was an equities trader, a graduate of Boston College. Even folks who did not know his name, recognized him as the guy who always carried a red bandanna in his back pocket. He always carried it – ever since the day his dad gave it to him, when he was just six years old.
After United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, Welles called his mom – just to let her know that he was OK. And then from the 78th floor, he started his dissent – but not alone. In the midst of the smoke and chaos, with his red bandanna tied around his face, trying to protect his nose and mouth from the toxic air, Welles calmly but firmly started leading panicked people out of the building – including the injured young woman he carried over his shoulder.
After escorting the first group to safety, he made a decision: he decided to go back in – into the thick smoke and terrible haze. He was a like light piercing that darkness – the darkness of the building, the darkness of the despair that hung in the air, the darkness of that day. He had already saved lives, but compelled by the power of love, he kept going back into chaos, because there were more lives to save. One of the women he rescued says, “If he hadn't come back, I wouldn't have made it. People can live 100 years and not have the compassion, the wherewithal to do what he did.”1
Welles Crowther's body was later found in a stairwell. He was on his way back up the stairs to save more lives. He is credited with saving the lives of more than a dozen people, total strangers for whom he sacrificed his life. Every commandment is summed up in one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
That same morning, I was a senior in college, and all of my classes were canceled. And what I remember of that day is sitting with people – some friends, some I barely knew. We sat together in the chapel – and prayed, and cried, and worried. We sat together in the dining hall – and talked and watched as the terrible images on the television screens bled into the amazing images of heroic women and men. We sat together in our dorm and tried to process a catastrophic event on a surreal day.
That day, as I look back, conjures memories of both the horror of the tragedy but also the beauty of a nation united in grief and prayer, united in heart-break, but also united by love. In the days that followed, the stories, stories of police officers and firefighters, of soldiers and medical professionals, of clerics and counselors, and of ordinary heroes like Welles Crowther, inspired the people of our country to dare to once again hope that light would break through the darkness of tragedy. And we caught a brief glimpse of our nation at its best – beyond the partisan and ideological divisions that plague us – children of God, crying, helping, praying – together.
Today we are witnessing the same thing in places across the country. We are watching people come together to cry, help, and pray. We are seeing this in Texas: people risking their lives to save strangers from the flood waters; people giving of their money and of their time. As wildfires rage, we are seeing this up and down the western region of our nation: people opening their homes to friends and strangers alike; firefighters and other first responders risking their lives to contain the raging infernos and save the lives of their neighbors. And today, as yet another another terrible storm pounds Florida, we will see more people give of their time and money and strength to protect and serve and save people from disaster. We will see people put their love into bold and selfless action. Every commandment is summed up in one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The miracle of this is that the love that we will witness in these days of disaster will transcend partisan divides; it will ignore ideological difference. People will reach out in compassion to people who act, look, pray, and vote differently than they do. And, if even for just a moment, Love your neighbor as yourself will be the law of the land.
And when we see that, when we see folks live that commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in this world, we catch a glimpse of the coming Kingdom of God – the world of God's dreams. We catch a glimpse of the world as it could be. This is what Paul means in today's epistle lesson. He writes, “The night is far gone, the day of salvation is near.” It is both an acknowledgment of the brokenness of our present reality, and a bold affirmation of what God has in store for us. The Kingdom is not quite here, but the Kingdom is coming. And then he calls us to live as people of that day, to let the world catch a glimpse of heaven in our lives, in the ways in which we live our love. Paul calls us to be the answer to Jesus' prayer: thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
The task sounds impossibly big. But then again, Paul seems to suggest that it is actually shockingly simple. Sometimes living as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, seems so complicated. The Bible is this huge book, packed full of laws, and rules, and commandments. And if you don't believe me, join us on Wednesday evenings for our Deuteronomy Bible Study. There are 613 commandments in the Torah alone, in just the first five books of the Bible. And yet, here, Paul, like Jesus before him, makes it all shockingly simple: “Every commandment is summed up in one word, one word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'” And then he goes on to explain, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
That is pretty simple, right? All we have to do to fulfill the law of God, to make God's hopes and dreams for this world come true, to answer Jesus' prayer, is to love. Love your friends. Love your brothers and sisters in Christ. Love your family members. Love the strangers and the aliens. Love the widows and the orphans. Love the vulnerable. Love your enemies. Love those who disagree with you, those persecute you. Love those who are rich and love those who are poor. Love those who are easy to love and those who are hard to love. Love the unlovable. Did I miss anyone? Love your neighbor as yourself. It is that simple and that difficult.
But some days it actually seems possible. There is something about tragedy, something about disaster, that reminds us that there is nothing more important than: love your neighbor as yourself. Since Hurricane Harvey hit, millions and millions of dollars have been donated to help the people there who are suffering; people have risked, and in some cases sacrificed their lives, to save perfect strangers; folks have put aside differences to work for the common good. Love flows most easily from broken hearts. In the midst of disaster, people put their love into action. And we see, in times of trouble, what Love your neighbor as yourself looks like in the real world.
For Jesus, love is the highest purpose of the human life. When asked to identify the greatest commandment, Jesus chose love: love God and love people. Love means so much to Jesus, that before his arrest and crucifixion, he said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” And he didn't just say it, he lived it.
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Not only does it fulfill every law, love changes the world. Every act of love brings the Kingdom of God closer. When love happens, it is impossible to miss it. Every act of love is a ray of light shattering the darkness.
In 1878, the city of Memphis, Tennessee was hit with a yellow fever epidemic. The epidemic hit so hard that the city actually lost its charter as a city for fourteen years. As people died all around, many fled the Mississippi River area to preserve their lives. But not all fled; there were a few who decided they could not leave. See there were people, suffering and dying. There were people who needed to experience the love of Jesus, needed to know that Jesus loved them in their time of trouble; they needed to feel that undying love in the midst of their dying. Sister Constance, the head of the Anglican Community of St. Mary, and the sisters of her order, stayed. They knew they would die but they stayed. And in the midst of suffering and death, in the midst of a contagious, fatal disease, in the midst of disaster, they loved. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And those dying of yellow fever were to them total strangers.
Most of the sisters died. They gave their lives because they took Jesus’ commandment seriously: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” They could have left the city, the people, Constance and her companions, but they were compelled by a commandment, compelled by their Lord, compelled to love with their lives as Jesus loved with his life.
On the Feast of All Saints, in that same year, the Rev. J. Jay Joyce commemorated the sisters in his sermon. He said, “They brought the light of woman's loving care to many who else had been denied it; and in their vocation and ministry they counted not their lives dear unto themselves, for willingly and gladly they yielded themselves victims, and many left their healthful home on the Hudson to find death on the Mississippi.” Every commandment is summed up in one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We are living in a world in which pain and sorrow, sadness and despair are still very much the reality. But also we are living in a world with an amazing capacity to love. There is still plenty of darkness, but every act of love is a ray of light shattering that darkness. By the power of love, God's dream is bringing the nightmares of this world to an end; the sun is rising, and the light is breaking through the darkness, and the day is almost here.
We are children of the light. We are called to carry the light into the darkness. We are people of hope. We are called to speak hope into the despair.
It's all very simple: Every commandment is summed up in one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So, let love make your every decision, let love form your every belief, let love dictate your every word, let love drive your every action. Let love be your mission and your legacy in this world. God has a dream for this world; Jesus has a prayer for this world. It is simple. It is love.