October 09, 2022
• Rev. Mindie Moore
For the last few weeks, we’ve been in our Be Just, Kind, Humble series and we’ve talked about what it means to live out those three things we find in Micah 6:8. And today we're going to get really practical, and maybe a little uncomfortable. Because today we’re talking about loving our neighbor. And not just the neighbor who brings your trash cans in or waves to you every time you come and go—not the neighbors that are EASY to love. Today we’re talking about how in the world we love the neighbor who we don’t agree with. Maybe, if we’re honest, the one we try to avoid or we don’t really like.
How do we love THAT neighbor? And maybe another layer to that question- Do we even HAVE that neighbor?
Pew Research recently did a study that said (slide) 8 in 10 Americans do not have a close relationship with someone with opposing political viewpoints. 8 in 10. That means that 80% of us are not regularly seeking out relationships with people we know we will disagree with. That means that our social circles are getting narrower and the range of opinions and viewpoints that we’re making room for is shrinking.
And I am really challenged by this, because while that certainly seems EASIER, and tempting to only do life with people who I agree with, I’m not sure it is exactly how Jesus is calling us to live, especially not in this particular passage of scripture that we read today. There’s a real challenge in these words- Love God. Love your neighbor. Everything depends on doing these two things.
But letting these two things really sit at the center of our beliefs and our actions is HARD. It’s hard because people are hard and we all have our own stuff we have to sort through to be in healthy, loving relationships with anyone. And I know that there are some of us who are sitting with relationships that feel broken beyond repair because of our differences. I know families who have been torn apart by politics, different responses to the pandemic, and the many ways that faith gets lived out. These are real wounds, these are real issues. I know that.
So as we talk about loving your neighbor, I know that this is a really tender space for some of us, and sometimes there ARE relationships we can’t heal on our own.
But in the places where we can make some progress, there is also a call that Jesus gives us to do everything we can to create loving, healthy relationships even in moments of conflict or disunity.
Now what’s interesting about the scripture that we’re looking at today is that it centers on a conversation Jesus has with a group of people called the pharisees. And if you know anything about the pharisees, they were probably not the people you’d be looking to as an example of how to build these kinds of relationships. Especially when it came to Jesus, the Pharisees stood in opposition to him on nearly every single thing. There is example after example all throughout the Gospels of Jesus being verbally worn down by these people. They questioned EVERYTHING. They were sure they were right and Jesus was wrong, and they were always looking for a way to get him in a mess.
And you know what? It’s really hard to love people when we’re trying to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong.
You know, I once had a friend ask me, when I really worked up at someone and I just KNEW I was in the right and they had really messed up, this friend asked me, “Well, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Which was such a rude question. And do you know what I said back to them? Um, I would like to be BOTH! Because I AM right, and that should make me happy!
But of course...it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we have to set aside our need to be right and try to listen. That’s what’s so remarkable about this conversation with this particular pharisee- it seems like he might be finally listening instead of arguing. He’s an expert of the law, but because of the teaching he has witnessed between Jesus and ANOTHER powerful religious group, he approaches with a question. He is essentially saying, tell me more. Not here’s what I know, here’s what I think. But let me hear from you.
And you know what? Jesus meets them exactly where they are in his response. He uses this thing that they love SO MUCH, The Law, to teach something new. And it’s a big deal because Jesus is making a radically different point here- that it’s not enough just to KNOW the law and KEEP the Law, but it’s about understanding the FOUNDATION of the law- love for God and love for people. And these two things were not just two separate, aspirational ideas, but they make up an interconnected mission for our lives. They depend on each other.
Sometimes we have to let go of our need to be right in order to listen and to love. And as a principled idealist myself, I KNOW how hard it is for some of us to digest that thought. I mean, my seminary degree is in Christian Ethics- so I believe, maybe to a fault, that our ethics and values and behaviors matter...but so do people. This is messy, hard, relational stuff here.
It requires us to let go of the need to be right, to listen, and it asks us to be quick to be curious and slow to react.
I had an ordination retreat a few weeks ago, where did the exact opposite of this. We did this teambuilder called “Running Charades”- which is pretty much what it sounds like, charades but there is an athletic component. My team was REALLY into it, because the prize was free Starbucks the next morning, so our investment was high.
And the thing with charades is that you just REACT to whatever the person who knows the clue is doing. Their behavior is a stimulus and you are set up to respond as quickly and ridiculously as possible, hoping that at some point you’ll get to the right answer. I mean, we were guessing a “movie” and at one point while a guy on my team was trying to act it out, I yelled CHAIR! As the answer.
Chair! For a movie title! When was the last time you saw a movie called chair?! You have not. That is a nonsense answer.
But that’s exactly how charades is supposed to work. You yell out your reaction to what’s happening in front of you with very little information to go on. You just respond as quickly as possible.
And this is great for a party game. But it’s a real problem when we try to love our neighbor. We read a tweet, we react. We hear a comment made, we react. We see a yard sign we don’t agree with, we react. When we react to what we see, what we assume, even what we’ve experienced from someone in the past and we don’t leave room for curiosity or any kind of empathy, there’s no possibility that love can flourish in that kind of environment. We let our assumptions take the driver’s seat and we put blinders on to what makes each of us human.
And here’s what we miss- we miss the opportunity to see the Image of God in others. Part of the power of how Jesus teaches in this moment to the pharisees is that he reminds us that we are all made in the image of God.
You. Me. The person you can’t stand. The family that lives their life in a TOTALLY different way than you do. Your best friend. Your worst enemy. (slide) Each and every one of us is a reflection of that good, holy God that we are to love with our whole hearts.
