The idea seems
simple enough. “Love God, love neighbor.” The problem, as always, is in the
execution of the idea. Who is God? Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to
Wrestling with these questions is at the heart of what it means to be a follower, a disciple of Christ Jesus. If we’re honest, we’ve all struggled with these questions at different times in our life’s journey.
As a Hospice Chaplain, these are two questions people struggle with, even at the end of life, sometimes one more than the other. As a person of faith, these are two questions I have wrestled with my whole life.
If I’m honest, I struggled with those questions as I was writing this sermon and, in fact, right up until today. Part of the reason is that the world moves so fast these days, it’s often hard to get your bearings.
Not so when I was a kid. I knew exactly who my neighbors were. That’s because I knew the borders and boundaries of my neighborhood.
Furthermore, I knew the rules – the family rules, the rules of the neighborhood and the rules of the church. And, I obeyed them.
In my neighborhood, we had a policeman who “walked the beat”. His name was Officer Murphy. We all loved Officer Murphy. You could wind your watch when he would appear on your street. He knew every kid by name and where we lived. We felt safe whenever he was around.
And, we loved Fr. Levesque, our parish priest, who also walked through our neighborhood on his way back and forth from visiting with people in their homes. He always had a tin can full of mints in his pocket that he opened and put in our mouths as we swarmed around him like baby birds with our mouths opened for this mid-week sweet communion.
There was also Mr. DeMello, the Truant Officer. He was there to report you to your parents if you skipped school. We didn’t have to worry too much about Mr. DeMello, though. Not in our neighborhood.
That’s because we had Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller was a woman whose kids had all grown and her husband had died so she always dressed in black and lived alone.
If I close my eyes, I can still see her, standing in front of her second floor window, a cup of tea in her hand which she slowly sipped as she watched everything that went on in our neighborhood.
I don’t know if she counted us as we walked together to school but she knew when one of us was missing. She made it her business to know where each one of us was and exactly where we were when we weren’t supposed to be there.
No one dared skipped school in my neighborhood. We were too scared of Mrs. Miller who would come and find us (I don’t know how she found us but she always did), pull us out of wherever we were by our ear, and march us all the way to our parent’s home, still holding that ear as if her life depended on it – our feet barely touching the ground – before depositing us in front of our parents, giving us a hard smack upside the head before she left.
You never wanted to mess with Mrs. Miller. Nosireebob.
There were other people who came into our neighborhood: The Bread Man who came every Wednesday and Friday, the Milk Man who, several times a week, delivered glass bottles of milk or cream and tins of cottage cheese which he put into an aluminum container that sat on everyone’s doorstep. He covered everything with ice before he left. Funny, no one ever got sick.
We were free to ride our bikes everywhere. I was nine years old and, as the oldest of four, rode my bike at least once a week to the market to pick up “just a few things” my mother had called ahead to the grocer who had everything ready for me. He always asked me about school and what I had learned that week and we would have lovely conversations about that subject.
The rules in my neighborhood were also simple: You could play stick ball in the street but one kid always had to be the lookout for oncoming cars, and you always moved to the side as soon as a car appeared at the top of the street. You showed respect. While the streets were for stick ball, the sidewalks were for hopscotch and jacks, and everybody, I mean, EVERYBODY, had to be on their own porch when the streetlights came on.
As well as I knew my neighbors, I also knew God. He was a white man with long hair and a long, white beard who sat on a cloud way up in heaven and, all he had to do was point at someone who was being bad and ZAP! That person was dead dog meat.
I even knew what God sounded like. My father loved to read to us and I loved nothing more than sitting on his lap, my ear pressed against his chest. One day, as I listened to the sound of his voice in his chest, it occurred to me that this is what God must sound like: mysterious, other-worldly, distant and yet just as close to me as my next breath.
