Lord, be with us this day, helping us to put our priorities in order; so that we may faithfully serve you by serving your people. Heal our spirits. Heal our nation. Enable us to follow your ways all the days of our lives.
A Reading from Scripture Luke 10:25-27
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
For the past several weeks, we have been diligently working with the thoughts about grace and hope during the pandemic. The last seven months have been an exceedingly difficult time for all of us. We have had to learn how to live with masks and social distancing. We use elbow bumps instead of hugs. We struggled to see our families and to be close to them. If we wanted to out to dinner, we had to think about carry-out first. I am tired of plastic containers and cold food. As the weather got better – outside dining was a God send. Now the weather is getting colder and the Covid-19 spike is returning in a vengeance. Moreover, we have had the ugly head of racism emerge throughout our nation along with one of the most contentious national elections in our history
Welcome to 2020, a year of stark political polarization! We thought 2016 was a divisive year, but it was a picnic in comparison to what has been unfolding in 2020. Both sides have dug into their respective trenches. Demonizing those on the other side is now the norm. This is our current situation, and it saddens me. We know this is not how things should be, particularly as Christians. I am saddened by the way many people, especially the ones who love Jesus, have approached political issues in the last couple of years. Their harsh and critical spirit is especially evident in their social media activity. If you are truly my friend, we should be able to disagree yet remain respectful. Our commitment to Jesus, and to our fellow Christians, should come before our political beliefs.
And then we come to our Scripture that we just heard: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
Jesus is asking us to love our neighbor as yourself – and that means all your neighbors. Let us dig a little deeper on this topic. Here is what we call the Golden Rule as stated in Matthew 7:12: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
When Jesus states this as the second greatest commandment, he is quoting Leviticus 19:18. Jesus quoted the Old Testament all the time. Verse 18 is meant to summarize what has come before it. This is part of the Leviticus holiness code called so because of the frequency of the phrase, “You shall be holy as I, the LORD your God, am holy.” It is the standard for this part of the code, that the people should be holy just as God is holy. This is not the work of the priests or the Levites or the temple officials, it’s not left to people like me in pastoral leadership to make right sacrifices and pray rightly so that God will consider the people holy; it’s up to the people, by their actions, to be holy. And how should the people be holy? By loving their neighbor as themselves.
When we look closely to the Leviticus scripture in Chapter 19, we have —Love your neighbor and do not defraud him. Love your neighbor and do not cheat her. Love your neighbor and judge him rightly. Love your neighbor and reprove her with kindness.
We like to think of holiness as something that God has, an attribute. We might think of holy as something that separates us from God, for we are not holy. But that is not the point of Leviticus. In Leviticus, holiness is everyone’s responsibility. God expects the people to be holy. And they are holy when they treat their neighbor with justice, when they love their neighbor as themselves. They are to be holy because they love God. They are also to be holy because when they follow the golden rule, their society functions properly and the people are prosperous and safe. When they choose to not follow the golden rule, their society falls apart.
We might feel like we are watching that happen right now. The news reports all sort of discord and disunion that might be easy to ignore if it was not knocking on our own door. The conversation first ignited by the murder of George Floyd has changed into something else. As we rename buildings and tear down statues and debate doing the same in other places, including in our state of Maryland, what we are struggling with is how to tell our story. This debate over how to tell our story as a nation has its importance: we are struggling to figure out how we talk about our history as a people. History is always a moving target, told by the victors and those with power. We might like to think of history as static, but this is simply not the case. We are always looking back at history through our modern lenses, reconsidering the stories of old.
But the Bible does this remarkable thing with its history: it does not hide the horrors. Here’s David, the great King, sleeping with Bathsheba, leading directly to the decline of his monarchy and a palace intrigue that causes his son Solomon to kill off his adversaries to secure his throne. Reading that story is like something right out of The Godfather trilogy. The Bible does not hide its horror. It tells the story, the whole story, so that there can be a reckoning. We see in the Bible’s stories, especially the stories where the peopel lay out their failures, shortcomings, oppression, murder, sexual immorality, corruption, political intrigue, greed, graft, and the like. This is what happens when society fails to be holy. In those moments, the Bible records the prophets who go to the people and say they are unrighteous; they have been found unholy by God and are called to be holy. What do the prophets tell the people to do to be holy again and thereby to undo their societal ills and restore peace and justice? Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
How can we possibly do this? We can begin by taking a long, hard, look in the mirror, asking ourselves if we love our neighbor as ourselves. Knowing that our neighbor, as generally understood throughout scripture, is anyone we directly impact. That means, on our streets, we have neighbors. It also means our coworkers are neighbors, folks we volunteer with are our neighbors, our family members are our neighbors, even if we are estranged from some. We also have direct impact on anyone who sees our social media posts, so our Facebook friends and Twitter. It also means that the people we share space with are our neighbors. The people who live in Baltimore City – Baltimore County — even if we do not know them, even if we lead remarkably different lives, they are also our neighbors.
When we consider all these neighbors, are we kind? Do we render just judgments? Do we profit by someone else’s blood, sweat, and tears? More to the point today: do we slander our neighbors? Do we quote conspiracy theories, stereotypes, and other posts that demean or debase particular groups of people? Do we say or share things that show hate to be found in our hearts?
But it is extremely hard sometimes to love our neighbor. I am sure you can relate, where you reach out in love repeatedly and only find resistance and sometimes harm returned. It is very easy, when rebuffed or wounded because of the love you showed, to give up. It is especially easy during a moment like this as a nation where the history, the narrative, the story being told of us as a people is binary, is black and white. Are you either for something or against something? It is incredibly challenging to love your neighbor in this kind of moment. The story being told right now is not a story of loving your neighbor as yourself.
So, let us tell a different story. Our lives will proclaim that a different life is possible. That the way to real, lasting, change in our society is through kindness and love not through bullying, force, demeaning others, or playing to people’s base instincts. We as a church, we as human beings, the more of us who live lives of loving our neighbor as ourselves, the more of us will tell a different story and proclaim through our examples that a different way of knowing each other is possible.
Does your life tell the story of kindness, of doing what is just, of making the hard but right decisions, of counting the cost and then choosing to do the costly thing if it is right? We need good leaders right now, more than ever. And a good leader tells a powerful story when she or he will do the costly thing and stand up for what is right.
Loving our neighbor is about being kind, being just, even if that means having to confront or having to have hard conversations. Loving our neighbor means looking at ourselves in the mirror and asking ourselves, honestly, if we are doing our part to be holy as God is holy.
Loving our neighbor means listening, deeply, to the stories people different from ourselves tell. It means being willing to reconsider our own beliefs considering their lived experiences. And then listen with open minds and open hearts to their stories. These are our neighbors. Listening with empathy is loving our neighbor. If we really, truly, love our neighbor, that is what will happen. That is what it means to be holy as God is holy. That when people see us, when they experience the story of our lives, they see God.
Closing Prayer: God, my prayer is very simple today… May we be known not for hatred, but for being people who genuinely love like Jesus loved… sincerely, unconditionally. Show us who needs our love and who we can intentionally love this week. May we in these unprecedented times not be overcome by evil. But may we overcome evil with good. In Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
 Please look at Leviticus 19:11-18 for a full text about neighbor