Sermon of the Week:
You’re the Greatest!
The first of a four part sermon series: Do Unto Others–Being Good Neighbors in a Pandemic
Keywords: Leviticus, The Greatest Commandment, Ryder the Superpup, The Good Samaritan, Loving your Neighbor. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
A couple of weeks ago, I introduced all of you to our new pup Ryder.
He is a big goofball, a bundle of energy, all Australian Shepherd.
We have a lot of dog lovers out there, I know,
so to give you a bit of an update, he’s been great…
for the most part.
He is still under a year old, after all, and he acts like it.
He has a lot to learn, and so do we.
But he’s a sweet dog, most of the time, and so smart.
We’ve been working on some basic obedience training.
Brook has a clicker, and he does great on the basics:
sit, stay, down.
We can put him into a sit and then open the front door and he won’t go bolt,
that took us a few days.
He can go around Brook on command, and even go through her legs.
So Ryder is doing really well with all of that.
It’s that basic recall command, though, that is a bit of a challenge.
That’s underselling it, really.
He doesn’t want to come when called.
He’d much rather enjoy his sniffing around our back yard, thank you very much.
I mean, what do we really need him for?
It isn’t like we plan to have him round up some sheep or anything.
He knows he just want him to come inside and lay next to the couch.
That place he’s sniffing is so much more interesting.
So recall is what we’re needing to work on.
And it is more than just because we want him to come on command.
It is going to be particularly important when
we need him to be able to break his attention from something.
That’s a bit of challenge,
when his adrenaline system kicks in
and that inherent “I gotta go herd that thing” goes into overdrive.
There are some moments, when we’re out on our walk,
and he’s been so good,
and then all of a sudden
we walk by someone’s fenced in yard
and they’ve got their own dog out
and we see how quickly Ryder just shifts into full on bark mode.
Straining at his leash.
Impressive, but we need to figure out how to train him better in those moments.
We know that if we can get his attention before he locks in,
he does better.
Because we can get him to watch us,
or we can distract him from that squirrel, that dog,
and he does so much better.
But the interesting thing that I’ve found
is that Ryder, at least for now, can only focus on one thing at a time.
Ryder, and most dogs I’ve come to know,
have a one-track mind.
They focus on one thing.
Multitasking isn’t for them.
You get that delicious treat in front of them, and they’ll ignore that squirrel.
You get it in their mind that they might get a treat from you,
and you’re on your way.
Training is helping them keep their focus on what we need them to focus on,
on what we want them to do, rather than something else that’s on their mind.
At least, that’s what we’ve experienced so far.
It is hard to break his focus once he’s locked on.
Our vet calls this a question of impulse control,
and gave us tips on training a dog to ignore distractions…
which sounds like just what we need.
There are a bunch of ideas that we’ve found that we’re working on.
So, maybe I’ll give another update in a month or two and we’ll let you know how its going.
But I have been thinking a lot about Ryder this week,
every time we go on a walk, really,
about how he is all in, all the time.
This leaf that flitters past his nose: must be a treat!
That worm on the ground: must give it a smell.
It’s not just about the squirrels and the dogs we come across that we want to chase
and which has him drown out my efforts to get his attention.
For Ryder, and for many pups I’ve known,
it is almost like there are just two gears, on and off, this not that
good or not good. There’s no middle ground.
No complexity. No nuance.
And it had me thinking about how people, you and me, we’re so different.
Human beings live our life in the grey.
Things are complicated,
because it is almost never as simple as either/or, good or bad.
There are details to consider.
Background. Motives. Conditions on the ground.
This is part of what makes human beings unique, what makes us human,
the depth of thought we put into things.
It’s not that we don’t have our own impulses, our own way that we go all in
and have a hard time stepping back from all that.
Because we do.
I once found myself in an argument.
This was a few years ago. I didn’t start it.
Truth be told, I was minding my own business
and was just walking on a sidewalk outside of a grocery store.
