Personally, this sermon on questions of God and neighbor continues to be my favorite. Here's some thoughts on this week's lectionary from a sermon I have delivered in the past and will give again this weekend at the First Baptist Church of Ossining, NY:
The word “neighbor” had an odd meaning for me, growing up in rural Kansas, primarily because the nearest neighbors were a distance away, rarely seen, and being good practitioners of the Protestant work ethic, we rarely took time out for socializing. Fence to be mended, fields to be plowed, cattle to be pastured, grain and hay to be hauled, and on a rare occasion, a little potluck on a Saturday evening where the men talked of grain prices, the women talked of the vacations they wished they could take if it weren’t for the summer’s work, and kids played in the yard, sliding down ancient slipper slides and screaming with glee.
The word “neighbor” made a bit more sense to my young mind, thanks to watching television as a child. On one hand, you had “Mr. Bentley” from The Jeffersons. He was quite an eccentric neighbor, who showed up often at the door, complaining of back spasms that he thought George Jefferson alone could cure. “Can Mr. J walk on my back?” Bentley would say. The audience would roar as Sherman Hemsley did his little dance on the witless neighbor.
On the other, you had Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with old Fred in his cardigan, talking in that low, measured tone that never patronized children. He called us all his neighbors, and for thirty minutes every weekday, he taught his young viewers how to treat everyone with respect. All with that remarkable grace and a friendly smile.
It seems an odd place to begin this sermon with Kansas farmers toiling on the prairies, George Jefferson’s impromptu attempt at holistic home healthcare, and Fred Rogers’ desire to make the whole world all his neighbors, with cardigans, sneakers, and trolley in tow. Rather, I believe these odd memories illumine a theological observation: How we choose to live in this world matters. God made us social creatures. We are meant to relate to others, yet we humans tend to spend most of our time doing so only in part.
Instead, we spend much of our time racing around, tending to the affairs of life, and settling for repeating the mantra of “I’m too busy” than engaging in conversations and a common meal that isn’t “fast food”. A worse habit, however, happens when we look around us and see persons who we choose not to see, and we take part in practices, written and unwritten, that keep those persons acutely aware of our disinterest in making them our neighbors.
If we take it seriously, a sacred text that says, “take your neighbor as seriously as you do your devotion to God” should not seem merely an overly familiar Bible story. This text ought to press us, an ancient word critiquing all too well our modern sensibilities. It might even wind up freeing us to live in ways we have forgotten.
In Matthew’s gospel, the question posed by a learned Pharisee is a chance for confrontation. The religious establishment questions Jesus about matters of faith. Some questions are directed at Jesus’ ministry or issues of the day (“By what authority do you teach?” “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”), while other questions deal with matters of orthodoxy (i.e. How does one interpret the Law of Moses?). It is in this latter line of questioning that we hear, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
If you have turned off your television, wearied of the current political debates leading up to Election Day, my apologies that you came to church today and found something similar awaiting you in the gospel lesson. The lawyer put forth by the Pharisees is the last in a line of questioners, sort of religious pundits trying their hand at tripping Jesus up. Many eyes are upon Jesus and his questioners, persons wondering where this showdown was headed. On his own count, Jesus rode into Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and began verbally sparring with the religious leadership. Each time, Jesus keeps the upper hand. Pharisees, Sadducees, and even a handful of Herodians have walked away in a daze of defeat. So, the Pharisees sends out their last ditch effort: a legal expert whose credentials are impeccable, whose knowledge of the law is above reproof. If there is anyone who can go toe to toe on matters orthodox, it is this guy. And his question: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
The question sounds simple enough, because we readers of the Gospels are familiar with Jesus’ response. If you have been in Sunday school at some point in your life, this story was probably recounted to you a few times over. However, to Jesus and this expert in the law, there were six hundred thirteen commandments to choose from. And just like the political debates on our minds, there are differences of opinion and strongly held convictions about which core “truth” or orthodoxy should win the day. Jesus gives an answer that sounds straightforward, however, when you dig deeper, neither has the Pharisees’ lawyer given a softball question nor has Jesus done anything other than knock one out of the park.
In artful fashion, Jesus has referenced the foundational belief of Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6). However, Jesus adds a follow-up comment, citing Leviticus 19:18, adding in the good word about loving your neighbor as yourself. This response apparently satisfies the lawyer that Jesus gives a righteous and astute answer, as he disappears from the text without further comment. The question, however, is why these two texts of the Hebrew Scriptures are intertwined in Jesus’ response and therefore serve as an indication of Jesus’ reading of the law and, as he insists, the prophets.
Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to love your neighbor as yourself is part of the law, part of a chapter of Leviticus that presents a new vision of human relationships where all persons, especially those who are marginalized and vulnerable, are to be treated well. To love your neighbor as yourself is to realize “one’s own welfare is intertwined with that of the other” (Warren Carter, Matthew in the Margins, p. 445). This value is reflected in Matthew’s gospel as Jesus instructs the disciples and the crowds how to love the poor, the dispossessed, the unclean, and yes, even one’s own enemy. In Matthew, Jesus instructs the disciples to lead “a life of indiscriminate loving” (Carter, 445).
And now we see the beauty as well as the difficulty of this teaching. To love indiscriminately is a noble vision, but living it out is another thing altogether! Jesus weaves together the sum of faith (“the Lord should be loved with our own being”) with the realities of life, where we falter in loving someone completely, especially if they are indeed too much the part of being “the other”. Suddenly, we realize, as did Jesus’ detractors that the righteous way of leading life has little to do with exacting purity and ironclad authority. Only in humility and due deference to one another do we start embodying, rather than merely citing, the values of the sum of the faith we seek to keep.
Rowan Williams, the learned scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, was in New York City on the day we call “9/11”. In fact, he was preparing to lead a day’s teaching at a prominent church in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center, when the day’s tragic events began to unfold. In the months after, Williams began work on a small book that tried to make some sort of theological sense out of 9/11. In his book Writing in the Dust: After September 11, Williams spoke with sensitivity and candor about the difficult events of 9/11 and the varied ways that the Church and the world could respond in productive or destructive ways. Williams shared a concern that some might be tempted to close themselves off to persons toward whom they harbored distrust, anger, or some form of anxiety.
Even a few years on, we find ourselves still sorting out the events and fallout of that day. Williams’ pastoral word from late 2001 still rings true:
“We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity—a choice, finally, for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what’s there around us—to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged and calmed (not denied). If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far.” (Writing in the Dust, 59-60).
We sometimes count among our neighbors those who are close at hand or those with whom we choose to interact and socialize. Our faith tells us that the neighbor is the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. Our neighbor is that person whose political lawn signs differ from our own. Our neighbor is the one who we come to realize embodies the very reason that we keep the faith: to love God fully and authentically. The wholly other becomes our way toward becoming holy.
As the Anglican bishop says, “If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far.”