And, the rules? Simple. There were 10. Follow those, go to church, listen to the gospel, take communion, don’t skip school, do your homework, obey your parents, do your best to follow the Golden Rule and love God and your neighbor as yourself and you would go to heaven. Guaranteed.
Simple, right? Easy-peasy!
And then, ah, and then, I grew up. And the world was no longer simple or easy. The War to End All Wars which my grandfather fought in rolled itself into WWII which my father fought it; which rolled itself into the Korean Conflict which my uncles fought it; which rolled into The Vietnam War, which was a war no one wanted and everyone hated and protested.
The world began to move very quickly and in 1966, the cover of Time Magazine posed a question no one in my neighborhood would have dared to think much less ask: Is God Dead?
That was followed, five years later, by the 1971 Time Magazine Cover of a Pop Art psychedelic Jesus who gazed serenely from clouds. It was simply titled: “The Jesus Revolution.”
By the time I was in seminary in the 1980s, I was enormously frustrated, trying to understand a discipline known as Process Theology, founded by a man named Alfred North Whitehead.
I remember crying in a professor’s office because I was so confused. She comforted me and then whispered, “Never mind. God doesn’t even know what Whitehead is talking about.”
And here we are this morning, more than 2,000 years later, listening to these ancient words from both Moses and Jesus who are teaching us the ancient commandment of God to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And, if we’re honest, in our darkest moments, some of us are still asking Who is God? Who is my neighbor?
Who is this God who allowed a very sick man to shoot and kill 18 of his neighbors and friends in Maine while they were bowling or otherwise having a good time with other neighbors?
Who is this God who allowed the beautiful island of Maui, often called ‘Paradise’, to burn to the ground?
And what kind of God allows innocent men, women and children to die cruel, brutal, barbaric deaths in a place known as The Holy Land, a place dedicated to God by people of three different faiths?
Not the God we know. Which, if that’s true, raises other questions, ones with which people have also been struggling to understand since the beginning of time: If God is all powerful, then why do bad things happen to good people? What role, if any, does God play in it all?
Here's where I’ve landed on the matter. I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out. Far from it. As a Hospice Chaplain, I’ve had this conversation about these questions many times with many people over the last many years. Here’s what makes sense to me and why Jesus says that The Golden Rule is the Greatest Commandment:
There are things beyond the intellect and reason of the human mind. God is primary among them. As many advances as can be attributed to the human mind, there are many things we simply can’t understand.
Like, how to understand a love that is so pure, so unconditional, that we have this terrifying freedom to make choices, some of which are good and some of which are not.
Like, no matter what we choose, good or bad, we always have the choice to love because we are always loved.
Think about this mystery: Even before we loved God, God loved us. We are free to love this mystery we call God, who is far beyond our wildest imaginings and yet never further away from us than our next breath.
Free to love this mysterious God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. And, to love ourselves so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves.
Or, not. Whether or not we know God or love God, God still loves us. St. Paul tells us that nothing - absolutely nothing - can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not even ourselves.
Turns out, The Great Commandment is not as easy as it once sounded. Turns out, we grow up and find the world is a very complex and complicated place.
Turns out, one can choose to dedicate one’s whole life to living out that great mystery, to love the questions and live into the questions – Who is God? Who is my neighbor? – so that, as the great philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke said, we may love the questions so much that, one day, we may live into the answer.
That’s why, I think, Jesus says that this is the Greatest Commandment and the second is like unto it. Not only do all the laws and the prophets hang on these two commandments, but the very enterprise of being human hangs in the balance.
Indeed, I would add that the future of the world depends on the kind of love that is humble enough to admit we don’t know everything and we don’t have all the answers, and we cannot see God, but to love, anyway. To choose love. Even when it makes no sense.
As Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
Who is God? Who is my neighbor? Jesus has lots to say about that in later Gospels that are worthy of our time and consideration and study. For now, and in preparation of that, I’m going to leave you with the whole quote from Rilke to which I think, Jesus would give his stamp of approval:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”