A sermon preached on May 6, 2007 based upon Acts 11:1 – 18 and John 13:31 – 35.
Before I came to Parsippany eighteen years ago, I served for seven years as the pastor of a little country church in the tiny village of Everittstown, New Jersey. In the village a man in his sixties named Harold lived alone. Harold was a farmer, with several hundred acres of lovely, rolling farmland that I was grateful that he allowed me to go walking upon when my body and spirit were in need. The animal life on Harold’s farm consisted of a handful of cows, a couple of pigs, a couple of sheep, some chickens and two or three cats.
Harold was a pretty solitary man. He had been married once and the marriage had ended in divorce. He had a couple of grown children he didn’t see very often. Crowds of people made him nervous, and he never came to church. He wasn’t especially good with words, but we would talk from time to time when we would meet on my walks.
Harold alluded to the some pretty tough times he had gone through in his past suffering from severe depression, apparently having to be hospitalized at one point. There was something that his psychiatrist had said to him years ago that Harold had remembered and held onto, and he shared it with me, and I have held onto it ever since for its simple wisdom. The psychiatrist said, “Harold, those animals need you. And you need those animals.”
The truth of that observation sustained Harold, getting him out of bed in the morning. The animals needed him to tend to them, to feed them and clean up after them. And he needed the animals as well. It gave him something for which to live, providing him with an essential connection to life beyond himself.
Loneliness was something I, too, dealt with in those days, and so I found it easy to identify with Harold, and the wisdom of the words resonated with me as well.
Midway through my time there Harold began a long term relationship with a lady friend, a shy woman from a neighboring town named Joan. They provided companionship and caring for one another. They never got married; I don’t think Harold would have been able to handle that. But it brought some happiness to Harold’s solitary life, deepening the connection to life beyond himself.
In the words of the poet John Donne, “No man is an island.” We need others to be fully human. Left all to ourselves our souls will shrivel and die. We were put on this earth to learn how to love, and we are given lots of opportunities to practice love, and practice is what love requires.
There is much within us that would lead us to live as if we were islands, to give up on the difficulty involved in love: Self-centeredness, pride, greed, the pain of heartbreak, etc. not to mention all these qualities in the very people we would seek to forge a connection with in life. And sometimes these relationships can be abusive – soul-destroying in their own right, requiring that they be severed. But we are never released from the call to try again: to get back out there and practice love in its various expressions.
(A man and a woman were talking, well, more precisely, the man was talking and the woman was listening, and the man’s subject was himself. Finally, aware of how much he was dominating the conversation, he said, “Well, listen to me go on and on about myself. How about you? You talk about me now.”)
It is striking to me that on the last night Jesus spent with his disciples, as he was giving them his parting instructions, he said the words with which we began our worship this morning: “A new commandment I give you, that you should love one another, as I have loved you. This is how others will know that you are my followers, that you love one another.”
Love is the thing, he said. How will others recognize you as my followers? It won’t be by what you say you believe, or by the scriptures you can quote. It will be by your willingness to keep on practicing at the art of love. Without love, everything else is just a facade.
If you’ve heard me preach for a time you probably know that for me this story is pretty central: A lawyer, seeking to test Jesus, asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus put the question back on the lawyer, asking him how he read the scriptures. The lawyer responded by lifting up two commandments: Love the Lord your God will all your heart and soul and mind; and, love your neighbor as yourself.
Yes, Jesus agreed, love’s the thing.
But then the lawyer zeroed in on the challenging part of this whole “love your neighbor” thing. Who, exactly, is my neighbor? He asked. And in response Jesus told the story about the man going down the road to Jericho who gets jumped by bandits who beat the crap out of him and take all his belongings and leave him half dead at the side of the road. A priest comes by, and passes on by. A minister comes by, and he, too passes on by. Finally, a Samaritan, a member of a race Jesus’ listeners would have despised, came along. He gets off his donkey, goes to the man, bathes his wounds, applies bandages, gently places the man on his donkey, and takes him to a nearby inn, where the Samaritan foots the bill while the wounded man heals and recovers his strength.
