by Daniel Harrell
If you were in church last Sunday, you tasted the good fruit of our ReForming work as a church. Twelve months spent trusting the Spirit and discerning the will of the Lord harvested Five Core Values, each summarized by a verb: can you say them? Welcome, Risk, Wrestle, Immerse and Do Good. (OK, they’re on the front of the bulletin). Sticking with the farm metaphors, these five core values seeded a strategic focus to guide us over the next season: “cultivate a deeply relational community and cross the gaps that divide.” And then because we can’t do everything, six priorities sprouted forth, the first being the priority of “one body,” our need to sow our Core Values into the good dirt of our life together. As a church, we are called by God both to make the world a better place and to be the better place God has already made in the world.
Our plan over the next ten Sundays is to feature two sermons on each of our five core values, one by me and a second by our four brilliant and gifted reverends. That’s one value left over, which we’ve farmed out to our friend the Rev. Marcus Halley of St. Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles. One Body means more than just this body. How many churches in Minneapolis? Just one. Crossing the gaps that divide includes the ones that can exist between congregations who sometimes can feel like we’re in competition instead of working together for the kingdom of God.
We’ll be preaching our core values a little out of sequence. Carter Sample and I will be traveling with Jason Phillips and Mustafa Omar on a reconnaissance mission to Senegal in October: scoping out a new international opportunities to do good for Christ’s sake. So rather than Welcome, Welcome, Risk, Risk, Wrestle, Wrestle, Immerse, Immerse, Do Good, Do Good; we’ll preach Welcome, Risk, Risk, Welcome, Wrestle, Wrestle, Immerse, Immerse, Do Good, Do Good—all in time for Thanksgiving.
More importantly, we’ve also decided to preach our values in the context of one body—one unified worship service—so to cultivate a deeper relational community each Sunday. And because divisions can exist within congregations over music style and preference, we want to cross that gap by striving for unity around the worship of God. To worship God as revealed in Jesus Christ—no matter the musical genre—is the identifying mark of being church. Other entities will feed the hungry and fight injustice, will teach virtue, provide care and run programs for kids—but only churches worship Jesus.
I give wholehearted gratitude to our church leadership and staff, to our ReForming Visioning Team, to you for all of your prayers and input as a congregation, and to Jesus for whose sake we ever do anything that matters. Our thanks as well go to our coach and consultant, Kevin Ford, whom you heard from last Sunday and who was scheduled to be here yesterday for a follow-up retreat, but Hurricane Florence has stranded him and millions more in what is now the flooded state of North Carolina. If you’re keeping count, Kevin’s leadership of our ReForming work has been thwarted by two funerals, a freak April snowstorm and now a hurricane.
My own family is currently hunkered down in the dark, both on the coast and further from it, riding out the deluge. Millions have had to gather whatever belongings they could and evacuate. At some point in your life you’ve probably been asked to imagine what you’d want to have with you if ever you were stranded on a deserted island or caught on a flooded rooftop. Taking for granted that everybody begins by answering “a boat,” what else would you include? What really matters? Here in Luke’s gospel, an expert in religious law tests Jesus by asking what he must do to “inherit eternal life.” This was a familiar Jewish values clarification question and Jesus replies in good Jewish fashion, answering by asking his own question. “You’re a lawyer. What does the law say?”
This law was straightforward. The most important thing is to worship: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” This core value of Old Testament Law shows up in Deuteronomy 6 and elsewhere. Love God with all you have and you will have all you need. Observant Jews hang this commandment to love God on their front doors, they recite it twice a day and strive to make it the last words they speak before they die. I once buried a dear man who as a Jewish Christian sang this commandment (known as the shema) three times a day and had it sung at his memorial service too. He said he sang so much so as not forget to do it, since as we all know, loving God is one of those things that if not done deliberately, never happens by itself.
The lawyer here in Luke then went on to add the corollary: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving God and your neighbor both originate in the Old Testament, but show up in the New Testament as a matched set. The New Testament writers go so far as to sum up both with “Love your neighbor” since, they reason, if you don’t love your neighbor whom you can see, you obviously don’t love God whom you can’t.
