Scriptures: Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Mark 12:28-34
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
On the radio show, “Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor begins his weekly monologue, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown.” Well, we can’t say that about our hometown this week. It has not been a quiet week.
We watched a teen age orphan girl being thrown across the classroom by a police deputy for texting in math class. Well, that’s if your hometown is Columbia, South Carolina.
We’ve been told that U.S. military personnel have been sent in to Syria. Not our hometown, but the soldiers have hometowns across this land.
I don’t know how much good we can do in Syria when the military can’t control a surveillance blimp which was supposed to be guarding the government but got loose and was brought down in Pennsylvania after taking out power lines and wreaking havoc that affected lots of hometowns in the area.
There was the sentencing of a student from the elite St. Paul’s Prep School in Concord, New Hampshire convicted of rape. Evidently, the students were not just competing for top grades or coveted spots in Ivy League schools but the male students were competing for sexual conquests even raping their classmates to increase their score. And sadly, sexual harassment and rape are part of the reality of most hometowns.
We saw the wreckage of yet another boat filled with refugees in the Aegean Sea. Another tragedy involving people driven from their hometowns by violence and war.
And there was the presidential debate on Wednesday night. In some ways more scary than any fantasy horror flick because it was not Hollywood but our real live hometown.
And then closer to home, there was the execution of Jerry Correll on Thursday on behalf of the citizens of the state of Florida. There’s our hometown for you.
And we still know well Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hometown of racial strife, gun violence and disappearing jobs.
We seem to have plenty of horror happening these days Halloween not withstanding. It doesn’t take much imagination to conger an evil empire or a satanic realm.
In the scripture we heard this morning, the story includes what is almost like a little side comment from Jesus near the end of the encounter: “You are not far from the realm of God.” This is what Jesus tells the scribe who has come to him asking about the most important commandment. The scribe affirms Jesus’ response and even adds that love of God and neighbor is more important than religious observance and this from a religious official. And Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the realm of God.”
Now when we think back to Bible times, we may have an idyllic image of the simple life when people had time to devote to spiritual matters and when they had the inspiration of being in the presence of revered holy figures like Jesus. In our minds, it may seem like a fairy tale land: Long ago and far away. But the times in which Jesus lived were hardly a pastoral paradise though there were sheep and goats. Jesus lived in hard scrabble times. They were under the thumb of the Roman Empire which unabashedly used military might to threaten and intimidate to ensure cooperation from its subjects. The Roman Empire put the screws on economically. Taxes and fees were squeezing the everyday people into poverty. That’s what it was like in Jesus’ hometown.
And the religious community was hardly a beacon of hope or virtue. The religious establishment had succumbed to collusion and corruption. It’s hard to stay pure and committed under pressure as we know all too well. And Jesus is threatening the delicate balance exposing the complicity of the religious leaders.
It is in these life threatening circumstances, in this time of peril and danger, when the future, if you dare to think that far ahead, is dark, and when day to day existence is in question, that Jesus reminds people that the heart of faith is to love God and neighbor. Neighbor? When I can barely get by? When no one can be trusted? Love my neighbor? And this love Jesus was talking about was not some warm, sentimental feeling but love as proactive service, justice, and generosity. Love your neighbor means taking the part of your neighbor, next door in your hometown but also taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the stranger, the refugee, the enemy, and humanity as a whole. Yes, Jesus teaches love of neighbor, engaged service and self giving to others, at a time when daily survival was a battle and the future a threatening prospect. Love your neighbor. Do good to those who persecute you. Pray for your enemy.
Is this pie in the sky? Is this simply theoretical ethics? Is this otherworldly houha? Is it quaint arcane philosophy? Maybe Jesus can be expected to live by that code but the rest of us? This couldn’t be meant to apply to the complications and complexity we face today in our hometowns.
Yet Jesus knew what he was talking about. Love your neighbor. As yourself. Pray for those who persecute you. Love your enemy. Ah yes. When times are frightful and the future is imperiled and our hometown seems like the set for a horror thriller, that is just when the only sanity, the only solace, the only salvation, is in loving your neighbor. The worse the times the more apt the teaching. For when it is really bad the only thing that can keep you from going under is to live for others, to serve others, to save your life by loosing it in engagement with the wider world. To love your neighbor, to do good to a stranger, to help an enemy, this gives the very meaning and purpose and worth that the world it trying to take away. This preserves dignity and the sacredness of life when all around you life is askew, contorted, and twisted.
And if we look to sages throughout human development, we see the same truth shining through. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy tells us, “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” And Karl Menninger, a premier figure in 20th century American psychiatry, advised that when someone is down they need to find someone who needs help and help them. There are similar teachings in all the world’s religions and cultures. Get outside of yourself. Live for others. Serve. Do good. This is what saves. This is what grounds us and helps us to live with health and sanity and integrity in the midst of chaos and complexity.
Last week, I was in Orlando serving with the Florida Conference of the UCC. There was someone from the national staff of the UCC who was making a presentation at the Fall Gathering who needed to be picked up at the Orlando airport. I didn’t know the person, but I could go to the airport. I was told to be in the cell phone lot at the Orlando airport at 8:00 p.m. and I was given the name and phone number of the person I was to pick up. Before going to the airport, I mentioned to a colleague what I was going to do. She looked at me in a puzzled way. “Well, you’ve always been a risk taker,” she said. Well, to me, this was hardly risky even though this was not my hometown. I picked up the staff person with no problems and delivered her to the hotel.
Little did I know that was preparation. On the way home from Orlando, Saturday evening at about 7:15, I stopped for gas when I got off the highway here in my hometown, St. Petersburg. While I was pumping the gas, a man came up to me saying he needed to get back to Bay Pines where he is staying. Did I know where Bay Pines was? Maybe I wasn’t from around here, he said, since we were at a gas station near the freeway. The guy was in his 60’s, in shorts and a t shirt, clean, carrying a gym bag, with a story about how he had left his wallet on the bus. After hearing his story, I clarified, “So you are looking for a ride to Bay Pines?” “Yes.” I thought to myself, “Bay Pines? Really? What can I say, I live right near Bay Pines.” I heard myself tell the man, “I can take you to Bay Pines.” Honestly, what could happen driving across 54th Ave. N. from 275 to Bay Pines? Don’t answer that. So, the man looked at me. Then, he started talking about how it would be too awkward to get in the car alone with a woman, etc. and he backed out of the ride I just offered. He told me he would make another call and try to get a ride from a friend. My final comment was, “That’s up to you.”
I don’t share this because I think it was some heroic gesture. Many of you may think it was pure and utter stupidity. But looking back on it, I see that offering the man the ride was more for me than it was for him. It was a way of maintaining my dignity, not letting the forces of fear overcome me, not capitulating to the crazy world around us. The greater risk was to turn him down and to risk loosing my soul. Offering the ride was a way of holding on to my humanity and trying to live near to the realm of God in spite of the times and because of the times.
Love God – however you understand God – and love your neighbor; other human beings, made in the image of God, for whom you can embody love in service. Regardless of the surrounding circumstances, without full comprehension let alone assurances, in spite of the crazy times, maybe because of the crazy times, love your neighbor. This is what saves. This is what makes it possible to be near the realm of God even in our hometown. Amen.
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