Happy back to school season! I want to do a little thought experiment right now. Think back to your senior year of high school. Remember the location, your friends, your classes, your teachers, your after school activities… and now imagine—because I assume you probably don’t remember firsthand—what you did after school on the second day of class. Maybe you drove home with friends, maybe you had soccer practice, band practice…
This week I was corresponding with a friend who is a priest at an Episcopal congregation in Westchester County, where about half her parishioners are undocumented. On Tuesday, when the elimination of DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—was announced, a 17 year old member of her youth group came to her to tell her for the first time that she was undocumented, and has been going to all her court dates without a lawyer. So on that girl’s second day of the school year—Wednesday—she came to church after school to fill out paperwork in the hopes of avoiding deportation. Her final hearing is scheduled for January 2.
That’s a lot different from my second day of senior year in high school. Her concerns are vastly different from my concerns when I was 17.
Paul writes to the church in Rome today, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
What does it mean to love our seventeen year old neighbor in Westchester? What does it mean to do wrong to her? And what are we called as Christians to do?
The introduction to the most famous parable of all, the Good Samaritan, is “Who is my neighbor?” And the story depicts what it means to love our neighbors: we do not pass them by; we help them when they need it—at our own cost, and regardless of whether they are one of “our” people or not. This is so central—and so challenging to the hearers of Jesus—that he harps on it again and again. And Paul picks it up too, here and elsewhere. One of the ways in which we enact our love of God—the first commandment—is by loving our neighbor here on earth—the second commandment.
We’re having a positive crash course in what it means to be a neighbor in our response to the hurricanes the last two weeks. There I think we see much of the best of the understanding that everyone is my neighbor—if you’re in need of rescue, you don’t care what the politics or race or religion or immigration status is of the person who is rescuing you. And if you’re the person in the boat doing the rescuing, you aren’t checking those things either—you’re doing your best to save the life of your neighbor. These are the moments that I feel like we do see our neighbors, in Paul’s words, “putting on the armor of light, and laying aside the works of darkness.” Whether it’s the furniture store owner who let people sleep in his store, or the undocumented EMT who died saving victims of Harvey, there are such stories of compassion and love in action. And the church—a community of neighbors who have a particular relationship, responsibility towards one another, is being the church. Sarah Condon went through the ordination process here 7 or 8 years ago; her husband Josh is the Rector of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Houston. Holy Spirit is now up and running, hosting teams from other churches to go out and muck out flooded homes, providing child care for the adults who are out working, and being the church. Episcopal Relief and Development will be in Houston and in Florida as long as it takes to get our neighbors back on our feet. Neighbors loving neighbors through concrete action.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to love my friend’s parishioner this week, and others in similar situations—she isn’t technically a dreamer, because she hadn’t enrolled in the DACA program, but she stood a chance of staying in the US with DACA in existence, and summed up her desires to my friend, who said, “All she wants is to go to high school and not die.” Now the odds of her staying here, instead of having to go home to Honduras where her family was threatened by violence and starvation, are slim.
But she is my neighbor. She is my neighbor because she is a human being, but she’s an even closer neighbor because she is geographically close to me, and because she’s an Episcopalian. She is one of us. Us/them language can be dangerous in talking about groups of people, but human beings need some boundaries—and some borders—as ways of holding ourselves together. They are porous, and not solely definitive, but they help us find our common identity with people who may not have other things in common. I may not speak the same language as a person; but we share a church, and that helps me see them. I may not share a political party with someone, but we share a common national identity, and that helps me see them as my neighbor. I may not share a culture with someone, but if they are a mother, we share that identity, and it helps me see them as my neighbor. And each of those expansions of our identifying neighbors are paths to the true answer to the Pharisee’s question to Jesus of “Who is my neighbor?”: Everyone.
Loving your neighbor does not mean that we must always agree, or that we must not have conflict—the Gospel passage today is testament to that. If someone has wronged you—go bring it to their attention one on one. If that doesn’t work, get another church member to witness your conversation. Conflict and disagreement in communities is natural, and not to be avoided or ignored. But then there’s the kicker: if even THAT doesn’t work, then let that person be to you as a “Gentile and a tax collector.”
Let them be to you as a tax collector—the people who were traitors to Israel by being perceived as oppressive and dishonest stooges of Roman tax collection. And Gentiles—foreigners, non-Jews, unclean people.. If someone is creating a problem, not following the rules of the community, let them be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Let them be unclean and shunned.
Except: who were Jesus’ followers?
Yeah. A bunch of Gentiles and tax collectors.
Let that one be to you as… a Gentile and a tax collector, who are: your neighbors. Who you have to love.
Who is the neighbor you find it easiest to love? How do you show that love to them? How do you practically enact it?
Who are the neighbors you find it hardest to love? How do you do them wrong? How could you be more loving—move your love of neighbor from a concept to a reality?
We all have Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. They are hard to love. They don’t deserve our love; often they don’t want our love. Our active love for them includes the gentle but firm community correction and accountability described in the Gospel. But it is rooted in love, not hate. And it does not allow for us to say, “I have no need of you.” When our relationships with our neighbors are in a state of brokenness, the kingdom of God is broken and in need of healing, which is difficult work. But if we do not want to grow in loving our neighbors, if we do not want to grow closer to Jesus by doing the very thing he repeatedly commanded us to do: then why are we here?
I know I will probably find it easier to love that 17 year old neighbor in my friend’s congregation, than I will find it to love a lot of other people. As her story progresses, I hope I get updates, and if she needs a group of people to go with her and support her as she meets with authorities, I hope I will be there. Because love is active. There is a wonderful quote by Father James Otis Charles Huntington, OHC, the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, the Episcopal monastic community, “Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn.” May our love shine and burn like light and fire.