The Good Measure

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 6:27-38 “The Good Measure”

On October 2, 2006, milk truck driver Charles Carl Roberts IV barricaded himself inside the one-room West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, PA.  He had taken ten Amish girls, aged 6-13, hostage.  He lined them up and bound their feet.  As police sought to breach the schoolhouse, Roberts opened fire, killing five children and wounding five others before taking his own life.  Later that day, when the parents of Charles Carl Roberts learned that their son had been the shooter, they were shocked.  The husband Charlie turned to his wife Terri and said, “I will never face my Amish neighbors again.” 

But face them he did.  After the private funeral that the Roberts family held for their son, their Amish neighbors surprised them at the gravesite.  About thirty Amish, some of whom had buried their daughters the day before, showed up, arriving in their buggies and walking across the fields.  They surrounded the Roberts family in a crescent, as a sign of forgiveness and love.  Charlie Roberts’s Amish neighbor came to his home and spent an hour with his arm around him, offering comfort.  Ten months after the tragic attack, the Amish shocked the Roberts and the world again.  Community members had contributed money to create the Roberts Family Fund to support the widow and three young children of the man who had taken the lives of five of their own.

Those gestures of mercy from the Amish may have humbled, puzzled, or even outraged us.  We may have shaken our heads and thought, “Those people are better than I am.  There’s no way I could have put myself at that gravesite.”  Or we could have asked ourselves, “What’s up with that?  How could you hold in your heart both the anguish of untimely, tragic grief and the possibility of compassion for a stone-cold killer?”  Or we may just not have believed it.  Vocal critics at the time argued that the Amish didn’t forgive.  They simply went through the motions of mercy that had been imprinted upon them by their culture.  Yet on the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the Amish girls turned his family away from hate, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.”  Another father said, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he is standing before a just God.”

“Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . . Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  The forgiveness and mercy of the Amish in the wake of the West Nickel Mines school shooting put hands and feet and hearts to those tough words that Jesus spoke to listeners when he delivered that Sermon on the Plain.  For the disciples and others who had gathered to hear Jesus preach, those words would have felt impractical and unthinkable. 

The Ancient Near East was a world driven by retributive violence.  An accidental death could readily explode into the murder of an entire family.  Blood feuds pitted neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation for generations.  If you’d like to read a story of this sort of explosive, escalating, unstoppable violence, take some time to read Genesis 34.  The sons of Jacob took retribution against Shechem, who had sexually assaulted and married their sister Dinah.  To exact revenge, Levi and Simon came upon Shechem and his kin unawares and slaughtered all the men.  Then, Jacob’s other ten sons plundered the community, taking for themselves all the valuables, livestock, children, and wives.

The covenant of the Torah, the Jewish law, tried to limit this escalating cycle of blood violence by teaching a tit-for-tat justice.  Exodus 21 instructs that vengeance must be measured and reciprocal, “If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.”  To help the people move away from blood vengeance, six cities of refuge were designated in Israel. There the perpetrators of accidental manslaughter could claim the right of asylum and await appropriate justice.

Yet Jesus broke even with this moderate teaching of measured retaliation by insisting that his followers exceed the standards of the Torah.  Instead of pulling out their opponent’s teeth and blacking their eyes, Jesus’s friends were to love, do good for, bless, and pray for their enemies.  It was a completely new ethic that flew in the face of everything that his followers knew and experienced.  The love that Jesus enjoined his disciples to practice is agape, the love that God practices.  Agape chooses to act for the good of the other, regardless of what our hearts might be telling us. 

Love your enemies?  Love / agape is a tough choice that we learn to make.  We can only find the ability to practice agape when we consider the mercy of God to us.  Those of you who studied the ten commandments with me a number of years ago will remember that disobeying the moral code that Moses imparted to us carries a death penalty.  We are all deserving of Yahweh’s judgment, and yet God is shockingly merciful.  Instead of judgment and death, God became flesh and entered into this world’s darkness.  In Jesus, God chose to live for us and show to us the way of agape.  Traditional enemies like Romans, Samaritans, and Canaanites were welcomed, helped, and healed.  Clueless, fickle disciples and merciless executioners were prayed for and forgiven.  In the ultimate act of agape, on a merciless cross, flanked by common criminals, Jesus revealed that God loves us enough to die for us.

