Loving Our Neighbor

Today, September 18th, I had the honor of preaching at Peakland UMC for the first of many times. I want to share with you all the message that I shared with them. Enjoy!

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;  and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. – Mark 12:28-34

Our Scripture today takes us to one of Jesus’ stays in Jerusalem.  His arrival there was associated with the advent of David’s kingdom, in fact, a chapter before, we are told that the “crowds were spellbound by his teachings”.  I can only imagine what it would be like to sit there on a dirt covered floor, the heat from bodies pressed in close together just so that you hear this man talking, and not caring because you were there. Completely wrapped up in what he was saying.

Our Scripture starts in the middle of a heated debate between Jesus, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. They had been questioning the authority of Jesus’ and as we have seen, heard and read multiple times, Jesus would answer their question with a question.  Finally a scribe, who I think was probably a little fed up with all of the squabbling finally asked a question.  I imagine he was walking through the Temple and heard their bickering. A Pharisee would ask a question, Jesus would respond with a question.  Frustrated, someone else would question Jesus and he would share a parable. Equally as frustrating as when he would answer a question with a question.  

Sometimes when I read through the Scripture, I just wish Jesus would have said it point blank. “Believers and non-believers alike, enemies, friends…Emma, Peakland, this is what you’re meant to do”.

Let’s go back to our friend, the Scribe. He hears this bickering, probably akin to what my mum hears when all of her kids are in one place at one time, and he stops. I want to read the interpretation from The Message. It is not the most scholarly of interpretations, but when I want to better wrestle with a text, this one of the many interpretations that I read. It was written with the intention to help us understand better the Scripture…without having to take Biblical Hebrew and/or Greek.

Okay, so…the scribe.  He stops in his tracks, and asks him this question,: “Which is most important of all the commandments?” – this could have been a trap. To trip Jesus up, to see if there were inconsistencies in what he was saying as he traveled.  Jesus replied “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”

Let’s tackle this first commandment Jesus mentions: “So love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy”.  Over the past seven weeks, I have been witness to this love. As I’ve sat with our children and listened to them talk about “heart rumbles” and heard their concerns for our community and our world, I have been floored by their prayers. I’ve been with women in our community who care for their family members, who give their all to provide the best care possible. These women, they use their energy to love. Then there are those who come in early to make sure everything is set for a meaningful worship experience. They prepare the altar, they make sure the coffee is hot and that those of us on staff are okay. Their energy is what gives us energy.

We do all of these things to provide a loving community, one that worships God in all that we do, but what’s missing? For me, it used to be prayer. I would struggle so hard with it. I wouldn’t see results like I wanted, I was looking for a burning bush and would get a dimly lit stick. It took learning what was best for me to talk to God before I could feel at peace. It took trusting God for me to feel that passion and energy.

When I first moved to Lynchburg, which was truly orchestrated by God and I was simply following along…I began searching for a labyrinth. One of the ways that I best connect with God is through nature. There’s an outdoor labyrinth at Saint Andrew Presbyterian, so I grabbed my journal and spent time in there. As I went into it, I prayed for all of the things that were heavy on my heart and mind. As I walked out, I prayed thank yous to God for all that God was doing and for how God would help to reconcile and work through me, in spite of me.

For each of us it may be something different. For one it may be tithing, for another it could be overcommitting and stretching themselves too thin, for the third it could be feeling inadequate.  None of that matters in the eyes of God.  God wants us to give our all. That doesn’t mean exhausting ourselves. Rather it means loving God with our entire being, and sharing that love through our actions and words. You don’t have to know theological terms like “eschatology” or “pericope”. You just have to be authentically yourself. That’s all that God wants from us. To be bold and passionate. To push the boundaries and challenge each other to bigger and better things.

Now we move on to the second half of Jesus’ statement.  Jesus said that the second was to “Love others as well as you love yourself”. This is probably one of the hardest things to confront. Young women today – really all women today – and for a long time now have faced impossible-to-reach beauty standards. Students in high school are told that their lives rest on their grades.

Then when they’re in college, they’re told that in order to get a job in their field they’ll probably need a masters degree to even be considered. Men are held to standards of masculinity that demean those who may be more sensitive, or those who don’t want to play sports. Families are meant to be perfect and parents are never meant to argue. Clergy are expected to empty their cups to fill the spiritual cups of others while never finding moments to fill their own.

