Love and Commitment
Let’s look closer at our children’s story today. We will see how our scripture from Matthew plays out in this school room encounter.
Cindy [Plain Wisdom: Cindy Woodsmall & Miriam Flaud] is the narrator. She is the author and is reporting an actual experience that she had as a child.
As she describes, her family moves out into dairy country when she was in the fourth grade. We can presume that up to this time she has lived in the suburbs of Washington, D. C. She is lonely and fearful of this new and strange environment. It can be quite intimating to live in a house with no neighbors in sight in a strange environment with a very different way of living and thinking.
Her ride on the school bus – probably her first ride ever on a school bus – was relieved only because she was with her brother. The boys on the bus were already whispering about her. When she gets to class these boys surround her.
Chances are they are as curious about her as she is of them. But they are living in what is probably a fairly isolated and self-contained community. They may have no or very little experience with children from a different, more urban environment. And in some way, this is an initiation: to find out whom she is and determine whether they wanted her in their closed, small children’s community.
But for a 9 year old their approach to her borders on bullying her. So she’s bombarded by questions and she tries to answer them. Each answer elicits another harsh come-back.
Then she is rescued by Luann who apparently has been attending the school for sometime. But she too is an outcast: an Amish Mennonite raised to behave very closely to Jesus’ teachings. Luann who must be around 9 years herself has learned her lessons well. She admonishes the boys quietly and politely. She is not aggressive, but she is not shy either. She challenges them like a child: What would your mother want of you?
Some of the boys desist. Others try again. And again she quietly and politely challenges them. Then she has the good sense to take Cindy away from the boys, to separate them. But Luann is still a child. She repeats what her mother would say about the boys: that they don’t mean to be rude. She’s not so sure about that but defers to her mother’s wisdom.
But most importantly and probably unintentionally Luann has an influence on Cindy. Cindy realizes that here is another child that like her is an outsider. But Luann is comfortable standing apart from the majority. She indeed has learned her lessons well … that it is more important to follow Jesus than to be part of the crowd. Cindy learned the value of responding calmly in a stressful circumstance while remaining polite and direct. She realized that just one person can make all the difference to determine whether a fight escalates or evaporates.
This story is no myth. It actually happened. So what magic did Luann’s parents wrought to have such a wise and calm child.
The Amish and Mennonites are very serious about following the gospels. They take what Jesus says and practices … literally in their everyday lives. And where do they start in living such lives?
The answer is in our passage from Matthew. When Jesus is asked what is the most important Law (i.e. the Law of the Old Testament), he answers, it is to love God with your whole mind, soul and heart. And he continues that the next most important is to love your neighbor as yourself. We’ve heard these two laws probably since childhood. But do we practice them? Indeed, how ought we to practice them?
Remember these are not sayings of Jesus. Jesus is quoting the Hebrew bible: the first and greatest commandment is from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second is from Leviticus 19:18.
Jesus helps us to understand where to begin: he tells us that everything follows from these two laws: every law, every tradition, every action. These are unbreakable laws. If we have a tradition, like the boys in our story, of testing a new person as to their fit in our community, where is the love in that? Do we embrace only those who are like us? Is that following the two great commandments? Or is following these laws closer to what Luann did and accept the stranger among them and embrace her with kindness?
And loving God is not some romantic, feel-good living. It is a commitment: a total commitment of our lives to live every day until the day we die following these rules. They are unconditional. There are no exceptions to these laws. There are no “if” statements in them. They are absolutes: Love God and love your neighbor. It’s quite simple to understand … and very difficult to follow.
Maybe loving God is easier than loving our neighbor. After all God is always good. It’s easier to trust and talk to God. Even if God talks back we can accept that we should be humble and listen. Maybe we will even learn to live better.
But loving our neighbors … well some neighbors are unlovable. Some seem to be downright evil. Yet we and our neighbors for good or bad are created in the image of God. We cannot love God without loving our neighbors. It is through our interactions with our neighbors that we show our love (or not) to God. And it is from these interactions that we will learn of God and what God expects of us.