By the time I realized what was going on,
that someone wanted to step up and challenge me,
by the time I realized what was going on
he was already going full steam ahead with it, you know,
pointing at me, barking a little bit, angry.
I was wearing this shirt I own
that says “No hate in the sunflower state”
the sunflower state being Kansas, where I live,
where our family has made their home.
And I guess this guy found that a provocative thing to read
outside of the Hen House,
and he wanted to give me a piece of his mind about it.
Truth be told, I think he was having one of those days,
I don’t know.
But that’s what I first thought, when this man got real close
face to face
a lot like Ryder can do at a fence when wanting to get after it with that neighbor dog.
And in that split second as I was trying to get my bearings
I noticed what I was feeling, myself, inside
as this sudden thing was happening in front of me….
there was an impulse to respond in kind, you know,
to lash out back at him,
to give him my own snarl, to show my own teeth,
to tell him to back off, man…
and, also, maybe a second later, I felt that impulse to take a few steps back, you know,
maybe more than a few,
who knew what this guy was capable of,
was his bite worse than his bark?
We sometimes call this the fight or flight instinct, right.
Some call it the lizard brain, or the reptilian brain, at work.
Now, there is often a lot of armchair analysis with this one,
and I do not pretend to be a neuroscientist or a psychologist.
I know that this is a complicated subject in its own right
and the way that this model has developed, and some of its shortcomings,
they’re important, even if all of that is beyond my point this morning…
but I’ve felt that base instinct before, my own adrenaline response to a sudden stimulus…
like that morning, when the guy didn’t like my shirt
and had had enough of whatever
and he was going to get in my grill about it.
There’s a lot in us like this:
flashes of fear,
the impulse to protect our children,
the rush of power,
the longing after something I want,
anger at seeing injustice, or harm done to someone we love,
the disdain of something or someone we think is beneath us.
We all feel these things.
But what makes us human, in a way,
is our ability to separate our thinking, and even eventually our feelings
from those instincts.
Not that those instincts aren’t important—they really are.
And not that those instincts are wrong—often they’re not wrong.
Sometimes they’re right on the money,
just like sometimes they are influenced by bias and subconscious presumption.
But here’s the thing: we are more than those instincts.
We aren’t just either/or all the time. We live in the grey.
We can name what we feel,
and sometimes even understand why we feel what we feel.
And we can even try to understand what others feel,
and why they might be doing what they’re doing.
And because we can do that,
all sorts of particularly beautiful traits have emerged:
language, so we can talk to one another,
reflection, to consider why things are they way they are, and to plan a response,
even relationships—making friends, falling in love,
relating to our kids or our parents through family—
all of that is made possible because we process our instincts through our feelings and our thoughts.
This book of Leviticus is rather…interesting.
Most of the time, we look at it (if we ever open its pages) and we yawn.
It has the reputation of being an old-timey rule book that is irrelevant today
and, in part, that’s true,
because if you read it, it describes a time and a culture
that is no longer around any more.
The first few chapters, for instance, describe the process of offering burnt offerings to God:
how the altar is going to be built,
what kind of animals for what kind of offering: this bird, that grain, those goats
depending on whether you’re aiming for
an offering of purification or well-being or forgiveness or what have you.
So, yeah, I’ll give you a pass if you wonder why you might want to give THAT a read.
But more generally,
Leviticus describes an apparatus of rules, customs, and mores
meant to help the Hebrew People build a community together.
Some of those rules and customs just don’t fit any more.
A lot of the rules were tied to this notion of ritual purity and cleanliness, for instance,
that would later be rightly criticized and abandoned.
There have been other eras in our collective history like this,
for instance, the Victorian period.
Too often those sorts rules are more about keeping people in line, about control.
And, again, we could go into that sometime,
in another sermon about Leviticus.
But on the other hand, sometimes those rules, customs, mores help shape a people into a people.