It is in the enormity of God’s costly love for us that we begin to see another way.  We begin to think that maybe we can move away from demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  We begin to see that only love can heal hearts, transform an enemy into a friend, and make a changed future possible.  With frail and feeble efforts, we begin to choose love.  We fail often.  And yet, we trust that God’s mercy is there to catch us when we fall.  The grace of Christ is sufficient for us. 

What might this transformational ethic of agape look like for us?  It might be letting go of a long-held grudge.  It could be letting bygones be bygones in a family feud.  It might be giving a second chance to a friend who betrayed a confidence.  It could be working hard together to mend a marriage that has endured infidelity.  It is choosing to act always in the best interest of the other and knowing that we can borrow some of God’s love when ours is in short supply.

Jesus described the fruit of a life lived in agape.  He called it the “good measure.”  When you went to a first century marketplace for grain, the merchant filled a measure to the brim and then gave it a good shake to ensure that every nook and cranny was filled.  The merchant then poured that overflowing measure into your apron to carry home.  It’s a beautiful earthy metaphor for a life that abounds with goodness.  When we practice and experience agape, the world gets blessed and so do we.  As we haltingly live into agape, we show God’s Kingdom to the world and in some immeasurable and hopeful way, that Kingdom comes.

In the days following the terrible events at the West Nickel Mines School, Terri and Charlie Roberts, the parents of the shooter, considered leaving the area.  Their grief, shame, and pain were so immense that they couldn’t imagine a way forward, but the Amish did more than forgive the couple, they embraced them as part of the community.  That generous agape prompted the Roberts to host a summer picnic in their backyard for their Amish neighbors, nine months after the attack.  They all came, including a little girl named Rosanna King, wheelchair bound, unable to speak or feed herself, the youngest of their son’s victims. 

A few months later, Terri Roberts asked Rosanna’s mother if she could help with the girl’s care.  Until her death from breast cancer in 2017, Terri spent nearly every Thursday evening at the King Family farm, bathing, reading, and attending to Rosanna until her bedtime.  Terri Roberts remembered the evening that a father said to her, ‘None of us would have ever chosen this.  But the relationships that we have built through it, you cannot put a price on that.”  Terri believed that the Amish choice for agape, the decision to allow life to move forward with love, was profoundly healing for her and her family.  Terri said that is “a message the world needs.” 

“Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . .  Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”


Resources:

Colby Itkowitz. “Her Son Shot Their Daughters 10 Years Ago, Then These Amish Families Embraced Her as a Friend” in The Washington Post, October 1, 2016.  Accessed online at washingtonpost.com.

Story Corps. “A Decade After Amish School Shooting, Gunman’s Mother Talks of Forgiveness” in Morning Edition, Sept. 20, 2016.  Accessed online at npr.org.

Sarah Henrick. “Commentary on Luke 6:27-38” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 20, 2022.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.

Ronald Allen. “Commentary on Luke 6:27-38” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 24, 2019.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.

Susan E. Hylen. “Theological Perspective on Luke 6:27-38” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Charles Bugg. “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 6:27-38” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.


Luke 6:27-38

27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”


Image source: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/03/us/03amish.html

Love Came Down at Christmas

I’ll share with you my first Christmas memory.  It has nothing to do with Jesus, shepherds, or Magi – or even St. Nicholas.  I was four years old.  My father was working in sales for 3M, and he must have been doing well, because that year my family moved out of a cramped two-bedroom starter home into a brand-new home. A home with hardwood floors that we could slide on in our stockinged feet.  A home with a stone and glass fireplace between the living room and family room, where our Christmas stockings could be hung, and Santa could squeeze down the chimney.

