Wherever the Spirit is moving, the love of God always, always, always overflows as love for neighbors. And those neighbors are not just the ones we choose, the ones who are like us.
But sometimes they are the ones we choose, the ones who are like us. In the last sermon, I talked about loving our neighbor, especially the one who is different from us. Today, we talk about loving our neighbor, especially the one closest to us. The ones sitting right next to us. The ones sharing our home, our faith community, our heart.
After a decade of working with people in the midst of divorce, one thing I have learned is that it is often easier to act in love toward strangers than toward those we know the best – those we have learned to take for granted, to know they will always be there. Until they aren’t. Lost to us by geography, unforgiveness, divorce, death…. And then we languish. What could I have done differently? I wish I had….. The “shoulda, coulda, woulda” list goes on and on in our heads.
Something about us in this society is that sometimes it is easier to share our deepest feelings with strangers than with those we love deeply. We hire people to listen to us – counselors, life coaches, pastors. With these people we share things we have been afraid to tell our spouses or children. And this is the key, perhaps. Fear. What if I say this thing and I am rejected, the relationship is broken? We all know times when this is exactly what has happened. A sexual preference is revealed to parents and the child is rejected and cut off from what had been a foundational love. A relationship is broken, divorce is imminent, and the congregation shuns the person in these dire straits.
I have been told stories about how this has been practiced even right here in this church. I want to give the benefit of the doubt that the congregation was seeking to live out the teachings of Jesus in the best way they knew how. But we are also called to reflect on how these practices are expressions of love.
During the normal course of our lives, we become very certain in our own minds of what behaviors are acceptable and which behaviors are not acceptable. We then assume that God holds that same judgment. The Mennonite community from which I came, and still mostly admire, was wont to enumerate such rules, often dividing and forming separate fellowships over whether buttons were more humble than zippers, or whether chrome on cars was an expression of pride. I do not question the value of humility or the danger of pride. The problem is that we humans have more of an eye to recognize humility or pride in others, than in ourselves.
It is a human tendency to divide people into groups – good or bad, known or unknown, powerful or weak, and so many others. We do it from our perspective of what we know of the person. Or, even what someone else has told us about the person. And often, we group these people into our categories without ever talking to the person, or knowing their story. We do this with people close to us as well as with strangers. We assume so many things. Assume our perspective is right. So we step away. We put a brick in the wall of fear we build between us. Like that old saying, which just may be wrong: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Do they?
The movement of love is toward one another; the movement of fear and judgment is away from one another. So, how can we root out our practice of judgment, of building fences?
I wonder if we could change the question by which we discern our action from “Is this right?” to “Is this loving?” There is a saying in modern self-help practice, “slow down and just do the next right thing.” What if we changed it to, “slow down and just do the next loving thing?” The image is useful – just worry about the next thing right in front of you. But we have a tendency to judge even that! We make the next thing right or wrong. What if we used Jesus’ prime directive, to love one another, and make the next thing we do loving and don’t worry about right?
It would make us feel vulnerable, that is for sure. And that feeling of vulnerability is what often causes us to build fences to protect our hearts. But is protecting our hearts such an important thing? Maybe not always.
This year at Convergence, a women’s gathering I attend every spring, we had name tags that startled me with their imagery. We have something artistic every year, but this time the imagery was not so much about beauty, or the skill one had in making a beautiful name tag. This year our name tags were library book cards – you know, those little cards in the pocket of each book that you signed your name or number to and the librarian stamped it with a date. Each of us was a book, with our own name on it, walking around waiting for someone to “check us out” – in the library sense – a new, honorable sense of that phrase for women.
I was reminded of reading the book, Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. In that futuristic story, it had become illegal to read or possess any book of any kind. In protest, a community of people who loved books took on the task of memorizing them. People who WERE books, and bore the names of the books they had memorized, lived in a community in the woods – like a human library. That weekend at Convergence, I felt like one of those living books in a living library. Anyone could come by and see my title and ask me to “read” from what was inside me. And being so full of the joy of the “text within us,” we could comply with gratitude, humility and joy.
I am delighted with the idea of being an open book for others to read. And I am awed to think about the other books which fill my life. This simple act of wearing a library book card with my name on it, made me wonder about how we view the others in our lives. Are they a resource for information, inspiration, dreaming? As a child, my library card opened for me covers to books of a whole new world! Do we sometimes honor the books on our shelves more than the books which are currently shelved on the pews or chairs beside us?
Today, earlier in the service, we put “books” our new leaders, into circulation, some for the first time, some got stamped for renewal. Each of these books has different contents. Each one has amazing stuff inside – some of it never underlined by anyone! But maybe this is the time. We have checked these books out of our congregational library and begun to read from and learn from them. What a treasure between the book covers we see every week, as we open them to discover their treasures in a new way.
