Pacific Palisades Interfaith Service: ‘Seeking the Common Good’

By Sue Pascoe
Editor

The Bible passage chosen for the Interfaith Thanksgiving service on Nov. 21 was Matthew 5: 43-44: You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ‘But I tell you love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you.”

After a bitter presidential election that left the country deeply divided, the more than 300 people who attended the hour-long service at St. Matthew’s Church sought unity and healing.

This was the 21st annual Community Service of Thanksgiving in Pacific Palisades. The town’s eight religious leaders–Rev. Bruce Freeman (St. Matthew’s Episcopal), Rabbi Amy Bernstein (Kehillat Israel), Rev. Eric Schaefer (Presbyterian), Reverend Wayne Walters (Methodist), Brother Ritananda (Self-Realization Fellowship), Rev. Shawn Gendel (Calvary Christian), Msg. Liam Kidney (Corpus Christi) and Bishop Chris Eastland (Church of the Latter-Day Saints)–joined to lead the service.

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“My first Interfaith ceremony was 17 years ago,” Kidney said before giving the benediction. “I’m the only one still here.”

This year’s homily was given by Walters, who joked that when he made his debut appearance in 2015 he was asked to read the traditional Presidential Proclamation, because his fellow clergy feared he might improvise. This year, he said, his peers allowed to give the homily, and he thought it was an honor–until he was leaving after the planning meeting, and he thought he heard one of the clergy say, “sucker.”

Walters said his group had planned the service before the election’s outcome. But because of the division and the ugliness on all sides during the campaign, the overall theme selected was “Seeking the Common Good.”

“Obviously, Jesus wasn’t a Republican or Democrat or Independent,” Walters said. “But the political divisions between people of his time were just as pronounced as they are in our time.” He noted there were significant hostilities among the Sadducees and Pharisees and Essenes. “So, which group did Jesus favor? None really.”

Walters said that Jesus didn’t categorize people the way we do today—urban liberal, or midwest conservative or African-American or high school graduate or one-percenter or Muslim or evangelical or immigrant or gay. “And then we treat and respond to those persons based on how we feel about persons in that classification. Not so with Jesus.”

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Walters admitted to classifying people, saying he gives clear instructions to his secretary about salesmen: “Don’t put those kinds of people through!” He said he doesn’t want his time wasted and becomes irritated “by listening to a prolonged sales pitch or to a fundraising program that is guaranteed to increase my congregational giving by 300 percent.

“I tell them to call St. Matthew’s,” Walters joked. “In fact, I give them the Reverend’s telephone number.”

He explained that he’s that way about sales people in general, and if he’s in a store and a clerk comes up to him and suggests that a jacket would look good on him, “I may not say it literally but something in my facial expression or verbal response suggests, ‘Go away.’ My wife has more than once suggested I might be more pastoral.”

Walters told the audience that in Jesus’ time a lot of people felt similarly about tax collectors who gathered money for the Roman Empire, an oppressive regime. The collectors were seen as turncoats and most of them cheated the people they collected from.

“What did Jesus think about tax collectors?” Walters asked. “He made no condemnation of them–quite the opposite. He spent a lot of time with them.” One tax collector, Zacchaeus, was so moved by Jesus, he offered to give half his possessions to the poor and said if he defrauded anyone in the past, he would repay them fourfold.

Walters spoke about how hard it was to emulate Jesus. “We have all certainly heard of loving your neighbor and in principal you’d agree that is what we should do,” he said, but admitted personal difficulty in doing so.

“Following a contemplative retreat in the mountains or at a monastery, I’ve set out with the intent to just love everybody–even annoying members of my congregation.

“But my success rate has been limited to from several hours up to a day or two, depending on how much contact I have with people, whether I have to drive anywhere and deal with idiots cutting in front of me and if I allow myself to read anything in the news or on Facebook that reflects thinking or behavior different than my own way of thinking. If I do any of these things, I usually fall within a few minutes to a few hours.”

Walters explained that no matter one’s religious affiliation, we need to follow Jesus’ advice on loving everyone, especially those we disagree with, and not just for a one morning or a day or two.

“If Jesus were to start making the rounds again and met with me for a little one-on-one, I wonder if he might bring up this issue. And not just about how bad things are or what I read in the comment section of Facebook posts. I wonder if he might say, ‘Wayne, you need to start loving your enemies.’ I can imagine myself saying, ‘Who me?’ I preach about it all the time. Doesn’t that count for something?’ And Jesus would probably say, ‘That counts for something but if you won’t or can’t love others, then how are you different than anyone else you complain about?”

The Methodist minister concluded, “Now perhaps more than in a very long time, our country needs to be more united in ways that can ultimately reflect the beauty of the country established and envisioned 240 years ago. We have a lot to do to make sure there is liberty and justice for all, but let us be one people under God, indivisible. We have much to do that will only be meaningful and effective if we constantly act out of love.”

In his Sharing of the Sign of Peace remarks, Bishop Eastland emphasized that “In a world that is so desperately in need of greater civility, more charity and deeper mutual respect, what a blessing it is that you would take your precious time to gather this evening, united towards this common purpose.

“You truly represent a shining example that people of faith, particularly of different faiths, can and indeed must play a critical role in addressing and resolving the many conflicts that plague our planet.”

Eastland concluded, “While we may not have the means to end all strife in the world, let us tonight recommit ourselves to bringing a greater measure of peace into our own lives, and by doing so within our families, our neighborhoods and our community. Reverend Walters spoke to us of the ‘classifications’ that can divide us, but let us instead signify this commitment to each other as brothers and sisters under one God by extending to one another the Sign of Peace.”

The evening’s offering was donated to the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness to help fund its work with OPCC, the LAPD and the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks. 

The participating choirs and their directors included Corpus Christi (Will Salvini), the Presbyterian Church (Jaco Wong), St. Matthew’s (Thomas Neenan) and the SRF (Victor Long). The organist was Dr. Haesung Park, parish organist at St. Matthew’s.

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