Sermon for Pentecost 21

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The great English writer G.K. Chesterton once said of today’s Gospel, “Jesus here tells us to love our neighbors. Elsewhere the bible tells us we should love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.”

I am reminded of this reality increasingly as I walk or ride around town and see houses right next to each other, one with a Trump/Pence sign and the other with a Biden/Harris sign. Indeed, there is one house on South Main which appears to me to be a single-family home, albeit a large one, with a Trump sign on one end and a Biden sign on the other. Now, perhaps that house as been divided into two units, but I like to imagine its occupied by one family figuring out how to live together despite political strife.

Our clergy day program a couple weeks ago was about this sort of thing, but in the context of congregations and communities regardless of what happens November 3rd. It could have been a good program, that topic being so much before us right now. Sadly, I think it was a missed opportunity. The presenter (a retired bishop of Newark; not the one you may be thinking of, thank God) is on the board of a nonprofit aimed at bringing people who voted differently together and “repairing the breach” that may have opened between them. It’s a good idea, important work, but it was all presented in this sort of lowest-common-denominator civic religion, which seems typically to hold a vague theism and the U.S. Constitution as basically on par with each other. One would think a retired bishop talking to a bunch of priests and deacons could have actually just shared the Gospel in this context, because I think it gives us all the rationale and tools we need, and it starts with today’s Gospel lesson.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.

We may respond to this by asking “well, then, who is my neighbor?” Even the neighbor who votes differently from me?! In St. Luke’s version of today’s Gospel, the lawyer who asks the initial question and receives Jesus’ famous response, proceeds to ask this second question—Who is my neighbor?—in order, it should be noted, to trick Jesus, and Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard at Morning Prayer on Thursday.

Even if you didn’t pray the office that day (tut-tut) you still likely remember how that one goes. The priest and the Levite—righteous men by Jewish religious standards—pass by the wounded traveler without offering any kind of assistance. The Samaritan, a member of a race and religion very much at odds with the Jews, rescues the traveler and pays his expenses during his convalescence. Who was the traveler’s neighbor? None other than a man whom circumstance and ideology had made his enemy.

We have a rather narrow definition of love, which I don’t think is unique to our time and place, but which is nonetheless misguided. We hear the word “love” and what do we think? We probably think of warm feelings for somebody because of some kinship or friendship or personal attraction. Warm feelings for somebody are well and good, but Christian charity is a much broader concept, and it seems to me to have little to do with those we are predisposed to like.

Love in the Christian sense includes a commitment to act on behalf of those with whom we have little in common and even those with whom we are at enmity. Look back at that reading from Leviticus. Unfortunately it skipped several verses which are germane to our discussion of love. In the verses we heard, the Israelites are commanded to avoid prejudice and partiality, to avoid slander, to shun hatred, and to divest themselves of resentment and grudges. In the thirteen verses our lectionary skipped, the children of Israel are also commanded not to steal, not to put off paying an employee even one day, not to be cruel to those who cannot defend themselves, and even not to harvest all of one’s land so that the poor might take the produce around the borders of one’s farm. All of these commandments are summed up in that elegant but seemingly impossible commandment: love thy neighbor as thyself.

You’ve heard me say it before from this pulpit and here it is again, perhaps my most often repeated comment on the Christian life: love is not about warm, fuzzy feelings; love is about commitment and sacrifice. If one is committed to loving one’s spouse, he must sacrifice his own selfish concerns for the good of the relationship. If one is committed to loving one’s children, he must sacrifice getting what he wants and doing what he wants to a great extent in order to be present and to support the child. If one is committed to loving the poor, she’s got to do something about it at her own expense. If one is committed to loving Christ’s Church and those who do not yet believe, she must give sacrificially of her time, talent, and treasure to support the Church’s mission of reconciling all people everywhere to God and each other.

And the really hard part is that we cannot show partiality. We cannot choose to love only those whom we like. We must commit to sacrificing ourselves for those whom we don’t particularly like:

Love your enemies [Jesus says] and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This seems an impossible task, but in truth we already have the greatest example: Jesus Christ who laid down his life not only for the people with whom he had mutual fondness, but for those who hated him, those who spat at him, those who scourged him and nailed him to the Cross. We are commanded to take up our own cross, to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others as Christ had done. Will we do it?

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.