For us, loving God by loving our neighbor is summed up in our first Core Value, Welcome Beloved. Beloved pertains to both the welcomed and the welcomer because God loves all people, the righteous and unrighteous alike. But because we’re not God, loving our neighbors can be hard—and that without Jesus’ caveat that we love our enemies too. It is God’s love for us that makes possible, and mandatory, our love for others. We welcome because Jesus welcomed us first. It is the Holy Spirit in us that inspires us. Breathe in and breathe out.
Unlike the shema, “Love your neighbor as yourself” only appears one place in Jewish law, randomly nestled in Leviticus 19 among a list of commandments against mixing seeds and mixing fabrics. Most of you know I wrote a book about Leviticus entitled How To Be Perfect, a riff on Jesus’ invitation to “be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect,” another way of describing “eternal life.” In some ways the book was autobiographical; it’s about 30 days spent living by Leviticus for a month with a group of fellow Levites-for-the-month from my church in Boston. Not that it made us perfect. This may be why my book proved to be less popular than Leviticus itself. I have plenty of copies if you’d like one.
While falling short of perfection, I can say I did manage to succeed at much of what Leviticus commands. I refrained from mating different kinds of animals, planting mixed seeds, wearing mixed fabrics and from sharing a bed with slave girls promised to other men. Granted, these were fairly easy commands to keep (even the clothing one). But loving my neighbor as myself was not so easy for reasons that are familiar to us all. I empathize with the lawyer in Luke. Wanting to justify himself, he made the mistake of asking Jesus to clarify what he meant by “neighbor.” Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan, and suddenly what was hard enough became even harder. Trying to justify yourself will do that.
For my Leviticus month I decided to love my literal neighbors—the people who lived nearby. Boston is a city where your neighbors are mostly unfamiliar on purpose, so loving them means getting over some cultural barriers. The Washington Post reported this morning how some neighborhoods can take twenty years off your life. Northeast urban protocol in mine squelched my Southern socialized charm. Act overly friendly and my Boston neighbors were likely to tell me to go do anatomically impossible things to myself.
I tried to befriend our upstairs neighbor, since we shared a two-family house, but she was freaked out by my being a minister. She’d refer to herself as “the pagan” in my presence and generally passed me by on the other side, worried that I’d try to convert her. Fortunately Leviticus forbade contact with pagans so I was still in compliance.
This left me with my neighbors to our right and left. On the right lived an elderly woman I’ve never met (and only seen once). Shoveling our sidewalk after a snowstorm, I noticed her walk wasn’t cleared, so what better way to love my neighbor than to shovel her walk too? Score one for me. On the left side lived a couple who’d just had twins. We’d said hello over the fence in the summer, but that hardly counted as love, so I decided to take over a baby gift. I knocked on their door and the harried mother answered. Covered in baby food and plainly annoyed at the interruption (her twins screaming in the background), she looked at me suspiciously, having no memory of who I was. I introduced myself and offered the gift, which only made her more suspicious. Still, she took it and summarily slammed the door, leaving me to wonder whether this was how the Good Samaritan got treated once the robbed guy he helped healed from his wounds. Whatever. Leviticus never said your neighbors had to love you back. And even if they do, Jesus said, what’s so great about that? Even tax collectors and pagans love those who return the love. So rather than feeling slighted, I decided to thank God for allowing me to go the extra mile. Score another one for me.
Now I could have stopped there, feeling all righteous and obedient as I did, except that at two in the morning, after Dawn and I had wrestled our own four-month-old to sleep and settled down for our a long winter’s nap, upstairs pagan party girl embarked on an earsplitting splurge of revelry. We didn’t know exactly what she was doing, but whatever it was, it sounded like she would crash through the ceiling onto our heads any minute. Aggravated and angry, I threw on my clothes, stomped up the stairs, banged on her door, and demanded she cease and desist. She stared back at me wild-eyed, grunted, and then slammed the door in my face. However, she must have comprehended something because the wild ruckus ceased. Later, remembering Jesus and Leviticus, I felt bad for yelling at my neighbor. Fortunately, I then remembered Leviticus 19:17: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in [her] guilt.” I was obedient without even knowing it. Justified!
