Not Far from the Realm of God

The scribe has been listening as others offer Jesus test questions that are actually traps. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one…. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The scribe listens as Jesus, like a chess master, sees four moves ahead of those posing the questions and deftly sidesteps all their attempts at checkmate.


So he steps forward with his own question, and this time it is not a trick. No buttering up, no hidden agenda, except perhaps to help his own colleagues see that Jesus is not the enemy. He says, “Jesus, which commandment is the first of all?”


And Jesus gives him the first two commandments, because they are related: Love God with everything you have, all the time; and love your neighbor as yourself. These are both from the same Hebrew scriptures that the scribe has studied all his life. The commandment about loving God comes from Deuteronomy 6, which we read this morning. It is called the shema, which is the Hebrew word for “hear,” as in, “Hear O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone.” And then he cites the second greatest commandment, which is in Leviticus: Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). If we recall that the divine is in everything and everyone—in you, and you, and you, and me, and all of creation—then we see how loving our neighbor is also loving God. If we truly love God, then we will love all of God’s creation. And if we truly love each other, we are also loving the divine that is in each one of us.


A month ago, Rick Russell preached on Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches that our neighbor can be anyone, including people we think of as “other,” as the Jews thought of their enemies the Samaritans. Our neighbors are people who differ from us in religion, in political affiliations, in age, in sexual orientation, in physical or mental abilities, in education and income levels, in skin color, in ethnic background, in gender identification, and on and on. Our diversity is our strength. It is something to celebrate. It is our opportunity to stretch and grow, to learn from each other’s gifts and experiences, to hear and witness each other into beloved community.


There are at least three ways in which love of God and love of neighbor is coming up for us in recent weeks: shootings, a caravan of immigrants, and the midterm elections.


A week ago yesterday, a man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh during a morning worship service and opened fire, saying he wanted to kill all the Jews. Eleven people died and others were injured in what is being called the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. In that same week, a different man tried to get into an African-American church near Louisville, Kentucky. When he found the doors locked, he went to a nearby Kroger’s supermarket and killed two African Americans, Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones. Around this same time, we were hearing about pipe bombs showing up in the mail addressed to the Obamas, the Clintons, and other key critics of the current administration. And this is just a sampling of the violence in recent days directed toward the Other: people of a different religion, race, or political party.


There are so many killings, so many tragedies. Today we are lifting up the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue, not because they are unheard of, but because they break our hearts anew. And because this tragedy reminds us of all that is broken in our society when we do not follow these two commandments: to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.


At least seven of us from Prospect turned up at the vigil on Monday evening at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, about a mile from here. I asked those who attended the vigil to send me their thoughts. One person wrote,


I thought I would feel better if I attended the vigil last night at Temple de Hirsch and we did [attend] but I don’t [feel better]. I’m starting to realize hatred isn’t something we are ever going to overcome but is part of the flawed human fabric. Maybe there is no winning but only the battle, forever and ever, and if we don't participate, we lose our humanity.


“If we don’t participate, we lose our humanity.” Exactly. Our hearts break every time a tragedy like this occurs, and if they didn’t break, we should be worried. As hard as it is to bear witness to such loss and pain, over and over, it keeps us real. It reminds us how precious life is. And that no one is immune.


Another person was more heartened by the gathering:

My specific takeaway from last night was how large the gathering was and how many young people were there and how diverse looking the gathering was. It was a multicultural, intergenerational assembly for peace.


And another said this:

I sat beside a retired Jewish couple; she had been a kindergarten and early childhood education teacher. On the other side of me were a gay couple who were there to pay forward the community’s support and love during the emotional aftermath of the Pulse massacre. “We have to show up for each other,” one said to me.


I was overwhelmed when Kelly Brown began her oration by singing the third verse of Lift Every Voice and Sing—offering sorrow and love and support and hope from one oppressed group of humans to another. It was part of the way this event linked this particularly Jewish tragedy—a horrific example of what anti-Semitism looks like—to all oppressions. As my neighbor said, “We have to show up for each other.”


At the end, my neighbors and I hugged and blessed each other.


Her neighbors. This is what being a neighbor looks like. Perhaps you recall the quote by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. []


We are all in this together. Divided we fall. But united, we stand for and with each other.


Another Prospect member who attended the vigil at Temple De Hirsch Sinai said this:

This shooting ripped up my whole world. I was just raw. I had to go to this event. The space was so holy, filled with light. There was so much healing for me just being in front of those musicians and the rabbi playing the guitar.

I’ve never claimed my Christianity. My baggage was let go in this tragedy. I am of Christian descent and I say no to this tragedy.

I sat in front of this lovely Muslim spokeperson. She’s powerful in the Muslim community—powerful speaker, standing up and speaking with the other clergy. At the end all the clergy came up and sang together—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, everybody.

