The church has an amazing capacity for relationship and we so often look to the church, to Plymouth Church and to our diverse faith communities, to birth relationship, to build relationship, bless, nourish and sustain human relationship. As we welcome new members into our community of faith this morning we may recall how we ourselves found Plymouth Church: some of us because of relationships at work, at school, in our neighborhood, because someone just happened to say, “I go to that church. I’d love it if you joined me one Sunday”; others because of a need for relationship, a sense of entering into a new city or a new university context, and searching out that place where relationships might be made; while still others found this place, hoping that new relationships might help to heal broken relationships or a heart hurting from a relationship yet to be reconciled. The scripture passages that are designated for this Sunday speak directly to relationship and are taken from two of the greatest preaching moments in our sacred text: one from the teacher Moses, who appears in a third great address before his bewildered Israelites, and one from Jesus himself, speaking to an ever enlargening crowd in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the words of Carolyn Lewis, at the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the premise that Jesus is Emanuel, that Jesus is, in this moment, God with us; not just God with me but God with us; that God is calling upon us to be members of a community he describes, to be shapers of a community that he leaves to us, and to in fact leave ourselves open to the possibility of being further shaped by the members of that community itself, all of which Reverend Lewis says points us to a central theological truth, that our God is a God of community and that our God is a God of relationship.
We are currently in the season of Epiphany and it’s during Epiphany that we claim once again the power of this relational and living God, this incarnate being who chose to be with us, not far removed from us, the one who was the word, who became flesh, who chose to live among us, the word embedded in real and everyday life, in both human action expressed outward and human attitude held inward. The God that was born to us in the manger chooses to enter into the messiness of our life in all of its dimensions. Jesus chooses to take up our common lot.
I love the way that the church historian Amy Oden puts it when she says, “Emanuel as celebrated in the season of Epiphany offers us a life that is deep and wide, where light shines into every nook and cranny. This God offers us a life that is not puny, not flat, not reduced to avoiding the big sins, but a lifegiving God who is worthy of praise and proclamation, because this God is in fact present in the flesh and bone of our lives, not as a keeper of checklists, not as a wagger of a finger, not as one removed above and beyond us, but as a God who lives within us, each and every one of us. This is the good news of our relational God.”
So what is Jesus saying to us about relationship in today’s Gospel reading? What is he doing when he frames his teachings on relationship as a polemic. You have heard it said, but I say to you. Here Jesus is using what is known to be a very common rabbinic teaching. A Biblical text is cited, a traditional interpretation is offered, and then a new or enhanced meaning is added. And so it is in this tradition that Jesus does indeed reintroduce commandments to us, but then he goes on in the still speaking tradition to explain what more is required. This “more” for Jesus must surpass what he has seen in and demonstrated by the Scribes and the Pharisees of his day. And Jesus makes it very clear that this “more” cannot be accomplished simply through an intellectual commitment to the commandment, or a vocal assent to its prescription, nor can it be accomplished through worship attendance or a pledge increase. While all those things are nice, Jesus says no.
The “more” that I offer to you must be accomplished through your lived practice, through your ongoing orientation towards love of God and love of neighbor. To paraphrase one commentary on this text, it is not enough to prohibit the killing of another. The point is the value of the other. What is required is that we not only fail to do them harm, but that we are engaged in proactively seeking the good, affirming the worst, and even risking our own good on behalf of our neighbor. And all of this, Jesus tells us, is to begin with us. We dare not wait, he tells us, to act. We dare not wait for the other to seek us out, or for the other to be the first to offer a hand of reconciliation. No, Jesus tells us that we cannot even worship until we ourselves have stepped redemptively outward toward the neighbor, toward the other, toward the conflict that may remain in our lives. There is no way, Jesus tells us, to achieve righteousness, to achieve what we would call decency or integrity or prosperity as an individual in isolation from others. For the very attempt to establish oneself’s own self-righteousness leads inevitably to alienation and divisiveness and even violence, he tells us.
So what does it look like today to engage proactively in seeking the good of our neighbors in affirming their worth? It looks like taking Jesus’ cue, taking Jesus’ lead, and pursuing radical relationships with the other, with every single other. It looks like pursuing radical relationship in the face of islamophobia. It looks like practicing radical hospitality to the refugee and the immigrant. It looks like practicing radical love to the least of these amongst us. Yes, Jesus is asking us as his disciples to do more, to be more. He does so, demanding more but also promising to deliver more, promising to give us not only grace, but also life more abundantly. This “more” that Jesus affirms comes when we strive for restored and reconciled relationships, when we strive to be in relationship with one another, and we strive to see relationship as just relationship, as relationship immersed in God’s grace. When we take the time out of our day to listen to God’s whisper that so often comes to us through the voices of our neighbors, their urgent prayers, their quiet pleas, their longings and their fears.
Here in this text Jesus teaches us that relationship with God is predicated upon the relationship with our neighbor, and that the call of our neighbor is in fact the call of God. God is asking us, “Can you hear?”
This is a hard lesson for us as modern Christians to learn. It was an equally hard question and lesson for the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ audience to hear, because the priority on the neighbor, the priority that Jesus sets, is not the priority that the world sets.
Over the last four weeks, more than 60 Plymouth members and friends have engaged in the United Church of Christ White Privilege curriculum, a curriculum that says let’s talk. Let’s talk to one another. Let’s talk so that we might better understand what it means to be a neighbor, what it means to offer a neighborhood, what it means to follow Jesus’ Gospel, a Gospel that does not prioritize the individual but prioritizes the communal, a Gospel that is not about me first, but a Gospel that is about the neighbor first. Again, as Reverend Carolyn Lewis says, the Sermon on the Mount asks us if we are willing to tell the truth about ourself, about discipleship, about God, and about what is really at stake, because Jesus is Emanuel, is God with us. And like Moses, Jesus asks us, toward the conclusion of this reading, to choose life, to choose life not as that thing we check off the list, but instead to choose life as a starting point, as a start to something, a start to living into a messy and a difficult and a holy relationship with God and yes, the neighbor. Just as our White privilege curriculum invites us into transformational and uncomfortable dialog, our Gospel does the same, inviting us to examine, consciously and unconsciously, those things that separate us from God and those things that separate us from our neighbor as we seek to be disciples.
And this work is not work that we do alone. This work is work that is bound up in the promise of God’s love for community. Because working out what it means to be a disciple, working out what it means to be in a relationship, has never been a solitary affair. It has always been that relational and communal affair that the church engages in. What Jesus asks us to do in protecting and defending and reconciling with our neighbor can only reach its full potential in community and with the company of others. Our potential as disciples is not just dependent on me, it is dependent on all of us, being helped by one another, reassured by one another, challenged by one another, believing in one another, that through the Gospel and through relationship we can in fact change the world. May it be so and may it be soon.