Christmastime in southeastern Pennsylvania seems to be infrequently white, but that Christmas it snowed, and snowed, and snowed some more.  All day long, while my mother was busy in the kitchen whipping up a holiday feast and my Grandmommie White sat in front of the fire with her knitting, the snow fell, changing our neighborhood from a familiar suburban subdivision into a strange landscape of winter white. 

My mother’s parents and grandmother (also known as Grammy, Pop, and Nana) were on their way to our new home for a Christmas visit.  They were coming from rural New Jersey, where Grammy and Pop had been dairy farmers.  They were literally traveling over the Delaware River and through Penn’s Woods.  Pop was a Buick man.  Although I have no recollection of the car he was driving that year, I’m sure it was enormous, boat-like, possibly with fins and bright silver hubcaps.  This was, of course, before the day of all-season-radial tires and all-wheel-drive SUVs.  I am certain that Pop’s Buick was a dream for a Sunday-after-church drive, but it was not a vehicle of choice for a long snowy journey.

All day long, we waited, and we waited, and we waited, for Grammy, Pop, and Nana to arrive as we watched the snow grow deeper.  Although my Dad made a number of forays out to shovel the deepening snow, we didn’t see the snowplow.  Nor did we see any cars venturing down the long hill that led from Route 202 to the new house on Buckingham Drive that we called home.  I suspect my Mom was worried.

Pop, in the meantime, was intrepidly inching his Buick along the road to Doylestown.  It was an impressive accomplishment, especially since he probably had plenty of backseat-driving-advice from Nana, by far the most formidable and opinionated member of the family.  Born Anna Elisabeth Stelzenmuller to German immigrant parents in Flatbush Brooklyn, Nana had long ago ditched her German roots.  She went instead by the Americanized name “Betty.”  She was a hairdresser and fashion icon, in the days before anyone had ever heard of fashion icons.  She always smelled of the exotic scent of Shalimar.  Nana as hair stylist had spent many years on her feet – and she had the feet to prove it.  They were all arthritic knobs and bunions, corns and tough callouses.  Yet, somehow Nana packaged those beauties into the most fashionable of footwear – pointy-toed pumps of sumptuous suede or patent leather with kitten heels and bows or buckles. 

Pop’s Buick made it all the way to Doylestown.  At the top of the long, steep Berkshire Road that led down to our home, Pop took one look at the unplowed, snowy depths, pulled over, and ordered, “Everyone out.  We walk from here.”  They did just that.  Pop was loaded down with presents.  Grammy carried at least one pie and undoubtedly a Jello salad.  And my Nana following in their wake in her fashionable shoes.  I remember the knock on the door and my family gathering around to welcome them in from the cold.  We were all full of laughter and tears and wonder.

I remember what happened next, too.  My Grandmommie White had put down her knitting.  She was a nurse by trade and knew exactly what was needed to thaw frozen feet.  She filled the tea kettle to warm water on the stove.  Once it was piping hot, she filled a basin, took a soft towel, and then she knelt at my Nana’s feet.  She took off my Nana’s now ruined shoes, and then she began to massage and wash those terrible, ugly feet – bunions, bulges, callouses, and all.  Most Christians practice the rite of footwashing at Easter, as they remember the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his friends.  But that year, my Grandmommie washed feet at Christmas.

Thinking back to that Christmas many years ago, I’ll tell you what I learned: Christmas is about love.  It’s about the kind of love that makes you inch your way through a snowstorm in a big old Buick. It’s about the kind of love that frets all day in the kitchen while you think about your kin, traveling hazardous roads.  It’s about the kind of love that sends you walking through deep snow with a big white fuzzy dog with a pink bow clamped under your arm to give to your first granddaughter.  It’s the kind of love that sends you to your knees to wash feet, even Nana’s feet. 

