Reverence for life



Matthew 22:35-40

35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37 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.” 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’


Today is Sanctity of Life Sabbath, a day recognized by many denominations. On this Sunday, we are urged to appreciate and value life. The title of the sermon today, which I hope you noticed in the bulletin, is “Reverence for Life.” Albert Schweitzer invented that phrase. Schweitzer was one of the most interesting people of the twentieth century. Actually, he was born in the nineteenth century, in 1875. He was born in Alsace that strange border province between France and Germany.

Schweitzer was one of the few people in history who had three earned doctorates. He had a doctorate in philosophy, which he earned in 1899, with a dissertation on the religious philosophy of Kant. Immanuel Kant is a philosopher that I have never been able to make heads or tails of, so that feat alone is astonishing. Then Schweitzer received his doctorate in theology and became a pastor of a church. He began preaching at St. Nicholas Church in Strasbourg in 1899; he also taught and served in various administrative posts at the University of Strasbourg. In 1906, he published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a book on which much of his fame as a theologian rests.

Meanwhile through all of this, he had a distinguished musical career. When he was nine years old, he began playing the organ in his father’s church. He became an internationally known concert organist. Schweitzer wrote a biography of Bach in 1905 in French, published a book on organ building and playing in 1906, and rewrote the Bach book in German in 1908.

Having decided to go to Africa as a medical missionary, Schweitzer began the study of medicine at the University of Strasbourg. In 1913, he obtained his third doctorate, his M.D. degree. Soon after his marriage, Albert and his wife moved to French Equatorial Africa (which is now the central African country of Gabon). The Schweitzers went up the river to a place called Lambaréné and there they established a hospital in the jungle. Dr. Schweitzer saw his work as a medical missionary in some way as recompense for the colonial abuses European governments had inflicted upon the people of Africa. However, in 1917, during WWI, he and his wife were sent to a French internment camp as prisoners of war. Released in 1918, Schweitzer spent the next six years in Europe, preaching in his old church, giving lectures and concerts, taking medical courses, writing books.

Schweitzer returned to Lambaréné in 1924 and spent the remainder of his life there. With the funds earned from his own royalties and personal appearance fees and with those donated from all parts of the world, he expanded the hospital to seventy buildings. By the early 1960's, it could take care of over 500 patients at any one time.

At Lambaréné, Schweitzer was doctor and surgeon in the hospital, pastor of a congregation, administrator of a village, superintendent of buildings and grounds, writer of scholarly books, commentator on contemporary history, musician, host to countless visitors. The honors he received were numerous, including the Nobel Peace Prize for 1952. With the $33,000 prize money, he started the leprosarium at Lambaréné. Albert Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965, and was buried at Lambaréné.

That is a quick synopsis of an amazing life.

The phrase “Reverence for Life” is a translation of the German phrase: "Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben" (which I am told is more accurately translated as "to be in awe of the mystery of life"). These words came to Albert Schweitzer on a boat trip on the river Oguwe in Equatorial Africa. It was the summer of 1915. The First World War was raging in Europe, and Dr. Schweitzer was horrified by the carnage. During the 120-mile journey upstream, he resolved to devote the entire trip to thinking about how “a culture could be brought into being that possessed a greater moral depth and energy than the one we lived in.” Schweitzer said, “Weariness and a sense of despair paralyzed,” his thinking.

But at sunset of the third day of the journey, their boat floated alongside an island in the middle of the wide river. On a sandbank, he saw four hippopotamuses and their young plodding along in the same direction. That scene lifted his spirit. The phrase, “reverence for life,” struck him like a flash. As far as he knew, he had never read nor heard that phrase before, but at once, he realized that the phrase carried within itself the solution to the problem that had been torturing him. Schweitzer later wrote, “Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach. Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others, and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us.”

When Schweitzer spoke of reverence of life, he meant reverence for all of life, including not just people, but all living things, but he also recognized that we live by death. Human beings, and I guess all animals, are predators in that we live by killing and eating living things. We do not like to talk about that, but that is an obvious fact, and Schweitzer was well aware of it. Some folks think that “Reverence for life” means we should be kind to mosquitoes. Schweitzer would be appalled by that notion. He would say mosquitoes cause malaria and several other diseases—get rid of them. Schweitzer once wrote, “The farmer who has mown down a thousand flowers in his meadow as fodder for his cows, must be careful on his way home not to strike off in wanton pastime the head of a single flower by the roadside.” He says the farmer has to have fodder for his cows, so fine mow the hay but on the way home he does not have to knock down flowers with his stick, so do not do that.

