Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Across Our Generations

The readings for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost are II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Our Collect of the Day reminds us that central to our relationship with God is how we treat our neighbors. To keep all the commandments of God is first to love God, and then to love our neighbors. When we offered this prayer, we acknowledged that this central work of our lives as human beings requires the grace of the Holy Spirit so that we may be devoted to God with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.

And who is my neighbor? That question drives one of the most famous parables in the New Testament, the story of the Good Samaritan. We’re going to explore that parable in our 9:00 a.m. series, next Sunday. A well-known hymn from Ghana, faithful to the point of the parable, sings,

“Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you.
“Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washes their feet,
Master who acts as a slave to them.
“Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white,
neighbors are nearby and far away.
“These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should
All are neighbors to us and you.
“Loving puts us on our knees, serving as though we were slaves;
this is the way we should live with you.”

“Look, we are your bone and flesh.” So spoke some of the tribes of Israel who gathered around David as the kingship of Israel passed into his hands. To my ear, that sounds as though they felt they had to convince him—or one another—that all the tribes of Israel were actually neighbors and ought to treat one another so. Indeed, David makes a covenant with them, harnessing their desire to be united; then they anointed him their king.

We know from our own bloody history as a nation that it is no easy matter to keep a federation of states united. That requires a vision of the common good that transcends regional interests, a high-enough mission that tribal rights—or states’ rights—are balanced and sometimes trumped by the requirements of national unity. America is being tested on that front as Congress struggles with major environmental legislation: the desire to become a better neighbor in the community of nations, cleaning our carbon emissions, runs up against the outcry from coal-producing states demanding that their economy be protected. This week, pray for our legislators, that they find courage.

Being neighbors isn’t easy. You might say that the history of the human race shows us trying to get better at this, and in general succeeding.

In a review of Robert Wright’s new book “The Evolution of God,” Paul Bloom notices that “Wright gives the example of the God of Leviticus, who said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and he points out that this isn’t as enlightened as it may sound, since, at the time, ‘neighbors’ meant actual neighbors, fellow Israelites, not the idol-worshippers in the next town. But still, he argues, this demand encompassed all the tribes of Israel, and was a ‘moral watershed’ that ‘expanded the circle of brotherhood.’ And the disapproval that we now feel when we learn the limited scope of this rule is itself another reason to cheer, since it shows how our moral sensibilities have expanded.”

The tricky thing about neighbors is shown in our Gospel: familiarity can breed contempt. One family may disapprove of how another raises their children… disputed property lines send some neighbors to court… then there are wandering goats, chickens, dogs, cats… Good fences good neighbors may make, but all around them there’s room for misunderstanding and disapproval even when neighbors respect boundaries.

Today, Mark tells the story of when Jesus came to his hometown, Nazareth, and began teaching in the synagogue of his childhood. This is not the Jesus his neighbors knew of old. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?” they asked among themselves, as they puzzled over his parables that were so fresh and riveting, not like the sermons of their rector… I mean, their rabbi.

Well, it didn’t take but a few moments for that admiration to degenerate into what sounds like jealousy. “Is not this the carpenter, Mary’s boy? You remember his brothers, who doesn’t remember them, and aren’t his sisters still here in town?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus replies, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” So he could do no powerful deeds there, though he did lay his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

Not without honor, except in their own house. I remember that one day I read this Gospel to an older parishioner who was living with a chronic illness. She sat across from me, and when I read those words I heard her say, “Yes, that’s right.”

The Gospel got her talking. “My grandchildren don’t know what to make of me now. I was always active, and we did so many things together. Now I play cribbage and tell stories from the past, and they aren’t so interested. Some of them are, some of them aren’t ready for what I can give them this way.” More than a touch of sadness hung in the air, though she wasn’t the type to dwell on it and soon moved on.

But not without reminding me that within families, just as between families, we need familiarity to breed respect and appreciation. And these are dynamic powers, not passive submission but active, inquiring, considerate openness that allows us to be united to one another with pure affection. Those are the same powers it takes for neighbors to be neighbors, the powers of respect, appreciation, openness.

This dear woman got me thinking about choices we have when we are given the gift of someone who is, or has become, other than we are. We can dwell upon the differences and let them separate us, or we can discover common bonds and build shared experience. We can measure what appears to be missing, or dare to enjoy, learn to enjoy, what’s there between us.

This Gospel got her talking about how the young in her family seemed to be seeing her in her old age and reduced freedom. It’s within the power of the Gospel also to get the church talking about how adults see and treat children and teenagers and young adults. How our choices are to dwell upon differences and let them separate us, or discover common bonds and build shared experience; measure what seems to be missing, or dare enjoy all there is to enjoy.

To choose that is to build neighborhood among generations. That is at the heart of every congregation’s mission, and is the driving force that gives a congregation its future.

As we search for a new Youth Minister, our best preparation will be to welcome each opportunity each of us will have to build the neighborhood of pure affection across our generations.