25 October 2020

Loving our neighbors. In the Biblical sense.

Bible Passage: Matthew 22:34-46

Last Sunday, I spoke about how God’s image is etched upon us in the same way Caesar is etched upon a coin. This means God’s image is etched upon everyone else, too. So, when we are loving our neighbor, we are, in fact, loving God. We are following the first and greatest commandment as well as the second that Jesus tells us is like unto it.

This past week I was having a bit of a hard week, emotionally. No particular reason, other than there’s a global pandemic, I can’t do all kinds of things that I think make me who I am and make me useful in the world. This happens to me because I’m human. The season is changing. I love the fall, really, and never complain about Portland rain, but the transition always takes something out of me. Anyway, I was a little tired and a little testy when I got to church last Wednesday and found Tom, one of our neighbors, hanging out in the sun by the sanctuary doors.

I said I had some people coming and would need to use that door.
He said “Do you have any food? Do you have any toothpaste? I need some socks. I need a toothbrush.”
I said: “I just need you to move.” I came back a couple minutes with a toothbrush and he hadn’t moved yet. I reminded him to move. I was cranky.

I went inside wondering what kind of a Christian am I, really? That’s what was truly making me cranky.  I think I was kind of acting like a pharisee, motivated by fear and propriety and closed off from an encounter with another human, also made in the image of God. I felt terrible, especially because I am always preaching about how we care for our neighbors, particularly neighbors like Tom.

Sometimes, the hardest people to love are the people right in front of us. Our neighbors on the street, or store clerks who annoy us, or people in our own family. This is not because they are not loveable, or because they are not, also, made in the image of God, but because—speaking only for myself—I fail at loving as God would have me love. We are works in progress, not in the sense of needing to become more and more loveable, but needing to become better at loving our neighbors.

Love is—it bears reminding—a verb. The reading from today’s portion of Leviticus reminds us that love takes many forms. Leviticus gets specific. Listen to what might be a 2020 adaptation:

You shall not render an unjust judgment;

You shall not sentence some people differently from others.

you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; but you shall remember that we are all made in the image of God.

Be signs of righteousness to your neighbor. Wear a mask even if they do not.

You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,

You shall not post hatred or self-aggrandizement on social media and you shall not profit by the excess rent of your neighbor or pay your neighbor an unjust wage: I am the LORD.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;

you shall reprove your neighbor, especially if they make racist comments, or abuse their spouse or their pet, even if it feels awkward or foolish to call them out.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Imagine if we all lived that way. Imagine.

The love of neighbor we hear about in Leviticus is so radical that it can change the world. The love that Jesus is about is not just the love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. To love, in the biblical sense, includes specific actions and specific ways of relating to our neighbors. And neighbor meant anyone and everyone. It was not restricted your block or even your culture. To love our neighbors is to disrupt our current system of racism and economic oppression.

If I won the divine lottery and the grand prize was that God would grant me one wish, answer one prayer, it would be that everyone would prioritize love and justice the way Jesus did.

But our world is populated with fallible humans, and we are not there yet. This was as true in Jesus’ time as it is today.

In today’s gospel Jesus answers the last of a series of four questions various factions of the religious establishment ask, try to trick Jesus into giving the wrong answer to a question about religious practice. The Pharisees ask the last question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” This is not a trick question; they just want to see how orthodox he is, and in fact, he passes that test.

He answers—as he so often does—with a question: What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he? It is this snippet of conversation that finally silences everyone. From that day forward, no one dared to ask any questions. This this passage—which takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life–feels a little ominous to me, perhaps because of the darkness of the season—although you’d hardly know it this morning—and our national life.

Jesus’ comments about the Messiah indicate the fullness of what it means to be the Messiah:  to understand that Jesus is the Messiah of God is to understand how much weight we should place on the commandments to love. It is this fullness we need to bring to the opportunities we have set before us, to love God, neighbor, and self.

Last Wednesday afternoon I went back out to Tom in front of the sanctuary doors and again asked him to move, but I asked him nicely. Adam, from Crisis Kitchen, brought him a bowl of hot soup. He looked at both of us and said “God bless you” to each of us. I don’t know how Adam responded, but I said “God bless you” back. He stepped into the church for a moment and looked around. He’d never been inside, in spite of being a nearby neighbor. I hope that when we open up again, he’ll find his way in again.

As we move through this time that is so fraught for so many of us, I commend to you—and to myself—some questions:

  • Are we willing to make ourselves vulnerable and even foolish as we try to follow the commandments set forth in today’s scriptures?
  • When we find ourselves angry at individuals or institutions, let’s ask ourselves: are we loving our neighbors, in the biblical sense?
  • Can we practice hope, that our love of our neighbor can in fact change the world?

Think about these things.