I showed up. I did something that made a difference. I needed that closure. It was a sense of closure that I wasn’t just going to weep but to bring my heart. That’s what we need in this nation: to see each other’s heart. And when these things happen, we can either be closed, or we can be open. That temple was so open.


“We can be closed, or we can be open.” We can show up, bring our hearts, see each other’s heart.


Jesus says the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We must think on these commandments at all times. Keep them in your heart. Think of them when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on your hands and foreheads, because there will be times when it will seem easier to hate. Recite them. Teach them to your children. Post them on your gateposts and doorways. Post them as yard signs for all to see: “In this house we believe love means love.” These commandments are that important. Steep yourself in them all day, every day.


Why do this? Why repeat these commandments to love? So that when tragedy occurs, we know how to be with each other. We know how to let our hearts break open. We know how to show up for each other across boundaries, across what are supposed to be divisions.  


Why do this? Because, frankly, there are those currently in leadership in this nation who are hell-bent on teaching us to live in hate and fear. They are trying to divide us, have us fight with each other. If we fear and hate the immigrants who are legally seeking asylum at our borders—as many of our ancestors did not too many generations back—then maybe we won’t notice that our health care is being defunded, or our national parks are being fracked, or the rich are getting way richer while the poor and middle class are losing ground. If we live in fear and hate, we can more easily be manipulated, because we’re not communicating across boundaries anymore. We are told, “Black people? Don’t trust them. Arabs? They are all Muslim jihadists. Mexicans? Rapists and drug lords, every last one.”


Don’t believe those lies. When we practice love by getting to know our neighbors, we find out we’re all just human beings, creatures of God.


In a New York Times article on the threat of white nationalism, Janet Reitman writes,

According to a recent report by the nonpartisan Stimson Center, between 2002 and 2017, … [t]errorist attacks by Muslim extremists killed 100 people in the United States…. Between 2008 and 2017, domestic extremists killed 387 in the United States.” [Janet Reitman, “U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How to Stop It.”’t-know-how-to-stop-it/ar-BBPib4g?ocid=spartandhp.]


Some say that preachers shouldn’t talk about politics. I’m wondering if they checked out Jesus’ role model? He preached about justice all the time. He pushed back against the religious and the political leaders, because they had all gotten into bed with each other. They were one and the same. The temple was collecting people’s taxes.


If people really paid attention to the teachings of Jesus, they would see that gathering to worship and to follow in Jesus’ path becomes a radical, countercultural act.

Jesus healed the sick—free health care for all, especially those who can’t afford to pay.

He fed the hungry—free food.

He touched the untouchables—inclusion for everybody, no one left on the margins or “otherized.”

He taught the unteachable—public education for all.


Dom Helder Camara wrote, “When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are hungry, they call me a communist.” Following the path of Jesus rocks the political boat.


These violent attacks that are spreading like a virus throughout our society are political in nature. They are about guns and our easy access to them. They are about some white men feeling threatened and afraid and striking out in retaliation. They are about politicians too afraid to take on a powerful gun lobby. They are egged on by political leadership that spouts hate and fear and then takes no responsibility for this kind of outcome.


By no later than Tuesday, we have the privilege of voting in the midterm elections.

If we choose not to vote, it’s the same as voting for the side that opposes whatever you favor.

I will never tell you who to vote for, but I will say what to vote for: Vote for love—not hate, not fear.

Vote for justice, which is what Cornell West says love looks like in public. Let me say that again: Justice is what love looks like in public. So vote for justice.

Vote for clean water, clean air, public education, protections against fossil fuel companies spilling oil in our waterways.

Vote for those who support affordable health care for everyone.


Speaking out for love and justice is a highly threatening act to those in power. When you are busy oppressing people and trying to instill fear in them, the last thing you want is an outbreak of peace and love.


It is time to say Enough. This rhetoric of hate and fear is oppressive and dangerous. It is costing lives. It is stirring up hateful behavior that some people think is now acceptable in public.


We will not assent to live in fear. We insist on seeing our fellow human beings as human, whether they are from a different country, whether they have a different color skin, whether they are transgender—you saw, yes, that the whole category of transgender is in danger of being defined right out of existence? We insist on air that is clean, water that is drinkable, emissions that are decreasing, a planet that is livable.


We insist as well on standing together, especially in the face of tragedy that breaks our hearts. Jesus and the scribe found common ground in love of God, neighbor, and self. They reached across boundaries to make an authentic connection. That’s the model we follow as well.


On Monday night we did it. So many of us turned out for this vigil that they had to hold a second vigil outside just to accommodate all of us. And as we stood there in the dark, we sang about light. Back in the day, people used to hold up their lighters. This time, everyone took out their cell phones and turned on the flashlight. I invite you to do the same right now. And what had been a dark night became bathed in light. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” So let us be beacons of love, holding our hearts and our lights high as we sing darkness into light. Amen.


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