Love Your Neighbor. Even THAT One.


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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

John 13:34-35

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

 

 

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As Colleen and I prepared to move to San Francisco as newlyweds in the mid-nineties, we thought we were ready for all types of neighbors. We drove up from Los Angeles allotting one whole day to find an apartment in one of most competitive real estate markets in the world. We bought a copy of The Chronicle, sat at the IHOP over on Lombard circling potential listings, then raced around the city all day. After quickly realizing that the Marina and Pacific Heights probably weren’t going to fit within our recent college graduate budget, we found a place on 20th Avenue in the Richmond District—on that same day. Though the apartment was insulated with World War II era newspapers, and was so damp that we could fill up a dehumidifier tank every few hours, it was ours.

All seemed well, until I learned about Jimmy the Neighbor. I came home one day to find a business card and a note sticking out of our mailbox. It was from Jimmy’s parole officer. My interactions with Jimmy were mostly positive. He set up makeshift garage sales almost every weekend, trying to sell treasures such as a broken fish tank and a rusty old weight bench. Though I didn’t buy anything, we made small talk and I just tried to be nice. After a few weeks, we started hearing shouting in the building. Jimmy apparently had quite a few drinks and was yelling through the walls at Steven, the neighbor who lived below us. Steven and his wife—based on the smells and smoke rising through the windows and floors—either had a pet skunk or perhaps a medicinal need that the pharmaceutical industry could not meet. Jimmy and Steven would frequently hurl insults back and forth through the walls, with Jimmy’s typically intense and threatening. Steven’s demeanor was a bit more laid back and peaceful for some reason. Nothing violent happened in our years in that apartment, but the persistent bickering was exhausting and terribly annoying. I debated whether to confront Jimmy the Neighbor, but I always remembered that parole officer’s card and didn’t want to end up as a victim on an episode of America’s Most Wanted.

Around this same time, we had started attending church and learning about the Christian faith. As I heard more about what is often referred to as The Great Commandment, including to “love your neighbor as yourself,” I found it hard to believe that I was obligated to “love” Jimmy. I felt morally superior to him and figured it was up to God and his parole officer to take care of him. Though we lived in the same building, I did not think of Jimmy as a neighbor in the sense Jesus intends.

His terribly annoying behavior continued for years. One night I worked late and was walking home from the bus stop. I was wearing a suit and carrying my laptop bag, tired after a long day. A rather large man started to rapidly walk directly toward me, and my fight or flight adrenaline started to kick in. I wondered whether he wanted to harm or rob me. Within seconds, another figure emerged from the darkness. We could see each other’s faces under the streetlights. The other man spoke: “Leave him alone. He’s cool. He’s my neighbor.”

I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but Jimmy turned out to be a great ally in a terrifying moment. Jimmy challenged my idea of what loving a neighbor meant.

In our Scripture lesson today, Jesus is speaking to his closest followers. By this point, he has already modeled God’s love by associating with people society deemed unworthy, including tax collectors and prostitutes. (Had Jimmy been alive, I’m sure Jesus would have invited him to dinner) He has healed and fed without requiring people to complete 14-page intake forms. As a result, Jesus was considered unruly, unclean and threatening to religious and government authorities seeking to maintain order.

When Jesus says, Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” in John 13:34, he isn’t talking about doing so only when it is easy. In fact, within the context of the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus knows that everything is going to change for him.

The chapter begins by revealing that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” (John 13:1) We learn that Jesus knows that Judas will betray him, making a deal that would lead to his death on the cross.

And how does Jesus respond?

