If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Loving Our Neighbors: Matthew 22:15-22

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on Sunday, October 23, 2011.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood; a beautiful day for a neighbor would you be mine, could you be mine? For three decades Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, songwriter, and television host, taught us all about being a good neighbor on the children’s TV show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Fred Rogers was a good neighbor to everyone. He got up at 5 am every morning to read his Bible and pray. He didn’t wear his Christian faith like a pin on his cardigan sweater but displayed his love for God through his love for all God’s children. His gentle and loving character and welcome of all kinds of people made him something of a Christ figure. Here was a man who knew what it meant to love your neighbor.

In our scripture text for today we meet another “gentle man” who taught us all about loving our neighbor. Having heard that Jesus had shut the pie holes of the Sadducees, who tried to entrap him, the Pharisees put their heads together for another plan. They had a lawyer test Jesus. Now this was not the kind of lawyer you see in a business suit with briefcase who defends his clients in a court. This lawyer was an expert in the Torah, Jewish law. The lawyer asked Jesus a test question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” In the Gospel of Luke the lawyer tests Jesus with a totally different question. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, I’m not exactly sure what the strategy was behind the test question. Did the Pharisees think that Jesus might say something against the law? Did they hope that Jesus would trip over his own feet, reveal his lack of knowledge, and undermine his authority? Would Jesus elevate some laws over others and dismiss other important ones? Is the lawyer checking this teacher’s credentials? I’m not sure.

I am sure about Jesus’ answer. Although the lawyer asks what is the greatest commandment, Jesus’ curiously answered with two commandments. The first and greatest commandment is from Deuteronomy 6:5. It immediately follows what is known as the Shema or Shema Yisrael in Deuteronomy 6:4. This verse is the centerpiece of Jewish faith. Today it is begins the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. It encapsulates the essence of Jewish monotheism. Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

Following the Shema is the great commandment, which Jesus restates. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. Jesus passed the test! He should have gotten an A. In Mark’s gospel the lawyer confirms that Jesus gave the right answer, as if to say, “Your teaching credentials are okay.”

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. This commandment indicates a deep passion for God. This is not a casual, platonic relationship we’re talking about here. Stop by God’s house on Sunday morning, drop a dollar in the plate, and go about your merry business the rest of the week. Can you imagine if that was the kind of relationship we kept with another person? Dumpsville, here I come!

The great commandment uses the dangerous language of “love.” And men, we know that when we first uttered that loaded word, as hard as it may have been, it meant one thing….commitment. Right, men? That’s one reason why we don’t take that word lightly. It means committing yourself, your whole self, to someone else. Heart, soul, mind, and strength. Everything that you are. Love is a serious commitment, not to be taken lightly.

The greatest commandment even goes further than that because the love and commitment are to God. This commandment is like the conditions for marriage to God! No fooling around here. No sitting on the couch, eating chips, and watching the game while God stands in the kitchen doorway tapping her foot waiting for you to take out the trash. No running off with the guys to go hunting while the “little lady” stays at home caring for the sick kids. Loving God with every fiber of our being is serious stuff. It’s lifelong. It can be tough. Loving God means….gulp….commitment.

Then, Jesus did something curious. He added a second commandment to answer the lawyer’s test question. He said, “And the second is like it.” Wait a minute Jesus, I only asked for one commandment. Now, you’re giving me two? What’s the deal?

Love your neighbor as yourself. What has that got to do with loving God? Why the two commandments? This commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus answered the lawyer with two commandments because….you can’t have one without the other. Loving God and loving neighbor are inextricably tied together, like a marriage. You want a good relationship with me, you will have to have a good relationship with my wife. Jesus is saying, “You want to love God, then you will have to love your neighbor.” The two go together like two peas in a pod, like twins in a family, like close friends for life. They are inseparable.

Uh, oh. This is beginning to sound like I may have bitten off more than I can chew. My commitment to God, like my commitment in marriage, means that all those crazy relatives come with the deal? You’ve got to be kidding! Loving God means loving my neighbors? And I’m supposed to love my neighbor as I love myself? Does that mean if I don’t care for myself all that much it let’s me off the hook? This is getting tougher by the minute.

1 John doesn’t help us out much either. It puts jagged teeth in the link between loving God and neighbor where it says: “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ yet hates their brother (or sister), they are a liar!” If you don’t love your neighbor, who you have seen, then how can you love God, who you haven’t seen? Duh! Whoever loves God must also love their neighbor.

The commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves is more than a hope for interpersonal relationships. It’s a social vision. This is how a people, a community are to live together under God. When we think of neighbor, we think of people living next door to us in our neighborhood. Not those on the other side of town or across the tracks. The commandment in Leviticus probably had in mind the fellow Jew; the whole community of faith in all its nasty diversity, including the marginalized, the widow, the poor, and the sick. The neighbor was anyone who was part of their faith community, their people. Translated for us: Love your fellow Christians. What? And I was just about to put that bumpersticker on my car that says, “Lord, save me from your followers!”

But, Jesus took love of neighbor evn further. In Luke’s version of this narrative after Jesus answered the lawyer with loving God and neighbor, the lawyer asks another question: “And who is my neighbor?” He told him the parable of the Good Samaritan, which used to be an oxymoron, like “military intelligence” or “found missing.” Jesus gives the lawyer, and whoever was listening in, a visual picture of what being a good neighbor looks like. In essence Jesus was saying with his parable, “Who is my neighbor? Well, let me paint you a picture.” In his squirmy story Jesus put a despised Samaritan in the role of the hero, a real bad idea. Jesus, the people are not going to like that! You should be more sensitive and pastoral than to shove their enemies in their faces. And to make them the hero. That is going beyond being rude. In his clever storytelling, Jesus turns the enemy into the one who acts like a good neighbor, but also makes the enemy a neighbor to the lawyer. I wonder if this story were retold today what we would call it. The story of the Good Muslim? The parable of the Good Politician? Oh, I could go on, but some of us might start to squirm in our pews….or pulpit!

Jesus spelled out clearly who is included among our neighbors in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “You have heard that it was said that you should love your neighbors and hate your enemies, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Love your enemy as if he were your neighbor. Now, Jesus that is just plain nuts! If you love those who love you, what great accomplishment is that. Even godless athiests can do that much! Well, Lord, I guess you have a point there.

So, I guess we will have to broaden the borders of our neighborhood. I have a suspicion that Jesus was looking at our neighborhood through the eyes of God. That means we will have to welcome the strange, different, and diverse faces that make up God’s neighborhood. But, beware my people, God’s neighborhood has mercy streets that are wide, as wide as the sea. It’s blocks are long. It’s not segregated. There is no “across the tracks.” Everyone lives right next door to us with all their strange habits, weird customs, and odd personalities. And there are no national boundaries in God’s neighborhood.

Let me introduce you to some of God’s neighbors. Take a look at some of the faces of our neighbors in God’s wild and wonderful, disturbing and delightful neighborhood.

*At this point in the sermon I presented a slide show that included the following pictures along with the song "You don't love God, if you don't love your neighbor" by Rhonda Vincent.I tried to fit some of the slides with the song lyrics

As you looked at those photos of neighbors, do you think you could love them as you love yourself? I don’t know if I could. And looking at those faces it made me wonder what that meant about my love for God.

Are those people really my neighbors? As I looked at the faces of God’s neighbors Mr. Roger’s song kept ringing in my ears as if they were the voice of Christ:

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

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