How can we love our neighbors as ourselves when more often than not we don’t fully love ourselves? Firstly, in the account of creation, when God created humankind, it was a “very good” day. Recognize, know and believe that you are God’s very good creation. Made in God’s image. There is no power or person that can tear you down or destroy you. You were fearfully and wonderfully made.

Sometimes it takes all of my strength to remember that I am a child of God. Created with a purpose. Once I remember that, once I am open to that I must ask myself: “how do I love my neighbor”?

Firstly, who is my neighbor? Who is our neighbor? Henri Nouwen, a french theologian says: “my neighbor is the one who crosses the road and looks after me”.  My neighbor, your neighbor is the one who crosses the road and looks after us. My neighbor has been those in member care who brought me so much food that I still have it in my freezer. My neighbor has been the staff who gave me a ministry-preparedness kit…complete with an airhorn.  I am the neighbor for the one that I cross the road for. When I worked in DC, my neighbor was the unhoused gentleman that sat outside of CVS. Every day at lunch I would walk over, buy him a cranberry juice and have a quick conversation with him. My neighbor would be a commuter student needing a meal-pass because they left theirs at home. My neighbors present themselves in unusual places and at the strangest of times, but I am thankful for each and every opportunity to talk and be with them.

Beloveds, who is your neighbor? In the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve learned of the ways that Peakland embraces its neighbors. One way was by investing in the building itself. In order to invest in the community and its residents’, the preschool wing was built. To invest in people from birth onwards is a large undertaking. We just celebrated this investment with the burning of the note. What a beautiful way to celebrate only one of the many ways that Peakland is in ministry.  A few weeks ago, I joined a group of members here at the Rivermont Area Emergency Food Pantry.  We packed starter bags with the necessities that a family could use in times of need. We have church members running organizations, packing bags, offering services and showing radical grace to all that they encounter.

This past week I had two opportunities to see Peakland actively loving their neighbor. The first was on Tuesday when I visit Our Daily Bread – not only is the Executive Director a church member, but several other members were there to serve lunch to the unhoused and underfed in our area.  Then on Wednesday, I went to the Dream-Builders Luncheon for Rush Homes – an organization seeking to provide quality housing and resources to those with disabilities…and it just so happened that members of Peakland were scattered all across the room.

I want to remind you that just a few weeks ago our children prayed for shelter, food and clean water. From our youngest to our oldest, we are loving our neighbor.

John Wesley said that “the world is our parish”. If we truly believe that, then our neighbor is everyone.

How can we continue to spread and share that love? First, I encourage you to say a short prayer everyday. For grace for yourself, and for your neighbor. Secondly, I encourage you to think of ways in which you can deepen your relationship with God. It could be through adding a devotional app onto your phone, or by ordering a copy of The Upper Room…or by checking out that labyrinth I mentioned and spending some time in creation. Thirdly, I encourage you to remember that the world is our parish, and that everyone is our neighbor.

Love does not have to be costly, love does not mean we have to pick up and be in relationship with folks across the globe – we cannot love our neighbor across the world until we love our neighbor two blocks away.

Loving our neighbor is simply that. It means walking across the street to help someone. It might mean you donate school supplies, or you volunteer your time here at the church. It does not take an extravagant gesture to share the love of Christ with others. Those are wonderful too, and God appreciates those just as much as God appreciates baking cookies for our local fire department.

Loving our neighbor can be scary.  There may have been times where we tried to love our neighbor, where we put ourselves out there and we were let down. We maybe didn’t receive the praise we were hoping for, or we weren’t well received. Maybe you spent months planning an event to only have 4 people show up. That doesn’t mean that you weren’t successful. You may have made a difference to that person. Or those 4 people. Sometimes we feel like failures. God doesn’t see us as failures. God sees us as God’s very good creation.

Yes, there are times our intentions are misplaced, we are not perfect…God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, rather God asks us to strive towards perfection, not to be perfect and then tell others how they can be perfect too. God wants us in our failures and brokenness. Sometimes that vulnerability is what it takes for us to share God’s love with our neighbor.  Joy for ourselves and others can come from throwing ourselves into something and not worrying about the outcome, but rather from being fully invested and present in the moment and in one another.  As very good creations, we are called to more. We are called to love. Love of self, love of neighbor. We are to be the first helping hand and we are to be the hand that is there when all of the others have faded.

I want to close with these words from Mother Teresa: Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.

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