You too, are books in our library. What mysteries do you have to offer? There is that old saying that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” So true among us. If we just look at our covers, what do we see? Do we just look at our covers and pass on by, satisfied that we know that one? What if we become magical books, like those in the Hogwarts library, that would seem to fly into the hands of the one the book wanted to be read by, or would open itself to pages that were needed? What if we approached the stacks listening to the voice saying, “take up and read,” as the song called to St. Augustine in his “aha” moment of Christ’s call.?
Paul uses the image of a body to express this same concept. He says that followers of Jesus are all body parts. A hand, a foot, an eye, an ear…. We all have different abilities. And yet, we are all part of one body. If we don’t function as we were intended, the whole body suffers from that missing function.
We are all different. We are all the same. Each a different story and part of the same library. Each a different function allowing this amazing body to do what it does.
Can we read the books in this particular library with love and honesty? Can we let ourselves be read? In some ways the book people of Fahrenheit 541 had it easy. They only had to represent the books they memorized and embodied. Not quite as vulnerable as the books we are. The story of our own lives is in our books – with all the crankiness, selfishness, impatience, embarrassment – together with the beauty, the gifts, the skills. Can we read through the chapters of each other’s lives and be nourished, awed, taking in the whole messy stew of human actions and decisions – with love instead of judgment? Can we move closer as we get to know and appreciate each other, with all our broken places?
Because we are so close, we can more easily rub each other the wrong way – get friction and sometimes destructive fire, instead of appreciation, honor, and forgiveness. It is hard being one body, frankly!
God arranged each part, just as God chose. That means that in this body, we have exactly what we were designed for. We have exactly what we need to be the body of Christ right here on the corner of 55th & Belmont in southeast Portland, Oregon. It is time to read broadly in our own library!
Today’s lesson reminds me that I have not read all the books in this library. And, I won’t be able to do all the reading. Some of that is up to you. There are many treasures yet to be uncovered! Many functions of this body yet to be activated.
So here is the trick. How can we learn to love those closest to us, when it is so vulnerable? It can definitely be more difficult than the anonymous neighbor. There is no easy answer. Just do the next loving thing.
Your homework, your practice for this week is to take home the list of “one anothers” and read the story of Jesus and the church through these eyes. Soak in the words which are there to guide our behavior, our love, towards our closest neighbors.
READ THE ONE ANOTHERS *see below
What would our community be like if we practiced all of these behaviors toward each other all the time? I can’t imagine. But if we even put these behaviors into our life priorities, it would change the personality of our body. I wonder if this is the kind of body the world hungers for.
Take a few minutes with someone near you to identify and affirm some gifts or virtues you see in them.
We Make the Road by Walking
These ‘one-another’s’ tell us what the prime directive – love one another – looks like in action:
1. “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13: 34; John 15: 12, 17; Rom. 13: 8; 1 Thess. 4: 9; Heb. 13: 1; 1 Pet. 1: 22, 1 Pet. 3: 8, 1 Pet. 4: 8; 1 John 3: 11, 23; 1 John 4: 7, 11; 2 John 1: 5)
2. “Wash one another’s feet… serve one another in love.” (John 13: 14, Gal. 5: 13)
3. “Be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9: 50, 1 Thess. 5: 13, 1 Pet. 3: 8)
4. “Be devoted to one another with mutual affection.” (Rom. 12: 10)
5. “Honor one another above yourselves.” (Rom. 12: 10)
6. “Live in harmony with one another.” (Rom. 12: 16)
7. “Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Rom. 14: 13)
8. “Accept one another as Christ accepted you.” (Rom. 15: 7)
9. “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Rom. 16: 16, 1 Cor. 16: 20, 2 Cor. 13: 12, 1 Pet. 5: 14)
10. “Agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Cor.1: 10)
11. “When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” (1 Cor. 11: 33)
12. “But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” (1 Cor. 12: 24– 25)
13. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Gal. 5: 26)
14. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6: 2)
15. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Eph. 4: 2, Col. 3: 13)
16. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4: 32, Col. 3: 13, 1 Thess. 5: 15)
17. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5: 21)
18. “Do not lie to each other.” (Col. 3: 9)
19. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” (Eph. 5: 19, Col. 3: 16)
20. “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.” (1 Thess. 5: 11, Heb. 3: 13)
21. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together… but let us encourage one another.” (Heb. 10: 24– 25)
22. “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.” (James 4: 11)
23. “Don’t grumble against each other.” (James 5: 9)
24. “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5: 16)
25. “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Pet. 4: 9)
26. “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” (1 Pet. 5: 5)
McLaren, Brian D. (2014-06-10). We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (p. 218-9). FaithWords.
Practice: In silence, simply hold the term “one another” before God. Open yourself to the depths of meaning in this beautiful term. Then, try holding this term in your mind as you go through your day. Pray without ceasing this simple phrase of connection. At the end of the day, review the one another’s and be grateful for what they opened for you; set your intention be begin again tomorrow in the awareness of each one another.