Loving Our Neighbor (even if it’s from across the street)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

I had a parishioner in a previous church who could often be extremely funny with her observations, but at the same time, she could be deeply theological.  More than once, when someone inside the church or outside the church was being difficult, Nancye would say, “I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor…. But sometimes I’ve just got to do it from across the street.”

When we hear scriptures like those we just heard, from Leviticus, “Be holy, for God is holy.” And then Jesus’s repetition of the other Leviticus scripture, “Love God with heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself,” we are probably tempted to just put such words over to the side:  I’d get to those one day, when I’m more accomplished at prayer.  I’ll be able to deal with that kind of faithfulness when there’s less to worry about. 

But Jesus wasn’t talking to the advanced religious of his day or ours:  and my parishioner Nancy had it more right than she might have imagined. Jesus is saying Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, but “across the street” works just fine, and sometimes works even better.

Many of you probably know that the Greek New Testament uses at least four different words for what we call in English, simply, “Love.”  There is the unabashed erosof lovers, the storge love of family members, the sympathetic philiaof friends, and agapegiving itself away freely in ways that are sometimes harder to translate—into English or into action.  (the King James version translates agape love as charity).

The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner clarifies Jesus’s use of the word, “love.”  He writes,

In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as well produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends. 

When Jesus talked to the Pharisees, he didn’t say, “There, there. Everything’s going to be all right.” He said, “You brood of vipers! how can you speak good when you are evil!” (Matthew 12:34). And he said that to them because he loved them.  

Frederick Buechner, – Originally published in Wishful Thinking

Jesus is saying here in shorthand what Leviticus is spelling out.  We’re not called to be holy like God meditating somewhere in a temple.  Holiness looks like certain things, and it looks like very practical, mundane things.

Judging rightly and fairly
Don’t show favoritism to people with money or importance
Don’t slander others, spreading gossip
Don’t profit by the blood of others
Don’t hate in your heart anyone of your kin or community
Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge,
But Do reprove a neighbor and love your neighbor as yourself.

When I was little, I learned in Sunday school that it was important to remember the two dimensions of the cross. A cross has an upward axis and that reminds us of our relationship with God. But the cross also has a horizontal axis, which reminds us of our relationships with each other. Both need to be in order for us to be right with God.

I learned that incredibly simple (if not simplistic) understanding of the cross maybe 40 years ago. But I’m not sure if I’m any closer at all to reflecting that kind of balance as I try to live my own life in the way of the cross.

Connection with God is one thing, and we work on that as best we can. We pray, we attend worship, we learn and try to grow spiritually. 

But we’re also called to connect with others, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Though there are countless ways that we might do this, and surely, you have your favorites, I think of three spiritual practices can help:

1.   Resist slander.  So often when I’m with one other person, it seems like the quickest way to deepen our relationship is to agree about the deficiencies or defects of a third person who is not present.  With social media, it’s even easier to forward or “like” some slanderous comment without giving much thought to its veracity.  This is slander. This is gossip.  And Jesus invites us to resist it, no matter how tempting.

2.   Imagine you neighbor’s pain.  I don’t mean to imagine your neighbor undergoing something painful and derive pleasure from that!—No, instead, I mean, to think for a moment about the neighbor’s challenges, heartaches, worries, and pains.   This is not meant to excuse the conduct of a problematic neighbor, but it moves us in compassion towards “loving” our neighbor as ourselves.

3.  Pray for the wellbeing of the other person.  Again, we don’t have to “feel” anything in particular to simply pray that God might bless our neighbor with whatever good God might intend. 

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us.”  Whether it’s “trespasses and trespassers,” “debt and debtors,” or just plain “sins and those who sin against us,” the prayer that Jesus taught reminds us that we’re connected.

Jesus asks us to take up our cross daily.  I don’t think this is usually as dramatic as we might imagine. Rather, it’s like our being the active part of the cross that not only connects to God but stretches outward, reaching out to love our neighbor—even if it’s through a computer screen, a telephone, or across the street.

Especially in these challenging days of living through a pandemic, of navigating elections and their aftermath, and of simply trying to get through another week, may Christ help us to follow in the way of the cross, maintaining our relationship with God but also building our love of neighbor.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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