Sermon at St. John’s

Huntington, WV
September 7, 2014
Katharine Jefferts Schori

It is a joy and delight to be welcomed into this congregation like a member of the family!  I feel even more like a member of the family because of the great adventure we had last night on the way from the airport, with a flat tire.  You have invited me into your home – to share the great joys as well as the disasters along life’s roadways.  I have the deep sense that you meet others in the same way, particularly the children of this community.  That’s what St. John’s House is all about, and Reading Camp, and Head Start.[1]  This kind of radical hospitality sees every human being as part of the family – which is really why we’re here.

Paul sounds pretty audacious telling the community in Rome that they don’t owe anybody anything except love.  He’s saying to them, ‘You’ve heard all these laws and rules about how to live a good life, but they boil down to loving your neighbor as yourself.’  The catch is that it means that everybody in the community is a neighbor.

The ancient world drew strong boundaries between families (clans, tribes) and outsiders; today we tend to draw those boundaries even closer – many of us live as individuals, sometimes with nuclear families.  As the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you’re stuck with your family.  When people say that, it’s not usually describing close family ties!

In Jesus’ day, most societies insisted that protecting your family and its honor was the central point of existence.  Jesus kept pushing at that limited understanding, insisting that his family consisted of people who lived and loved as he did, loving God and neighbor abundantly.  His story about the Good Samaritan says that even ancient cultural enemies can love one another – even Hatfields and McCoys.

Jesus called his followers friends; he healed, fed, and taught strangers; he laid down his life for them; and always he told them to love their neighbors the same way.  He kept expanding the boundary of who was worthy of inclusion in his circle of friends and family.  He clearly grew in his understanding of who was family and who wasn’t.  Think about his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, who asks him to heal her daughter.  His first response is that he’s only supposed to care for his own people.  She answers with that wonderful line about dogs getting the crumbs under the table, and he changes his mind.  He tells her that her own faith – really her own ability to love a neighbor as herself, and demand that he do so as well – that’s what brought healing to her daughter.

In Jesus’ society you showed who your neighbors or family were by who you talked to, who you’d sit down for a meal with, and who you went out of your way to notice and help.  Think about it – he sat down and talked to women, he even taught them – utterly shocking to good religious people in his day!  He ate with social pariahs like tax collectors.  He healed and forgave the outcasts of his day – lepers, the mentally ill, adulterers, and notorious offenders like the prisoner being executed on the cross next to him.  He told his companions to notice and care for children, in a society that largely saw them as expendable, and little better than slaves. 

Today that might look like sitting down for a meal with a homeless person, or striking up a friendship with a woman who’s been trafficked, or figuring out how to give a real home to some of those kids on our streets who’ve been thrown out of their homes and families.  It might even include looking up a former governor of Virginia, to see about rebuilding his relationship with society. 

Much of the biblical witness says that the rules in God’s family are different from the rules in most human societies.  In the simplest terms, you can boil the rules down to:  love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  St. Augustine was even briefer – “love God and do as you please!”[2]  The hard part is that “neighbor” means everybody.  No one is beyond the pale, all are worthy of notice and dignity and compassion.

Who are our neighbors?  Everyone your mayor has asked us to pray for[3] – the addicted and the drug dealers and those who work for healing – as well as everyone who turns away and ignores the pain of addiction and the exploitation of others.  Neighbors are our friends, relatives, enemies, and those who disagree with us.  The central challenge is how to love people who hate us, or people we’re afraid of.

The gospel this morning is trying to teach just that.  Jesus says, start by dealing directly with the offender.  Meet him as the image of God, rather than complaining to others or spreading gossip about what she’s done.  Go directly and see if you can find a way to heal what’s been broken.  Go and ask.  There is certainly some assumption here that what’s happened really is a sin or wrong or a fault.  Often relationships are broken because we’ve misunderstood or assumed something that’s not accurate – go check it out, and try to heal the brokenness.

Jesus goes on to say that if you don’t get anywhere, take a couple of others with you and try again.  Don’t give up simply because the first attempt has failed.  At the global level, that’s called diplomacy.  Our task is to love this person or group back into relationship, not condemn people to outer darkness – that’s actually God’s prerogative, not ours.

If you still don’t get anywhere, tell the church community – take this matter to a group of loving people for discernment.  Together, the body of Christ often does this work better than one or a few of us.  If even that doesn’t work, he says, “let that person be as a Gentile or a tax collector.”  Now, how did Jesus deal with Gentiles and tax collectors?  He didn’t abandon them.  He went to dinner with tax collectors,[4] and he healed Gentiles.[5]  This is not an invitation to condemn people who have hurt us or others.  It’s the radical, countercultural call of the gospel to love everyone, including our enemies.  It asks us to go the extra mile.

What does that say about how we encounter the situations of strife in the world around us, like drug wars here or in Central America?  The same reality that’s destroying communities here is pushing unaccompanied children over our southern border.  What about the mess in Ukraine?  Or dealing with ISIS?

This radical call to treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors is first of all to remember that God has created each one in the divine image.  Some people do turn away from God’s invitation or lure toward abundant life, but the ultimate judgment is up to God, rather than us.  I believe that’s why we heard the Passover account.  Those directions are about being ready to move out into the wilderness – hurry up and eat, and don’t bother with the leftovers, because you’re going to be moving into new territory, where you will depend on God, not your own sense of judgment.  God’s going to pass over you, and not judge you, yet, either. 

All we owe our neighbors is love.  It takes a lifetime to learn how to do it, but that’s why we’re here.  Pray for those who hurt us, and deal with them as neighbors and family.  The health of our communities depends on how we love our neighbors – all of them.

[2] He goes on to say, “for the soul of one trained in loving God won’t do anything to offend the one who is beloved.”

[3] Stephen Williams (an Episcopalian): .  In conversation, he indicated this was a result of his participation in EFM.

[4] Luke 19:1-10; Mark 2:13-17

[5] E.g., the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter; Gadarene demoniac; Samaritan leper; centurion’s servant