Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Love your neighbor" Sermon 5 April 2007

Chapel Address, Peter Carey, 5 April 2007

Love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and love your neighbor as yourself, this is the first and greatest commandment, on this commandment hang all the laws and the prophets. Mt 22:34
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
It sounds basic doesn’t it? It sounds so basic that we may tend to hear it, and then just move on. It sounds self-evident, a cherished chestnut of religious wisdom. Oh, yea, of course, we’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have probably heard it in some form many, many times. It is in three of the gospels in some form: Been There, Done That.
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
So, how basic is this idea? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Before thinking about people around the block, or around the globe, think about your own neighbors. Think about the real people who live near you, who live in your neighborhood, who live in the house next door, who live in your dorm, who have the desk next to yours in class; think about those neighbors. How easy is it to love those people? How easy is it to be a good neighbor? I think about growing up in a small town in New England where across the street lived Mrs . Jenkins, an older lady who lived with her mother. My parents recently reminded me about what a wonderful person she was, but at the time I thought of her quite differently. You see, she had an area in front of her house near the road where she let plants, flowers, and grasses grow wild. What she loved were her “cat-tails,” those long thin stalks with these awesome brown, fuzzy cylindrical part on the top. Well, we kids also loved those cat-tails, but not to look at and enjoy. We loved to pull them out of the swampy ditch and then smash them on the ground, on trees, and on each other. Well, of course the day came when she arrived home while we were having our own form of Jedi – Knight training. She was livid and screamed at us. Forever after she might as well been the Wicked Witch from Wizard of Oz. I came to find out that she was extremely active in several social service organizations in town, helping the poor, giving away much of what she earned, and was a true neighbor to so many people. My own understanding of her as neighbor was rather narrow, and I did not practice large-heartedness. We can chalk it up to youthful rudeness, but how often do we let these type of misunderstandings get in the way of love of neighbor?
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
Thinking of your own neighbors now, or in the past, how easy has it been to love your neighbors? Put a different way, do you even know anything about your neighbors? I have lived in places where I didn’t even know the names of my neighbors. In North Carolina, I had no idea of the names of my neighbors until a hurricane hit and we all were outside trying to get our cars out of the parking lot, trying to grill up food together, and trying to find ways to stay cool in the heat with no air conditioning. Does it take a crisis for us to even know our neighbors, let alone love them?
Love thy neighbor as thyself?
Hopeful that I’ve convinced at least some of you of the tricky aspect of loving neighbors, I want to pose the question, “Why should we love our neighbors?” Yes, it is in three of the Gospels, but perhaps that is not enough for some of us.
Often, the answer to the question might be, “because we should do unto others, to make the world a better place.” I am all for that, and you have probably heard that before (and will hear it again, I’m sure).
If you take nothing else away from this homily, I want you to hear that it is in the coming together in closeness with others that we are each transformed. It is in the coming together in closeness with others that we are each transformed. Put another way, when we have to encounter someone who is not us, who is perhaps not very much like us, that is when we are transformed down to our heart, soul and mind. In encountering others, we get a clearer understanding of who we are, and we can appreciate and respect the other without obliterating the differences. In coming here to Episcopal, and then when you move on to college and beyond, the world needs you to be who you are. You are needed, in your own unique self to offer something to the world. As Frederick Buechner has said, “the place where God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need, meet.” In this interaction, we need to be open to transformation with those who might be termed other than us.
The transformation that happens between people is a transformation from having hearts that are small to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “large-heartedness.” In loving thy neighbor as thyself not only do the others experience that love, not only does it (perhaps) help them, but it transforms us as well. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Theologian who experienced personal and spiritual transformation when he was studying in New York City at Union Seminary in Harlem. He began to worship with an African American congregation, and he encountered those who were other than him, he learns to really love his neighbors as himself. Upon returning to Germany, because he had learned this radical “large-heartedness,” he was not willing to allow his church to be taken in by the Nazis. In the run-up to World War II and during the war, he spoke out against Nazi atrocities against the Jews and others. In the end, he was executed by the Nazis after he was implicated in a plot to kill Hitler.
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
In the coming together in proximity we are each transformed to a life of large-heartedness. In loving our neighbors as ourselves (as hard as that is), we learn to see a broader world. Meanwhile, we gain a stronger understanding of, and love for ourselves. An image I have of this transformational process is of hiking in mountains where we look forward to getting that view that only comes after work, that view that happens once we reach an elevation where we can see beyond the trees and rocks around us. Hiking through the maples and oaks we climb to an elevation beyond the pines, the scraggly alpine shrubs where we emerge above the tree-line where we can see beyond our own limited horizon. We can look out and see a larger world.
Love thy neighbor as thyself

It may, indeed, be harder than it sounds, and it may be a message that is good to hear and consider from time to time. How well do we love the neighbors all around us? Let’s be honest, like me trying to love Mrs. Jenkins, it may be hard to do. But once it becomes our habit, our practice, we might be more willing to see that the world is made up of our neighbors, and that our own sense of the world is transformed when we encounter others. Our own hearts, souls and minds will experience transformation and we will live into a sense of large-heartedness. I encourage us all to consider this cherished chestnut of religious wisdom and take up the challenge of living it out. And remember that as we take up the challenge we also each need to be gentle with “thyself.” “For thy yoke is easy, and thy burden is light.”



Anonymous said...

Wow, this hit me right between the eyes. And all I was looking for was a verse on google.

Peter Carey said...

Thanks. I'm glad it meant something to you.