Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Father Peter Snow was telling me a story the other day about how years ago, he had been out in the Arizona wilderness with a friend camping for a few weeks. During that time they didn’t see a soul. As they were hiking back to civilization Peter remembers seeing, off in the distance, two people walking toward them. At the sight of them the hair on his neck stood up. It was a deep, visceral, lizard brain survival reaction to the stranger.
And yet, Peter knew better. He knew that in all probability they were regular people just like him, and he knew because of his religious training, to treat them as friends, and more than that, if need be, with kindness and hospitality. So. he relaxed. When they finally met on the trail he said, “Hello.” They said, Hello.” And everybody walked on.
At some point a very, very long time ago humanity found that it was better to encounter the stranger with grace, rather than fear. While on occasion I am sure that backfired, it seems, on the whole, it did not, and over the generations treating the stranger with hospitality rather than suspicion became deeply ingrained in many, many cultures.
Many of you, I am sure, have experienced the hospitality of strangers. I certainly have. In Iran a couple took me in when I was displaced and insisted I sleep in their bedroom while they slept on the floor. In the Sudan a village killed what seemed to me their only goat to feed me dinner. In Russia a priest even stepped away from his Christmas Eve liturgy to give me a tour of the church.
They treated me, the stranger, as a brother or son. In many of these cases I didn’t speak the language. In some cases I looked nothing like my hosts. In all cases I was never to see them again. And so I wonder, why did they take the time to care for me?
At some point as humanity wound its way up the evolutionary trail, guided by providence to the plateau of our current human competence, we recognized that beyond the fear of lizard brain or grace of frontal lobe, there is God. And God said this to Moses, as we hear today in Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” You shall be holy! Why? Because I am the Lord your God!
What does it mean to be holy? To care for the stranger and the immigrant. Why? Because “I am the Lord your God!” To let the widow and orphan glean from the harvest. Why? Because “I am the Lord your God!” To not steal or cheat or lie. To not rip off your contractors or employees. Why? Because “I am the Lord your God!” To not tease or take advantage of the disabled or impaired or elderly. To not talk badly about anyone. Why? Because “I am the Lord your God!” To not hate anyone in your family. To not hold a grudge against any person. Why? Because “I am the Lord your God!”
God has a preferred way for us to be human, God has a preference. It is what makes us holy. It can be summed up this way: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Why? Because I am the Lord your God! “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”
The key word here is neighbor. The widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the contractor, the employee, the disabled or impaired or elderly, the family member: These are neighbors, or at least they were in the days of Moses, and in the days of my grandparents. People, all kinds of people, lived in proximity to each other. They knew each other. They knew the names and the stories and the context of their neighbors, and God made it clear, these are the people you shall love. Why? Because I am the Lord your God! And since I, God, am near, and present, and love you; then you, since you are holy as I am holy; then you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
That rule was made a long, long time ago. And yet, here is the issue, my issue, I suppose – I don’t have proximity to all those people like Moses did, and my grandparents did. Today, I don’t know many immigrants. I do not know my employees, particularly those I am connected to me through my stock portfolio. I do not know the subcontractors of my contractor on my house in Montana. I do not know many disabled people. If I didn’t go to church, I wouldn’t know many elderly people.
Proximity in the olden days was an inevitable reality of life, but today we can control proximity and in that way, control which neighbors we know and which ones we choose not to know. And yet still… I am the Lord your God!
When we meet God face to face will we really be able to say it was proximity that kept us from loving our neighbors? I wonder is that really the case, or have we just developed better ways of managing who is and who is not our neighbor?
Some of you may know that Epiphany was awarded the Madrona Good Neighbor Award last Saturday by the Madrona Community Council up at the Madrona K-8 School. Other awards were given including some to students from the school.
Before the ceremony began I had a chance to catch up with Ms. Taylor. She is the first person I met when I went to the school to volunteer. As we were talking she happened to mention that of the 371 families at the school, 51 (or so) are homeless. That number blew me away. Do the math…13% right here at our neighborhood school.
After the ceremony I drifted over to meet Mr. Gibson and his son. Mr. Gibson is 91 years old and he received the Resident for Life award. He grew up in Madrona, and his dad owned the pharmacy. As we talked I could see over his shoulder one of the dads (or grandads) of a student award winner. He was taking a photo of the child in front of a bookshelf. It was a big deal. They both looked like the boy had just won an Olympic gold medal.
As I left the event, I began to wonder why I had so easily milled about with the Gibsons and yet made no effort to go over and hear the stories of the young people who were doing such good work at Madrona K-8. It made me wonder about the walls I build and how I determine who is my neighbor and who is not. And it made me think about the words we hear in Leviticus 19:“I am the Lord your God” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Later in the day last Saturday, I got a text that we needed more wine for the Have a Heart cork pull, so I shot up to the wine shop in Madrona. As I approached the store, I passed a man and a woman and a young boy sitting on some luggage outside a parked city bus. It seems that they were waiting for the driver to get back from his break. And I remembered what Ms. Taylor had told me. I had a feeling they spent a lot of time on the bus. I also recognized them, at least the man and the boy. I knew them from my tutoring work at Madrona K-8. I had seen the father pick up the son.
I passed by them and went into the store, and then I wondered, “Who is my neighbor?” So, I turned around and went back outside and introduced myself to the family. The father said his son had just told him that I was one of the tutors at his school. We chatted for a minute before I went back into the store. They were still there when I left. We greeted one another again but this time as acquaintances and not as strangers.
As I drove down to the church, a sad feeling settled upon my heart. I wanted to do something. I measure my value by my capacity to do things, and that I suppose is good. Action is one of the churning legs of justice, after all. Action makes things happen, and at Epiphany we get things done. Just look at the hugely successful Have a Heart event last Sunday night. 250 people raised over $64,000. Nice job Epiphany! A lot of good actions will occur because of your generosity! Thank you.
And yet in the Kingdom of God for justice to run swiftly both legs, action and relationship, must be churning with equal force. And relationship… well that can be a challenge. It takes more time and intentionality. First there must be proximity and consistency. Then names are learned and with time stories told, and then more are told, and then true stories are told.
Here is the thing: There is no quantifying relationship. There is no way to say, “I’ve nailed it, so now I can move on.” The relationship leg of justice when churning is energized through proximity, regularity, and consistency, by knowing a name, and then a story.
That was true in Moses’ day, and in my grandparents’ day, and today. The difference today is that for this to happen we need to be very intentional. It is knowing and owning the walls we have built then stepping over them, into the community of all people; orphans, widows, immigrants, the poor, the rich, the old and the impaired; they are right here. They are our neighbors.
Notice them as God notices us. Be with them as God is with us. Love them as God loves us. This is God’s preference for our lives because we are holy as the Lord our God is holy. Why? Because I am the Lord your God!