Mark 12:28-31; John 4:7-15, 27-30, 39-42
The Rev. Tom Herbek
January 27, 2019
Jesus crossed all of the boundary lines of his day. He just didn’t notice – or didn’t care – that what he was doing was not what “the good people” did. He spent time with “those people” in his society. Jesus understood that those parts of us that predominate are those parts that we nourish. Even though Jesus said that: “The kingdom of God is within you”, that part of us will not come out unless we nourish it. So many people have not done much to nourish this side of who we are. But, in many ways, it is a very simple process.
As William Sloan Coffin once wrote: “Am I my brother’s keeper? No, I am my brother’s brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize.” This recognition of our common bond as people, regardless of our race, our ethnic background, our nation, our group identity, is a large part of what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”
In a wonderful sermon called “The Man Who Was a Fool,” Dr. Martin Luther King most eloquently stated it:
In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
It is now over 50 years since Dr. King said these words, and 2000 years since Jesus tried to help us understand our interrelatedness. Yet, how often we find ourselves forgetting or ignoring this truth.
Jesus reached out to women and men, Samaritans, rabbis, Gentiles, tax collectors, collaborators with Rome, freedom fighters, rich and poor, slaves and free, …, across all of the boundaries of his society. Jesus saw diversity as a strength, not a threat. Our world is filled with extraordinary diversity. Yet, even in our wonderful diversity, we must not forget our common bond and our common destiny.
Diana Butler Bass spoke with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who says that African Christianity may help us better understand the biblical vision of diversity. Tutu explains that Africans believe “a person is a person through other persons.” Fundamental to our humanity is that “we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation.” Tutu says, “The truth is we need each other. We cannot survive and thrive without one another.” He continues:
“In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian– all belong…. God’s dream wants us to be brothers and sisters, wants us to be family. In our world, we can survive only together. We can be truly free, ultimately, only together. We can be human only together, black and white, rich and poor, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jew.”
Having seen this, having heard this, and somehow deep down, believing this, why do we revert back to those things that separate us from one another? I believe that it often has to do with what Jesus said about the greatest two commandments.
When asked what commandment was first in importance, Jesus said: “to love God”, and the second is “to love our neighbor as ourself.” The major problem with all of this is, for many people, a deep-seated difficulty in being able to love ourselves.
I believe that Jesus is saying that, until we love others, we cannot love ourselves, but I also believe that Jesus is saying that, until we love ourselves, it is almost impossible to love anyone else. The reason is that, instead of loving them, we may try to use them as a tool to help us in our own lack of self-worth. But it doesn’t work.
If we believe that we are unlovable, we may try to gain more self-worth in several ways. We may try to find it in our clan or tribe, our race, our ethnic identity, our national residence, our religious affiliation. We may try to grow our esteem out of these particular parts of our identity.
And that would perhaps be alright, except that, as with most things, we may tend to carry it to extremes. In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball describes what happens when we focus solely on our own religious group for our sense of self-esteem: “Concern for the well-being of one’s religious community is normal. The positive impulse can turn negative when group identity is defined in ways that dehumanize people outside the community; the ‘other’ is seen not as a person but as an object posing a threat.”
I believe that the root cause of much prejudice is often this misguided attempt to feel good about ourselves by stereotyping other religious or racial or ethnic groups as less worthy than we are.
Whenever we lump people together by something other than our common humanity, whenever we practice prejudice, we not only hurt those we target, we hurt ourselves.
So how do we cross over the boundaries that we seem to be so talented at setting up between people? Sometimes others will help us by being very creative in the way that they teach us about each other’s humanity. Martin Luther King, even though he saw so much ugliness leveled at him and so many other people because of the color of their skin, still believed that healing and growth were possible:
We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered people have torn down, other-centered people can build up.
We never know where or when the opportunities to cross over the boundaries will present themselves to us. But we must all cross over the boundaries of prejudice and hatred at every opportunity. Dr. King once stated it this way:
The oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.
Somehow, we must begin to cut off the chain of hate, to love in new and creative ways: to love God with our entire being, to know that we are loved by God and we can then love ourselves, and to know that so is every other person on this planet, and then we are able to love our neighbors.
When we love ourselves, accepting God’s love of us, then we can reach out in love to others, no matter how different they may seem to be from us, at least at first.
And then we find that we are not our brother’s keeper, but our brother’s brother, our sister’s sister. And then we realize that crossing over the boundaries that have been created is both our calling and our greatest opportunity as people of God.
What are the boundaries that we will be called to cross in the months and years to come? I am not sure, but it will happen, and it may feel uncomfortable, at first. And we will have to be alert to the call, and we will have to help each other when it is uncomfortable for us, and we must remember that we can make a difference for those who will follow in our steps.
My ardent hope is that, whatever happens, no one will later write about us what Martin Luther King wrote about his time:
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
–Stride Toward Freedom
Let us make our voices heard. Let us stand up against the hatred and divisiveness of our time, just as Dr. King did in his time. Let us be clear that we believe there is far more that can bring us together than what can divide us. Let us be those who continually remind our community and our society about our common humanity.
With gender and race and sexual orientation, culture and religion, social class, disability/ability, political party, life-style, and you-fill-in-the-blank to create boundaries between us, perhaps the miracle is that any real boundaries ever get crossed. But they do. And they will. And we will do it.
So let us not despair because there is still work to do. Let us give thanks that this notorious boundary-crosser who we follow will challenge us, lead us, and help us, as we do what we can, each in our own unique way. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once described how this can happen:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
Hope, faith and love will be our allies as we strive to cross the boundaries that we perceive between people. In the months to come, may we not be silent. May we each cross boundaries that need to be crossed, doing all in our power to break the chain of hatred around us, and along the way, may we learn and grow and love, following the call of that notorious boundary-crosser, Jesus of Nazareth.