The Problem With Neighbors
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: love, belief, baptism, behavior
The Church of Saint Augustine of Canterbury
Text: Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor;
therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
We need some good news, and by God’s grace we have it today. Holger is going to be baptized, unless he changes his mind because of what he’s about to hear; and we will have another fellow-Christian to be our companion in the work of bringing God’s kingdom in to God’s world.
Even better, this time we don’t have to wait until he grows up to see what we’re getting. He’s ready. He looks like he knows what he’s doing. And God knows we have work to do. So we have been given some of the good news we need, and he is sitting right there, wondering what happens next.
Well, that’s the bad news. Because after all this is over, after all of us along with Holger restate or baptismal vows, and after we receive him by water and the spirit into the Body of Christ, the church, then, well—then he has to love his neighbors as he does himself. He has to love you. All of you.
And my brothers and sisters, let me ask you: Do you think you’re so easy to love?
I’m quickly running out of the days on the calendar that I can still say I’m “new bishop.” I’ve been at this long enough now that when I come to Wiesbaden I recognize more than a few of you. I’m getting to know you. And beloved friends, I need to tell you—you may not be as lovable as you think you are.
Holger is taking a vow to love you when even when you are a little bit cranky about having to wear a mask. To love you even when he overhears you saying something not very charitable about someone else. To love you even when you may not think you need forgiveness.
He also has to love me, too. And that is even harder.
The Jesuits who taught my scripture courses described Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans as “sixteen chapters in search of room and board.” We think that all the other churches Paul wrote to—the churches in Corinth, or in Thessaloniki, or in Ephesus, or Galatia, or Colossae—he had a hand in planting.
But the church in Rome was different. They had come into being without him, and they owed him nothing. Yes, of course, they had heard of him; he had something of a reputation. And yes, they knew something of the other churches he had started to the East of them; communication worked pretty well in the Empire, even when it concerned underground communities.
But Paul had to prove himself to them. And in particular, he had to show that he had thought through some of the most difficult questions the earliest Christian communities had to wrestle with.
How do we take all these things Jesus said, all of these parables and teachings and images of he Kingdom of God, and make a community out of them? How do we translate all this beautiful teaching into the hard work of being a community of disciples?
What does it mean for us to be a community made up of different people—some who still think of themselves as Jewish, and some who never have been? How do we respond to a culture that demands we bow down to another God—one we know is a lie?
We have in this letter the only instance we know of of Saint Paul writing to a community he has never visited, made up of people he does not know, to address the hardest questions at heart of the early church. And here is the frightening thing for us, a hundred generations later: it all comes down to love.
Love! Not what you believe. Not what you know. Not what you feel. Not rules you had been taught.
Just this: God acted for us out of love, unconditional love. And we, in turn, are called to show that love to each other. That’s it.
It’s the answer to the question, what about covenant I had been taught? What about all of the ways I’d been taught to show I was being faithful to God?
The answer is, there is a spirit behind the letter of all that, a purpose behind the text; God gave us the old covenant to teach us how to love. All of that remains true.
What has changed is that God has come to live among us to show us, rather than tell us, what a life lived that way looks like.
What Jesus taught was not all that remarkable in its own moment. There were plenty of teachers in his day who came around to your village and offered a sermon calling people to renewed faith. And it was hardly new; in Jewish tradition there had been prophets stretching back to Abraham.
What was radically different about Jesus, history-changing different, was not so much what he taught, but how what he taught was exemplified and amplified by how he treated people—by how he behaved. By how he behaved toward those in power, and those without power. By what he honored in human beings, and by what he was clearly not impressed by. By how he didn’t just talk about love, but showed it—often in costly ways, at least in terms of reputation.
Holger, what you are signing up to today isn’t a list of things to believe. What you are signing up for, what all of us have signed up for, is a list of behaviors we have decided to commit ourselves to—a list of commitments we make to guide our actions, that we are willing not just to do but to be known by.
We all believe that going to the gym is good for us. But the way in which it is good for us doesn’t come about from our belief; it comes about by actually going and doing the exercise.
Now, it isn’t all bad, Holger. Because I hope you notice that with all of these words of mine I have also managed to remind all of these people in your new community that they have to love you, too. They may not like you; but they have to love you. They have to encourage you, forgive you, support you, welcome you, teach you, share their stories with you.
And you have to do the same with them. It won’t be easy. That is where grace comes in. Grace is like the oil in a rusty machine; it flows through us and into the hardened joints of our community, and makes all things new.
In fact—here is the best news, the most amazing news of all; if we take hold of the grace God offers us to live together as the church, if we just give our best selves to these commitments we’ve made about how to treat each other—if we just do that, the world around us starts to change, because of us.
This is a hard time for all of us to know how to be neighbors. We have all become strangers to each other. We are all behind these wretched masks. Have you noticed that you’re recognizing people more and more these days by the way they walk and not by the way they look?
And we are all a little afraid of each other. Yes, we miss seeing each other, but please don’t stand quite so close to me. Yes, we long to be out with our classmates and colleagues again, but we’re a little nervous when they aren’t on their circle while we’re on ours.
Forgiveness, forbearance, compassion, grace—these are the things our whole society needs to find its way through these days of disease, and distancing, and distress. But those are the things God has been equipping us with since Easter morning. Those are the things Christians are especially called not just to talk about, but to live out, especially when the people right in front of us aren’t right at that moment all that lovable.
There is a lot that isn’t lovable right now. It’s up to us to be God’s agents in showing the way of love ahead of us. We need you, Holger. So the candidate for Holy Baptism will now be presented.