Who, Jesus said, was neighbor to the man who was beaten? The one, I suppose, who showed mercy, said the lawyer. Go and do likewise, said Jesus. The “neighbor” is whomever God places in our path in life. It implies that the call to practice love begins wherever you find yourself. For Harold, the beginning was with his animals.
But the Spirit of God keeps pushing us to go further in love, to go beyond our comfort zone. In the lesson we heard from the book of Acts, we hear about the earliest church getting pushed by the Holy Spirit in the practice of love.
Jesus was a Jew, as were all of his first disciples, and following his ascension; his followers just assumed that to be a Christian you had to first be a Jew, with all that this involved: the kosher laws, circumcision for the men, etc. The Jews had been called to be God’s holy people, set apart, with a distinctive set of practices that marked them as a holy people.
But what about this whole Good Samaritan thing Jesus had pointed to in his teaching?
The first Christians preferred to stay in their comfort zone. Being Jews themselves, they understood Jews, and so they restricted sharing the Gospel with other Jews.
In this morning’s lesson, Peter recalls the extraordinary interventions of the Holy Spirit that pushed him to be in communion with Gentiles. “The Holy Spirit lead me to see that there is no ‘us and them.’”
Time and again the Church has had to be pushed forward beyond its comfort zone. White Christians have had to acknowledge the full, equal humanity of Blacks. Straight Christians are being pushed to experience the full humanity of gay people.
We live in extraordinary times, full of both great danger and opportunity.
The times are dangerous in part because In our society it is easier than ever before in human history for a person to try and live out the notion that “I am an island unto myself.” It is possible to live in the midst of countless “neighbors” without ever interacting with them and developing a real connection. There is so much material distraction offered to us with the implicit notion that we can occupy our lives with stuff and never really deal with another human being on any kind of intimate level. But to buy this lie is to follow a path that leads to the death of one’s soul.
The time is full of opportunity because to an extent never seen before the neighbor we are likely to find on our path is likely to be someone with a different race, nationality or religion. And this is what Jesus and the Holy Spirit has been encouraging us to do all along — to experience a love that transcends all barriers.
Consider Parsippany, New Jersey, for instance. For hundreds of years, Parsippany was a community made up exclusively of descendents of White Europeans. In the sixties, our own Fred Coleman became the first person of color to live here. A few years from now, if the present demographic trends continue, Parsippany will be a community in which the descendents of white Europeans will be a minority.
Now you can see this as a problem one would rather avoid, but I don’t see how a follower of Jesus can see this situation we face as anything other than as an opportunity.
And one thing I can say with certainty for our church and for any other like it in Parsippany, whether or not we are still around and flourishing fifty years from now will depend upon whether or not we learn how to reach out and embrace folks of other races.
I want to go back to the concern that Sharon Coughlin lifted up for us two weeks ago on Earth Day. There is a growing consensus among scientists that global warming is real, and that it represents a cataclysmic threat to the entire human race, as well as to all living things.
I haven’t seen the latest movie by the great film maker and recovering racist and alcoholic Mel Gibson, entitled Apocolypto, but someone described the final scene to me, and it provides a powerful image for where the human race finds itself today. (I know I’ve ruined some movies for folks before by spoiling the ending, so if you plan on seeing the movie and don’t want to know the ending, tune out here.) The movie describes the bitter warfare that took place between indigenous tribes living in the South American rain forest shortly before the arrival of the European invaders. In the final scene, two opposing warriors are racing through the forest, locked in mortal combat. Exhausted, they come crashing out onto the beach, where they are startled to see out on the horizon a fleet of Spanish ships, marking the arrival of the conquistadors.
Suddenly, everything that has separated these two warriors seems very small compared to the common threat they face with the coming invasion.
The threat of global warming is terrifying, but perhaps it also presents an opportunity. The survival of life on this planet depends upon Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists get together and work to face the common threat. This, I believe, is what the Holy Spirit has been nudging us towards all along.
Curiously, the solution is to be found in recognizing the neighbor not only in the stranger, but also in the animals and plants and every living thing. Just like Harold.