They give them ways to process what they see and what they feel,
their instincts and their passions
their hopes and their dreams.
When we try to understand Leviticus, it doesn’t have to be either/or,
all bad, or all good.
We can see it for what it is: a complicated, historical, nuanced set of standards
that, when we look back on it, has some weird or even wrong ideas in there, in some parts,
and, in other parts, a lot that is good and kind and beautiful and true.
That’s how I read this passage from the 19th chapter that Cheryl offered for us today:
guidance for a community that is seeking some structure, some order, some rules for the road.
And when you look at the rules we heard this morning,
you can see that they are rooted with two deeply important concepts for us,
because they were important for Jesus:
care for those who are in fragile places,
and mutual regard.
Do not defraud your neighbor.
Do not steal.
Do not keep the wages of your laborer until morning.
Do not put a stumbling block before the blind or revile the deaf.
Don’t reap all of the grain from your crops,
but leave some of it at the edges…those will be for the poor and the foreigner.
Care for those who are fragile,
whom you could be dishonest with, whom you could steal from, but shouldn’t.
Because God wants you to see something in them that gives you pause.
God wants you to see others as beloved in God’s eyes, too.
And, because of that, you have an obligation, see
to be honest with them
to not steal from them,
to pay them fairly,
to go so far as to leave some of your crops for those who are hungry or poor
or without family connections in this neck of the woods.
Care for those who are fragile,
and mutual regard.
And, in what is often seen as a controversial statement in 21st century America,
this is particularly revealed in the way that Leviticus urges the people
to treat those foreigners, or “the alien,” as our translation describes them, as your own kin:
people not from around here,
people who are different from you,
Those people you should love as you love yourself.
For you were a foreigner once, in Egypt.
Don’t forget that part of your history.
Don’t forget that you once were fragile, and taken advantage of, and mistreated,
you longed for justice,
you cried out for reform,
and God was there with you…
Love the foreigner as yourself.
This sermon series that we’re launching this week
is called Do Unto Others.
That’s the start of what we call the golden rule, right:
do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
We’ll get to that one in a few weeks
but throughout the month of June we’ll be looking at
some of the most important teachings of the ethics of Jesus
and the ethics of those who follow him.
The VALUES that help shape our instincts,
shape our feelings, and our thoughts
so that we might choose to react in this way, and not in that way.
And today we have maybe the biggest one of them all.
In fact, Jesus would call it the most important teaching,
which, if we can get our head around it,
will help us understand all of the others.
Jesus is confronted by a guy who asks him
“what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?”
and they talk a bit about it,
Jesus, noting he’s a lawyer, does what a good teacher often does
he responds to a question with another question
“what is written in the law? what do you find there?”
And the response is drawn from this very passage in Leviticus,
along with another reading from a book called Deuteronomy.
The lawyer says: “You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
That’s exactly it! Well done, says Jesus.
But who, exactly, is my neighbor?
And Jesus shares the parable of the good Samaritan as his answer.
In Luke, this question is posed as “how do I inherit eternal life”
but everywhere else that we find this exchange, in Matthew and in Mark,
the question is put differently:
Of all the commandments, of all the rules, mores, values, structures,
which one is the greatest?
This one, says Jesus: Love God, with everything you’ve got; and love your neighbor as yourself.
And to make the point crystal clear, says Luke,
Jesus gives a little illustration
where the good, upstanding people of their day,
a priest, and a Levite
(a Levite, from which we get the word Leviticus…it was their teaching, after all),
where a priest and a Levite both see a man in desperate need, hurting, almost dead
and they turn and cross to the other side.
But the Samaritan, he SEES, and he responds in a way that they don’t.
He tends to the wounds, at considerable burden and cost,
and pledges to do whatever he needs to help make him whole again.
We shouldn’t miss what Jesus is doing here.
The Samaritans are a great example of foreigners to the people Jesus was talking to.
Samaritans share some history with the Hebrew people, centuries and centuries ago
but now live in a different place, up in Samaria,
and have developed a different culture, different perspectives.
Jews and Samaritans weren’t enemies, not exactly, as much as they were mildly feuding cousins,
and they all knew it, too.
Elsewhere, the Bible says that Jews and Samaritans didn’t share things in common,
didn’t talk with each other very much,
kept to their own kind.
So when Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of a story about loving your neighbor
evoking the passage in Leviticus that says you must love the foreigner as your self
he is making his point crystal clear:
this greatest commandment is to love God, and to love everyone, all of them, every person,
the way you love yourself.
One of the greatest conundrums to me
is how people who follow Jesus can absorb this teaching,
the greatest commandment,
how they know deep in their bones that Jesus is urging them to Love God,
and to love God, by nurturing in their actions and in their spirit, love for others:
people like you, and those not like you; your friends, and your enemies;
those who get it, and those who don’t…
how followers of Jesus know that they’re called to love other people…
and then they turn around and do the most harmful, painful, hurtful things.
Like that guy who confronted me about my “no hate in the sunflower state” shirt.
Turns out he was a 30 year member of a mainline church, a Christian church,
over in Lenexa somewhere
as I found out later, talking with him,
ignoring my instinct in that moment to return his anger in kind, or to run away.
In other moments it might have been appropriate to be angry, again,
don’t get me wrong,
just as it might have been right to flee from people who have harmful intent,
but for some reason that day I listened and I asked him to calm down
and I told him that the shirt was meant to be an expression of love
and I asked him if he wanted to see a Kansas that was loving and compassionate
and he did, it turns out,
even though we were in the middle of some big cultural moment at the time
about the so-called surge at the southern border
and our broken immigration system and kids separated from their parents
and all of that.
After a few moments, I left him,
telling him that he needed to chill out, that he had no reason to accost me like that
but that I loved him, and wished him some peace.
What caused him to go after me like that?
Why am I, sometimes, so tempted to write off as unlovable
people who are enabling this horrible moment that we are in?
Look: loving our neighbor is hard.
Seeing people you disagree with, often passionately, as human and valued
because God loves them, too, is hard.
It is particularly hard with those people are doing hateful, destructive things
things you need to stand up against.
That’s one of those grey areas, right. Its not either/or.
You love them, and you don’t allow them to do hateful things.
You love them, and still you protest injustice, you demand that things change.
That’s a hard place to stand.
It is hard for some to love people like me, when we are “generally good people”
who can’t see the systemic racism embedded our culture
because for those of us who are white,
it is like asking fish to notice the water that they swim in.
It is hard, for me, to love people
who spit in my pastor friends’ face
because he wore a mask to the local store during a pandemic.
It is hard to love people who act like they know all the answers
all of the time
and don’t want to hear what you have to say about it, anyway.
It is hard to love other people,
when you’re part of a crowd
and you’re rightly marching for justice for people who are oppressed,
and you see a line of helmets and plastic shields and tear gas canisters.
This is a challenging moment. For all of us.
And here is the heart of the message for today:
come what may, never lose sight of the fact that we are all human beings
each one of us made in the image of God
and we are called to love one another, as God loves them.
Jesus did that,
this Jesus who challenged, with his very body,
systems and structures of oppression, division, and hatred.
Jesus, who told us that loving one another is the way to show God’s love in the world.
In a nutshell,
Loving your neighbor as yourself means
you gotta love yourself,
and you gotta keep space in your heart for the humanity of everyone you meet
as you work for God’s just and reconciled world.
How we’re going to work that out,
I don’t know yet. But that is our calling.
And if we can find ways to live it, we have the chance to build a hopeful future.
So may we take this greatest of teachings to heart
in what feels like the most turbulent and trying of days
and may we remember that the people we struggle with, are people we are called to love, too
that love means seeking a better world for them, and for us, for all of us,
and doing what we can to bring that world about.
May it be so.