Sunday, October 29, 2017

Phil Kniss: How do I love thee, neighbor? Let me count the ways

The defining ethic of love
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22:34-46

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Again, I found an unexpected treasure in the biblical text,
by approaching it in the most simple way I know.

I didn’t decide ahead of time,
on a topic to address, and a point to make,
and then search and find scripture verses
to support my topic and make my point.

These texts were handed to me, on a platter, by the lectionary calendar.
I started with them,
and tried to read them while paying attention
to their context, and mine.

Whenever we read scripture,
we read two worlds in conversation with each other—
the world of the text, and our world.
We try to understand what was written,
by whom, to whom,
on what occasion, and for what purpose.
And we try to read our own world,
aware of its wounds, its troubles, its violence,
and noticing its beauty, its goodness, its complexity.

So as I read the designated scriptures for this Sunday,
I brought to mind things already swirling in my mind and heart.

I’m sure I’m not the only one lately,
dealing with heaviness of spirit
as we navigate daily life in this broken world.
If you have your eyes open at all,
you can’t help but notice the emotional toll its taking
on our society, our culture.

There’s no letting up.
The many-layered woes of the world keep piling on.

Intractable global conflict threatens the peace of our planet,
from North Korea, to Afghanistan, to Nigeria,
to Israel-Palestine, to you name the place.

Natural disasters—superstorms, drought, wildfires—
are made more devastating because of climate change.
The loss of human life and community from this, is mind-blowing.

Political discourse in our society keeps hitting new lows,
from the White House on down.
Distortions, lies, insults, and plain old nastiness
is excused, and now so commonplace, as to appear normal.

And churches—local congregations and denominations alike—
struggle to maintain unity and keep up missional momentum,
in the face of a polarized and disillusioned membership.
All across the church, people are leaving in droves,
weary of all the divisive rhetoric,
grasping for some way forward
that embraces both radical truth-telling
and unconditional love and mutual respect for all.

Those are all the things going on in the background of daily life,
virtually all the time.

And as if that weren’t enough . . .
as if everything in the universe wasn’t already aligning itself
against any semblance of healing and hope for the future,
it got worse recently.

A couple weeks ago, as I began to think about these scripture texts
we were confronted anew by the shameful reality
that there continues to be widespread violence against women,
perpetrated largely by men in positions of power,
and covered up, kept in the shadows,
by people and systems that seem to have too much to lose,
to speak the hard truth, and break the cycle of violence.

And the scourge of white supremacy bubbled up again,
this time at the University of Florida, in Gainesville,
where our family spent seven years.

So it was that this preacher—
as I held in recent memory the hateful and violent actions
of white supremacists in Charlottesville, and elsewhere . . .
as I followed, with horror,
the revelations about Harvey Weinstein
and the code of silence that protected him so long,
as I saw millions of women
break the silence on sexual violence
by saying “me too” on social media—
so it was that I went to today’s texts,
especially the Old Testament reading from Leviticus,
and found what I think we need to hear today.

Leviticus is another one of those sections of scripture
that don’t show up very often in my sermons.
But this week, this passage, Leviticus 19,
practically shouted out to me.

Let me read it again, slowly,
as you hold in your awareness all these things I just named . . .
the emotional, physical, and sexual cruelty
we human beings inflict on each other,
the hatred and bigotry, and demeaning behavior on display
in the public arena,
and all manner of other ways we harm each other in this world.

Hear the word of the Lord . . .

1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel
and say to them: ‘Be holy . . . because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

15 “‘Do not pervert justice;
do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the powerful,
but judge your neighbor fairly.
16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
I am the Lord.
17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge
against anyone among your people,
but love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the Lord.

In those few verses,
there are words that speak to any and everyone,
whatever their role, in these woes that we named.
There are words to challenge . . . confront . . . disturb . . .
and at times, comfort.

Leviticus is not to be dismissed, as a book.
I know, Leviticus is kind of the poster child
for irrelevant and arcane biblical material,
like details on how to cut meat when doing burnt offerings,
on why we may not eat rabbits and pigs,
but may eat locusts and crickets,
on how to treat skin disease,
on rules not to plant your field with two kinds of seed,
or make clothing of two different fabrics.
. . . and many, many more laws that make us scratch our heads.