But if we’re in reaction mode, the Image of God gets blurry. If we already know everything there is to know about a person or a people group, we’re not going to see God reflected in them. If we’re on the defensive, finding the energy and headspace to love our neighbor is going to be the last thing on our list. Most of the time, we’re not actively searching for the image of God in a person we view as totally opposed to us.
It’s not easy, but that’s the challenge Jesus is making here. He’s pushing the pharisees to see the world in a different way and to change their understanding of what neighbor meant. Again, they KNEW the Law, but Jesus is giving it a fresh context. He intentionally quotes a writing from Leviticus that says, “18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.”
Notice that it says, “your people.” When this idea first came up, neighbor was being defined in a pretty narrow way. It’s YOUR PEOPLE. Fellow Israelites. It’s people that look like us, live like us, and worship like us. It’s people who make sense to love. We understand them, we recognize them, we, in a lot of ways, ARE them.
But Jesus takes this definition of neighbor and says, actually- there's more. The definition of who is my neighbor as Jesus sees it has evolved from our own kind to...everyone. Including the people we disagree with or even consider our enemy. In a way that feels absolutely radical and kind of ridiculous, Jesus actually expects us to love them too.
And it is not possible to love THAT kind of person without some major curiosity. We have to spend real time with real people to get to the place that Jesus calls us to go.
And going there, creating those kinds of relationship- it's scary. It’s vulnerable and risky. I recently read a story about a relationship like this, an exceptionally unlikely friendship between Rev. Amy Butler and Todd Underwood. Rev. Amy is a progressive pastor from the East Coast who has done a lot of work around gun control. Todd Underwood is from Kansas City and is the owner of the largest online gun retailer. So these are two people who I probably would be nervous to just have in the same room, let alone have them try to forge an actual friendship.
But it all started because Todd reached out to Amy after she mentioned him in a sermon (I can’t even imagine!) and asked her a question, “When you say love your enemy, do you consider ME your enemy?”
This question stopped Amy in her tracks. Because when we talk about loving our enemy, it’s usually in this nice, hypothetical way. Very rarely do we look someone in the eye and say, “it’s you! You’re my enemy.”
But here they were- gun control activist pastor and gun shop owner. Having the conversation, about as vulnerable as you can get. Amy reflected on her response to him:
“Not enemy, exactly, I told him, but certainly someone with social, political, and religious ideas that stood in stark contrast to mine. As the conversation unfolded it confirmed what I thought about our differing views on most things. But I also heard a winsomeness in Todd, a kind of vulnerability that pulled me toward him even as the words he said pushed me away.
We discussed a wide range of topics and finally, at one point in our conversation I asked Todd in frustration: “Todd, how would you summarize your faith in one sentence?”
“Love God and love your neighbor,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. Startled, I thought: that is exactly what I would say. Exactly, like, word for word.”
This exchange started a genuine friendship between these two opposites. In fact, the article I read about them told of when Amy went to visit Todd at his home so she could learn more about his culture and interest in guns. He told her that she really did not understand him, and so she wanted to do just that. It wasn’t totally comfortable, they still don’t agree on most things, but it created space for curiosity and love. When she reflected on why she would go on this visit in the first place, Amy said:
“I think a lot of people in our country these days prefer to pretend that people who hold different views from their own are people whose opinions matter less; it’s easier to ignore them. That strategy makes sense, of course, because it costs us something to listen with open hearts and to offer our own stories with a vulnerability that builds connection.”
Look, I’m not saying that every time we try to connect with someone we disagree with we’re going to get a feel good story. I live in reality right there with you. I’m also not naively calling for us to give up our values and positions, but I am pushing us to be open to learning from others. And to let ourselves do some honest reflection about if we’re really loving our neighbor and working to build connection.
I recently read this book by Eugene Cho called, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk”. And it's an interesting take on how he navigates the political world as a fairly moderate pastor who doesn’t seem to fit in any prescribed box. He’s trying to both view the world and live in the world in a way that makes a lot of space for nuance, and Spoiler alert- he makes a lot of people really unhappy while doing that, because he doesn’t line up perfectly with the left or right.
And as he shares his reflections and his story in the book, I really liked what he had to say about how we relate to each other:
“Let’s be careful not to dehumanize those we disagree with. In our self-righteousness, we can become the very things we criticize in others and not even know it.”
I don’t know about you, but I can absolutely become the very thing I criticize in others if I’m not careful. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to nurture a grudge and withhold forgiveness. No joke, if you looked through my prayer journal, the NUMBER ONE personal prayer that you would see me write for myself is, “God soften my heart towards ___” “God give me understanding and grace.” “God help me forgive.”
I can’t do this work on my own. Philippians 2:13 says God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes and friends, that is the truest truth. It’s not me. It’s not the books I read, or the will I have, but it is ONLY through the Holy Spirit working in me that I can even begin to love my neighbor in a way that is true and reflects who Jesus is.
So if you’re wondering where to start, if the whole idea of trying to move beyond being right, or be less reactive, or just being in relationship with someone you think you could NEVER- maybe this is it. Maybe it just starts with praying that God would soften your heart and enable you to live out God’s good purposes.
Jesus tells us to love God and love people. When we do this, good, beautiful things can happen. Broken relationships can heal. Hard, truth telling conversations can be handled with grace. We can take the time to actually listen to the person on the other side of the big controversial opinion. The church can maybe look a little bit more like how Jesus would hope.
Love God. Love your neighbor. We can’t do it on our own, but through the Holy Spirit, we CAN do it. And it’s work worth doing so can BE Just, Kind, and Humble in every part of our lives.