There is little story about Schweitzer’s pelican that illustrates his understanding of reverence for life. The good doctor liked animals and in Gabon, he had several pets. He was especially fond of a pelican. This was in the 1950’s. By this time, the hospital at Lambarene was well established and several other doctors had come to assist Schweitzer. One of them was an American named Frank Catchpool. Dr. Catchpool said that he noticed one day that the pelican was in difficulties. This was a big bird with a five-foot wingspan, which was ordinarily a magnificent sight in full flight, but that day the doctor noticed that the bird was holding one foot at an odd angle, and when it came in for a landing it basically crash-landed. Dr. Catchpool sent a messenger to inform Schweitzer about the pelican and later on the doctor showed up. They examined the pelican and found some blood trickling out of several places. Dr Catchpool said, I think this pelican may have been shot with a shotgun, and we need to do an x-ray to find out the extent of the damage, but Schweitzer said x-rays are expensive and he was hesitant, but the other doctor prevailed, did the x-ray, and discovered that his suspicions were correct. The pelican had extensive damage from shotgun pellets and was in fact dying. He said to Schweitzer, We need to do immediate surgery, remove all these pellets, repair all these wounds, and maybe we can save the bird. Schweitzer said, Are you crazy? We have people lined up out into the jungle waiting on x-rays and surgery, and you want to operate on a pelican? No. Go take care of your patients. Then Schweitzer took his pelican outside and chopped its head off.

Now that is essentially Dr. Catchpool’s story of Schweitzer’s pelican. The ending may seem cruel, but in fact, it is the opposite. Schweitzer could not treat the pelican, and he could not bear to see it suffer. The kindest thing he could do under the circumstances was to kill it.

Schweitzer recognized that sometimes killing is necessary. Reverence for all life does not mean that all life has equal value. We value animal life over plant life; we value human life over all other life forms. Moreover, we value our own lives.

Jesus said the second commandant is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” implying that as we value our own life, we should value the lives of others.

I was thinking this week about the mental processes of the Moslem suicide bombers who assaulted the world trade center in 2001 and who have been assaulting various places around the world for many years.

I read one account of a young woman, a teenager, who was living in a Palestinian refuge camp and was recruited by a terrorist organization to be a suicide bomber. She was to pack explosives around her body (Explosives are easy to conceal under the voluminous robes the Moslem women wear), and she was to cross over the border into Israel, go into a town, and blow herself up in the public square. Furthermore, her “handlers” told her that if the Israeli border guards tried to search her, she should immediately blow herself up. If anyone looked at her suspiciously, she should blow herself up.

Well, in actual fact, as she was crossing into Israel, she turned herself in to the border guards, and allowed them to disarm the explosives. The Israelis asked her, why did you not detonate the explosives according to your instructions? She said, I was thinking about it as I walked up to you, but I was so angry that they, the terrorists, set so little value on my life that they would have me throw it away on slightest pretext, and that is just wrong.

Now I do not remember that girl’s name, but I have to say this, that is one smart teenager. She realized that the terrorists did not care about her. To them she was like some sort of disposable syringe--use it, throw it away. She was not even a tool. A mechanic values his tools. He takes care of them because they help him to do his job. She was not even that. And she hated being treated like nothing, rightly so.

The really sick thing about radical Islamic terrorists is the way they use, or misuse, people. Think about the WTC bombers. These men were not stupid. They were not illiterate third world peasants. They came to this country; they spoke English; they went to flight school in Florida. They had a lot to offer humankind, and a lot to offer their country, their people. They could have been valuable to their community. But they were so misled by the rantings of hatemongers, that they made themselves into “disposable syringes.” What a waste. They wasted their lives murdering innocent people. Does anybody even need to say that way of thinking is insane. Don’t we all know that?

The second commandment Jesus gave us says value yourself and value others. The values are interlocked. If you do not value yourself, you certainly will not value other people. And vice versa. If you value others, you will learn to value yourself also.

Notice what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying that you should be a football and let everyone kick you around. Some good Christian folks have not understood this. They think that being a good Christian means being the world’s doormat. That is not what Jesus said. He says value yourself. You are a child of god. You have a right to be here. No one have a right to misuse you or mistreat you. And you do not have that right either. Do not make yourself into trash. Do not let any cause or religion use up your life.

If fact, this is the way you identify a cult. This question comes up all the time. How do I tell the difference between a cult and the real way of Christ? Jesus gives us the answer in these verses from Matthew. Cults are about using and manipulating people. The real way of Christ is about loving and helping each other.

The second commandment implies that we cannot love ourselves without loving other people. And application is everything. We need to treat each other like we love each other.

Go back to Albert Schweitzer a moment. Schweitzer believed heart and mind and soul that the only religion we have is what we live everyday. Schweitzer was a pastor who preached hundreds, thousands of sermons, but he would say that sermons only have meaning when we put them into action. That is why he went to the armpit of the universe, central Africa, and built a hospital there.

And realize the extent to which Schweitzer went. He created a network of people in Europe to support him and his hospital in Africa. This was before WWI. Schweitzer created his own missionary program at home and then went out and became the primary missionary of that program. And he was very careful to acknowledge others who helped him. This was one of his ways of expressing love. For example, he would tell patients in his hospital: people have given money so I can be here and so I can have the drugs to treat you. He wanted everyone to know what other people were doing to make his ministry possible.

Schweitzer was not a perfect person. He had a ferocious temper, for example. He could be very domineering. He was aware of his failings and tried to curb them but never entirely succeeded. But one thing he did. He tried to put love into action. His life was a lesson in putting love into action. What is your life lesson? What are you teaching by your living? Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

HOME About YARPC Sermons Prayer Center

Copyright 2013 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

Last Modified: 05/02/13