Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
October 31, 2021
What the World Needs Now…
Mark 12:28-34 and Ruth 1:1-18
The man is tall and lanky. His hair is cut close to the scalp, buzzed short and spiky. He’s wearing black sweatpants, black face mask, a maroon hoodie. He sits hunched over in an airport chair, hands in his pockets. The headline: “Assault on Flight Attendant one of the Worst in Airline’s History.” It’s a little unclear what caused the fight – but it meant the plane made an emergency landing in Denver, and the man was taken into custody, the flight attendant went to the hospital, and the rest of the passengers and really the nation were left scratching our heads, wondering – what the heck is wrong with us?
There have been more than 4000 reports of unruly passengers on flights so far this year, ¾ of which relate to masks and the refusal to wear them. Our own Patrick has endured abuse and anger from passengers, simply for doing his job as a flight attendant for Spirit airlines. And this isn’t just on airplanes – restaurant workers, nurses and hospital staff, teachers, school administrators, and school board members have all seen a rise in bad behavior. It seems our common life has been struck by an epidemic of rudeness! Disagreements are devolving into physical altercations more often, and arguments are escalating more quickly. What is going on???
A flurry of articles point to the stress of the pandemic, saying that it’s pushed us into perpetual fight or flight mode. Time alone at home through the mess of the past year and a half has made us more selfish, warped our view of the world. A steady diet of Facebook and other propaganda has sown division, turned neighbors into enemies, and made us quick to assume the worst of each other.
This is, of course, the opposite of what we are called to do and be as people of faith, as Christ followers.
In this morning’s passage, Jesus and the scribes have been debating for a long while. The scribes are trying to trap him, to get him to say something for which they can bring him to trial. But then, something amazing happens: Jesus and a scribe find common ground! They agree that the Shma – Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength – this is the first and greatest commandment. And when Jesus proclaims the primacy of the second, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” the scribe agrees with that, too! You’re right, he says. Love is primary; it takes precedence over all else. Love is more important than the law. More important than temple worship and sacrifices. Our love for God is to be embodied: in our care for one another, our service, and our common struggle for justice. We love God because God first loved us; We show our love for God by loving one another.
This is not easy. Former moderator of the PCUSA Bruce Reyes-Chow often ends worship services with this charge: “Go forth to love God and love your neighbor. It’s just that easy, and it’s just that difficult.” And he’s right: Love requires reorientation: focusing away from ourselves, looking instead toward others, and seeking their well-being.
But you know what? I think if we look closely, we will see this kind of love played out every day, all around us – if we only have eyes to see it. It’s not the kind of story that makes headlines. It’s often much smaller and quieter than that. But it’s worth noticing, embracing, holding on to.
When I lived in Guatemala, my family’s land had a few adjacent neighbors. They weren’t very friendly with the people that lived closest to them. I can remember one day walking home after running errands with my host mother, Graciela, and my sister Yadira. Public buses would drop you on the highway, and there was a long walk up the mountain to get home. A neighbor was walking towards us with a big bucket of corn, on her way to the mill to grind the corn into nixtamal, so that she could use it to make tortillas. The road was rocky, and something caused the woman to drop the bucket.
Corn went everywhere.
Guatemalans are called people of maize because corn is the cornerstone of their diet. Their creation story has God creating humans out of an ear of corn. The corn that this woman dropped was surely going to make tortillas and tamales to feed her family. Now it was spread out across the road, ruined.
Graciela sat down her basket. Yadira put down her parcels. And without a word they stooped down in the dirt and began to help their neighbor pick up her corn. Every. last. kernel. Graciela had a fish in the pocket of her apron that she’d intended to fix for supper, and I remember thinking – she needs to get that fish into the refrigerator if I’m going to eat it! It took a long time. But they wouldn’t leave her until all of the corn was back in the bucket. Because that is what they would have wanted someone else to do for them.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. This is easy enough to figure out interpersonally, with your actual neighbors. I see it on my block, with the care we show for one another. I see it in the nurses and the teachers who keep showing up for work, even though they are exhausted, and overwhelmed by the demands of the past year. I see it in free community fridges and food deliveries established during the pandemic, neighbors helping neighbors so no one goes hungry. We’ll see it tonight, as we open our doors to our neighbors again and again, to share treats and celebrate as a community! In their theology of Halloween, the people of The Salt Project proclaim that the holiday shows us “what ‘neighborhood’ actually looks like… what better way to honor the dead, prepare to celebrate the saints, and enter together the darkest time of the year than to embody” love for one another with creative costumes, by opening our doors to everyone and offering and fun size Kit-kats for all?
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. In some ways it’s easy. But in our globalized world, it can be a lot harder to figure out how to truly love your neighbor when our neighbors are half a world away, connected through our economic choices, our energy use and its impact on the changing climate, our government’s policies, our shared humanity.
The Christian realist Rienhold Neibuhr, acknowledged this problem, observing that true love of neighbor is virtually impossible, given the complex relationships of modern life.
The TV show The Good Place riffs on this theme, offering a hilarious portrayal of the afterlife where as you might imagine, people end up in the Good Place or the Bad Place. One of the main characters, Chidi, is an ethicist who is convinced he ended up in the Bad Place because of his love for almond milk. He knew about the terrible environmental impact of growing almonds, yet he continued to drink it. Spoiler alert: the main characters discover that these days no one ends up in The Good Place because of how complicated our economic, political, and interpersonal relationships are.
This ethical conundrum means we must rely on God. Neibuhr says God enters in between the ideal of loving our neighbors and the reality of “clashing wills” that are part of human life. We need God’s help… to first inspire us see others as beautiful and beloved…made in the image of God. Then, to enable us to love others as we ourselves want to be loved –those who are different, who are strangers, who are sick, who are sinners – just like you and me.
We see this kind of love in the devotion of Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi – commitment which saves both of their lives. Without a husband or sons to provide for them, widows were vulnerable in the ancient world. Naomi tries to send Ruth away, back to her people, to unburden Ruth of her ties to an old woman. And besides, Ruth was a Moabite, her people were despised by Israelites like Naomi. They shouldn’t even have been in the same family at all. Yet – Ruth clings to Naomi, and ends up saving her – saving all of us, because Ruth is an ancestor of Christ.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself… it’s just that easy, and it’s just that difficult. It would be easy enough to retreat, to let the bad news rule the day, to succumb to the epidemic of rudeness and division. But Christ calls us to love. And when we risk relying on God to help us love one another… miracles happen. When we see God in others, we realize everybody is worthy of love and connection – we find healing and reconciliation. There is suffering and pain and longing for connection all around us. If we answer God’s call to show up with an open heart, and eyes open to see our neighbors with love, God will make all the rest possible. It could be the very thing that saves us.
MAY IT BE SO!
 Muntean, Pete, “Assault on Flight Attendant ‘One of the Worst’ in Airline’s History, American Airlines CEO says,” CNN, 10/28/21, https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/american-airlines-flight-diverted-denver/index.html
 Luscombe, Melinda, “Why Everyone Is So Rude Right Now,” Time Magazine, 10/15/21, https://time.com/6099906/rude-customers-pandemic/
 A Brief Theology of Halloween, Salt blog from The Salt Project, 10/18/21, https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/theology-of-halloween
 Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word, year B, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 264.