Over the years, I’ve learned that all that love gives us a taste of the Holy Love that came down to us at Christmas.  In our love for one another is the echo of God-made-flesh, of God born to poor peasant parents, of God who chose to draw first breath in the barnyard muck, surrounded by sheep and goats, donkeys and oxen, camels, hens and doves.  Love came down at Christmas in a tiny babe, the Christ-child, who would one day teach the world what it truly means to love – big-hearted, open-armed, without limits. 

May your Christmas be filled with love.


Luke 2:1-7

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


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“Live in Love”

Sabbath Day Thoughts – “Live in Love” – Ephesians 4:25-5:2

We need love. The groundbreaking research of behavioral scientists like Harry Harlow and John Bowles determined that humans have a hard-wired biological need to experience love. Their findings revealed that babies who are deprived of contact comfort and love during the first six months of life suffer long-lasting harm. Even into adulthood, they can experience psychological damage that increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and difficulty in relationships. We also need to give love. Each of us has an innate need to love and care for others. It’s what compels us to pinch the cheeks of babies, say “Aww!” when we see a cute puppy, or make a generous donation to the Crisis Care Nursery when we hear about those at-risk orphans. It’s safe to say that God created us with the intent of giving and receiving love.

No one was better versed in the importance of love for human development than broadcaster and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers. Once a lonely child himself with respiratory issues, Fred was sensitive to the insecurities and needs of children. The love and affirmation of his grandfather, the original Mr. McFeely, helped Fred through those early years. As the grown-up Fred saw the vapid humor and violence of children’s television, he thought, surely, we can do better. He resolved to use tv to encourage kids to know that they mattered. From 1968 until 2001, his show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was broadcast nationally on public television. In 895 episodes, Mr. Rogers was all about love. Fred said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest people.”

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians also emphasized the importance of love. The apostle spent more than two years in the busy Aegean port of Ephesus sharing the good news, spending five hours daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, relating the story and teachings of Jesus. All that gospel, coupled with extraordinary miracles, made for a vibrant and growing church. In summarizing the Way of Jesus, Paul exhorted his friends to “live in love.” He began by describing all the things that love is not: dishonesty, harbored anger, thievery, malicious gossip, and slander. Wise pastor that he was, Paul knew that these behaviors undermine the fabric of a community.

We can attest to the truth of Paul’s teaching. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? says that dishonesty undermines trust, the primary connective tissue of a relationship. Without trust and the sense of safety that it brings, our relationships cannot grow in a healthy manner. Likewise, Dr. Randi Gunther cautions that unresolved anger can sabotage our connections with those we care about, whether our anger manifests as nitpicking, withdrawal, snapping, or tantrums. Once we are in an angry interaction, we can rapidly go from friends to adversaries, unable to see beyond our emotional survival. We resort to distance for our emotional safety and resist working through the conflict to get at the underlying feelings and concerns. We also all know from personal experience how painful it is to be targeted by gossip. It spreads lies, tarnishes reputations, and ruins relationships. Dishonesty, harbored anger, and sins of speech, when these destructive behaviors become endemic to a family, community, or church, they create an unsafe emotional space where no one truly feels welcomed, accepted, or loved.

Paul expected better of the Ephesians—and us. He reminds us that our true purpose is agape, the generous, other-interested love that acts out of concern for the well-being of others. Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, describes agape as “kenotic love,” from the Greek word kenosis, which means to “pour out.” In agape we pour out ourselves in the best interest of others. There isn’t anything in it for us. Agape is self-sacrificing, forgiving, and kind.

Agape is a healer and a community builder. A Penn State study considered the effect of feeling loved upon individuals. They asked subjects to report the brief experiences of love and connection that they had in everyday life: a caring text, a meaningful interaction with a friend, a sweet kindness from a family member, the random niceness of strangers. The researchers learned that the subjects who had more experiences of love and connection also had significantly higher levels of psychological well-being, including feelings of optimism and purpose.

Fred Rogers didn’t need a scientific study to tell him that. He simply believed that all people feel better and are happier when loved. In his testimony before a Senate panel in 1969, Rogers described the ethic that undergirded his children’s programming, saying, “I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we… can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men [be portrayed] working out their feelings of anger — much more dramatic than showing… gunfire. I’m constantly concerned about what our children are seeing.”