Jesus spent much of his career teaching us to love our neighbor so we could love God. We’ve seen this in the parable of the Great Wedding and in the parable of the Vineyards. Jesus’ teaches us to live in the Kingdom of God and thereby love our neighbor and love God.
Luann in her childish innocence guides us as to how to put loving our neighbors in practice.
She practiced active listening: it’s when you really listen to what someone is saying and able to say it back to them in new words. She was a good listener. She heard what the boys were saying and how Cindy responded to them. From that listening she knew … maybe almost intuitively … what she could say to defuse the situation.
It is important that when we are in a confrontation that we take a deep breathe and listen … if we react just to the obvious and visible we very likely will miss what really underlies the confrontation. If someone is angry at you, for example, where is the anger coming from? Does it seem to come out of the blue? If so, maybe the speaker is struggling with something deeper that isn’t even about you. Or if someone is accusing you of something, what underlies the accusation? A misunderstanding? A bias against you and even against someone else projected onto yourself?
It’s hard to do this … it requires processing a conversation quickly. I for one am an “after thinker”. After a conversation I absorb it and process it. But in active listening at least some of that processing has to be instantaneously. But having done it you can be much more understanding and compassionate to the speaker… which can be surprising to the speaker, sometimes so surprising they will calm down.
And by the way, doing a bit of active listening on ourselves is helpful: where am I coming from by making this remark? Why am I angry at this person? And so forth. It often leads us to think before we speak.
But in order to do active listening, we need to understand, at least to some extent, the context of the speaker. Luann know these boys. She knew that they were from dairy farms and she probably had a history with them. She knew that deep down they came from good families. From that she could ascertain that invoking their mothers would make at least some of them to stop and think about what they were doing.
At likewise we
need to be willing to educate ourselves about our neighbors.
We should not be isolated but understand at least to some extent who are neighbors are and where they come from. A person’s history, culture, religion and upbringing have enormous impact on how they interact with others. To the extent possible we need to know our neighbors far and near. And if we can’t then we need to have the respect for them to give them the benefit of the doubt.
And maybe most of all we have to be willing to separate ourselves from the crowd. Luann coming from an Amish Mennonite upbringing grew up separate and took it as a natural way of living.
For us it is more difficult. Unlike her upbringing, we have chosen to be part of the larger world and society. We are moment by moment impacted by the bias and mores of our society. It becomes very hard to separate what society says is normal and right from what God says is normal and right. Yet we must make the distinctness and when the normal and right of society clashes with the normal and right of God, we must choose for God and stand separate from society.
Doing that will give us more thought and power to love our neighbors; which brings us the somewhat confusing last verse of our reading from Matthew.
Jesus asks the Pharisees who the Messiah is. And they say the son of David. By this they meant the descendant of David who they hoped would return in their life time to overthrown the oppressive Romans and set Israel free. Their vision of the Messiah was by and large the generally accepted vision: that the Messiah would be a conquering hero liberating Israel from its oppressors.
But Jesus pushes back with his somewhat convoluted statement about one of David’s psalms. His claim is that even David knew that the Messiah was not his descendant, but God … and Jesus took it further to say it was the incarnate God, which is himself.
But Jesus was no conquering hero in the way that the people thought the Messiah would be. Jesus was indeed a liberator. But he set out to liberate our souls and spirits from the oppression we and society imposes upon our spirits. Then by his claim political, social, and economic liberation would follow. First our spirits are freed to love our neighbor then social freedom will follow.
As Jesus said earlier in the passage: Loving God and loving you neighbor is the basis for everything. Do that and all else will follow.
At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses he will not cross into the holy land, but God does show him what a wondrous place it will be. Our following God’s law of love may not in our lifetime make the whole world into the Heavenly Kingdom. But by our faith we can know that we contributed, no matter how small, to the coming of love and peace and justice in the world for all people. And that is the divine fruit of loving God and neighbor.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …