Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon: As One

Rennie Memorial Presbyterian Church
September 28, 2014; Ordinary 26A
Exodus 17:1-7
Philippians 2:1-13

As One

I’m a sports fan.
I don’t actually watch football anymore due to the issues of long-term brain trauma among its former players, but otherwise I’m either a fan of many sports or at least curious about them.
I’ve been a big baseball fan ever since Hank Aaron was on the verge of breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record.  I lived in Lawrence, Kansas, for four years, and college basketball is huge there, like nowhere else.  I confess I’ve never quite understood hockey, but I do enjoy sports like tennis and golf.
The newest sport to come under my fan inquisitiveness is soccer – you know, what the rest of the world calls “football.”  It’s not as if I’ve been unaware of it before, but aside from the occasional World Cup I, like many Americans, didn’t pay a whole lot of attention.  That changed a little over three years ago, when I went to a match in Kansas City, in a brand new stadium for that city’s team in Major League Soccer.  The fancy new setting, the crowd, the rising and falling tension of the match itself, all of these worked together to get me hooked.  Since then I’ve attended a few games of the local side in Richmond, that plays in a lower-level league, and I have tickets to a major-league match in DC this weekend.  So I’m following it pretty closely for someone who’s only been into the game for a few years.
I’m still learning the game itself, but I have picked up on a few things.  One of those is that for the most part, soccer embodies the whole concept of “teamwork” in a way that few other sports do.  Yes, all sports of that sort make some claim on “teamwork,” and many times such sports justify their existence (particularly among youth) on the skills of “teamwork” that they are supposed to teach.
In fact, though, many “team” sports are a series of individual matchups at heart.  The batter and pitcher are a classic example of such an individual contest within a team contest, but football relies on such matchups too – lineman blocking lineman, wide receiver against defensive back, and so on.  Basketball comes closer to that kind of widespread teamwork, but it’s a much smaller sport – only five to a side, versus the eleven per side on the soccer pitch. 
While occasionally an individual player will make a stirring dash down the pitch with the ball, sliding in and out of defenders and thrilling the crowd with a miraculous strike, in most cases it takes a remarkably coordinated effort of those eleven players to advance the ball against the defense.  Players are crossing, sprinting out to the wings, dropping back or sprinting forward.  The ball swings from side to side, sometimes struck into the middle for an attempt to split the defense, or crossed from one corner in front of the goal for a teammate to intercept and strike – with feet, head, hip, anything but hands – into the goal. 
For the defense as well, overall team coordination is a must.  If one player gets too far out of position in trying to intercept a cross or steal the ball from the other team, a hole is opened that the rest of the team has to try to plug before an opportunistic opponent sends the ball into the back of the net. 
I can’t help but think that the Apostle Paul, not above athletic references and metaphors himself, would find something to appreciate about the intensity of coordination required in this sport.  This is a man who, after all, has quite an interest – an obsession, some of his readers probably thought – with the whole idea of unity of purpose and coordination of effort and energy that he saw as the necessary, irreplaceable requirement for the still-developing church to survive and function in a world that ranged from indifferent to hostile. 
In some of his letters he compared the church to a body – an instrument that requires intensive and continuing unity of effort and coordination to function at all.  If one member of the body suffered, in Paul’s view, all of the members of the body suffered with it.  The body could not be whole, could not move and work and function as a whole, if any one part was hindered or wounded. 
Here in Philippians, Paul’s tack is slightly different.  Following an extended discussion of the nature of Christ and of life in Christ, Paul instructs his hearers in Philippi on the idea of unity.  The language he uses echoes his instruction in other letters such as the Corinthian correspondence and the (later) letter to the Romans without being exactly the same.  Here Paul speaks of the followers of Christ as “be(ing) of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” 
Now a na├»ve reading of a passage like this can cause us modern readers to be discouraged, quite frankly.  It doesn’t take much of a look around to see that there is not much evidence that we are of the same mind or have the same love.  Wars and rumors of wars multiply faster than we can count.  Our political sphere is thoroughly polluted with contentiousness.  We don’t even have to look outside our own denomination to see disagreement , but if we do we will see that no corner of the church seems immune to disunity and aggressive hatred instead of love. 
Furthermore, scripture itself shows us that the people of God don’t have a whole lot of history of oneness and love.  Today’s Exodus reading offers a rather stark example of the people of God – in this case, the Hebrew people freshly delivered from enslavement in Egypt – falling into disunity and quarreling rather quickly.  So severe was the rancor that some of those people were rhapsodizing about how much better off they’d be in Egypt, apparently forgetting that they were living in bondage there.  To be blunt, it seems as if Paul is living a pipe dream in the passage from Philippians to suggest the kind of unity he describes. 
As the passage continues, though, what Paul is up to becomes clear.  This talk of love and oneness, we see, is not cut off by itself.  Our unity, our oneness is motivated by much more than a unified effort to score a goal or win a match.  All of that talk depends on one thing: only Jesus Christ. 
From these initial instructions Paul moves on to speak to the virtue of humility as a principal attitude towards the world.  Paul would have his readers not think too highly of themselves, and even that one should think of others more highly than one thinks of oneself, looking out for their interests before one’s own.  Seriously, what can he possibly be thinking?  Of course, Paul is thinking of Christ. 
Finally, he brings it home to about the only way that any of this talk can even begin to make sense.  And he does so in the words of what appears to be a hymn.  The extended passage in verses six to eleven appears to be a hymn of the very earliest Christians, one which Paul borrows and quotes as his way of – first of all – appealing to the Philippians through a hymn they already know and – secondly – encapsulating the mind of Christ as best as human words can possibly do. 
It is a beautiful bit of poetry, to be sure.  Even in English the words are of tremendous power and eloquence.  Even more so they are words that bring to light the unbelievable, unspeakable, unthinkable model that Christ has lived:
n      being equal to God, being God, but not clutching to that equality with God, but rather emptying himself – Godself – and taking on the form of a servant – a slave – born in the body of a mere human being;
n      being in that human form – remember, this is one equal to God we are speaking of – being so humble as to submit to such a radical obedience to the will of God as to bring death upon himself – and not just any death, but the most humiliating and excruciating means of death known to the Roman Empire at the time;
This self-emptying, self-humbling Jesus was then, as the hymn continues, exalted above all names in heaven and on earth. 
This, then, is how we are able – the only way we are able to live at all as Paul implores the Philippians to do: not merely to try to imitate Christ, but to be inhabited by the mind of Christ.  Our own efforts will never get there.  It is God who is working in us even to make us want to do it, much less to actually do so. 
Now there are a couple of cautions that need to be emphasized about all of this instruction that Paul has laid out here.  For one thing, Paul’s instruction in verses three through five has been rather badly abused historically.  Rather than being taken as an instruction that even the powerful are mandated to live in humility and to seek out the welfare of others before their own, it has been a club with which the wealthy and powerful have bludgeoned the poor and oppressed even further into humiliation and despair.  This is an abomination unto God, no matter whether it is done by a feudal lord over his serfs, a nineteenth-century slave owner over his slaves, or a modern corporate oligarch over his employees.  Look to your own humility before God. Those who would use this passage to oppress others have no part of the mind of Christ.
Second, and perhaps paradoxically, this instruction only works as issued to the whole body of Christ; Paul is not prescribing any kind of individual self-improvement program here.  It is instruction to the whole body of Christ, not a prescription for any one believer.  We humble ourselves to each other, and are in turn built up by one another.  We, all together, work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to use Paul’s curious phrase in verse twelve. 
Evidently Kierkegaard liked that phrase.
Finally, one more caution: to take this counsel, to be truly inhabited with the mind of Christ, to live in the radical unity that comes of being in the mind of Christ, will set you apart.  It will probably draw attention to you.  Some of that attention may not be pleasant.  To live in radical submission to one another, truly inhabited by the mind of Christ, won’t be popular with everybody out there.  But there is that instruction, to live in the same love, to be in the same mind, the mind that was in Christ Jesus, and that is what being the church, the body of Christ, is all about.
For the mind of Christ, thanks be to God.




Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sermon: Don't sweat the small stuff

Browns Presbyterian Church
September 14, 2014, Ordinary 24A
Romans 14:1-17

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

I remember a strange experience from early in my college days.  I was at a picnic dinner on campus, sponsored by the school’s campus ministry office, with a nice spread of all sorts of good food.  Plenty of fried chicken, a grill putting out hamburgers and hot dogs as fast as possible, a station to make whatever kind of sandwich you could imagine, and my first introduction to what the server called a “low country boil.”  I looked in the pot and saw mostly shrimp and potatoes – of course there was other stuff too, but shrimp and potatoes looked just fine to me.  In the spirit of trying new things I took a bowl of the stuff and was pleasantly rewarded. 

Oh, yeah, corn and sausage too.

A fellow freshman, a girl I had met a time or two thus far, was passing by and stopped to look in my bowl.  I told her what the server had told me about and said that it was really good.  She looked again and said, “It does look really good, but I can’t eat shrimp.”
My first thought was, “Allergies?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t eat it for religious reasons.”
Now I was not the most worldly-wise young man at this point in my life.  I had a vague idea, though, that shrimp might be one thing that was considered not kosher.  Since the picnic was open to persons of all faiths, and I had noticed that there was a decent-sized Jewish student group on campus, I offered that guess next; “Oh, um, are you Jewish?”
Her response was “Oh, no, I’m Baptist, our church just doesn’t eat shrimp.  Or scallops.”  Which was lost on me, since then I didn’t even know what a scallop was.
But I was confused, and my face must have said so.  I was raised Southern Baptist, and all I could think was that I’d seen plenty of Southern Baptists eat plenty of shrimp in my lifetime.  But rather than press the question I let it go and stuffed a large chunk of potato in my mouth to stop myself from saying anything.   So she went on and explained that her church’s pastor taught that a true Christian actually ought to keep the dietary laws found in Leviticus and occasionally in other parts of the Torah.  I nodded and said “Huh?” a lot until the subject finally changed, but I didn’t stop with the low country boil.
This experience (and a couple of others later, when I had changed colleges and majors and ran into another Baptist church with similar leanings) always comes into my head when I encounter any of Paul’s writings on the subject of eating and differences in eating between what he unapologetically calls the “weak” and the “strong.”  He has to deal extensively with such questions in his letters to the Corinthians and also to the Galatians, and the subject comes up again in this letter to the church at Rome, chronologically the last of Paul’s letters.  What is, to be blunt, the big deal about what people eat and don’t eat?
In the cases of the churches Paul is teaching, more than we might expect.  In these cases disagreements over what is proper or not proper to eat reflect a deeper division in the churches, one that shows up more than once in Paul’s career.  You may remember from the book of Acts that in some churches there were Christians who believed that a Gentile convert had to become a Jew first before becoming a Christian, or at least go through circumcision – a stand which Paul opposed strongly.  Others did not necessarily argue that Gentiles had to go through a two-part conversion, but nonetheless believed that they should observe certain Jewish practices that some early believers had carried over into Christianity.  You might also remember a substantial discourse in 1 Corinthians about whether it was proper or acceptable for believers to eat meat that had been offered to idols, which was often re-purposed at the nearby market.  If you couldn’t know if the meat for sale had been offered to an idol before its sale, well, if that was a rule you held, then you didn’t eat meat. 
These are the background incidents to Paul’s instruction to the Romans.  Scholars disagree on whether this was a problem in the Roman congregation itself or whether Paul was simply recapitulating the issues that the Romans might have heard about from some of their members who were familiar with Paul’s missionary career.  Either way, Paul is at pains to make sure the Romans understood two things: (1) Paul himself had no dietary qualms at all – he did not refrain from eating meat or observe any such dietary restrictions, and even referred to those with such qualms as “weak”; and (2) getting bent out of shape with each other over such choices was flat-out wrong.
It’s easy to make light of a passage like this one, with its grave concerns over issues we moderns put behind us a long time ago … or have we?  It’s still possible for church members to get bent out of shape over food, and not just whether the pastor tried Aunt Louise’s world-famous potato salad at the potluck dinner.  Vegetarianism is about as popular these days as it has been in my lifetime, and one can find strained relationships among Christians (among ministers, even) over the question of eating or not eating meat, or over not eating meat or not eating any food product derived from an animal in any way.  Though it doesn’t necessarily happen often, disputes over whether or not to eat meat still have the power to create friction in the church or in the world more generally.
Still, Paul has bigger fish to fry, so to speak.  There are two big takeaways in Paul’s instruction to the Romans that have larger application than to just food disputes.  These quarrels in the church, in Paul’s view, lead to two major infractions on the part of one party or the other: passing judgment on one another (and thus usurping a role given only to God alone), and causing one another to stumble.
This passage makes it clear that Paul has no tolerance for judgment against the non-eaters, even if he considers them “weak”.  As early as verse 3 in this passage Paul puts forth the bluntest argument against such judgment; God has welcomed them.  You’re going to say God is wrong?  Of course, that usually isn’t how the one party views the other, is it?  One party somehow manages to convince themselves that God really doesn’t welcome the others.  They’re impure.  They’re wrong.  They’re evil.  And we need to throw them out. It’s amazing how many people are willing to do God’s job on God’s behalf. 
Paul goes on to point out in verse ten that God ultimately will do the judging.  He can’t be much clearer: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother and sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.  He then goes on to quote the prophet Isaiah, and reiterate that “each of us will be accountable to God.
We also see the problem with this kind of judgment as Paul continues; it is not only the sin of sitting in judgment on one another’s observance (as if usurping God’s role wasn’t bad enough), but to Paul, the truly offensive part seems to be “to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”  Here the burden really seems to be put on the “strong,” not to put a stumbling block in the way of the “weak” by, say, loading up on idol-offered meat in their presence. 
Now it’s a little odd to read this from Paul.  This is, after all, the same Paul who had some utterly devastating things to say to and about those in the early church who insisted, based on some of the same Jewish practices that served as foundation for abstaining, that new converts to Christianity should be required to be circumcised.  The things he says about them in his letter to the Galatians (and about the Galatians who fell for their spiel) were anything but polite or gentle.  They were, in some cases, quite vicious.  So what’s the difference?
In this case it’s not too hard to see.  Requiring circumcision of new converts was a way of putting a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of those converts, in this case a rather painful one.  In the case of the meat/non-meat factions, the stumbling block works a little differently.  For the “strong” to flaunt their particular practices before the “weak,” perhaps with a bit of ridicule included, was to pressure the “weak” to violate their consciences.  As Paul puts it in verse fourteen, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”  In Paul’s mind, anything that causes a brother or sister to stumble is not loving.  Love, which has been the main theme of the two chapters before this one, does not do wrong to a neighbor, even if that wrong isn’t “wrong” in your own conscience.  If Paul hasn’t made it clear enough yet, verse fifteen is unequivocal; “Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.
To be sure, this works the other way round.  The non-meat eaters have no business putting stumbling blocks in front of the meat-eaters in Paul’s estimation.  The “weak” don’t get to torture the conscience of the “strong” either.  In this case, the conflict can often be in the form of imposing rules or burdens on fellow believers that have nothing at all to do with the grace of God or the love of Christ.  William Loader, an Australian theologian, puts it this way:
Paul shifts the focus from honouring or dishonouring scruples, including those enshrined in scripture. Instead he puts Christ at the centre. Christ "rules" - to use a popular modern term. Christ is the point of unity. Paul's Christ is not standing there with a rule book ticking boxes, but with the marks of the cross and the mind of compassion. Love for people, valuing them, transcends differences on things like food and observance of days.

You would expect, with this kind of instruction, to find the “weak” and the “strong” to fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other in accommodating the other.  Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see that the church too easily falls short of such a goal, rather each side holding on to its “scruples” to the point of open war.  And these scruples can be over things of extremely small importance; the size or shape of a communion table, whether the pastor wears a white or black robe to preach, and even smaller trivialities.
Maybe the most damaging thing about this kind of petty quarreling is that when we get caught up in it, we fail to be aware of or to bear witness against the big stuff.  Look around the world.  Our headlines show us people – leaders, even – who parade their racism openly, even shamelessly.  The poor are blamed for their poverty, labeled as lazy or devious or criminal without regard to how many jobs they work to try to support a family on a minimum wage.  Christian leaders fall into these very same behaviors.  And we can’t get over the cloth on the communion table.
To the degree that we are so caught up in our minute scruples that we let raging injustices pass without a word of witness against them, we have separated ourselves from any kind of witness that connects to Christ.  We usurp God’s role as judge, we cause our sisters and brothers to stumble, and we let the abominations of the world go unchallenged while we bicker over miniscule things, the things that no less a figure than John Calvin would call “inessentials.”
Let us not be those people, sisters and brothers.  We have each other not to be scolds and nags and judges, but fellow members of the body of Christ.  We need to be joined together in love and grace to be a witness in a world that does not welcome our witness.  As Paul finally says of the kingdom of God, it is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” It is on us to lay aside those scruples that are a hindrance to our fellow followers of Christ, lest that righteousness and peace and joy pass us by while we’re arguing over the dinner table.
For righteousness, peace, and joy that transcend our judging, Thanks be to God. 



Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sermon: Living in Love

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
September 7, 2014, Ordinary 23A
(Psalm 149) Romans 13:8-14

Living in Love

Paul’s letter to the Romans is, at the minimum, a challenging chunk of scripture from which to preach.  Not that it isn’t worth the challenge, but its length – the longest of Paul’s letters to be included in the New Testament – means that with a writer and thinker like Paul, there’s going to be some convoluted structure involved, and topics you thought had been dropped chapters ago suddenly crop up again in unexpected places and take on wholly unexpected meaning and significance.
Something like that is what happens here in this last portion of chapter 13.  It is a good idea to remember here that after a long stretch of wrestling with Jewish law and its inability to eliminate sin – indeed, its susceptibility to sin itself – and a seeming digression on the ultimate fate of Israel, Paul has finally turned to the practical application of all his discussion of sin and law and salvation.  That was where we picked up two Sundays ago, beginning with chapter 12 and its remarkable two-verse introduction:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We have followed that track the past two Sundays, as Paul spelled out for his Roman readers what it looks like when we live together as the Body of Christ, living sacrifices, transformed by our minds being renewed.  Maybe you remember some of those characteristics; not thinking too much (or too little) of yourself, all of us bringing our particular gifts to bear in being the Body of Christ and using those gifts together with one another.  Last week we picked up on how it looks when that Body relates to each other with the world watching (loving one another un-hypocritically, showing honor to one another, being ardent in spirit, rejoicing in hope and enduring suffering with patience, taking care of one another’s needs, showing hospitality to strangers) and how that body relates to the world itself (with a strong emphasis on not taking vengeance on those who do us wrong).
Now because I’m sticking with the lectionary for this trip through Romans I end up skipping the first portion of chapter 13.  This passage, in which Paul discusses the proper comportment of believers towards the civil authority under which they lived – that is, the Roman Empire – is omitted from the lectionary, most likely because preachers don’t like to deal with it (don’t let any preacher tell you otherwise; as a lot we’re scared of it).  There’s reason to be leery of these verses; they have been sorely abused and misused by tyrants to justify their tyranny and to intimidate believers in their midst to go along with it.  Make no mistake: this interpretation is an abomination against scripture.  I am obviously not preaching on that passage today, so you may count me among the cowards if you wish, but let me make this much clear; any interpretation of the first seven verses of chapter thirteen which runs counter to everything else Paul has said in Romans up to this point, especially what has come before in chapter twelve, is a flat out misreading, whether deliberate or not. 
At any rate, by verse eight Paul has pivoted again and is about to drop a powerful three-verse conclusion on his readers and listeners.  In this concluding point Paul pulls off not only a summation of the whole instructional passage he’s just written, he manages the neat trick of bringing back something that had been left behind many chapters ago, and actually doing so in a way that works! If you’ve ever had any kind of extended writing or teaching to do, you know that’s not easy.
I’m not going to ask you how much you remember from the sermon I preached the first time I was with you in this congregation.  No, I really don’t expect you to remember, since I myself had to look it up.  It was on July 6, and the reading was from Romans 7.  In particular the scripture included the lament Paul poured forth about how even though he loved the law, his own flesh – his own sin-bound human nature – continued to live in sin and to be bound to sin, such that even the law itself was used to keep Paul mired in sin.  The whole passage came to a head with the exclamation “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? 
What we have before us today, all these weeks and chapters later, is the moment when Paul finally returns to the law, and shows his readers and listeners what it looks like to fulfill the law – not merely in rote reading or checking off do’s and don’ts, but in fulfilling the law.  And the key that unlocks that door, Paul says, is love.
It looks like a strange formation at first, as Paul begins by instructing the Romans to “owe no one anything.”  This does seem odd until one sees that verse 7 has wrapped up that section on relating to government authorities with the instruction to pay those authorities what is due to them.  From that statement about what Paul says we owe those in authority, it becomes natural to pivot from there back to what we owe each other, which sounds like it’s going to be “nothing.” 
Paul isn’t through, though; the verse continues “owe no one anything, except to love one another,” which is one of those simple-sounding statements that only blows apart everything about the way we live.
How does that work?  Now, of all times, Paul goes back to the law.  His own history with the law, remember, was particularly colorful.  As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless” he told the Philippians.  Advanced in Judaism beyond many of my people of the same age … more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” he told the Galatians.  Don’t forget that in chapter 12 he told the Romans “not to lag in zeal.”  But Paul’s zeal led him to become “a persecutor of the church,” as he also told the Philippians, no doubt with much pain and grief at the memory.  
Now, though, when he brings up the law, he does so in connection with love, because love is the way the law gets fulfilled. 
The love of God for fallen, sinful humanity is why God would not allow that fallenness and sin to keep us from being restored.
The love of Jesus, expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, is what destroys death’s power over us, allowing us to be restored.
And the love of the Holy Spirit enables us to receive that love from God and in turn live in that love with and for one another.
Pastor and author Frederick Buechner puts it this way:

Wherever people love each other
And are true to each other
And take risks for each other,
God is with them and for them
And they are doing God’s will.

In this case Paul brings up four specific commandments of the Ten that form the core of old Hebrew law: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet” – and sums them up with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  If that last sounds familiar, it’s because it is; Paul is going to no less a source than Jesus himself, apparently, as recorded in Matthew 22: it’s what Jesus calls the second great commandment, after loving God with heart, soul, and mind.
It makes sense, after all.  The four commandments Paul quotes are involved with relationships, and Paul has been instructing the Romans on how the Body of Christ relates to one another and to the world.  Now with the words we first heard from Jesus, Paul brings the law into fulfillment in love in a brilliant stroke: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” 
But in this stroke Paul does something else fascinating and challenging: he re-writes the definition of “neighbor” to include every possible relationship partner he has discussed already – both our fellow members of the Body of Christ and those living in the world outside of the Body of Christ are now swept up in the overriding word “neighbor.”  Just as before, even Paul, zealous follower of the law, ended up in sin, now any follower of Christ – any member of the Body of Christ, living sacrifice, transformed by the renewing of his or her mind – fulfills the law living in love towards the “neighbor.”

Warning: loophole not found

You might recall one of the parables Jesus told, touched off by the question “Who is my neighbor?”  In that case, the difficult parable Jesus told left the questioner with no choice to acknowledge a Samaritan as the neighbor of the man set upon by thieves – even if the questioner couldn’t bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”  Now Paul has already instructed the Romans about blessing their enemies and not cursing them, and not taking vengeance on another, and Jesus’s parable makes it clear that hereditary enemies are still “neighbors.”  For Paul’s Roman hearers and readers, “neighbor” could include both members of the Body of Christ and others not followers of Christ.  A Roman citizen could suddenly find himself shifting uneasily as he considered the possibility that his slave was now to be thought of as his neighbor.  An anti-Roman zealot might be chastened to realize that his neighbor was the centurion against whom he struggled.  There were plenty of possibilities for such upsetting of the social order in these sweeping words from the apostle who himself had been transformed from enemy to neighbor, even if God had to slap him blind for a while to get him to understand.
So who is that uncomfortable neighbor for us?  What are the barriers we build up against others that are swept aside in this commandment to love, in this call to be transformed by the renewing of our minds?  Let’s face it, we modern Americans are pretty good at building walls between us.  The walls might be border fences, or high-grown hedges with a brick wall hidden within, or simply miles separating us from any other habitation.  The ones we keep out might be members of another race, another religious group, another Christian denomination, or (especially in contemporary USA) another political party.  Or they might be in a whole other country.
Agnus Dei is a traditional text in Christian worship, dating back to very near the beginnings of the church itself.  In 1956, for the dedication of the Basilica of the Annunciation in the city of Nazareth (yes, that Nazareth), a young Arab composer named Yusuf Khill was asked to create a tune for that traditional text to be used in that dedication service, the tune we sang earlier in the service.  That request tied the Basilica to the community around it; not only Arabs, but also Palestinians and Israelis who had chosen to follow the way of Christ in a land already challenged by religious strife.  Those Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Israeli Christians, fellow members of the whole worldwide unbounded Body of Christ; those are our neighbors too.
A Reformed Christian missionary by the name of Tom Colvin served for years in a fairly remote northern region of Ghana, ministering to those in a land where Christianity was also a minority religion.  He found success in communicating to his listeners by setting the ideas he wanted to teach them to traditional tunes they already knew.  The years of effort to learn the language, to become a part of the community of the Chereponi region, and to gain the trust of the citizens enabled Colvin to find a language and a tune, that we will sing at the end of the service, that taught a provocative lesson; that neighbors are a gift of God, not merely to live next to or to be friends with, but to serve – even to the point of being down on their knees washing each other’s feet, turning old worldly relationships upside down.  These are our neighbors too. 
For neighbors to love and serve, Thanks be to God.


Hymns: (all from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): Brethren, We Have Met To Worship (396), Holy Lamb of God (Ya hamalallah, 602), My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing?, 821), Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love (203)