During my junior year of college, I joined some other students in the Episcopal chaplaincy in helping staff a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless in New York City. We got up before dawn, drove into Manhattan, and went into a huge parish hall in a Roman Catholic church, where dozens of other people had already been at work for hours preparing the meal. The organizers had forgotten dessert, so another student and I were sent out in a car to collect as many pies as we could find in nearby grocery stores. By the time we returned, a long line snaked around the building of people – mostly men – waiting to come in for the meal. During the meal itself I was assigned to ladle out mashed potatoes, which I did for well over an hour, as hundreds of people came through the doors. Every one of them looked me in the eyes and thanked me. Once everyone had been served, those of us who had been serving food sat and ate with the guests.
Throughout this experience, on the outside I was cool and calm. But on the inside, I was a little freaked out. I had grown up in a church, and I was majoring in politics, but until that weekend, no one had invited me to love anyone outside my literal neighborhood. Love had meant being nice to relatives who annoyed you or making time to listen to your room mate talk about her problems, but it had not meant attending to physical needs of people you’d never met or changing systems that limited lives.
The next spring I had the chance to meet Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Envoy to the Middle East. His job was to negotiate with terrorists on behalf of the Anglican Church, in order to secure the release of captives. His whole strategy was to get the captors to see their common humanity with those held captive. He would chat with the captors about their lives, find out that they were fathers, grandfathers, people who liked to drink coffee and watch the sunset. Then he would talk with them about the lives of those they held captive – Ah yes, this one is a father, too. This one loves his coffee. This one is a nature photographer in his spare time. His goal was to get them to expand their definition of neighbor and change their behavior. And often, it worked.
So I was a young adult before I was asked to grapple with and live into Jesus’s central command to love your neighbor in a personal, transformative way.
Those experiences led me here today, rather than to a job in the State Department, which is what I had set out towards when I arrived at college.
I do not want the children growing up in this church to be twenty years old before they make the connection between the gospel command to love your neighbor and the real world in which they live. I hope they love their parents, and their friends, and their roommates in college. But I hope they love more broadly and prodigally than I did.
Love reaches out. Love lifts up. Love shakes hands. God did these things for us in Jesus, who came to be with us, rather than loving us abstractly from afar. Love is the source of our being, the force that holds us in being, and the more we give ourselves over to the practices of love, the more we are caught up in the life of God.
In today’s gospel, the Pharisees are trying to test Jesus. They ask him, “Which is the greatest commandment?” He answers in two parts. First, Love the Lord your God – here Jesus is citing Deuteronomy 6:5, the “Shema,” the great command of the people of Israel. And second, he says, is a common like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. This is from Leviticus 19:18.
Great. He passes the test, in the Pharisees’ eyes. They’d agree. But Jesus being Jesus, he does not leave well enough alone and he goes on to shake them up a bit. We’ve seen him do this over and over this fall, parable after parable holding a mirror up to the unjust, unfaithful, closed-heart practices of those in power at the time. Today, he does this not with a parable, but with a question.
“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
They said to him, “The son of David.” David was the great king of Israel, from whom, scriptures tell us, the messiah will come – the one to liberate Israel, the one to make all things right for Israel by taking back full political power.
Huh, Jesus says. Well, that’s funny, because in Psalm 110, David says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’”
In other words, David calls the Messiah “Lord.”
The question “Whose son is the Messiah?” is a huge matter. If the Messiah is the son of David – therefore subordinate to the glory of David – then the activity of the Messiah would be to restore the throne of David. This would be great for the people of Israel, in a political sense, but not of much importance for anyone else.
But If the Messiah is greater than David – to the point that David calls him “my Lord” – then the activity of the Messiah would be greater than restoring the throne of David. If David calls the Messiah “my Lord,” then “the radical love, which fulfills the law and prophets, is greater than a restoration of the Davidic throne” (Mark Davis).
God is about something enormous, something that expresses God’s love for all people everywhere. Neighbor not just other Jews. Neighbor includes Samaritans. Neighbor includes Romans. Soon, neighbor will include Philippians, Thessalonians, Persians, Armenians, and all of us. Neighbor is not an exclusive term – used to draw lines in the sand or build walls on the border. Neighbor is not just people like us, it is not people who fly the same flag we fly, speak the same language, vote the same way.
Neighbor is every person made in God’s image. This definition of neighbor is not new. It’s in Leviticus.
The command to love your neighbor as yourself is from Leviticus 19:18. Yet, not many verses later, we find the command to love the alien (stranger) as ourselves in Leviticus 19:34: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Love your neighbor as yourself. Your neighbor is not just the guy down the block. Your neighbor is the person whose differences put you off. Your neighbor is the homeless person, the captor, the person whom you have been taught to mistrust.
This teaching is not new. Jesus didn’t make it up. It’s just not comfortable. And Jesus is once again calling the Pharisees to account for leaving behind what is inconvenient in the law they are teaching.
What about us? What about our practice of loving our neighbor as ourselves? How broad is it?
This week, Wallace Dailey and I were looking through a booklet recounting the early history of this parish. The author said this: “Every parish has its own characteristic notes of emphasis. In the Church of the Good Shepherd, we find a warm friendship marked in the happy gatherings for many purposes.” Beautiful. Still true! On this Homecoming Sunday, we are so glad to welcome back those who have been a part of that friendship through the years.
While I love the friendship between people in this parish, I believe our parish is most deeply transformed when it pushes that warm friendship out the door and down the street.
One of our core commitments is to Food Justice. We collect canned goods for the Watertown Food Pantry every week. We grow food for our neighbors in need all summer. We teach children to grow food and care about those who need food at Vacation Garden School. I wonder what’s next for us as we love our neighbor as ourselves in this area.
In this parish, we declare that children are full members of our church. And each week we strive to live into that claim for the children here. I wonder who else’s children in Watertown need our support. I wonder what we could make of the fact that we are located one block from Watertown High School.
This parish has been growing its ministry with the homeless, through participating in Common Cathedral’s outdoor worship service and meal program. And in a few weeks, six of our members will spend a weekend learning from unhoused people in the CityReach retreat program. What will they learn? How will their witness transform them and inform our next steps as a parish?
On this Homecoming Sunday, when we celebrate our spiritual friendship with one another, let us rededicate ourselves to pushing outward the bounds of this fellowship and inspiring one another to courageous and justice-making works of love. Let our friendship here inspire the broadest possible friendship beyond these walls.