Like Fred Rogers, we instinctively know the power of kindness and love to build-up one another, but we sometimes struggle to be loving. We get really angry. Sometimes it is justified. We can be less than honest or may resort to lies because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to represent ourselves in a bad light, or we want to try to stay in control of a situation where we feel out of our depth. We can use language in ways that hurt, whether we speak rashly, raise our voices, betray a confidence, or put someone down so that we can feel better about who we are. We hear Paul’s wise exhortation to “live in love,” but it isn’t always easy.

We are only able to forge the capacity to be a people who live in agape when we consider the example of Jesus. His life was a long unfolding of agape. In agape, Jesus chose to heal hurting people on the sabbath day, even when the scribes insisted that he was violating the Torah. In agape, Jesus welcomed sinners, scandalizing the Pharisees. In agape, Jesus was crucified, taking on the sin of the world and reconciling us to God and one another. In agape, Jesus forgave even his executioners as they nailed him to the cross and gambled for his robe. Jesus poured out his life in “kenotic love.” It is when we ponder the enormity of what Jesus has done for us that we begin to understand agape. It is in following Jesus, what Paul described as being “imitators” of Jesus, that agape begins to take shape in our lives. We care, we share kindness, we forgive, we learn to live in love.

Researchers say that agape is good for us. Dr. Raj Raganathan, who teaches at the University of Texas, has found that when we express love and compassion for others, it makes us happier. In a study, students were given a gift of either $5 or $20 with the instruction that they could do with it as they wish, either spending it on themselves or spending it on someone else. The study found that those students who chose to spend their windfall on others grew happier than those who kept it for themselves, regardless of whether they were spending $5 or $20. That desire to love and care that each of us is born with brings happiness when it is generously exercised. Our agape helps others, and yet we benefit, too. I suspect that Jesus and the Apostle Paul knew that, too.

In one of his last public addresses, Fred Rogers delivered the commencement speech for Dartmouth University’s Class of 2002. Mr. Rogers shared one of his favorite stories, seeking to impart the ethic of other-interested love and care that he hoped those best and brightest of young people would embrace. The story was about the Seattle Special Olympics. There were nine “differently-abled” contestants for the hundred-yard dash. They assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward, one little boy stumbled and fell. He hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying, slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy, saying, “This’ll make it better”. And the little boy got up. Then, all the runners linked their arms and joyfully walked to the finish line together. Everyone in the crowd stood up, clapped, whistled, and cheered for a long, long time. Mr. Rogers said that deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then. He went on to quote Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, the last of the great Roman philosophers, who said, “Oh happy race of mortals, if your hearts are ruled, as is the universe, by love.”

Sisters and brothers, let us live in love.

Resources:
Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Exegetical Perspective on Eph. 4:25-5:2” in Feasting on the Word, Year B. vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Gunther, Randi. “How Anger Affects Intimate Relationships” in Psychology Today, August 30, 2019. Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.
Ward, Richard F. “Homiletical Perspective on Eph. 4:25-5:2” in Feasting on the Word, Year B. vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
–. “Fred Rogers” in Biography. Accessed online at biography.com.
Penn State. “Feeling Loved in Everyday Life Linked with Improved Well-being” in Science Daily, Nov. 25, 2019. Accessed online at sciencedaily.com.
Rogers, Fred. “Dartmouth College Commencement Speech, 2002 in Rev Speech to Text Services. Accessed online at https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/fred-rogers-mr-rogers-commencement-speech-transcript-2002-at-dartmouth-college.
Raghnathan, Raj. “The Need to Love” in Psychology Today, Jan. 8, 2014. Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.
–. “About Fred” in Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College. Accessed online at https://www.fredrogerscenter.org/about-fred.


Why Mister Rogers Took Pictures of the People He Met - Biography
Image accessed online at https://www.biography.com/news/why-mister-rogers-took-pictures-people-new-friends