But looking at the larger view,
Leviticus tells us that holiness matters, because God is holy.
This is about removing anything that would cut us off,
as a people,
from a vibrant relationship with the holy God
who loves us dearly.
It’s not so much about naming individual sins,
so individual sinners can be identified and punished.
It’s more about maintaining holiness in the community.
It establishes a ritual order for the people of Israel,
that mirrors the cosmic order that a holy God created.
Maintaining right order allows life to flourish,
chaos to be kept at bay,
and creates a space for God to dwell with God’s people.

Leviticus does not make a big distinction
between religious and secular concerns.
All of life matters—
what we eat, how we do business,
who we sleep with, how we care for the land,
how we relate to family, neighbors, and strangers.
Some of the specifics we are wise to set aside in our context,
as culturally-specific or time-limited.
This is why we observe, and hold with care,
the world of the text in one hand,
and our world in the other,
and do good discernment.
But ethics in daily life still matter.
There is still a holy God we relate to,
who asks us for a holy place in which to dwell.
So there is still “Gospel” in Leviticus.

Yes, when we speak of holiness,
there is a risk—a high risk—
that we fall into a legalistic score-keeping mentality,
and think of God’s love as a reward for good behavior,
and spend our time and energy keeping score on each other.
We have fallen off the wrong side of that ledge many times,
in our Mennonite history and tradition.

But we need not give up on holiness.
It is a core characteristic of God,
and a characteristic God wants us to also embody.

Holiness is how we can become whole persons,
as in, holistic, as in experiencing deep shalom.
Our lives before God are a unified whole.
God cares how we live, always, and in every arena.
And God is equally concerned with how we deal with God,
and how we deal with others.

As Jesus said, famously, in today’s Gospel reading,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . .
and . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Those are the two core commandments.

And of course, in that second command,
Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19.
This passage from Leviticus, ending with
“you share love your neighbor as yourself”—
gives details about what love of neighbor looks like, in life.
How do I love thee . . . neighbor?
How do I love thee?  Let Leviticus 19 count the ways.
(Sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

So it seems to me, that since Jesus quotes this chapter directly,
and the chapter gives us concrete examples of how we love,
then here is stuff from Leviticus we better pay attention to.

Parts of this text seem to point to opposite values.
But I don’t think they are conflicting ideas.
I see them as ideas that clarify and help interpret each other.

For instance,
Do not go about spreading slander . . .
and . . .
Rebuke your neighbor frankly.

If we only read the one, “do not go about spreading slander,”
we might be tempted to keep quiet in the face of evil.
And I think we often have erred on that side of the equation,
and gone silent when we should be speaking,
especially in the area of sexual violence,
and racial bigotry.
That’s why we also need the command,
“rebuke your neighbor frankly.”

Of course, if we only highlight the command to rebuke,
and ignore the rest of the passage—
commands like “judge your neighbor fairly”—
we might end up adding to the injuries already inflicted.
Even in rebuke, there must be justice, and truth, and yes, love.

Holding these together might help us find a way forward.

I especially am drawn to the command in v. 16.
“Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
I am the Lord.”

When one of these commands is followed by the statement,
“I am the Lord,”
it bears paying special attention.
It’s like an exclamation mark. Or all CAPS.
Here this now!!
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life!

What is so tragic in the area of sexual violence,
and racial bigotry,
and many other forms of human cruelty,
is that these acts of violence—
whether physical, sexual, verbal, or otherwise—
do, in fact, endanger life.
Every bit as much, and maybe more,
than an injury that draws blood or leaves a physical scar,
these acts keep someone created in the image of God—
for whom God desires wholeness, and joy, and freedom—
they keep them from living fully into God’s intention.
They endanger the life God gave them to live.

There is no room in my life as I aim for holiness,
and no room in a community that values holiness,
for us to use our power over another to
injure, demean, objectify, categorize,
or otherwise make another feel less than whole.

And those of us who hold the most power,
bear the most responsibility,
for changing the culture, and stopping the violence.

It’s up to all of us, of course,
but I feel a particular burden, as an older, white male,
given a position of leadership and authority in the church—
an institution where historically,
there has been a shameful amount of racial discrimination,
of gender inequity and injustice,
of sexual harrassment and abuse—
that I have a responsibility to lead us down a different path.

So let me make a few commitments to you, my church family.
Four, actually. And I was helped in articulating these four
by a recent blog post from MaryKate Morse,
a Quaker seminary professor.

My first commitment: I will—we will, as a church—
accept and believe the magnitude of the problem.
Racism is an evil that still deeply and widely infects our culture,
and expressions of racism, both personal and systemic,
are still alive and well in the church,
and in our minds and hearts, individually.
Sexual violence perpetrated by those in power,
against those in a place of lesser power,
is still an evil scourge that plagues our society,
and shows up everywhere there are people in power—
especially (although not only)
where men are in power over women.
Gender power imbalance is still a reality in the church,
so, predictably, sexual violence is still present in the church.
It is a pernicious sin, that we can never assume
is someone else’s problem, and not our own.
So we will accept and believe there is a problem
outside and inside the church.

Second, I commit to keep these problems on the table, and not under it.
I will not shy away from naming them
when I speak publicly.
And I will encourage smaller venues to keep these matters
out in the open,
in Faith Formation classes, small groups,
facilitated conversations, retreats, etc.
Doing so may help those already wounded,
from thinking they are alone,
or that the topic is not acceptable in church.

Third, I’d love to see the work we have done for protecting children,
in our Safe Church policy,
to be a model for developing a broader set of guidelines,
with clear and open channels of communication,
so if any woman, man, youth, or child
experiences any inappropriate touch or comment, or worse,
whether inside or outside the church,
they know where to go and what to do.

Fourth, I’d like us to be proactive
in providing some safe places where individual stories can be told,
and believed, and honored,
and where some healing can happen.
I’m open to ideas about what that might look like.
Talk to me, if you have thoughts on that.

Those are my commitments. Hold me to them.

Now, finally,
a few more comments on “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
What does that mean when many of us
are not particularly good at loving ourselves.
How does self-love become a model for neighbor-love?

I think loving neighbor as self
has something to do with embracing our human complexity.

Even those of us who have trouble loving ourselves fully,
are nevertheless able, I believe,
to see ourselves as complex, multi-faceted beings.

Yes, we know that some parts of ourselves
are more praise-worthy than other parts.
Some parts we might readily love and embrace.
Other parts we might struggle with.
But we recognize our complexity.
We see the beautiful mystery of becoming fully human,
even though we have yet to arrive.
We know ourselves all too well,
to make the mistake of seeing ourselves one-dimensionally.
We don’t take a flat view of ourselves.
We look at ourselves from all kinds of angles.

Now, it will never be possible
to see as much complexity in our neighbors,
as we see in ourselves.
But I think loving our neighbor, as ourselves,
requires that we accept the fact, up front,
that our neighbors are just as beautifully complex as we are.
The constant temptation in human relationships
is to de-complexify, if that’s a word,
to reduce the other to categories.
It takes less energy to live that way,
because if we only see one dimension,
then we know how to respond,
we don’t have to agonize over someone’s complexity,
we don’t have to keep renegotiating the relationship.
It’s set, and done.

But it’s precisely that kind of one-dimensional thinking
toward the other,
that becomes the foundation for racist ideology,
and objectifying others sexually,
and leaves the door open for committing violence.
One-dimensional thinking is what creates enemies.

Sexually suggestive comments, or racist inuendo,
even those comments we might consider mild,
chip away at the humanity of the other.
They diminish our ability to love.

So let us all, I exhort you,
love each other, and love our neighbor, as ourselves.
And let us love the Lord our God, our holy God,
with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.

Being confronted with these two core commandments,
leads us, naturally, toward confession.
Because we recognize many ways we have failed to love like that.

I have come to appreciate and use,
the classic prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer—
printed in your bulletin this morning.
It’s a confession used in many traditions,
whenever the people gather to worship.
I have begun to use it in my own daily prayer time,
and it’s good to have it committed to memory.

I invite us to pray it together now . . . in unison.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Almighty God,
you freely pardon all who repent and turn to you,
now fulfill in every contrite heart the promise of redeeming grace;
forgiving our sin, and cleansing us from evil,
through the sacrificial work of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, October 29, 2017

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