The lawyer, trying to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus answered by telling his story and then asking, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “the one who showed him mercy.” We tend to interpret the Good Samaritan as a parable about social justice, but it’s really a parable of unconditional love.
The famed Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard defined justice as each person giving and getting their due, it’s all about what’s rightly yours and mine. But love, he wrote, blissfully confuses all of that, erasing the distinction between yours and mine. While a distinctive you and I must remain for there to be love, the yours and the mine must vanish. The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” a justice question about yours and mine. But Jesus gave the love answer. A man in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets saved by the wrong person just in time. By focusing on the kind acts of a despised Samaritan, a heretic and an enemy as far as faithful Jews were concerned, Jesus underscored the fact that righteous belief never substitutes for mercy. “To love your neighbor” is not about correctly defining the object, “neighbor,” but about rightly doing the verb, “love.” This is the essence of welcome.
Sadly, notions of Christian love and welcome can become so idealized they never actually get practiced. Thus Kierkegaard insisted “to love your neighbor” must mean literally loving the person nearby, whomever you see. Turn to your neighbor. See that person? Love that person. Kierkegaard wrote, “the task is not to find a lovable person, but to find lovable whomever you see.”
I must confess I don’t like this parable. I hear Jesus describe the pastors who bypassed the needy man and think, I do that too. Jesus then rubs salt in my guilt by having the hero show mercy to a man whom the Samaritan was supposed to hate. Imagine a member of Hamas coming upon a wounded Israeli by the road, or vice versa. Or in America, an African- American coming upon an injured white supremacist, or a Democrat upon a Republican, a Vikings fan and a Packers fan. I walk by those colorful “All Are Welcome Signs” in my neighborhood and imagine what would happen if I rang the doorbell wearing a red Make America Great Again hat. Frankly, we would not have been shocked had the Samaritan stopped and given the Jewish man a swift kick in the ribs for all the torment piled on Samaritans by Jews over the centuries.
Instead, the Samaritan not only interrupted his travel schedule, risked infection by patching up the Jewish man’s bloody wounds, used up his own costly oil and wine as salves, surrendered the comfort of his own burro and searched for an inn, but he also gave the Jewish innkeeper permission to run a tab to cover whatever expenses the beaten man’s convalescence incurred. Who does that? What happened when the Jewish man woke up and discovered he’d been cared for by a Samaritan? And what did the Mrs. say when she saw her husband’s Samaritan Express credit card bill? Why do we call this parable the Good Samaritan anyway when the Deranged Samaritan would make so much more sense?
Jesus demands too much of us. Trying to justify ourselves, we’ll insist he raises the bar on purpose; that his commands are intentionally idealistic, so impossibly high we have to concede our own need for mercy. While this is appropriate, it can also be convenient. By labeling the hard commands idealistic, we can leave obedience out of reach. That way we’re not to blame for our failures to love. But Jesus did not intend “Love your neighbor” and “love your enemies” as idealistic. Otherwise he would not have told the lawyer to go and do likewise. We can do it. It’s difficult, but it’s not idealistic. Again, this is where being beloved is our power. It is God’s love for us that makes possible, and mandatory, our love for others. We welcome because Jesus welcomed us first. It is the Holy Spirit in us that inspires us. It may be hard, but we can do it. And when we fail at doing it, there’s love enough to prod us to try and open our arms again.
“Christian love is not idealistic, ethereal, heavenly love,” Kierkegaard wrote, “but love descended from heaven to earth. It humbles itself, as did Christ, in order to love the person it sees just as it sees them.” Such love proves impractical and irrational—like a deranged Samaritan who spent all he had loving an enemy he saw needed mercy—an neighbor nevertheless beloved of God. It’s meant to be as crazy as it sounds. Now go and do likewise.