He gets down and washes his disciples feet—including Judas, as far as we know. This was something that leaders of higher status were simply not supposed to do. Peter is stunned, telling him that Jesus should never wash his feet. Afterward, Jesus explains his actions. I invite you to read John 13:12-17:

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Jesus used the seemingly simple—and admittedly dirty—act of washing feet to illustrate God’s love. Feminist theologian and biblical scholar Sandra M. Schneiders writes that “Every act of service, however ordinary, because it consists in preferring another to oneself, is essentially an act of self-gift and, therefore, expression of love . . .”[1] Schneiders observes that the Gospel of John “. . . Shows little interest in the institutional aspects of ‘Church,’ a word we do not find in this Gospel,” going on to explain that titles do not matter in this community: “On the contrary, the only preferential status is closeness to Jesus, and that is equally open to men and women, Samaritans, Gentiles, and Jews. This seems to have been a thoroughly egalitarian community.”[2]

Jesus did not provide any qualifiers for loving one another.

He loved to the point of washing the feet of Judas.

How could he do that?

Maybe it was because he took the time to understand where Judas was coming from.

While Judas is often dismissed as one of the villains of the Bible who sold out God incarnate for thirty pieces of silver, it is much more complicated than that. Numerous faith thinkers through the years have wondered whether Judas shared the expectations of many religious people of the time–that the true messiah or savior would arrive and restore order in a militaristic fashion that everyone could experience first-hand. Instead, he had been following a person who constantly seemed to break the rules and demonstrated no desire or capability to overthrow the Roman authorities. The leader Judas had envisioned would not wash the filthy feet of some fishermen and other common folk, yet Jesus did just that.

Jesus knew this. Jesus knew Judas would betray him.

Judas had a backstory that we don’t know much about, but Jesus did.

Jesus knew his heart. He loved him. And he tells his followers, including us, to love one another as he has loved us.

Whether you commute to Calvary from the suburbs, sleep on the streets, or live around the corner from the church, Jesus challenges us to redefine the notion of neighbor. He calls us to see all people as neighbors. Especially in a city like this, that is incredibly difficult.

Even if you don’t have a neighbor like Jimmy, we all have the people who drive us nuts. Those people who don’t clean up after their dogs. Those people who put a plate that is clearly compostable in the landfill bin. Those people who watch that other channel that dares to call itself news. Those people who just stand on the street asking for money and aren’t trying to get a job. Those people who are nothing like me . . .

Soon-to-be Saint Mother Teresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

Last month while riding BART, a man stood in the middle of the train and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention.”

He stood there in silence for about 30 seconds as the passengers—including me—continued to look at our phones and devices.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you,” the man said. “I just want to give you some encouragement to treat others how you want to be treated as well.”

He paused for a while longer.

“I just feel so invisible.”

At this point, most of us put down our phones.

The man talked about how he was trying to get some food, and how he understood why people would be hesitant to help.

He stood there in silence, still feeling invisible.

One young man gave him a box of granola bars. Another woman gave him a banana. Another young couple that appeared to be carrying most of their belongings in backpacks gave him a roll of quarters.

The man named Theo smiled and said the people were the first to acknowledge him.

When we do something that makes in invisible person feel visible and loved, we following the command of Jesus to love one another.

As the old saying goes, we are surrounded by people who are fighting battles we know nothing about.

Someone sitting near you has been dealing with chronic pain or depression so long they don’t talk about it, and will probably say “fine” when you ask how they are doing.

Jesus sees you and loves you.

Many here today have lost loved ones and are processing grief as best they can.

The person who seems to be critical of everything you do might have had a parent who didn’t ever really offer praise, and perhaps their parents were the same way.

Jesus sees you and loves you.

Some of our students are struggling with classes and freaking out about college or grad school, with some feeling truly overwhelmed.

More people than you realize are sitting next to others who support a different political party or candidate, even though we’re in San Francisco and assume people are like-minded.

Jesus sees you and loves you.

Jesus knew that Judas and numerous others had serious issues, and he still chose to love them.

Though the Presbyterian Church doesn’t technically have saints, Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers Neighborhood would have to be one of them.

Mr. Rogers says, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

Amen.

[1] Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, rev. ed. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), 198.

[2] Schneiders, 60.

 

 

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